Bajofondo - Presente

Presente, Bajofondo
Sony Masterworks, Argentina/Uruguay
Rating: 69
by Sam Rodgers

There was something about Mar Dulce, Bajofondo's second-and-a-half studio album, that seemed really fresh, not least because the raps of Santullo and La Mala Rodriguez made the rioplatense (that's Argentinian and Uruguayan) compositions pop with urgency and sizzle with sauciness, but it landed amidst the electro-tango movement of the time with a little more to give. There was an edge, it was unpredictable. Unlike other bands playing with the same genre, Bajofondo was a band creating tracks that stood out on their own, rather than musicians creating updated "world music" that you could play in the background of a dinner party. Your party guests might remark how 'romantic' and 'cool' it sounded, getting the full rioplatense experience, supping their Malbec, nibbling an alfajor their friend brought back from holiday.

Disappointingly, on Bajofondo's latest release, Presente, some of the excitement from Mar Dulce has gone. It's hard to pinpoint why. Co-founder and producer extraordinaire Gustavo Santaolalla has repeatedly stated Bajofondo is not and will not be confined to the electro-tango genre, that the band experiments with all music from the region, adding current pop and rock influences to the mix. When it succeeds and creates a distinctive, interesting sound, like on melodic "Circular," the un-cringingly-used 8-bit of "Asi Es (Propergol)," and the African drum/chant-infused "Olvidate," Bajofondo come across as unique as Santaolalla proposes. When instrumental pieces like "Pide Piso" and "La Trufa y El Sifon" aim for the epic, unfortunately, they push too many ideas at the listener at once. There's an arc to the more energetic instrumental pieces that's well-worn and provides few surprises for the listener, which is perfectly fine if you're jumping up and down, dancing at a concert or impressing friends with your "new"-sounding latinoamericano album at that dinner party.

But there is enough to like about Presente to not brandish it with being totally dull. Sure, other songs like "Lluvia," "Cuesta Arriba," and "Pena En Mi Corazón" are so straight-forward you could be forgiven for thinking they were the same pop song made by a less creative band (but made tango-y and with slick production values by this band). And in 21 tracks, it's not surprising a few instrumental pieces seem like filler. Often you feel like you're listening to one long track called “Let's Have Fun With A Bandoneón!” at the behest of your cool tango dance teacher, which, again, is no bad thing if this genre really puts the urge in your murga. Some choices seem a little underdeveloped, like the harmonies of "Oigo Voces," which, while it captures your attention, does little more than hum a version of what could be another instrumental piece on the album. And random additions that reach for comment on globalisation (or something) like the Mandarin television report in the break of "A Repechaje," are just puzzling. (Why Chinese, and why is that the only track that explores other voices?)

It could be that without the scattering of other Latino stars that elevated Mar Dulce, Presente suffers a "blandening" from the band's collective contribution. Maybe because Bajofondo isn't just a pop band it suffers from its parochial bent and can't properly leave behind its origins? While there's an undeniable musicianship master class at work, there's also a lack of definitive artistry, which makes Presente overwrought (in instrumentation) or underdone (in structure and lyrics). But it's alright. What's to hate? Santaolalla, Juan Campodónico, and their crew are clearly passionate about the details, even when the whole goes wayward.

El sueño de la casa propia - Doble ola EP

Doble ola EP, El sueño de la casa propia
Michita Rex, Chile
Rating: 85
by Pierre Lestruhaut

When discussing Chilean producer José Manuel Cerda’s El sueño de la casa propia project, its very own beginnings are rarely referred to. Although official discographies will cite 2006's Hogar as being the first record published by ESDLCP, Cerda himself has revealed he considers 2010's freakishly gorgeous Historial de caídas his actual debut. Hogar isn’t a bad record by any means but, to be honest, it carries the amateurish imprint of a musician that was only starting to toy with electronic gadgetry. Cerda neither likes nor identifies with the sounds in Hogar, finding it "a little too post-rock." For a man who also claimed Valparaíso’s musical scene seriously lacked pop, it’s no surprise that for his latest short-form release, Doble ola, his aesthetic is becoming increasingly hook-centric, even if his modus operandi remains in the vein of glitchy sample-fueled electronica.

Most writing associated with this brand of sample-based music will outline its merit on the basis of conceptual coherence and stylistic consistency—the piracy as composition of plunderphonics, the anarcho-capitalist Muzak twisting of vaporwave, or the ghoulish “old-timeyness” of hauntology—but rarely engages the subject of the music’s own listenability. Even at its utmost ear-candy configuration (The Go! Team, The Avalanches, Bibio), concept and style are ingrained as the nexus of the music’s own appeal. By contrast, ESDLCP manages to stand out by working precisely within the confines of listenability. In focusing on providing moments of truly audacious beauty, it completely throws away any sort of conceptualization that could be made of it.

