El Guapo: Super/System

[18 February 2003]

By Anthony C. Bleach

There’s a buzz fuzzing throughout El Guapo’s debut release on Dischord Records. Equal parts klezmer jazz, experimental dance-rock, fractured synth-pop, and cocktail noir, each song fizzes either literally with the sound of synthesizers and electronics—a manifestation of the electricity coursing through the stereo equipment on which your record will play—or metaphorically, with megawatts of originality—an aural embodiment of the obviously brainy fellows behind the music.

Featuring Pete Cafarella (also in synth-drum duo Shy Child and in accordion-sax-drum trio ABCS), Justin Moyer (from Washington, DC-area art attackers Edie Sedgwick), and Rafael Cohen (oboe on many an avant-garde Seth Misterka project), the trio bounces and jolts (or jounces and bolts, if you like) through each of the 18 songs here like kids playing hide-and-seek in a technopolis. Or, as they have it, an “Elguapolis” (which, I kid you not, sounds like R2D2 having sex).

The cover and interior art partly gives away their m.o. On the front and back, rudimentary charcoal blocks stand like soldiers at attention, casting long shadows in front of them. On the inside, however, a cityscape looms in white relief, each block marked (in reverse) with a different area—central, subcentral, intermediate—each area is smaller than the one to its right. (Either that, or this interior design is an enlargement of a circuit board from an ancient supercomputer as imagined by Franz Kafka or George Orwell.) Taken as a whole, this art, like the album, is dark and light, primitive and advanced, friendly and frightening.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Super/System winds its way through as many styles as it does. Using the example of the first four songs on the record, the band wrecks like T. Rex on “My Bird Sings”, twinkles and beeps on “Elguapolis”, testifies like a gospel choir on “Inevitability” (yes, they use the word “catamite” in there, too), and end up showing some fine percolating chops on “Rumbledream”.

One of the key instruments used is Cafarella’s accordion, especially on, “As in . . .” and “Time Crisis II”. In the latter, it’s a wailing wall of accompaniment; on the former, it’s a treated background drone. Here, I think, is where the two uses of the instrument represent both the expected and unexpected pleasures of the album. “Time Crisis II” doesn’t subvert our expectations of the use of the accordion as a sad wheezer; the song is funer(e)al music. But its drone on “As in . . .” serves to remind us more of its expansive properties; it’s a noisemaker as effective as the skittering drums in the song. To put all this another way, “Time Crisis II” presents instrument-as-(perhaps)-intended, while “As in . . .” presents instrument-as-(perhaps)-unintended.

These two songs bookend “Rhyme Scene / Rhyme Dream”, a would-be minimalist house workout that illustrates what is an altogether goofier side to the band; the song is robot funk for C3PO after the Jawas dismantled him. But the band is also upsetting our notions of what sounds should sound like with the song’s vocal line. Two Guapos intone, “This is the scene of the crime”, and their voices are mixed so they burst from the left or right channels of your speaker. The voices sound largely untreated by technology, but, because of the sensation of their whispery separation, you wonder if you’re getting anything besides an unadorned human being.

The uses of technology in a playful (and, despite their incorporation of accordionist/composer Guy Klucevsek on three songs here, un-stuffy) way inform the rest of the record. “The Kid Is Building Something” is a poem worthy of This Heat (another band whose excitement with sounds and the ways they work together is a clear influence on El Guapo), “Actual Sound” syncopates like an artificial lung set to “funky”, “Laser Eyes” de(voc)odorizes Trans Am, and “Dance, Danza” conjures the same electronic scratching noises that probably fuzz through DJ Q-Bert’s brainpan.

To backhandedly quote from the 1986 film !Three Amigos! (from which the band probably takes its name), if you were asked by El Guapo if there is a plethora of delights on this record, you would have to agree and say, yes, El Guapo, there is a plethora.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elguapo-super/