- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

Santana

All That I Am

Arista Records

Carlos Santana is one of those idiosyncratically gifted guitarists whose style — the rich tones, the dramatic phrasing — is instantly identifiable even to the casual ear. It would be hard, in other words, not to know you’re listening to Santana, the Latin rock band he has led for nearly 40 years.

On much of “All That I Am,” though, Mr. Santana is reduced to a bit role in his own painstakingly overscripted drama. That idiosyncratic guitar is a chattering sideshow in a production that forgot it needed a main attraction.

The idea of pairing Mr. Santana with professional songwriters and hot young artists was swell in 1999, when the San Francisco rocker, in need of a career shakeup, collaborated with Rob Thomas for the radio-conquering “Smooth.” Mr. Santana and producer Clive Davis went to the same well again on 2002’s “Shaman,” which produced the endlessly hummable Michelle Branch-sung “The Game of Love.”

Assuming there’s an endless crop of popular new faces to showcase, plus a running assembly line of new songs from which to cull potential hits, the Santana-plus formula is, in theory at least, easy to replicate. “All That I Am,” however, proves it’s more like a cul-de-sac.

For starters, the album has a less interesting cast than its predecessor, which — say what you will about its other flaws — managed to house rap-metalers P.O.D. and neo-soul singer Macy Gray under the same roof.

Even on its own terms, “All That I Am” is a lackluster listen. It becomes more incoherent with each genuflection to current trends (the appearance of “American Idol’s” Bo Bice being a sorely obvious low point). Miss Branch reprises her “Shaman” role here on “I’m Feeling You,” which is a hopeless knockoff of “The Game of Love.” “Cry Baby Cry,” not a Beatles cover, sandwiches Mr. Santana in the middle of reggae cheerleader Sean Paul and British neo-soul singer Joss Stone — you can call Mr. Santana the “nowhere man.”

The half-baked R&B; groove of “My Man” finds no lift from the double shot of hip-hop vocalist Mary J. Blige and OutKast rapper Big Boi. Neither does the social-conscience posturing of “I Am Somebody,” featuring Black Eyed Peas rapper Will.i.am. And Steven Tyler’s participation in the middle-of-the-road pop ballad “Just Feel Better” may rankle hard-core Aerosmith fans even more than that band’s rendition of Diane Warren’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”

There are, as there are bound to be on an album this long, some bright spots. The more traditional, salsa-style songs — the ones without celebrity tag-alongs and sung in Spanish, such as “Hermes,” “Fuego” and “Da Tu Amor” — are not among them. They’re instantly forgettable exercises.

Inspiration strikes on the aptly named workout “Trinity,” a guitar-head’s dream that features Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, pedal-steel dynamo Robert Randolph and Mr. Santana, of course. The trio’s methods are wildly different, but they gel into something catchy on this fiery instrumental.

Also appealing is Mr. Santana’s backing of the au courant Tex-Mex rockers Los Lonely Boys on “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” a lively partnership that, unlike the rest of this misguided, hit-hungry set, seems effortlessly natural.

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