As far as the “difficult” second album curse goes, Gotan Project’s Lunatico quite thoroughly superseded expectations. On its release back in 2006, it assumed a repository of adjectives from critics, including “melodious”, “brave”, and “adventurous”. Reason being that the Franco-Argentine trio (comprising Philippe Cohen Solal, Christoph H. Muller, and Eduardo Makaroff in the main) seized the winning tango-meets-electronica formula of their 2001 debut Le Revancha del Tango, and with an avant-gardist’s mind, spun it into a juggernaut of vivid aural imagery and pulsating theatrics. But even as it was daring, it was never inaccessible.
Now four years on, the group have effectively set themselves a challenge comparable to overriding the blight of the sophomore slump. Reproducing their past success in some form would seem most reasonable, as they’re an outfit whose schtick is rather more crucial to their identity in the eyes of their fans than, say, MGMT’s electro-pop is to theirs. (Hence, I think, it was okay for MGMT to go prog-psychedelic on Congratulations, but it would be rather more disorienting, nay devastating, if Muller et al. decided to drop their bandoneón-driven milonga for krautrock or some such.) On the other hand, the risk of doing more of what you’re already good at inevitably invites disappointment if you’re not seen to be continuing the audacious boundary-shifting of earlier efforts. Tango 3.0 takes this risk and comes off limp.
To be sure, the ingredients of Le Revancha del Tango and Lunatico are no less present on Tango 3.0. The bandoneón aside, we have a return of the smoky, sultry vocals of Cristina Villalonga, strings, steel guitar, and sampled vocals and effects. But the joie de vivre and funkiness of Lunatico’s rap song “Mi Confesion”, the melodramatic excesses of “Criminal”, and the stunning cinematic portrait of “Paris, Texas” are largely absent. In comparing Tango 3.0 to its predecessor, the feeling is like that of having once enjoyed the wonderful raspberry flavours of a Clos Siguier with hints of black licorice and cocoa to now being served a less elegant, undemanding Vielle Fontaine Rouge. After the transcendental high of Lunatico, Gotan Project have retreated into the relative timidity of Le Revancha del Tango as if they’d suffered from a debilitating hangover.
The lack of promise begins as soon as the album opens with “Tango Square”, a blend of traditional tango and downtempo that comes off needlessly woozy and torpid. After a four year hiatus, this isn’t the ideal first experience of a Gotan Project “comeback”. “Rayuela” doesn’t do much better for energy levels—and not just because it starts with what sounds like the buzzing of a fly hovering around one’s head on a steaming hot day. Worse still, the lethargic nature of the song very quickly turns Telenovela-soppy and then unbearably cheesy with the inclusion of a children’s chorus. “La Gloria”, meanwhile, sounds like a Latino instrumental version of a Western pop song reproduced by cheap recording equipment. In fact, the songs on Tango 3.0 are generally one-dimensional, in much need of tension, drama, and transience in mood. Curiously, it all seems very much like a rush job to keep the seat warm while the group puts the finishing touches on their equivalent of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling—or at least something more worthy of the “3.0” in the title.
There are, of course, better moments, even if they’re not mind-blowers like “Last Tango in Paris” or “Criminal”. “Mil Milones”, with Villalonga reviving her Dietrich-like guise, reworks Gotan Project’s dub-meets-tango blueprint with aplomb, its echo-drenched instrumental landscape and fadeouts offering the listener many tantalising layers to savour. Both “De Hombre A Hombre” and “Panamericana” are delightful cowboy numbers, with the former bearing the cartoon furtiveness of “Theme from Peter Gunn” and “Theme from Pink Panther”, and the latter a galloping orchestration that eventually loses its cool amid a dusty tension-filled maelstrom. Alas, it would have been nice to call “Panamericana” an exemplar of Tango 3.0. The upside is that such an underwhelming album is bound to have given Gotan Project more scope to surprise us in the future. But can we really wait until 2014 for this?