Ricky Martin's 'Almas del Silencio' is a triumphant Latin return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The knee-jerk reaction will be to slam Ricky Martin's first Latin album since 1998's Vuelve and since Livin' la Vida Loca, the late-'90s Latin pop crossover sensation, turned him into an across-the-board superstar.

And because Almas del Silencio follows 2000's mediocre Sound Loaded, which couldn't match the sales of 1999's 7 million-selling Ricky Martin, the thought will be that he returned to the safety of a genre that would scrutinize him less and welcome him instantly.

Part of that is true. Both the Latin music industry and Martin's Latin fans eagerly embraced him. But this time out, it's actually for the sake of quality, not star power. "Tal Vez," written by respected singer-songwriter Franco De Vita, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Latin singles chart and still sits at the top. It's an undeniable hit, a sweeping ballad that never turns cloying. And Martin sings it well, given his limited range. He manages to inject just enough drama and urgency into the song to lift himself to its lofty level.

In fact, the dozen songs on Almas del Silencio are, no contest, the strongest tunes the Puerto Rican singer has ever interpreted. Martin is tackling material from stellar songwriters such as Alejandro Sanz, Ricardo Arjona and De Vita. For the rhythmic cuts, he snagged tracks from Jon Secada, Emilio Estefan and Estefano.

Missing from the songwriting credits are Desmond Child and Diane Warren, two cheese-factor writers who contributed tunes to his two English-language discs. Even former Menudo buddy Robi Rosa, who co-wrote "Livin' la Vida Loca," is absent.

Clearly, Martin is making a statement. He's distancing himself from the Loca furor that eventually transformed him into a photogenic, hip-shaking joke. And he's trying to prove he's capable of artistic maturity.

Recording Almas del Silencio at the 11th hour - he reportedly had an English album ready to go - was the right move to make. By returning to his native idiom and to the genre that launched him, he has essentially come home. That explains the relaxed atmosphere of the album. When he takes on Arjona's "Asignature Pendiente," a decidedly adult, lyrical ballad, he doesn't sound as if he's in over his head.

Dance floor numbers such as "Jaleo," "Jamas" and the guaguanco like "Raza de Mil Colores," with its street-corner percussive feel, are filled with saucy spirit. "Raza" simmers in Afro-Cuban rhythms so exotic they come off as tribal.

By ending the CD with the Sanz-penned title song, a lovely piano ballad that goes down smooth and gentle, Martin caresses lyrics with the heart of a cabaret troubadour singing his soul night after night. Suddenly, Livin' la Vida Loca seems worlds away.

Ricky Martin

Almas del Silencio (Sony International) ***

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