by Monika Fabian
Five years and four releases into a band’s life, it’s way more common to hear of reshuffling or downsizing than, say, expansion. And yet Carmen Sandiego did the unthinkable: it doubled in size in between 2010’s Joven Edad and Christmas Eve’s Ciudad Dormitorio. Fortunately the gamble by Flavio Lira and Leticia Skrycky to welcome longtime collaborators Matías Lens and Ezequiel Rivero into the fold paid off immediately. Ciudad Dormitorio is Carmen Sandiego’s most accomplished work to date. The outcasts, antiheroes, and daydreamers populating this ‘Bedroom Community’ evoke post-adolescent lust, ennui, and restlessness from the inside out, and the band behind this world fuses lyrics and melodies of equal emotional weight to construct solid, multi-dimensional narrative statements.
Dormitorio largely sheds the adolescent fascinations of its predecessor; only occasionally waxing juvenile. Narrators in “Generación 2002” and “Monja En La Fiesta,” for example, envision bombing their high school reunion and making their peers kneel on glass. Although the albums are touchtones of their respective life stages, Edad is like a tumblr to Dormitorio’s Moleskine. The former is a less realized version of the latter, yet both works are inextricably necessary. Dormitorio is a repository of obsessions, insecurities, fantasies, pettiness, and love poetry penned by someone more inclined to look around and ahead than back. It’s quarter-life living and anxiety circa 2014.
But it doesn’t even take delving that deep to understand, or even appreciate, Ciudad Dormitorio’s brilliance—the music is effortlessly dexterous. Carmen Sandiego has upped its musicianship with polished, full-bodied arrangements that convey newfound confidence and maturity. Lira’s reedy voice is a wonderful counterweight Skrycky’s ethereal turns. The guitar work vacillates from jagged to dreamy throughout the effort, and shades in the songs’ worlds (“Maria” and “Avalon en Larravide”) as it gives way to the smaller touches (“Mi Pierna Derecha”).
At the risk of taking its title too literally, Carmen Sandiego’s latest reminded of several surburban rock quartets. The overall catholic coherence felt Tacvba-esque. The jangly guitar hooks in “Ocupaciones y Oficios” and “Chocotoño Killer” had DNA smatterings of REM. And the retro, lo-fi feeling “Generacion 2002” and “Fiat 600” recalled the Ramones and Beach Boys. And yet that’s all to say that the Uruguayan quartet’s new work is in storied company and essentially captures something all those groups have before them. In Ciudad Dormitorio, they use a potent symbol of guarded idealism, beauty, ugliness, idyllic emptiness, nostalgia, rage, sadness, and ambivalence to reflect on all of the ordinary humanity wandering about.
El Abismo, Puerto Rico
by Pierre Lestruhaut
Respect to whom respect is due. From 2005 to 2008, at which time Calle 13 produced a nearly impeccable run of three albums, there was no touching the MC/beatmaker pairing consisting of Residente and Visitante. Residente’s flow was singular and infectious, and his rhymes were sharp and versatile enough that he could go from hilarious to provocative to downright nasty. Visitante, on the other hand, was consistently delivering beats that stood at the intersection between club madness and visionary genre transcendence. Then, with their 2010 album Entren los que quieran, the building blocks of Calle 13 started to show some cracks. As Andrew Casillas noted, Residente had "lost his fastball" and started swerving towards “ignorantly polemic” territory. Having now heard the follow-up, whether Entren los que quieran was a slight misstep in an otherwise great discography, or the testimony of a great band taking a turn for the worse, Multi_Viral is unequivocally pointing toward the latter.
A band previously well known for their infectious and stinging hooks, Multi_Viral kicks off as mostly a collection of protester rallying cries (“A brindar por el aguante”) and self-help jingles (“Respira el momento”). For a rapper whose first hit was both brain stimulating and club banging, it’s a shame to see his political diatribes being reduced to the level of megaphone speaking street protester. Artistically, it’s as relevant and thought-provoking as any song from Spaniard anti-establishment group Ska-P. Residente is finally accomplishing what he said he could do in “Ven y Críticame”: “vender un millón de copias con una letra genérica.” And beat-wise, in their own quest to transcend reggaetón they’ve somehow lost track and found themselves as an unidentifiable, unfiltering entity of disparate influences, sloppily experimenting with world music, prog-rock solos, and cheesy Hollywood-esque orchestral soundscapes.
“El Aguante” uses celtic music as a representative backdrop for a song that talks about the injustices humanity has had and continues to endure (wars, dictators, Monsanto). On paper, it looks like it might actually work, but the result is a bleak and lifeless rant that could have been written by any social sciences first year student. First single “Multi_Viral,” works over Tom Morello’s agitating hard-rock riffs and goes on a long denunciation of government, corporate and media propaganda, and disinformation. The title suggests it could have been an interesting exploration of fame and politics in the digital era, instead all we have is an MC who’s completely mistaken artistry for activism. “Los Idiotas” hits rock bottom, though, as Residente spits universal truths about idiocy and intelligence and ends up sounding like that speech your 8th grade teacher gave when trying to motivate the class to participate a little more.