The glitchy manner in which Cerda has always manipulated and presented his samples could also see words like “noise-influenced” being associated to ESDLCP. The first 20 seconds of “Balbina” come as close to noise as anything else in Doble ola, but by the time the piano arpeggios hit the surface there isn’t a single doubt remaining: José Manuel Cerda isn’t here to indulge in fist-fucking your ears, he’s here to give you a 4-minute session of continuous eargasms. Nowhere else will the EP aim for such luxury, but it’s top-notch sequencing makes it so that the climax is not only reached after just the ideal amount of foreplay (the catchiness/dance conflation of “Caen Rocas,” the guitar licks/marimba ethereal combo of “Peinados de fuego”), but also given its due period of relaxation (leisurely paced, flute-sampling “Pobre Ave”).

I used to differ with Andrew Casillas' definition of ESDLCP’s sound in his Historial de Caídas review, in which he stated that "there's nothing really original about El sueño de la casa propia." How could something so sonically unique not be original at all? But I’ve gradually come to believe every time more that José Manuel Cerda’s brand of glitchy vocal chops et al. aren’t really that innovative or forward-thinking at all. Just like another one of my favorite albums of 2013 so far, Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, the glistening surface that distinguishes it (in JT's case, 8-minute long pop songs) might trick some ears into buying it as some sort of forward-thinking opus. In reality, it functions because its own ambitions never stray too far from the ends of pleasure and listenability, because it’s hook-centric music as paradisal sonic escape.

Which is why trying to discuss the work José Manuel Cerda Castro in the context of Latin American electronica feels a bit pointless. Standing at the margin of both Latin folk-infused electronica and new world techno, ESDLCP is still confidently owning its own private island of holy-fucking-shitdom, holding sway over weird-as-fuck Latin American electronic music territory. Three years after wondering how Cerda could possibly follow such an out-of-nowhere success like Historial de Caídas, he seems to have shrugged off the two main follow-up album clichés: Doble ola is neither a safe continuation, nor a risky rupture. It’s actually more of a question mark. It leaves us wondering if this is the snack that will keep us satiated for a little while, or the sugar-coated dessert that’s closing off a well-rounded meal.

Devendra Banhart - Mala

Mala, Devendra Banhart
Nonesuch Records, USA
Rating: 79
by Carlos Reyes

The white savior complex is far from being a popular topic of discussion on Latin music forums, but when hipsters get together, it seems like no one is indifferent to the subject. “I am Venezuelan. Do I represent Venezuelans? I don’t know…I can barely represent myself.” Although Devendra Banhart carries Venezuelan blood and lived his formative years in that country, the general perception (at least from those in Latin America) is that he is still an outsider (some people are still resistant to the idea of Manu Chao being one of us, and others doubt of Ry Cooder's intentions). It’s a conformist, unfair, and anti-integrationist reading of an artist who clearly carries his identity on his sleeve.

Banhart isn’t being accused of a complete cultural appropriation, but is indicted for contributing to the exoticism of cultures (the fact that he also happens to symbolize Los Angeles’ boiling-pot society adds to the fire). When you hear the name Carmensita, does the image of Natalie Portman playing a Bollywood princess come to mind? While the allegations make up for a rich cultural debate, it’s easy to dismiss such opinions by simply listening to his records. Banhart is far from a gimmick. Mala, his eighth studio album is so thematically deep and sonically enduring to distill any skepticism. Sounding ambrosial in barebone acoustics (“Daniel”) or plainly twee in strummed melodies (“Your Fine Petting Duck”), Mala feels like the work of an experienced artist who has acquired cosmopolitanism through the arts.

By now we’ve come to expect Banhart singing in Spanish at least on one track of his albums. And they usually turn eventful. Such is the case here with the lovely “Mi Negrita.” It’s an unconscious habit, but Banhart always puts on his crooner voice whenever he sings in Spanish. It’s not a pose, it’s a loving way to show respect to his identity, an identity he can grasp and contribute to through either bolero or Americana. The song is also a great companion to Banhart’s recent collaborations with Natalia Lafourcade and Adanowsky. You can’t say the man isn’t trying to get more involved with our soundscape. Mala might not be Banhart’s strongest hour, but it’s easily his most respected work yet. He’s no longer filling the freak folk quota at your local artwalk or the young man putting a magnifying lense to his roots. When Banhart sings “you’re a young man on a dancefloor,” it all becomes clear—Mala is disambiguated and beyond earnest.

