Zoé at the Crossroads

By: Marcelo Báez

Zoé, Mexico’s most enduring Britpop band, has a new record out. Never heard of them, you say? They’ve been around since the mid-nineties, and their largely ignored, self-titled debut came out in 2001. Although Rocanlover, their sophomore release, is still their best record, the band didn’t catch on until the release of The Room, an EP with three songs and some remixes. Two studio and one MTV Unplugged records later, Zoé became a household name to most Spanish-sung rock fans.

Prográmaton—their sixth studio album, produced by long-time collaborator Phil Vinall (Placebo, Pulp, Elastica)—is pure middle-of-the-road Zoé: not too exciting, not terribly bad. “10 A.M.,” the opening track and first single, is a song about being the victim of a bad relationship. A catchy tune, to be sure, but it’s basically “No Me Destruyas,” a song from 2006’s Memo Rex, with different chord progressions and melodies. Still, like all of their Vinall-produced music, the technical treatment is clean and punchy.

Zoé is particularly good at mixing guitars with synthesizers. On “Dos Mil Trece” sparse guitar riffs, soft arpeggios and a bombastic drum kit create the rough-but-soft landscapes that allow singer León Larregui’s voice to croon like that dirty indie rocker the 16-year-old girl inside you can’t help but fall in love with. Again, this would be thoroughly impressive if this was their first time at the rodeo, but the formula was basically the same—yet better—in 2008’s tune “Luna.”

Likewise, the rest of the album offers modest pleasures. “Ciudades Invisibles” feels fresh for a second thanks to heavy electronic kit thumps along with “oh-ah” pads (the kind made popular by FM synthesizers from the ’80s), but the uplifting lead vocal melody sounds out of place among the darker elements of the song; flirting with a sitar-ish twang, “Panoramas” is somewhat hummable; and “Andrómeda,” a real sad bastard tune, sounds more like alt-country than what they probably intended.

Some have said Prográmaton is Zoé’s most “mature” and “experimental” work to date, but, sadly, the apple fell too close to the tree. They don’t lack talent—the band can write a catchy tune quite effortlessly, the evidence shows—but imagination is running thin. Their emotional palette, for example, is becoming too monochromatic (i.e., can we hear some song that’s not about sappy love or outer space, for a change?), and their tonality could benefit from a radical change as well (i.e., you need a Kid A, dudes!). 

Then again, one can make the case for not fixing what isn’t broken. In fact, many people enjoy redundancy. But “experimental” is one thing Prográmaton is not.

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.