Music

Juana Molina: Un Dia

Musical elastigirl purveys Uruguayan, Frippertronic, psychedelic, zany, subterranean songs. Shall we hypnostroll?


Juana Molina

Un Dia

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2008-10-07
UK Release Date: 2008-10-06
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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