La Santa Cecilia is a sight to behold live. Named for the patron saint of music, the Los Angeles-based band roars through Spanish language rancheros, English-only R&B covers, and its own hybrid, bilingual originals. Frontwoman Marisol Hernandez, who’s often just referred to as “La Marisoul,” alternates between high kicks fitting for a ska circle pit and leading and following her own boleros. And when she sings, she channels a range as classic and gravelly as Louis Armstrong and as contemporarily soulful as Brittany Howard.
The band itself — comprised of Hernandez, Jose “Pepe” Carlos on accordion and requinto (a smaller, higher-pitched guitar most often found in Mexico and Latin America), Alex Bendaña on electric bass, and Miguel “Oso” Ramirez on percussion (as well as touring members Marco Sandoval and electric guitars and Andres Torres behind the drum kit) — backs up this fusion with aplomb. In particular, Carlos switches between mariachi style accordion playing and traditional, technical fingerpicking. If guitarist Sandoval only played on the upstrokes, they’d fit in just fine in the lineage of Orange County pop punk bands. It’s this combination of seemingly opposite music influences and multicultural roots that has made La Santa Cecilia a beloved bilingual fixture since 2011.
But on La Santa Cecilia, the band’s seventh release (which could be categorized as an EP for its mere 25 minutes, but an LP in its seven tracks), La Santa Cecilia tends to smooth over its raw roots with too much pop music polish. From the first synth notes of “Always Together,” it’s clear La Santa Cecilia will move in a new direction for the band; the opening track is a banger — a funky, shuffling song about staying in love forever. Digitalized strings, possibly an ode to older cumbias, float though “Play Your Game,” the outro of which gives the ridged percussive guiro a drum machine makeover. And “Winning,” an ironic, spoken-word commentary on internet culture, is the band’s only song with English and Spanish.
Members of La Santa Cecilia have always been open about their mixed heritages and honest about their families’ immigration stories. That kind of authenticity, swathed in love, hope, and acceptance, has inspired them to write songs humanizing the plight of undocumented immigrants (“ICE [El Hielo]” from 2013’s Grammy award-winning Treinta Días) and denouncing gun violence (“Nunca Mas” from 2016’s Buenaventura). But on La Santa Cecilia, a record marked by multiple deaths in multiple members’ families, Hernandez trades lyrical activism for more subtle English-language contemplations of how such personal relations reflect larger political beliefs.
Interestingly, the best track on the band’s self-titled effort is a cover. But La Santa Cecelia’s version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” the blues standard written in 1923 by Jimmy Cox (and later made famous by Bessie Smith in 1929 and Eric Clapton on his 1992 MTV Unplugged album), best encapsulates the band’s message and MO. With The California Feetwarmers finding a sweet spot between New Orleans jazz and mariachi-style brass, La Santa Cecilia shows that no matter the subject matter or musical experiment, they are masters of taking one community’s musical roots and connecting them to other curious listeners with both passion and care.