This is a group with big buzz right now in their home of Puerto Rico; the conventional wisdom about them is that they are a band with no salsa influences whatsoever, standing out by just playing indie pop en español.. Everyone keeps saying this, so I believed it for a little while. But don’t make the same mistake I did. It’s not true.
Superaquello looks that kind of band, though. Retro-styled singers Eduardo Alegria and Patricia Davila front what is a pretty tough and versatile little group, and they definitely don’t have any Hot Latin Dance Jamz on this disc. A lot of the tunes sung by Davila, if you don ‘t listen very closely, could very easily be mistaken for neo-girl-pop like the Finishing School or Dressy Bessy - there’s not very much separating “Mundo Psiquitito” from being an Elephant 6 offshoot, and “Naranja,” with its echoey production squiggles and Davila’s hushed croon, has some superficial resemblance to Sub Pop pop like Mirah in her quieter moments. Except I find Davila’s voice a lot more icy-sexy than any of theirs, it’s like she doesn’t know, but she knows. The songs where Alegria takes the lead show off his thin neurasthenic indie voice, very much like emo. This voice is not his only voice, as we shall soon discover, but it is no less effective for all of that.
But it is in the songs where they sing together that the whole theory breaks down. “El Ornitorrinco” is a stop-start micro-masterpiece with a couple of indelible B-52’s-style guitar lines (from band co-founder Francis Perez) and some “ba-ba-ba-ba” background voxlines and at least four different sections, so lazy listeners could easily be fooled into thinking that Superaquello is just another band stuck in time. But what about those funky synthesized percussion lines that sound just like plena lines? The song keeps breaking out into these sections and then pulling itself back with easy-to-take handclaps and back-and-forth singing. It’s like the salsa inside burbling to get out, and they feel like they have to conquer it with whatever American music is.
“Amola’ol” is even more blatant about this. It rides a stronger Latinate beat the whole way, wedding it to a tough acidic guitar riff to confuse us, but it is basically a salsa jam waiting to break out at any time. It is here that Alegria reveals his other voice, his more expansive salsa voice, and this is an awesome instrument indeed. Not to overstate things, but it’s like Alegria thinks he’s the old superhero Black Bolt, whose voice was so powerful he could never use it or it could destroy the world - Alegria has to keep a lid on this weapon to keep from ruling the universe. Even the hip-hop touches that come into the song in its last minute cannot keep the puertorriqueñosity out of the song. They are very much part of their native steez, even if they cannot admit it to themselves.
Superaquello is a band not just of great craft, but also of great beauty. “ELP” is the album’s centerpiece, the beginning of what would be Side 2 if this was a 58-minute record album, and it will knock you out like taekwondo. So many sections, so many changes of mood and trackbacks and recurring parts that I cannot really list them all. Honestly, this is the track where I decided that Superaquello’s major theme is trying to come to terms with their dual citizenship: as Puerto Ricans and Americans, with the music of their island and the new wavey music they love, with being arty types and with being fun pop hitmakers. Then I came to my senses and remembered that no one wants to hear writers get all freakin’ pretentious like that. But still the way the song lurches forward and backward, drunk on possibility and ambition; they way they inject emotion into the proceedings and then pull back to do another “la la la” break; the way the entire slow vocal section that forms the song’s spine keeps coming back, showcasing Alegria’s beautiful tenor against harp-like guitars, a little more at a time, always interrupted by other sections, until he finally breaks into the glorious high note that hits at the 4:06 mark - oh, man, songs like this are the stuff that music writers are made of.
Which means maybe it’s evil. But at least it’s pure evil.
There are too many odd fun moments here for me to categorize, and I’ve already used up a lot of the appropriate superlatives. What I’m saying is that this album is some kind of genius, pitched in a heated battle between the lovely indie-pop that everyone else does these days and something a little more Latin. It works even when it stutters and stops and starts again; actually, that’s when it works best. But the last thing I’d want to do is spoil the surprise you’ll get when “Tres Reyes” hits its funky stride, or to overanalyze “La Cancha.” There are some times when it’s better to just trust you guys, that you’ll hunt this record down and then love it the way music should be loved.