Originality is a scarce commodity in the music world these days, so the very existence of a group like Gotan Project is cause for celebrating. When they first appeared in 2000 with the singles "El Capitalismo Foraneo" and "Triptico", the Paris-based Gotan Project stood out from the crowded field of nu jazz producers mixing house, jazz and Latin sounds for one simple reason: Their music was based on the rhythms and instrumentation of tango. While this doesn't sound like a particularly radical concept, the fact is that no one had ever done it before, and Gotan executed it so flawlessly, especially on the dazzling "Triptico", that no one else may ever be able to follow in their footsteps. Their sound is so definitive it's almost beyond imitation.
Now comes Gotan Project's long-overdue (at least in the US; it's been available everywhere else for over a year) full-length debut, and happily, it picks up right where the monster hit "Triptico" left off. The Gotan guys blend the sexy syncopations of tango with the dark, echoing textures of dub and the beats of house and nu jazz to create a sound that is at once timeless and extremely modern, familiar and completely original, and basically just so darn all-around hip that it'll infuse your squalid little urban apartment with all the allure of a smoke-filled Parisian jazz club. Well, at least that's how it makes my squalid little urban apartment feel.
Though nothing on La Revancha del Tango quite equals the many splendors of "Triptico", it's still pretty much all outstanding. Starting with the opening accordion-fueled strains of "Queremos Paz", Gotan Project build a 10-song set of loose-limbed, jazzy melodies stitched together by rock-solid beats that seem to hover somewhere between traditional Argentinean tangos and modern breakbeats, with maybe just a splash of bebop-era jazz thrown in to keep the vibe cool, man, cool. Gotan's official members are keyboardist/beat programmers Philippe Cohen Solal and Christoph H. Müller and guitarist Eduardo Makaroff (how's that for an international collection of names?), but the player who really defines the group's sound is probably Nini Flores. Flores plays the bandoneon, a complex and unwieldy breed of accordion whose sound, crisper and less wheezy than a standard accordion, is heard on most traditional tango numbers. On every track of La Revancha, Flores' playing is a marvel, never overly flashy, in keeping with Gotan's chillout vibe, but always oozing with quietly restrained passion. Just listen to the haunting high notes that open his limber phrases on "El Capitalismo Foraneo", or the way he slices through the dark, dubbed-out soundscape of "Chunga's Revenge" (which is, of all things, a Frank Zappa cover featuring a gravelly Spanish "rap" from MC Willy Crook).
As good as Flores is, the other guest musicians on La Revancha match him note for sensual note. Line Kruse's violin and Gustavo Beytelmann's piano are in fine form throughout, especially on "Triptico", which as its title suggests is basically a showcase for each of the three soloists. It's on "Triptico" that Gotan Project sounds most like another Paris-based outfit known for using programmed beats as a platform for jazzy acoustic solos, St. Germaine. But if anything, the solos on "Triptico" outshine the work of the St. Germaine ensemble, especially Kruse's incendiary violin, and the backing track has a propulsive, syncopated energy St. Germaine's Ludovic Navarre, ever the househead, has never quite achieved.
Elsewhere, the Gotan guys mix things up nicely, varying tempos without ever straying too far from the jazzy, sexy vibe that is their stock in trade. A very hip cover of the theme from "Last Tango in Paris" accompanies Beytelmann's and Flores' sweetly melancholy work with a sprightly, almost trip-hop beat; "Epoca" and "Santa Maria (del Buen Ayre)", featuring the torchy vocals of Cristina Villalonga, stick more closely to the rhythms and sounds of conventional tango; "La del Ruso" keeps it simple, highlighting Edi Tomassi's intricate percussion and Fabrizio Fenoglietto's reverberating double bass to deliver a song that gives a strong sense of tango's roots in Spanish folk music. Their finale, a cover of a song from tango's elder statesman Astor Piazzolla, dispels any lingering doubts that Gotan Project is just a bunch of electronica hipsters ignorantly dabbling in traditional Latin dance music. "Vuelvo al Sur" isn't an obvious cover choice -- it's off one of Piazzolla's later and less celebrated albums, 1987's Sur -- but Gotan reinvent its tricky blend of pop, jazz and tango superbly, wedding a slow, shuffling breakbeat to Villalonga's timeless voice and the expressive guitar and bandoneon of Makaroff and Flores.
As reward for having to wait nearly two years for the release of La Revancha del Tango, American audiences get treated to a bonus disc of remixes and a video for the group's new single, "Santa Maria". As is often the case, none of the remixes really adds much to the original, though Peter Kruder of Kruder & Dorfmeister is his usual innovative self on a quietly slinky reworking of "Triptico" that bears almost no resemblance to the original. Tom Middleton's and Pepe Bradock's remixes are workmanlike broken beat and house treatments, respectively, of "Santa Maria", and Kushite's alleged remix of "El Capitalismo Foraneo" is really just a bad political rap set to looped fragments of the original track. I can't tell you what the video looks like because they didn't include it in the press copy, but I betcha it features lots of artfully distressed shots of members of the band walking around the streets of Buenos Aires.
Some purists will no doubt protest Gotan Project's appropriation of Argentina's semi-official musical style, but I think most tango fans will be as exhilarated as I was by the way they breathe new life into the form. Thanks to the level of talent involved, and Gotan's knack for building a groove without letting it overshadow their lead players, La Revancha del Tango is an all-around triumph for modern, Latin-based dance music. If nothing else, buy it for "Triptico", and be amazed at how hip the much-maligned accordion can sound.