Video: Xenia Rubinos - "Whirlwind"

Following the re-release of her debut album Magic Trix via Ba Da Bing Records, which features  bonus track "Lost Things," vocal contortionist and quirky keyboardist Xenia Rubinos comes bearing a new single. Shot in an empty Long Island parking lot at 6 a.m., the video for "Whirlwind" captures Rubinos’ playful energy and propensity to favor vocal prowess to composition. With director Francesco Lettieri brilliant stop frame-like video, the sonic juxtaposition of drummer Marco Buccelli’s odd and complex dance beats and Xenia’s powerful, high-pitched, and unpredictable vocal flights, synth noises, and squeaking hinges, the content suddenly becomes as fascinating as the container. The performance art (all in loops and layers) has us both hypnotized from the repetitive oohs and ahs and bouncing to the infectious raucous groove. 

Pardo - "Fantasma"

Melodrama, this familiar object, has been manipulated as if its contours were obvious, yet it continues to be ill defined. While critics in Latin America have often stated spurious value judgments of the cinematic genre and its literary counterpart—portrayed as cheap, commercial and lapsing into simplicity or complacency to develop a heightened emotional tension and create a grand spectacle—it’s astonishing to see a young and talented composer availing himself of the melodramatic popular song culture in México.

At age 22, the prolific and self-taught Sergio Castelló Fernández has already released under the name Pardo two solo albums made of intricate melancholic piano pieces he had been keeping to himself for sometime. (I should also mention he’s been part of two screamo bands and has been working, with his brother Arturo “Turi” on another musical project called Castelló). Through “Fantasma,” released last January by the Mexican Netlabel MYRDAL, Pardo finally reveals that melodrama must be thought of in terms of inheritance and adaptation. With his smooth and silky voice that echoes Juan Gabriel’s and drifting electronics, the regiomontano skillfully draws a particular aesthetic universe, filled with emotion and extremely evocative melancholy images. Singing "¿Quién iba a decir que yo jamás habría de perdonarme?" the tormented multi-instrumentalist cautiously lays out a story of wretched love. The result is beautifully painful. Pardo’s rich and dense work hovering between shaded sky and storms can all be found on his SoundCloud page.

Video: Lainus - "Montañitas"

Confounding yet rewarding. That seems to be the prevalent response from our staff while dissecting Lainus’ latest single, “Montañitas.” As part of a series of EPs to be released by Enemika Records this year, “Montañitas” is as abrupt and synth-swarmed in its construction as “Baile Contemporaneo” was. Chilean dreamwaver Alfredo Ibarra walks miles apart from the effortless pop of his Chilean peers. Not digestable enough to export, and not experimental enough for cult consideration, this is a project easy to overlook. But Lainus isn’t sitting comfortably in limbo, and instead employs his premise of “misty vocals and vintage analogue synthesizers” in other platforms, where the conception of an Andean electropop landscape might be easier to grasp. And it is. The video for “Montañitas” (directed by Enrique Ramirez) serves as a comforting companion to the song’s oblique harmonies. Animation, double exposure, and an overall maximalist art direction are used in the video. That’s the same widespread dynamic operated by Lainus in his quest of stuffing the space with sound. The journey is challenging, but when Lainus pushes for that last gasp towards the end, harmony is reached at last. Grab the EP here.

Los Amigos Invisibles - Repeat After Me

Repeat After Me, Los Amigos Invisibles
Nacional Records, Venezuela
Rating: 67
by Carlos Reyes

We doubted the intentions of Fox when they opened their Fox News Latino page, and we still cringe whenever we see that hot-spiced italic font in their logo. Popular culture’s misguided need to become comprehensive (instead of integrationist) has led to the reconsideration of cultural text produced inside and outside the region. While profit may signify cultural welfare (look at Sofia Vergara’s coagulating accent as the years go by), outside the mainstream, there’s an inevitable backlash to art that’s explicitly attached to forms of Latinization.

Is there another current/relevant band that sounds as Latin as Los Amigos Invisibles? Probably not. For over two decades, Venezuela’s biggest export has offered the most abrasive chest of Latin rhythms, and I’d shortlist them as one of the most entertaining live acts in the world. Repeat After Me, their latest reference, is yet another chapter of their testosterone-fueled funky gozadera. While Superpop Venezuela and Commercial arrived at times where culture needed Los Amigos’ hypersexualized urgency as social distractions and carnal escapisms, Repeat After Me comes at a time where Latin culture wants to disassociate from the papi chulos and mamacitas. And it’s not that the music in Repeat After Me doesn’t serve a purpose. “La que me gusta” has so much groove to dignify a dive bar, and “Robot Love” simply brings the party to your room. While the spirit and intentions are definitely there, the scope for transcendence for content that feels so obvious is uncertain.

