A few Christmases ago, I unearthed my old Super Nintendo from my family closet. Seeing as I had nothing to do, and I really wanted to see if my Madden ‘94 skills were as great as I remembered (they weren’t), I plugged the system in and played virtually every game that I had held onto for an entire week or so. Aside from the obvious shock factor at how much gameplay has progressed over almost two decades, I began to reflect on my feelings on these quaint, socially ancient artifacts, and how much more amazing they seemed in their intangible state. To put it another way: NBA Jam is much more awesome in one’s memories than in the modern world.
This sense of embellishment of one’s past experiences afflicts us all on an almost a daily basis; and the feeling only becomes more palpable when there’s a physical embodiment or property that has no greater value than to bring back those memories. In the world of music, a common scenario would be when you discuss pop songs that were popular when you were in grade school with friends of a similar age. To you, “Pelo Suelto,” “Motownphilly,” or “MMMBop,” (depending on your age, of course) were the “jam,” and you still love those songs today. And that’s not to say that said songs are awful per se, but whenever you hear them outside of the “I haven’t heard this song in forever!” context, you realize that your love of them may be more than a little exaggerated.
This is what makes the first volume of El Guincho’s Piratas de Sudamérica so special and, indeed, El Guincho himself so special. He trades in this exact sort of “exaggerated perception,” and also plays towards the audience’s natural slant by bolstering these feelings until the embellishment seems completely natural and at a fixed point. Take “Palmitos Park,” Alegranza!’s opening track (and Club Fonograma’s #1 song of 2008): from its opening vocal sample to its reoccurring applause track to its cooing background harmonies, it’s obviously meant to evoke some sort of hip, late-night, booze-flowing, white suit optional, speakeasy. So rather than just engage toward the audience’s natural expectation, he smothers the samples in a wash of rhythmic drum work, conflicting percussion, and half-chanted vocals. All of a sudden, the song doesn’t sound like something that reminds you of that one time you went to the coolest basement bar in the biggest city you’ve ever gotten drunk in—it sounds EXACTLY like that time, and just as bad ass as you remembered it the first time. Alegranza! has a few more moments like this, the most notable being the beach party caprice of “Kalise.” But, for the most part, El Guincho was working with exclusively personal moods—you had to be there in the first place in order to grasp the feeling.
Of course, it didn’t help that that debut album was stacked with cacophonous sampling and instrumentation—you couldn’t exactly be blamed for not loving every song on it, especially if you aren’t the type of person who salivates over Animal Collective leaks. But on Piratas de Sudamérica, El Guincho trades the disparate sound collages for “straightforward” (by his standards) covers of the Cuban and South American songbooks. And it’s fantastic.
Operating within this “exaggerated perception” method, El Guincho makes you feel that you know just as much about these songs as he does, even if you’ve never heard the originals before (and if you haven’t, you should). Take the opener (and lead single), “Hindou,” a classic from Cuban pianist Armando Orefiche, which El Guincho re-imagines as a soulful lament. With guitars seemingly lifted straight from Santo & Johnny’s rock-n-roll classic “Sleepwalk” and steel drums that could melt your heart, this is exactly what you would expect to pass for a slow jam in 1950’s Havana. Does anyone reading this know that? Not a chance (and if you do, congratulations on the great eyesight in your old age). But that embodies what El Guincho does so successfully with this concept. You know these are new covers of dusty, old pop songs, but you don’t even think about the “newness” of it—as far as you’re concerned, this is the real deal; this is what music sounded like back then. You’re being transported to a time that you weren’t around for, but everything still sounds familiar and right.
Even if you take this “exaggerated perception” thing with a huge grain of salt, there’s still plenty to enjoy at face value. From the everything-but-the-maracas baile thump of “Cuerpo Sin Alma” to the cumbia-bordering “Frutas del Caney,” there’s plenty here that’ll sound right at home soundtracking those hot summer days. And I certainly cannot leave out the album’s centerpiece, the Julieta Venegas-assisted “Mientes.” In short: this track is a stone cold masterpiece. A finely-tuned, insistent, pungent piece of music. There isn’t a wasted second of tape spared throughout the entire thing. Where the original Los Trio Matamoros cut was a breezy, nice little tune, this version sounds like its being broadcasted from some far away period in time and space, where boys and girls only speak to each other with a cadence reserved for the finest screwball comedies. And we haven’t even begun to mention the beat’s spry little rhythm, which clicks and flounces all the way into your cranium.
In all honesty, the only thing that keeps this thing from higher marks is its anticlimactic (but by no means awful) final track, and its short length (it is an EP after all). But as the tally stands, El Guincho has delivered on his debut’s substantial promise, expanded his sound, and established a greater foundation of personality all within this 5-song salvo. Hopefully, the rest of his Piratas series will hold serve, but at the least, he’s given us a lot to enjoy, absorb, and remember.