It was all going so well for Migala. Their first two records, Diciembre 3 A.M. and Así Duele un Verano, did so well in their native Spain and elsewhere in Europe that their third, 2001's Arde, was picked up for release around the world. Sub Pop got the nod here in the US, and did a pretty good job getting it out there into at least the music nerd population; despite singer Abel Hernandez' heavy Madrid accent, and the handful of tracks that were sung in Spanish, Arde did pretty well for itself, even showing up on a couple of year's best lists. That might be because Migala's sounds are very "hip" (I put that in quotation marks for ultra-double-ironists) right now: slow grinding instrumental passages, spoken-word pieces alongside more traditional numbers, and the cool despondent baritone voice of Abel Hernandez. Migala made a further splash by putting on a pretty damned good show live, and could really have broken through with one more record just like Arde.
Instead, they imploded. Kind of. They didn't exactly break up or split into different solo and duo projects or anything -- they just got bored with themselves and their songs. Playing the same songs over and over, all over the world, they decided to stretch them out a little, reevaluating what the songs could sound like and mean. They messed with their own stuff, smacked it up and flipped it and rubbed it down, until their best and most famous songs didn't really sound the same anymore. Suddenly, all they'd recorded up until now didn't seem so hot.
So they went back into the studio, all original six members and new guy Nacho Vegas, and re-recorded ten songs from their first three albums. If you know your español, you might have already figured this out: Arde means "It burns", and Restos de un Incendio is best translated as "The Remains of a Fire". As in ashes, as in what's left when something burns.
It starts with "La Canción de Gurb", a long slow instrumental piece that combines the drum sound from Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain", the guitar sounds made famous by Duane Eddy and Ennio Morricone, and accordion strains that are one part alt-country and one part old Andalusian folk song. It unfolds like carefully constructed origami. I have no idea how the original song sounded (in all honesty, the only album I've heard is Arde because the others are impossible to find in your local record shop), but I know it contained a long poem about lost love that has here been foregone. Anyway, it doesn't matter -- this is a perfect piece of music. "La Canción del Gurb" is full of portent and tension and then self-examination, moments of brief respite in this crazy world followed by full-on admissions of powerlessness in the face of death and life and society and everything . . . all without saying a word. (And, apparently, "Gurb" is a dog, but you won't get that from the almost non-existent liner notes. This is why there are people like me, doing Internet research so you don't have to.)
Abel Hernandez writes some beautiful lyrics. I read an interview with him in which he said that he writes his poems in Spanish and his songs in English, but in either language he has an ear for the hard-hitting phrase, for the un-thought-of image. "El Pasado Diciembre" begins with the unbeatable couplet "There are broken words near the kitchen floor / In a house that now I remember" and goes from there. You won't be able to understand some of what he says without listening several times, but it's worth it, and not just for images like angels kissing him on the lips "Near the road / O, the road / Where she crashed her car last December". No, where this song really pulls you in is in its easy shivery groove which sounds like nothing else except maybe Dylan on Nashville Skyline. By the time the harmonica comes in, you're already hooked and you don't even know it.
Hernandez pulls off a couple of other beauties here. "Ciudad del Oeste" is an accordion-fueled dirge so dark that all hope gets pulled into its black hole: "This western town / Where my heroes are dumb / and her beauty is leaden fear". And "Un Puñado de Coincidencias . . ." is still revealing itself to me, but lines like "So it's said the soil's moving under your feet / Is this the planet you'd wish to live in?" This waltz-time is deadly in its impact, especially with the bird-like electronic noises fluttering around the new mix. Sad? Certainly. Beautiful? Oh yeah.
But Abel is not the only songwriter in the Migala family. Accordion player Diego Ytturiaga's two songs are both goofy and portentous at the same time. The first, "El Retraso Ahora", used to be called "La Espera" on Arde, and is the first song I've heard employ the image of a foulmouthed cockatoo who eats cigarettes. When the end of this tune comes, and we find out that the woman who owned this bird when she was a girl is trying to get pregnant, it's all I can do to not call for a whiplash brace. His second song, "El Ultimo Devaneo", is more successful, in its confusion and rejection of "good old days" narcissism.
It's also incredibly depressing, which this group really strives for in every song. But the musical arrangements are so gorgeous and the lyrics are so fascinating that you almost forget that you're supposed to be bummed out by them all. This reaches its apotheosis at the end of the disc when three straight songs all use the word "disaster". That's a little too much consectutive disaster in my book, but I almost didn't notice a thing. I was too busy wondering where the squealing-tire sample on "Our Times of Disaster" had gone to, and then forgetting to care, because I realized that the last track is a synthesized lullaby setting for someone to intone Julio Cortázar's short-short story, "Instrucciones Para Dar Cuerda a un Reloj". That comes from my favorite Cortázar book, and he's my favorite writer, and the fact that this band loves him too is well, you have to love Cortázar to understand. It's a cult thing.
Migala are smart and accomplished and extremely bummed-out about everything. But if you can overlook a little too much sadness, this could well be a sleeper album in your collection.