Pop Negro is one of the best and most fun pop albums of the year, and will likely leave many listeners making mental notes to pack it on the way to the beach next year.
Early press suggests that critics are a bit tepid about the sophomore album from Spanish indie-cum-pop artist El Guincho, aka Pablo Díaz-Reixa. That’s a shame, because despite arriving a season too late, Pop Negro is one of the best and most fun pop albums of the year and will likely leave many listeners making mental notes to pack it on the way to the beach next year (pending, of course, any new oil spills or other disasters).
El Guincho’s 2007 debut Alegranza came out at a time when Caribbean and other coastal sounds were infecting the underground, from the neo-Balearic grooves of Studio to the Tropicália and Kiwi-inspired indie pop of the Dodos and the Ruby Suns to the demos circulating of a then-unknown Afropop-oriented collegiate ensemble called Vampire Weekend. This current has continued to flow to the present day -- a rare shelf-life in the age of perpetual novelty -- through a continuum that includes the steel-drum infused island-technics of chillwave artists Tanlines and Delorean, the neoteric Balearic of the recently deceased Aeroplane, and the Latin-cum-South-African shuffle of Funky House.
On Alegranza, El Guincho was able to distinguish itself from its peers by presenting the album as a singular edifice, an imaginary soundtrack to a documentary shot on 8mm at parades and festivals and open markets and surfing competitions in the not-that-distant past. Though it owed a debt to Caetano Veloso, it was also entirely of the moment, textured with fuzz and concrète noise and channeling some ecstatic youthful vitality to help ease us out of the Bush years, gleefully ignorant that the bottom was about to fall out from under us. That the whole thing was made with loops and field recordings through a laptop made the lively lot of repetitive tunes even more thrilling, and the album was rightly rewarded with widespread acclaim.
In the three year eternity hiatus since El Guincho’s debut, critics apparently expected Díaz-Reixa to squeeze out another Alegranza. So, it’s no surprise that many have been completely taken aback with Pop Negro, which sounds like the work of a completely different artist. However, while Díaz-Reixa does defer the artier aspects of Alegranza to the sidelines on his new album, he has sharpened his songwriting acuity and externalized Alegranza’s more celebratory and joyous aspects (leaving the title, “Black Pop” in English, somewhat of a mystery). It might be comforting for skeptics to note that several of songs on Pop Negro actually pre-date Alegranza and are thus the product of intensive workshopping.
The Barcelona and Canary Islands-based Díaz-Reixa fancies himself as something of student of pop. A recent mix for FACT magazine found him taking a whirlwind tour through the history of Spanish language pop music in just over 25 minutes, while El Guincho’s official website cites an appreciation for the production aesthetics of English-speaking maestros like Tony Visconti, Quincy Jones, Trevor Horn, and Babyface. That these references and more were the ideal of El Guincho’s latest album might prove terrifying to those who had mistaken the “band” for an indie act. Throw in the addition of expert Top 40 mixer Jon Gass and it becomes clear that Pop Negro’s ambitions are well above-ground.
So, sure, this is El Guincho’s sellout album, but let’s be honest; it’s not like you’re going to hear Pop Negro throbbing from the Jersey Shore beach house any time soon. And yes, the production is bright, more crisp, and less texturally sun-baked than on Alegranza, but it’s also a pretty fantastic and unique sound packed into a tight and concise 33-minute package.
Though compressed enough to compete with today’s pop hits, there’s a liberating amount of space between the instruments here. The buoyant bass drum seems to be the closest thing to the earth, but it’s manically elastic, propelling the wild mix of stacked synths, saxes, steel drums, xylophones, and various kitchen sink utensils up into the air while Díaz-Reixa’s sweet vocal melodies float omnisciently above it all. There’s a windy aeration seeping between, say, the clean-strummed guitar and the plinky synth hook of “Lycra Mistral” that makes the recording, digital as per usual, sound like it was captured in an open-air studio at some idyllic island locale, swim-up Tiki bar not far from hand. Meanwhile, everything apart from the percussion and vocals are mixed together so intimately that it’s hard to tell what’s even going on. The resulting consistencies are far more bizarre than your standard Latin pop outing. Check the ethereal twinkle of instrumental interplay on “Chica-o Drims” or the creaky clangs and mini-ghost choirs of “FM Tan Sexy” if you don’t believe me.
The repetition of yore is still extant here, as evidenced on songs like “Novias” and “Ghetto Fácil”, but now it is foundational rather than essential. Personally, I found the whole Latin Steve Reich minimalist angle of Alegranza a bit too insistent at times, unburdening some tracks of their seeming glut of potential directions and imprisoning Díaz-Reixa’s variegated voice to a monochromatic schema. This is corrected on Pop Negro by switching the focus from the repetition itself to the hooks, harmonies, and hand percussion clatter layered on top of it. On “Ghetto Fácil”, for instance, the persistent rhythm makes the traditional quiet-loud/verse-chorus dynamic feel respiratory, each verse an inhalation working to extol the mighty euphoric breath that is the chorus’s exaltation.
Ultimately, it’s the rhythm that drives Pop Negro. No surprise, perhaps, but the beats on this album will not sit still, even on the slow tracks. Unfortunately, it's this, too, that makes 33 minutes the exhaustive mark for this sound. By the time one reaches “Muerte Midi” near the album’s end, piano hits have become wedded to the pounding jabs, making the mix almost epileptic in punctuation. It’s here where the constant staccato may make the listener pine for just one whole note to stop the choppy audial assault. Most of the time, though, the convulsive beats are enough to shake you from your slumber and move you from your present position, slouched in a computer chair, to reinstate you with some much-needed kinetic drive. God bless any album that can do that, let alone that does it consistently and with so much complexity as this one.