by Andrew Casillas
As the great 2 Chainz once said, “They ask me what I do and what I do it for, and how I come up with this shit up in the studio.” This is a fair approximation for most peoples’ reaction to the María y José oeuvre. Seriously, put on a María y José song for any “regular” person, and the typical reaction is generally, “Whoa, what the hell is this?” Let’s face it: Tony Gallardo’s ear is full of some pretty fucked up sounds. But they’re damn good sounds. And in the case of Club Negro, these sounds are downright masterful.
Before diving into the specifics of Club Negro, it’s helpful to put things in context. Specifically, what makes María y José’s collected output, and much of pop music’s canonized “weird” music, so...palatable? Weirdness isn’t the result of some hidden desire to top the pop charts but an uninhibited desire to force mass audiences to come to you. Does anyone think Frank Zappa or Don Glen Vilet really locked themselves in a closet with Monkees records? And it took the Flaming Lips years to develop the huckster shtick that allowed them to escape the infamy of being that band at the Peach Pit, but that’s not saying that the music itself relied on novelty. (Not to mention that their insistence on integrating the big balloons and dancing Santa Clauses with the non-populist freak-outs of Embryonic and The Terror assures us that Wayne Coyne is enjoying some meta-reflection on success.) It may not be the most poetic of statements, but what Gallardo and others have figured out is that you can be as weird as you want and still enjoy pop success—as long as you’re weird with a purpose.
What makes María y José so interesting is that it’s entirely the operation of one man: Tony Gallardo. He isn’t the leader of a band or collective and doesn’t seem to have any particular person to bounce ideas off of. Contrast this with the other “weird pop” standard-bearer of the moment: The Knife. Shaking the Habitual is a fiery, dark, confrontational piece of left-of-left-field electronic pop. But it’s clearly the word of two people with the freedom to bounce ideas off one another and then execute the best ideas with cold precision. And it works, as evidenced by the fact that Shaking the Habitual is a really good record.
Calling Gallardo’s María y José project “rudderless” would imply that his craft should contain a rudder in the first place. Gallardo runs his ship on much more rudimentary scale. His records don’t set up blocks for the purpose of knocking them down later; rather, his auteur approach to DJ music is free form and keeps any foundation to a minimum. Given these circumstances, it is no surprise that his prior music, under his real name and as María y José, is singular and highly acclaimed. But, with Club Negro, Tony Gallardo takes that next step: his music is important. He is no longer the resident weirdo at the Iberoamerican pop banquet table. He is the visionary. Albeit one who’s really good at Twitter.
Thus it’s only fitting that the first vocals on Club Negro belong to a cat. “Granada” opens the album on a quirky, oddly confessional tick—a hymn to idiosyncrasy in the social media age. Two songs that, by contrast, are absolute bangers—"Violentao" and "Rey de Reyes"—follow up the opener. These three tracks each dates back to at least 2011, but have been “re-imagined” for this album. The BPMs get lessened for “Granada” and “Violentao,” fitting due to their more somber subject matter (although you can’t be blamed for slightly missing the fervent terror of the original “Violentao” production). “Rey de Reyes” features new vocals over the original “SIT DOWN, 3BALL” big beat from two years ago. If anything was left to do with ruidoson, Gallardo killed it with the original version, but the Club Negro redux delightfully pisses on its grave.
At this point, it’s appropriate to address the numerous remakes, revisions, and remixes that Club Negro’s encountered for almost three years. This wouldn’t matter if not for the fact that one-third of the album tracks consist of pre-2012 songs. (“Puerto Alegría” was recently replaced by a remix of “Kibosé” that’s a bit too WUB WUB WUB WUB). The other, more prevalent issue that comes with these alterations is the sinking feeling that the track listing was overthought. That’s not to attack the vitality of the other Club Negro tracks. It’s just that the constant tampering leaves many of the other tracks sounding haphazard and almost mismatched at times. In isolation, there are some marvelous moments here. “Cripta Real” glides amidst a delightful cacophony of percussion and club-ready chorus. The aforementioned “Ultra” actually finds a way to build off the “Backseat Freestyle” intro into something more poised and cool than could be imagined. And the title track that closes the album is just delicious, combining OutKast horns, tribal beat, Detroit keyboards, and Tijuana cool into one efficient package.
Then again, María y José’s debut album also had its share of great singles. But what ultimately separates Club Negro from Espíritu Invisible in terms of quality is how Gallardo builds and sets the non-club tracks into the framework on the record. Whereas the debut lost steam when the beat dropped out, Club Negro delivers “M v t i v s,” which reveals that the man behind the boards is a real artist now. A drone track that many listeners will probably skip after the first listen, careful listens ultimately reveal a primal and calming intermission signifying a brief reprieve from the organized chaos and disorganized noise symbolized through the record. Pretty impressive considering the Knife wasted 30 minutes of time trying to accomplish the same thing as “M v t i v s” does, and nowhere near as effectively.
For all the deserved praise and artistic growth that Tony Gallardo has experienced over the past half-decade, it’s hard to imagine that the mainstream public will readily embrace Club Negro and its brilliant weirdness. Then again, did anyone think the Flaming Lips would be prime festival headliners? María y José’s path is limitless—it’s all a matter of whether he’ll be embraced today or tomorrow. But I doubt that Tony Gallardo really cares about these things. Anyone who makes music this weird, this confident, and this good surely doesn’t think of himself as a part of any time, place, or pop music trend. Because honestly: Fuck a movement.