The production of Repeat After Me is pristine and easy to grab, and yet the critical and overall reception of the record has been somewhat lukewarm. Los Amigos have stomped into an excess of tropical delirium, also encountering an infliction. Whether Repeat After Me might acquire a different appreciation in years to come remains to be seen. I guess we’re just living in a time where a tailored seduction of the beat (i.e. Dënver's “Revista de Gimnasia”) is more meaningful than the expansive hip-churning delivery offered by Los Amigos Invisibles in something like “Sexappeal” (a song that could’ve aspired to anthem-status five years ago). Repeat After Me is ultimately more flawed by circumstance than by lack of substance. Sure, we could point to the band for being out of touch with the zeitgest’s demands, but they’re a band that could forever hold the right to self-fulfillment.

Empress Of - Systems EP

Systems EP, Empress Of
Terrible Records/Double Denim
Rating: 84
by Giovanni Guillén

What have we learned since the '00s Latin Wave fizzled out? That the U.S. Latino presence can be adequately represented by a few megastars? That “Latino-ness” looks the same across the country and has been that way forever? These questions aren’t meant to bash the crossover success of J.Lo or even Pitbull, but more to illustrate my relief at the arrival of one Empress Of. Like 23-year-old Lorely Rodríguez, I am a native-born U.S. citizen whose first language was Spanish. Over time, school and friends naturally forced new dimensions onto my cultural identity. While this is, for the most part, a wonderful thing to experience, it definitely has its downside; for instance, in cases where others attempt to define that identity for me (“you don’t look or act Mexican…”).

Released on Terrible Records, the same brand attached to an impressive roster of Brooklyn cool kids (Chris Taylor, Chairlift, Blood Orange), one might be tempted to make similar false judgments towards Empress Of and her debut EP. Lacking an obvious Latin background, somehow it would then be fair to characterize her in another extreme: a trendy product made to blend in with the rest of (mostly) white indie culture. Systems, thankfully, is none of that. Written and self-produced, Rodríguez offers a unique glimpse inward: her bilingual thoughts, her own experiments, all while simultaneously challenging ideas about what a Latin@ musician should look and sound like in 2013. On paper that already makes this four-song release a success, but the true achievement, of course, behind Empress Of lies entirely in the quality of the music.

Last year’s Yours Truly performance of “Don’t Tell Me” served as the perfect prelude into Systems. By stripping the song of its orotund layers and effects (leaving only piano), one had no choice but to confront Rodríguez’s delicate plea: “Don’t tell me it’s too late for us… hold me tight, don’t let go.” On Systems, Rodríguez’s words once again seek safety behind the old dynamic, only now there’s a balance. The production is tighter, the lyrics are no longer buried; strength and fragility coexist, each work to fortify her inner realm.

Opener “Hat Trick” thrusts, no, aparates right into a world of movement and chaos. The interpolated whoosh sounds bring to mind rivers and cascades flowing towards a looming collision. But that danger and uncertainty can also be thrilling (“tell me my future, tell me I’ll make it”). Over the weeks and months that I’ve arrived at its gleaming revelation I still get a rush (“now that I know you exist, never let you go”), rightfully earning a place as one of the year’s best singles. “No Means No” mixes interesting time signatures, subtle math rock (remnants of her Celestial Shore days?) with an exciting hook. Something I could definitely see contemporaries like Algodón Egipcio or Dënver getting their hands on for future remix brilliance.

For the Spanish-language second act, Lorely trades live percussion for brighter designs of synth and voice. “Tristeza” confronts a newly acquired freedom, perhaps after some much-needed crying. The tears are gone, but confusion and anxiety are still there. It’s no wonder Rodríguez pauses and gasps throughout as if catching her breath. “Camisa favorita” builds paper chains out of syllables, carefully laid side-by-side. Its chorus achieves a perfect dizzying effect, “hay algo algo que… olvidé olvidé.” Non-Spanish speakers take note: the repetition on here (like so much music in Spanish) need not be transcribed or translated, it just needs to be felt.

Video: Jarina de Marco - "Main Dish"

“Brooklyn based singer via Dominican Republic and Brazil…and on a mission to conquest.” Up and coming Jarina De Marco sure sounds confident in where she’s heading. And it’s not surprising. According to Wyclef Jean’s April Showers mixtape, she opened up a concert for The Fugees in Haiti when she was just 12 years old. Now she’s the latest inductee to Jean’s All Handz on Deck imprint and has a pretty catchy track to kick off her trail. “At age of 5 got kicked out of DR, revolution from the start,” sings De Marco in the meta-rhythmic, meta-linguistic “Main Dish.” The track is undeniably charming (as is the visually swarming video), but also seems to be the result of too many ideas collected into one piece (that flute has half of our staff raising an eyebrow). But even as a surplus, De Marco still comes off as a revelation, one who can sustain the claim of having a “tropical flair.”