by Jean-Stephane Beriot
A world without packaging, wrapping, and commercial intuition would be dreary and disappointing to the senses. There’s not a single song in my iTunes library without some kind of embedded artwork; an album without an album cover is as muddy as a blind date or, even worse, as ineffectual as an eHarmony profile without a face photo. Where exactly am I going with all this? Oh yes, to Domingo En Llamas. A few weeks ago when I asked our editor for the album cover of Domingo En Llamas’ latest record, Harto Tropical, he informed me of a sacrilege: “Jose Ignacio Benitez doesn’t believe in album covers.” Well, this is an intriguing surprise (especially for someone who points to Dr. John's Gris-Gris (1968) as his favorite album of all time). A few ideas come to mind when trying to figure out Benitez’s reasons for visual-less records, but none strong enough to convince me. Sure, having a cover gives the listener a predisposition of an album’s content, but Domingo En Llamas' form of "untold data" excitement is purely transitory.
As you can see, I made myself an UNOFFICIAL album cover for Domingo En Llamas’ eighth album Harto Tropical. Having that ugly grey music note on my iPod felt like giving up to the standard, and I wouldn’t allow myself such an option. Perhaps this was Benitez’s plan all along, to let his listeners draw conclusions like we used to do with self-made mixtapes. While the entrance to the Harto Tropical is a bit jumbled and might require a few first steps for some of us, the hassle is worthy for a one-man act that has crafted one of the most interesting profiles in Venezuelan music today. We’ve previously described him as an auteur, a troubadour, and a music historian. After two glowing reviews for the wonderfully theatrical Fledermaus (2008) and the erotic Truccatore (2010), his latest album, Harto Tropical, is supposed to be ghostly, but it’s mostly bland. My lexicon is very limited, so allow me to go back to our latest Shakira album review (Sale El Sol) and steal its description: milquetoast.
Harto Tropical is an evocative folk record that strikes to sound like a time-defying rock and roll album. While that approach would seem promising to both experimentalists and purists, the line of attack is so disputed that it almost drowns in sentimentalism. Some of Benitez’s questionable practices include the stamping of normative composition (“Las Afinaciones Narradas”), jazzy simulations (“Despropositos”), and middling one-man orchestras (“Laudano con Vainilla”). Harto Tropical isn’t an awful album, though, it’s just Domingo En Llamas’ first less-than-extraordinary album and that’s why I might be sounding a bit harsh. Fortunately, there are enough good ideas in here to give it a passing grade. Especially in the idea of making a zarzuela opera house out of songs like “Fariseos y Anonimos” and “Montecasino," where Bentinez’s virtuoso eye for words, royal festivities, and baroque linguistics prevail. Fun fact: Domingo En Llamas’ “Depredadores” was the wrapping theme around our very first volume of Fonogramaticos. I don’t mind making album covers for future Domingo En Llamas albums as long as we get back to the more adventurous and less ethereal artist we fell in love with a couple of years ago.