The illustrations inside the cover are farmyard and rustic, a brown piglet and rooster. I was expecting something—I don’t know what, but land-bound—farmish—Mexican—since Santacruz is Mexican—something not a hornpipe—but the album starts with a hornpipe. Looking at the About section on his website now I see that whoever was hired to write about this is pretty proud of it. “Although sung in Spanish, the melody [of “Yo Se”] brings to mind a Celtic sea shanty.” A shanty dances, that’s what it does, and it’s a good simple thing, it invites play and experimentation, and Santacruz, throughout this album, toys with shanties. Celtic Americana comes into the music too, folk-fiddling and a country bounce.
Santacruz plays a number of instruments—three different guitars, a banjo, but mainly the accordion—so the shanty idea gives him a vivid grounding, a squeezebox base to work from. He strums, he squeezes, he sings. “Guajolote Y Pavorreal” (“Turkey and Peacock”) opens with the shanty accordion circling around the sweet sweep of a Mexican harp. Not only is this surprising, not only does it have a ludic inventiveness that falls between prettiness and beauty, it prepares the listener for the song’s story. The turkey is in love with the peacock.
They say that you’re like a star that never stops shining and that I’m as disgusting as a rat
sings the turkey in Spanish, and
They say you are champagne and I’m draft beer.
I don’t care what people say, you’ll end up falling for me anyway.
The lyrics of “Guajolote Y Pavorreal” are built around oppositions: draft beer and champagne, a scorpion and a princess, a sea lion and a mermaid. And the introduction has wordlessly supported the turkey, I’m an accordion, you’re a harp, and don’t you hear how well we work together?
Santacruz, with his near-falsetto singing voice and the accordion grinding between his hands, is that contradiction in one. He draws out his words with upwards inflections at the ends, a little questioning, as if to say: Here I am, what do you think? But the shanty gives him a strut—he’s presenting himself upfront, not making a sad appeal. Chicavasco is a mixture of the sweet and the sharp. You’re aware of a sneaking smartness, a possible sting being kept back. When will arrive? The banjo in “Ya Me Voy” is runny, buttery, but you can’t have a banjo-note without the awareness of something being plucked and forced, against its will, to make a noise. A plucked note is an imposition.
The frills at the edge of the accordion float off delicately but the sawing that feeds into the shanty keeps the album from becoming a mere lilt. The lyrics are often funny. That’s something you lose in the English version, although there are musical hints to let us know that something humourous is going on—the goofy yahoo! of “El Ranchero Punk”. This ranchero is so punk that everybody hates him. He sings a list of the haters, incorporating hipsters, accountants, Buddha, his mother, “perverts who sleep with fish”, and the Ecologist Party of Mexico.
Not even my own solitude loves me
Santacruz the lyricist is smart enough to know that the quality of a ridiculous impossibility rises with the specificality of its detail, a thing Gabriel Garcia Marquez once pointed out in an interview with the Paris Review.
That’s a journalistic trick that you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.
When a popular seducer dies in “El Funeral de Tacho”, the number of women who cry at his burial is a very exact three hundred and ninety two. Like Alice, they weep so voluminously that their tears become a flood. The town is drowned. The military is summoned. Pig and rooster float over the deluge using a door as a raft. Chicavasco is a witty album, not only in the lyrics, but in the way it gently keeps you off balance, nudging you with its harp, its banjo, its unexpected ideas, the dexterity of its combinations: its turkey-elements winking at its peacock. The farmyard pictures were there for a reason after all.
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// Notes from the Road
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