Apparently Juana Molina had trouble, at first, convincing the Argentinean public to take her seriously as a musician. They knew her as a television personality, a comedian. I don’t know what those early songs of hers sounded like, but Son, which is her fourth album, is not the sort of work you’d expect from someone who once made a living on TV. Nothing in it cries out insistently for attention, there are no set-ups, nothing snappy, nothing is geared toward the cut and thrust of radio, of public exposure and fame, there are no winks at the audience, everything is wry, quiet, understated, and clever.
So why do I believe that she would have made a good comedian? It’s her fearless sense of play, the way she grabs hold of sounds and changes them in unexpected ways. In “Un Beso Llega”, she takes an electronic note that she’s been using and melts it into the noise of kittens mewing. This is both funny and appropriate: the kittens are a daring touch, and they work. Earlier in the same song, we’re treated to what sounds like a duet between a tuba and a host of computerised bees. In “Hay Que Ver Si Voy” it’s as if she has two songs running at once, one at normal speed and another playing concurrently but at a crawl. During the title song she fools around briefly with the kind of spaced-out gong noises that installation artists use to give their work a feeling of space. All of this is marvellous.
When she talks about her songs she compares them to “the randomness of sounds in nature. Each bird has a particular singing; nevertheless this singing is always different.” The verses, “are alike, but never the same, other times I choose to sing over a repetitive melody, What changes here and moves randomly is, for example, a keyboard. It is like overlapping two different loops, with no synchronicity at all. One very rhythmic and the other one more loose. When you play both at the same time, the loose loop will provoke a changing harmony, because their beats will never be in the same place.”
It’s a good explanation. The tempo and volume don’t change dramatically—Son is not an album that gives you a loud, quick song then a low, slow song to balance it out; we stay at a similar emotion pitch from beginning to end —but the sounds are always off-balance, melodic but never completely harmonious. She borrows a few noises from bossa nova without letting the bossa gloss varnish and immobilise her work. Her restlessness doesn’t allow it.
She is the instrumentalist and also the singer; the press kit boasts that she put the album together herself, at home. Reviews of her past albums have compared her to Björk, and Son shares a tiny bit of vocabulary with Vespertine, which was also a home-cooked affair—they both use a soft-edged blattering keyboard effect that sounds intimate and organic. Otherwise they’re not greatly alike. I can listen to someone say that Björk is pretentious and understand where they’re coming from, even if I don’t agree, but to hear Juana Molina called pretentious would be jarring. Son is so easygoing, so open, so easy to love. It’s an inviting album. Come in, it says. Come in, the sun is warm and we’re both intelligent people. Let’s mess around. Let’s have some fun.
// Notes from the Road
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