[11 August 2010]
The sound collage is nothing new to modern culture. In fact, you could say that because most bands record each instrumental or vocal track separately before syncing them up on a studio mixer, almost all pop songs are sound collages. But today, when said studio mixer is as accessible as a pirated copy of Fruity Loops, turning a pile of samples into something listenable has become nearly as ubiquitous as recording confessionals with nothing but a guitar and a broken heart.
Australian rabble-rousers the Avalanches made quick work of the digitized opportunity, bringing the sampledelic format to its logical extreme on the greatest pop album of all time, Since I Left You, in 2000. After that, sympathetic artists had nowhere to go but inward, and in 2007, along came the off-putting and withdrawn Person Pitch, from Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (aka Noah Lennox). Although a quixotic recording with little apparent appeal (its one single, “Bros”, lasted well over 12 minutes), Person Pitch enjoyed much-deserved popularity, probably because of the way its straight-faced hallucinations actually seemed like dreams, rather than atmospheric clichés. Still, the record required some devotion on the listener’s part. It wasn’t exactly danceable. So when Pablo Díaz-Reixa, better known as El Guincho, released Alagranza! the following year, it came as an antidote of sorts: just as dream-like, but much more energetic and likable.
Panda Bear’s Noah Lennox mapped out his dreams with a mix of wonder and dread, but Díaz Reixa’s imaginings were all nitrous-fueled exuberance. Warm vibraphones orbited around Latino casino crooners as carousels went berserk. It was pressed to tape with a particularly stylish disregard for dynamic levels, resulting in delirious vacation music that flaunted, rather than hid, its patchwork production But, because El Guincho still insisted on weaving dreams rather than crafting pop, most of Alegranza! stretched two-minute fire-crackers into five-minute drones. Which would be fine, if not for that aforementioned exuberance. Driving the album along were the polyrhythms of anonymous afrobeat and Brazilian jazz vinyls, lifted wholesale, dubbed in, and compressed until they sounded like the bottom end of Bongzilla. For an album begging to be heard on a hi-fi with a tightly-rolled joint, it was a bit much.
With this in mind, the first volume of El Guincho’s Piratas de Sudamerica EP series is a relief. The concept is to dig up the samba tunes of Díaz Reixa’s youth, probably the basis for his nostalgic style, and cover them, with a much sparer, yet more cohesive, sound than Alagranza!. Lord knows what’s sampled from elsewhere and what was recorded in the comfort of Díaz Reixa’s Barcelona bedroom, but that’s the uncanny thrill of his music: the origins don’t make a difference. Hearing the crash of waves as steel drums ring as if played in a cathedral violates even the most basic sense of realistic acoustics, and yet the compacted mix encourages the illusion that they are, indeed, coming from the same place.
On Piratas, that place might be an Argentine beach after all the tourists have trickled out. Or something equally quiet, and, assuming there’s no open bar nearby, equally sober. In addition to dialing down the din of his previous record, El Guincho sticks to a three-minute limit, maintaining the original songs’ structural integrity while adding little beyond precise, trippy sonic flourishes. Nothing in these five songs reflects the carnivalesque madness of Alagranza!, and quite frankly, Díaz Reixa’s discipline is refreshing.
Consider “Mientes”, which gives a Calypso makeover to a South American standard. Rather than blowing up the percussion section, Díaz Reixa keeps the 2/4 shuffle going with a bass and a maraca. With the extra room to breathe, the lead guitar shimmers, unburdened with the need to shout over anything else just to be heard. Then, as the song closes, nearly all channels drop out, leaving only the girl-boy harmony at the center. As if just realizing that spotlight’s on her, singer Juleta Venegas belts her part out with the endearing gusto. It’s a brief, but poignant, moment. Or, consider how grating the central hook of “Frutas del Caney” would be, if Díaz Reixa made it as big as “Fata Morgana” from Alagranza!, which itself came across like some evil clown nightmare.
The only problem with El Guincho’s leaner approach is that Piratas is pretty light fare. Overzealous as it may have been, Alagranza! was also sort of hypnotic, and once your guard was down, the guileless fervor of “Palmitos Park” and “Kalise” was impossible to resist. Piratas de Sudamerica, Vol. 1 never achieves that level of bliss. Maybe it’s not meant to. Maybe it’s only supposed to be a warm-up for El Guincho’s next full-length, Pop Negro, which is due out this fall. Whatever it is, by largely taming Pablo Díaz Reixa’s postmodern garishness, it makes a good case for the intimate sound collage as equal parts chill-out music, abstract dream diary, and traditionalist folk-pop.