I first encountered Juana Molina on her second album “Segundo”. The cover art was a print of her blond hair which smothered every surface. On the recording she conjured a similarly sensuous effect from just a few elements: her voice, rhythms, and electronics. It seemed as if she had learned the art of balancing hypnotism and stimulation from Tom Ze and the skill to melt and bend sound from Alexander Franov.
Since then Molina has developed a richer sonic palate on the consistently lovely albums “Son” and “Tres Costas” even as she has retained her quirkiness. Apparently she imagined her music before finding the synthesizers and tape loop pedals needed to perform and record. Not quite Harry Partch, perhaps, but illustrative of a willingness to explore and a determination to express. Of course, in 2008, any artist who blends folk forms and electronics cannot claim to be doing anything shockingly new (see: Linda Perhacs). The envelope has not so much been pushed as ripped open, flattened and the contents translated into every language on earth. So, quality is all that matters and right now no one does it quite like Juana Molina. Her knowledge of traditional rhythms is matched by her ability to add just enough electronic shading without tipping too far in either direction. Un Dia is a new batch of songs that are light but not superficial, heavy but not turgid, and – as with much of her best work – naturally psychedelic (rather than relying on Paisley prints, small round sunglasses, drug references, sitars, or any other obvious paraphernalia).
The use of musical genres to describe an artist can be limiting or plain misleading and Molina’s work makes a mockery of lazy labeling. In a sense she is an electronic artist who makes that genre accessible for pop fans. Yet she is also a world music protagonist who avoids dry purism in favor of the groove. Then again, she remakes folk forms for a psych audience. Amongst all this it is easy to overlook the fact that Molina possesses an amazing voice; one that fluctuates between sounding rather erotic, pure, and quite absurd. I imagine even Ingrid Thulin on absinthe wouldn’t sound as good.
I don’t understand Molina’s particular dialect of Rioplatense Spanish but my impression is of characters who float around in a loose narrative having adventures rather like Ferdinand and his acquaintances in Joann Sfar’s superbly illustrated, wacky, and poignant Vampire Loves. For sure Un Dia provides gorgeous linguistic puzzles and English speakers may prefer to remain happily perplexed. After all, this is the woman who once sang:
“A ella le gusta el 99 cents
Le gustan Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright y Schindler”
For her part, Molina has dealt with the loss/gain translation issue in the best possible way: she writes tunes that are good in any language and she says go ahead and interpret whatever you wish into my songs, for I am heading into a realm where I may speak gibberish and leave everyone able to transpose their own meaning upon whatever I have created.
Clues as to the origins of her idiosyncratic style are wide ranging. For example, she had a part in a hugely successful television comedy and she has received praise for connecting with the roots music of neighboring Uruguay. She has acknowledged the influence of King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic album, of Ravel, and of powerful memories such as the noise of the elevator in the building where her grandmother lived. The influence of Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros is unknown but Molina is clearly following her instincts. The common thread is that she responds to (and creates music in) the realm of pure sound. A combination of her experimental streak and a rigorous precision in recording and performance has resulted in albums which are intense, breezy, and unpredictable but never a mess.
It is impossible to choose the wrong album through which to enter Molina’s body of work. All are equally likely to lure a listener further into a fabulous world of sound. Segundo was my initial gateway into her hypnotic terrain. It is an album with small tracks perfect for remembering the location of favorite sections and with sudden changes providing wonderful contrast. Those shorter pieces are like haiku compared to the odes she offered on Son and Tres Costas. When Molina gravitates toward longer songs, she still uses plenty of variation, but relies on flow and the switching of different rhythms between background and foreground to alter pace and mood. Un Dia strips back some of the flourishes of her previous two releases and is a mesmeric addition to her catalog. There is a lovely deepness of sound on “Lo Dejamos” and a splendid warped sensibility. Another favorite section is the start of “No Llama” which sounds as distant and otherworldly as The Caretaker playing a busted piano in an abandoned church hall.
Juana Molina has transcended mockery and doubters to follow her muse and succeed on her own terms. Her musical adventure is fascinating. Given her adaptable strength and the great fluidity of her music it is apt that she provided the voice of Elastigirl for the Argentinean dub of The Incredibles. Thankfully, Juana Molina will return to play dates in North America from February 2009.