If only updating an established style could always be as successful as this.
Good for Gotan Project. This is the right time for tango music to be unleashed upon the world in all its forms, particularly a form in which electronic backbeats reign supreme. This is a time when Dancing With the Stars can command American audiences of 30 million, most of whom wouldn't be able to tell the tango from the cha cha except that the former is usually "sexier" -- a time when a band can test the curiosity of an inordinately large target audience without the constraint of necessary authenticity.
As its name would imply, Gotan Project takes tango music and flips it on its ear by introducing contemporary and electronic instrumentation into the mix, but they don't do this in the near-disrespectful way that such a description might imply. A typical electronic DJ looking to dabble in tango music might just sample some already existing tango music and put a four-on-the-floor beat on top of it, or create an entirely electronic composition and add some of the instruments common to tango -- guitars, violins, or even the bandoneón (a variation on the accordion) might sound nice on top of a techno beat, right? The three Parisian producers behind Gotan Project are far more respectful than this -- they are out to create true tango, going so far as to record in Buenos Aires with actual tango musicians (as well as a few contemporary non-tango cohorts), ultimately creating the closest approximation to true tango through the filter of 21st century pop-electronic production that can be found on the market today.
Lunático is Gotan Project's second proper album, and it manages this melding of styles even more gracefully than Gotan Project's first album La Revancha del Tango. Part of the reason for this album's closeness to the true tango sound might just be that Gotan Project is less bound to "electronics" than it ever has been. Opening track "Amor Porteño" features the ever-interesting Calexico, providing slide guitars and spooky ambiance to a slow-burn of a track that runs entirely counter to the perception that tango music is only for dancing. The drums are organic, the bandoneón is the predominant melodic instrument, and the singing is sultry and utterly exquisite. It's a curveball of an opener, an exhortation from Gotan Project to leave our expectations at the door. Celos is a similarly-paced track, with more beautiful vocals to boot, and album closer "Paris, Texas" follows a fantastic bandoneón melody nearly from start to finish, until a solo piano quietly, sublimely ends the album. Each of the slower tracks on Lunático is a wonder to listen to and absorb.
Still, dancing is clearly the focus, as it probably should be. "Diferente" is a fantastic track that follows a one-note bassline through more atmosphere than most so-called "ambient" artists can muster for an entire album -- all while following a brilliantly syncopated, highly danceable beat. "Notas" features the speaking of Tango master Juan Carlos Caceres over an arpeggiated bassline and a distinctively ordinary electronic beat, while "Criminal" actually manages to formulate a dance song with almost no percussion at all -- the "beat" is created via an octave-jumping bassline and a jumpy melody from that ever-present bandoneón. The dance tracks are collectively less distinctive than the slower, more calculated pieces, but still well enough constructed to stay interesting throughout for the sake of dancing or listening.
Lunático's most inspired moment, however, comes in its most audacious move, the pairing of tango with hip-hop. "Mi Confesión" features the hip-hop stylings of Koxmoz, a collective straight outta Buenos Aires. It's just as edgy, dance-worthy, and utterly enjoyable as its creators could have hoped, and it doesn't even matter if you don't know what they're saying when their flow is this tight.
Gotan Project certainly isn't the first group to attempt the update of a style steeped in tradition using electronic methodology. What sets them apart, however, is their obvious reverence for the style that they happen to be updating. They pull a trick of the ear in putting together a sound that could easily be mistaken for typical electronic dance music, even as they incorporate all of the elements of more traditional tango. The result is a surprisingly "authentic" tango album that Joe and Jane Dancing-With-the-Stars-Fan might actually be able to enjoy, rather than merely appreciate.