Sharps & flats

Surrounded by multi-platinum young artists, Carlos Santana still sounds like a noodly old hippie.

Published June 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On this, Santana's 327th studio recording, the classic-rock guitar god enlists the support of some young guns. Dave Matthews sings on one track, rapper Everlast plays on another, and Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas all make appearances. (Hill and Jean are on different songs, natch.)

The message is clear: Santana may be guilty of producing some of the most tedious, overblown Latin-hippie anthems ever -- "Black Magic Woman" alone should be enough to guarantee the man at least an overnight stay in musical hell -- but he can still, you know, get funky with the kids. The result is not surprising: While Santana's ax-work is as fluid, soulful and evocative as always, and a handful of the tracks are enjoyable, the album, as a whole, falls flat.

"Supernatural" starts out with "(Da Le) Yaleo," a classic Santana Latin-rock exploration that, along with songs like the acoustic-tinged "Africa Bamba" and "Primavera," anchors the album's less fortunate, weary roots music. Santana has been down this road many times before, and most of the time it's been done with more style and flair. While his signature bursts on electric guitar are always lyrically impressive, they aren't always very interesting -- there are, after all, only so many times one can hear his opening squalls and fluid solos.

Some of the "guest" tracks are more successful. Matthews lends his weighty vocals to the resonant "Love of My Life," and while the lyrics aren't very creative ("I can't forget when we are one/From your lips/The heavens pour out" is one line chosen at random; and yes, the rest of the song is equally egregious), Matthews steers Santana in a more focused, pop-oriented direction. Eagle-Eye Cherry's vocal, in turn, transforms "Wishing It Was" into an enjoyable, if eminently lightweight, romp.

Others, however, have no such luck. Proving that everything she touches will not turn to gold, Hill can't resurrect "Do You Like the Way," and the Wyclef Jean-produced "Maria Maria" crumbles under the weight of lines like "She fell in love with East L.A./To the sounds of a guitar/Yeah yeah/Played by Carlos Santana."

There was a time, around 1969, when Santana injected a dose of much-needed musicianship into the nascent "world music" movement. Before he came along, after all, clumsy sitars and endless congos passed for indigenous influences in most of the rock community. Santana's lyrical fluidity and gorgeous swelling tones took this pale effort and immediately upstaged the pretenders. But today, three decades later, popular musicians pick deftly and openly from a range of influences, and Santana has made a grasping attempt to piggyback on young, multi-platinum artists who he thinks will make his own work relevant. Not surprisingly, the result is a disappointing hodgepodge in which neither side knows whether to lead or follow, and the music gets lost in the confusion.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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