Calle 13’s album introductions have always been memorably satirical, but this time they’ve recruited Eduardo Galeano to read what is no doubt a heartwarming account of humanity’s need for connection and love. It’s nice, but it also feels like they chose to start the album with what they read on their aunt’s most liked Facebook post, and, for some reason, have it read by none other than one of Latin America’s most iconic literary figures. Speaking of Latin icons, Silvio Rodríguez appears here, too, not sounding like the heart wrenching and soothing troubadour that he is, but like a robotic, cash-grabbing, click-generating gimmick. Does this mean we should be anticipating that the next move is going to be a live set next to Victor Jara’s hologram? Cha-ching!
As you probably noticed by now, there’s a terribly annoying coincidence between the themes treated in the album and those that are most commonly present in social media posts. The obvious conclusion here? Anyone could have written these songs. And I don’t mean it as a sort of “Anyone can cook” Ratatouille-like motto about how anyone can create art. I actually mean that these songs were seemingly written by someone with absolutely no talent in songwriting whatsoever. However important the issues at hand may be, it’s as exhausted and hackneyed as those same click bait think pieces about self-help, politics, and injustice that get regurgitated day in and day out. As opposed to the Cristóbal Briceño school of political songwriting, Residente shows no depth, no shading, and no sharpness in his lyrics, only the summarized detritus of what anyone with access to the internet already knows.
There’s really not much to like in Multi_Viral, except for maybe a couple of songs. “Adentro” starts as an interesting diss of gangsta rap violent poserism and, although it starts veering toward emotional human inequalities exposure, its final verse sees Residente reflecting on his own past mistakes and present weaknesses (regretting buying a Maserati, being loud-mouthed, and the decline of his sexual performance). It’s a slick verse that’s classic Residente at his most introspective and vulnerable yet. And then there’s another brief moment of flair a few tracks later in “Fuera de la Atmósfera del Cráneo.” Visitante shines with a really cool guitar-driven beat and PG-13 also takes the spotlight with a beautifully sung hook. It’s a track that feels both deliciously funky and irresistibly catchy in what ends up being the album's only truly good beat.
As a critic, I have to ask, how does one not end up looking like an insensitive asshole when panning an album whose main purpose is inducing positive change for humanity? Perhaps that’s precisely the problem. In mistaking artistry for activism, Calle 13 have reduced their scope exclusively to what words can accomplish, thus neglecting how music functions as a coalescence of words, sounds, and melodies (“Digo más con mis palabras que con tu teoría y solfeo”). Residente’s sexual metaphors and Visitante’s club trashing beats, which made up most of their first records, still sound infinitely better than anything in Multi_Viral. I’ll take a good song about pussy poppin and poppin molly over anything on this record, so yeah, maybe I am an asshole. Residente used to be an asshole too, and we liked him way better back then. He was great at rapping about the simple pleasures of life, and his best songs sounded like the kind of simple pleasure that comes to define all great popular music. If anything, Multi_Viral is Calle 13's failure at transitioning from pop stars to larger-than-life politically engaged musicians.
Tigres Leones present three new songs in their new EP, Muerte a los Muertos, released by Madrid label Sonido Muchacho. This is the third EP of the garage pop trio, based in Madrid and in Sevilla, after two other releases in 2011 and 2012. They published their first album Mucho Spiritu on January last year and have extensively toured Spain since they formed the band. Muerte a los Muertos sounds refreshing and playful, revealing influences from other Spanish bands such as El Niño Gusano or 90’s classics like The Pixies or Blur. The last track of this EP, “España muerde” is an instant hymn based on powerful drums, repetitive guitar riffs and a voice track that delivers lyrics telling us that “España quiere que seas feliz, que tu vida no sea tan gris.” The two other songs are as catchy and energetic and have a clearer psycho-surf taste. This EP just leaves us with plenty of appetite for whatever is to come.
Chilean visionary director Bernardo Quesney has been on a roll lately, releasing one impressive clip after another. First it was for fellow countryman Pedropiedra (“Para Ti”), then for Uruguay’s current MVP band Carmen Sandiego ("Ocupaciones y Oficios"), and now he’s visualized the melodic scope of Argentine songstress, Luciana Tagliapietra. These nation-hoping ventures by Quesney are not only standouts for his pedigree, but also speak of the existent (yet often unnoticed) brotherhood and collaboration amongst the different indie scenes of the continent. “Tormenta,” is the first single off Tagliapietra’s latest record, La Luna. The clip starts outlining the singer’s silhouette against a backdrop of smoke and steam. Her breaking of the fourth wall is quickly empowered by way of neon lights. A classical, beautiful way for music to acquire visibility. Maybe a bit discrete compared to the image-packed offerings Quesney has accustomed us to, but restraint proves to be effective when visualizing Tagliapietra’s soulful voice with affection and grace.