The opening moments of “A Shot in the Dark,” the leadoff track on Dos Santos’ sophomore album City of Mirrors, feel like being ushered into some enchanted place. A chorus of harmonized vocals creates a dense and balmy mist that feels warm and welcoming—it’s like paradise. And what the band builds from there—funk/soul guitar riffs, a psychedelic atmosphere and bandleader Alex Chavez’s stunning vocal range guiding it all—only cement the general sense of being somewhere wondrous.
There’s a paradoxical relationship between the mesmerizing music that Dos Santos creates and the trauma and frustration that often influences it, but they’re not contradictions by any means. City of Mirrors is an album built on dualities, an album by an American band with Latin American roots. It’s at times an album of mourning, a critique of colonialism and a call for collective action; it’s also a celebration of the spaces where cultural experiences merge and musical traditions come together in a vivid swirl. And much like “A Shot in the Dark,” it’s a place of possibility and enchantment. “The border divides and defines places—yes,” says Chavez in a press release. “But it is equally a place unto itself—a borderland. It is the forbidden place where we dwell. The enchanting space where we are at home.”
City of Mirrors is the group’s second release through International Anthem, a label known primarily for its roster’s varied innovative takes on contemporary jazz. But Dos Santos—a group of musicians of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Panamanian descent, based in Chicago—are something a bit trickier to define, their sound an ever-shifting fusion of cumbia, salsa, Afrobeat, surf, psychedelia, soul and other influences that, above all, are defined by their richly layered arrangements and gorgeously spun melodies. Scarcely a moment goes by on City of Mirrors that doesn’t seamlessly and beautifully blend seemingly disparate elements into a greater whole.
There’s no shortage of ideas on City of Mirrors, and it’s a thrill to follow the unpredictable threads that these 13 tracks follow. The urgent pulse of “Alma Cósmica” merges cumbia with a surf-rock noir sound, providing a hypnotically dark counterpoint to the leadoff track’s utopian fanfare. There’s a more soulful organ backing to the gorgeous title track, a song that Chavez describes as a “love song to Puerto Rico,” while the spacious “Glorieta” finds the group reaching back toward a more pronounced jazz influence in its mellifluous plucks of guitar. And the deeper the band descends into standout “Crown Me,” the more luminous and psychedelic the arrangement becomes, cinematic and intricate as In Rainbows-era Radiohead.
In a recent interview with Chicago Reader, Chavez suggested that Dos Santos’ approach is an extension of generations of música Latina before them: “[I]t’s all hybrid music, all of it…It’s never been static, and so what we do is the same sort of thing.” Their fusion is an ever-evolving one, carrying forward the roots of their sound while finding the most soulful way to connect two or more seemingly distant styles. There’s a sense of empowerment and protest to what Dos Santos does, breaking down the concept of genre altogether while drafting up a vision of limitless possibilities.
Label: International Anthem
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.