Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review: Juana Molina 2/26 @ The Brattle Theatre

May I first note that the Brattle Theatre seemed to be tailoring to my tacit desires? First of all, this show was booked, by some struck of luck and divine grace, on my birthday, and I found out about it shortly after an intense bout of Juana Molina obsession at the beginning of the semester. Needless to say, I was already pretty excited about this show – about as much so as I have been about any show I’ve seen in the last year. On top of that, though, playing before and after the actual performances over the PA system was Broadcast, which was almost all I had been listening to up until the show itself for the last two weeks. Obviously, this show was bound by fate to be mind-blowing, and I hope it was as incredible for everyone else as it was for me, even if the circumstances were leaning in my favor.

Faces on Film, a local act, opened, and the singer, Mike Fiore, first played a few acoustic numbers by himself. His voice was reminiscent of that of Dr. Dog frontman Scott McMicken, and his brief solo numbers set a calm tone for the show. His bandmates then came out and sat at an instrument, one at a slide guitar and the other at an organ, which together created a slightly deeper backdrop for songs with more of the same feel as the first few. The highlight of this set was when Fiore was accompanied by a female singer, who unfortunately only harmonized on the wordless bits of the outros of the songs they played – I imagine that the harmonies, if carried through whole songs, would add another layer of depth to the songs and give them more staying power.

The wait between acts was brief. Juana Molina came on stage with her bassist and percussionist and immediately took to her trademark looping. She opened with the title track and opener from her latest album, Un día, first recording herself playing a simple piano loop and chanting, “one day.” Then, she stopped the loop and began the first line of the song, starting the loop again mid-line and continuing from there. Her percussionist and bassist added to the mix, and the song seemed to strain the speakers simply with its volume. Molina herself at first seemed to be pushing the notes out – the melodies in that first song get awfully high, so it’s no surprise that she had to warm up a bit with the opening number. She quickly found her flow and, in between lines from the song and language-less scatting, she added more layers of vocal sound and synthesized percussion to the loop. Rare for Molina was the English singing that characterized this song, which stretched it to an utterly hypnotic seven or eight minutes as it continued to build beyond the scope of the recorded version and of what anyone could expect from this song.

Although the translation of the central lyric from this title track is often mentioned in reviews and press releases, it is so apt that it begs to be discussed here as well: “One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics and everyone can imagine for themselves if it’s about love, disappointment, banalities or about Plato.” This first line sets the stage for the rest of this album in particular and some of Molina’s songs from her older albums, as much of the vocals take the form of percussive vocals and simply scatting, more often eliciting a raw emotional and physical response from the listener than demanding that a Spanish speaker pay attention to the lyrics, which are often buried in instrumentation, or that a non-Spanish speaker translate them. This sort of choose-your-own-adventure approach to her music and lyrics even applied when she sang in English in the first song, since what sounded like, “Should I stay? Or should I go?” could have really been anything under the chorus of Molinas already singing nonsense or “one day,” so even as she broke the language barrier, she built it up again, as is the principle of this album and the direction her music is taking as a whole.

The first song then transitioned seamlessly into the next, “Vive solo,” on a keyboard loop over which she looped a simple guitar line. This song was characterized more by waves of buildup and falling away than by the slow and overpowering build of “Un día,” but by this time Molina’s scatting was in full form, and this song, too, cycled through upward of seven minutes. Particularly impressive about this song was the flexibility of the rhythm section in the usually strange time signature of 7/4, especially during one bridge, which features a bass line that demands considerable skill with the instrument. Next was “Lo dejamos,” a much darker piece compared to the almost sunny first two songs; instead of on vocal or guitar loops, this song is centered on a dark, almost atonal synth loop and features sparser percussion. Molina’s vocals cascaded through the synth and climb up again as a steel drum sound quietly contrasted the keyboard loop, then the loop changed and the song floated through several more minutes of soft guitar playing and harmonizing between Molina and the bassist, whose voice blended so smoothly with hers that it could have been a prerecording of her singing.

