HU HU HU, NATALIA LAFOURCADE
Sony/BMG, Mexico *****
by Andrew Casillas
Masterpiece. As a music writer, you have to be very careful when using this term. It’s supposed to be saved for those rare works that change your perception of a style of art, or that serve as the culmination of an artist’s creative gestation. Masterpieces aren’t supposed to be entirely subjective—they must be illuminating to even the most casual of all audiences. That’s not to say that they must be flawless, but said flaws must attach themselves hand-in-hand with the best aspects of the work—giving the illusory effect that they’re supposed to be there in the first place. And even though it may be a stretch to ever call them “perfect,” these works can make you think, at least for one moment in time, that perfection is possible. Hu Hu Hu is one of those works.
The album begins with the most exhilarating 8-second sequence that you’ll hear open a record this year. The container song, “Cursis Melodías,” is a jaunty romp of mid-period Beatles proportions. Utilizing pounding pianos, steady guitar accents, big band horn riffs, and every piece of percussion in her arsenal, the track sets the tone for the elaborate and detailed instrumentation to follow. It’s as if this record is putting it’s foot down so you don’t let Lafourcade’s vocal similarity to other pop tarts like Lily Allen fool you—this isn’t going to be a passive listen.
From there follows “No Viniste,” which sounds like the best song the Concretes never made, and may in-fact be better than any Concretes song that they actually have made. The switch from the upbeat opener to this forlorn lament may seem puzzling, but you won’t even notice the change in tone. Instead, you’ll be sucked into the sea of overdubbed keyboards, sharp percussion, slow-burning accordion, and, um, glocking glockenspiel that gradually builds more forceful without losing its delicate quality. The next track, “Siempre Prisa,” is very robust, and could easily be mistaken for a lost single off of Juana Molina’s Segundo. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar for almost two minutes, the song eventually is enveloped with dueling background vocals, throbbing deep bass lines, atmospheric electronic textures, chiming guitars and rampant percussion until it sounds almost tribal.
After this rousing 1-2-3 punch, the next two songs, “Tiempo al Viento” and “Let’s Get Out,” are almost welcome relief. However, saying that these are the most conventional songs on the first half of Hu Hu Hu is like hearing a sports anchor talk about the most conventional LeBron James (or should I be saying Dwight Howard?) dunks—two points are two points. “Let’s Get Out” in particular is vintage Natalia Lafourcade: joyous, rollicking, and super-fun. This is by far the best of the album’s three English-songs.
This stretch is followed by the album’s title track, a duet with Julieta Venegas. Effectively an interlude track, the song is a harbinger of what’s to follow on the album’s second-half, but not before one last bit of fun: the immediate, and downright fantastic, “Ella es Bonita.” (Writer’s Note: Notice how the opening horns sound EXACTLY like the opening bassline of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Isn’t that the greatest thing, like, ever??)
After the last note of “Ella es Bonita” is extinguished, the next sound you hear is that of chirping crickets at nightfall—a theme that continues through the rest of the record. The second half opens with “Niño Hojas,” which confirms Natalia Lafourcade’s statements that Hu Hu Hu was a companion piece to her classical record Las 4 Estaciones del Amor. However, as with that record, she’s not reinventing the wheel of orchestral pop music, rather, this is the best parts of Peter & the Wolf seen through the lens of adolescence. This is followed by the oldest song on the record, the solely acoustic “Running Too Fast,” which is also the first song that Lafourcade wrote in English. Personally, I’ve never been a real big fan of this song, and for the most part, it doesn’t work well in isolation, but in the context of the rest of the album, it works as an impressive supplement.
The next song is album’s centerpiece, and my favorite track of the year so far, “Azul.” Beginning as simple piano pop akin to Regina Spektor, the song eventually explodes into a monster of Sufjan Stevens-indebted indie rock. An ambitious and powerful celebration of a song, there’s a veritable treasure chest of instruments that hit your ears: piano, glockenspiel, flute, clarinet, guitar, marching percussion, bells, even tape loops, and that’s not even including the touching and heartening second half.
If “Azul” is the climax of Hu Hu Hu, the last three tracks serve as a remarkable, and effective, denouement. “Hora de Compartir” is an uplifting piece of Nellie McKay-like throwback pop, without the Nellie McKay-like irony. The album ends with the more conventional “Un Lugar Para Renacer” and the Juan Son-assisted closer, “Look Outside.” (Writer’s Note: Don’t worry, aside from a few obtuse background vocals, Juan Son leaves his baroque playbook at home) While not one of the more direct hits on the album, “Look Outside” works remarkably well as a closer, with tropicalia guitars, blanketed instrumentation and cathartic background vocals that harkens back to other songs on the record—almost like a curtain call at the end of a musical.
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to compare Hu Hu Hu to a great play. Lafourcade has finally created a record with a singular vision aside from mere genre exercise. While her music could easily appeal to children, she dials down the precociousness and plain pathos to focus on that post-adolescent feeling of insecurity and confusion. Like Brian Wilson, Lafourcade focuses on characters that certainly aren’t defeated, but a bit out of place from how they perceive the rest of the world. Lafourcade doesn’t hide this facet of her music: the first two singles (“Ella es Bonita” and “Azul”) are two of the album’s more direct examples of this. The album’s “transition” from daytime to nightfall explicitly makes this clear, as does the general deliberate tone of the second half. More implicit are the shades and nooks that this album invites you to explore through repeated listens. Lafourcade may be a promising songwriter, but it’s her phrasing that really sells these songs: You don’t have to understand what “Mama esperame! Alejate de mi! Dejame caerme! Dejame salir!” means, you just have to hear her sing the words to get the effect of what she’s trying to express. For someone who’s never been the most remarkable singer, her mastery of this technique cannot be overstated. And like with every great play, there’s an ebb-and-flow to the entire experience, playing more like a 13-song suite than a pop record.
People will think up many comparisons of Hu Hu Hu’s sound: Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, Regina Spektor, Matthew Herbert, etc. This is only natural when you want to explain what you’ve just heard, but completely wrong: it “sounds” like a thousand artists, but it doesn’t sound like anyone. What makes this album great is that it’s distinctively of the past, from the present, and guides towards the future. This is an album full of heart, sweat, and originality. An album that will slowly develop a set of followers who will someday speak of its impact and legacy. An album that lives within you, even when you think that you’ve forgotten about it. A pop masterpiece in any language.