Helado Negro and the Gentle Urgency of 'This Is How You Smile'
With his seventh full-length album, This Is How You Smile, Helado Negro offers a soothing, personal musical journey.
This Is How You Smile
8 March 2019
Helado Negro – the artist born Roberto Carlos Lange in Florida – has made many past musical statements reflecting the violence and oppression infiltrating people of color. On albums like 2016's Private Energy, songs like "Young, Latin and Proud" and "It's My Brown Skin" are an affirmation of his demand for basic rights for all people. This approach to his art is part of his mission statement. And while it's still undeniably woven into his songs, his latest album, This Is How You Smile, seems to take a slightly more relaxed approach, concentrating more on musical dynamics and reflecting a slightly idiosyncratic mood.
Album opener "Please Won't Please" is a relaxing piece, with a sparse drumbeat and light touches of keyboards shimmering all around. "Left out / An ocean on top," he sings. "Blue tie / And orange won't let go / Let me be / Please won't please." It's a drowsy bit of abstract poetry, sung by a man who may be sipping a drink while watching the sunset until it gets slightly morbid: "And we'll light ourselves on fire / Just to see who really wants to believe / That it's just me."
Elsewhere, found sounds and unique atmospherics work their way into songs like "Running", which begins with street sounds and Lange's desultory wordless vocalizing, before the casual tempo supports lovely piano chords, still keeping things as sparse as ever, with an effortless sway that almost brings to mind a sleepy approach to yacht rock. "Loving whole / I'm just laughing," Lange sings. He's in no hurry.
While This Is How You Smile seems to be an overt exercise in casual cool, the arrangements are surprisingly varied. "Imagining What To Do" floats along with a simple acoustic guitar, strings, and scattered piano notes, with Lange's intimate voice sounding like a world-weary M. Ward. A simple steel drum solo adds an extra layer of richness. On "Sabana De Luz", the tempo picks up and there's a definite Latin flair to the gently chugging beat. And then there's "Fantasma Vaga", which employs buzzy, retro keyboards to create a warm-yet-synthetic mood while slightly industrial, insistent percussion wraps itself around the song. It's all weird, but weirdly intoxicating.
Lange also has a penchant for experimental sound collages, which are lightly scattered around the album. "Echo for Camperdown Curio" and "November 7" are oddball exercises in sonic manipulation that serve as bridges between the more traditional songs.
Still, even the stranger moments on This Is How You Smile are infused with a general sense of love and harmony. It's a general attitude that seems to work across all the album's 12 songs, and is underscored somewhat on the gentle, lilting "Two Lucky". Over a strumming electric guitar, Lange sings, "I miss the way we used to hug / We used to dance a tiny bit / Just kiss with love / We lasted so long / We knew nothing about this shit." It may be a personal breakup song, or perhaps it speaks to a general plea for a return to peace and sanity. Whatever the case, This Is How You Smile – like its title implies – implores you to take it easy and learn to love more.