“Lo dejamos” allowed Molina to transition to a few songs from her previous album, Son, as they all have more traditional use of lyrics and slightly less use of loops than the first two of the set. Following “Lo dejamos” was “Elena,” which never struck me as a highlight from Son but which was executed perfectly here, once Molina straightened out some technical difficulties with the guitar. She then performed two of the longest, and strongest, songs from Son, “La verdad” and “Un beso llega,” both of which are characterized by bright, upbeat guitar and even more scatting and vocal layering. “La verdad” included a particularly interesting instance of the loops, as she used a very short sample of several layers of her voice repeated through a large section of the song, over which she improvised. She followed this sort of suite of vocal trickery with “Desordenado,” which again featured the bassist’s harmonies, though this time often just an octave below Molina’s melody. This song in particular allowed for a lot of improvisation, especially for the percussionist, who had an incredibly unique style and method to his drumming and percussion. He often played cymbals on the side only, employed innovative rhythms during a buildup section, or alternated brushes and sticks on the same drum, creating an unpredictable sound to underscore the interplay between the stringed instruments.

The rhythm section then left the stage and Molina introduced her next song, written for her daughter when she left home for a week to record her first album. She said that the line that she repeats most toward the end is basically, “mama, please don’t leave again,” so, “the part with ‘mama, mama, mama,’ over and over, that’s me. I’m the mama.” The song she was introducing was “¿Quién?” from her second album, Segundo, and it started out simply enough with the familiar original version, held together by a repeated guitar riff, but she seamlessly transitioned into “¿Quién? (Suite)” from the new album, which features, like the others, a great deal of layering and beatboxing. However, this song was particularly spectacular because she was on the stage alone, making her own percussion with her keyboard and her mouth. Aside from the (now typical) impressive improvisation, this performance was highlighted by a number of breathtaking moments: first, she looped herself vocalizing on both the upbeat and the downbeat, which created an effect which I can best describe as the sound of her voice bubbling up between itself. Second, after looping herself several times, she hit her loop pedals in rhythm to, essentially, switch herself on and off as she continued to play guitar. Last, at one point, she wasn’t adding anything to the mix but simply stepped back from her array of pedals and keyboards simply to dance for a few seconds. It was encouraging to see that she was enjoying this as much as her audience was, even if she wasn’t as awestruck as the rest of us. She finished the song with an outro like the intro, as if to suggest that the whole piece could be repeated and still be just as original each time she performs it, injecting a new melody or inflection in her voice.

She thanked the audience and left the stage, only to return shortly with her rhythm section, as well as a small table and three plastic cups, which they used to create a sort of rhythmic jive, not unlike the kind one learns at summer camp, only much more complicated. They then launched into “Los hongos de Marosa,” another highlight from Un día, although here it was somewhat overshadowed by the showstopper that was “¿Quién?” However, it still featured some of her catchiest beatboxing as well as some more percussive showcasing and bizarre but lush keyboard flourishes. If any one song most exemplifies her idea of the listener taking from the wordless music whatever they choose, this one in particular contains the briefest appearance of actual lyrics and is dominated by endless layers of vocals. It could be considered a microcosm of the whole album, as it both builds and comes in waves over the course of its eight minutes, and, as such, it was a perfect closer for the evening.

To put it quite simply, Juana Molina is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen. Aside from her obvious musical proficiency and songwriting skills, she can easily banter with the audience and is not even afraid to let them in on a little mistake she has made, such as looping something in the wrong place, by telegraphing her mistake with her face. She may have noted that they were playing something from the new album (the last song) because “that’s what they’re supposed to do,” but she clearly has fun doing it, as she engaged the audience in the story about “¿Quién?” and danced to it herself. A Juana Molina show is worth attending whether or not you’re familiar with the music. I’m a huge fan, and I looked forward to my favorite songs and my favorite parts of each songs, but I was pleasantly surprised by the extra effort she puts into originality live and watching her make each sound herself. One person who attended the show with me said that, toward the end, he closed his eyes, since sometimes he could see if she was about to loop something or add something new, and he liked being surprised. Either way, it’s certainly a spectacle, and I recommend to any fan of cutting-edge and original music to check out her records and see her if at all possible.

-Will Orman (Married to a Bear, Thursdays 8-10am)

1 comment:

jessy said...

ahh, sad i missed her! it's really cool that you would be able to enjoy a concert when you're not familiar w/ the music.... Juana Molina can pull it off. cool.