Sony Masterworks, Argentina/Uruguay
by Sam Rodgers
There was something about Mar Dulce, Bajofondo's second-and-a-half studio album, that seemed really fresh, not least because the raps of Santullo and La Mala Rodriguez made the rioplatense (that's Argentinian and Uruguayan) compositions pop with urgency and sizzle with sauciness, but it landed amidst the electro-tango movement of the time with a little more to give. There was an edge, it was unpredictable. Unlike other bands playing with the same genre, Bajofondo was a band creating tracks that stood out on their own, rather than musicians creating updated "world music" that you could play in the background of a dinner party. Your party guests might remark how 'romantic' and 'cool' it sounded, getting the full rioplatense experience, supping their Malbec, nibbling an alfajor their friend brought back from holiday.
Disappointingly, on Bajofondo's latest release, Presente, some of the excitement from Mar Dulce has gone. It's hard to pinpoint why. Co-founder and producer extraordinaire Gustavo Santaolalla has repeatedly stated Bajofondo is not and will not be confined to the electro-tango genre, that the band experiments with all music from the region, adding current pop and rock influences to the mix. When it succeeds and creates a distinctive, interesting sound, like on melodic "Circular," the un-cringingly-used 8-bit of "Asi Es (Propergol)," and the African drum/chant-infused "Olvidate," Bajofondo come across as unique as Santaolalla proposes. When instrumental pieces like "Pide Piso" and "La Trufa y El Sifon" aim for the epic, unfortunately, they push too many ideas at the listener at once. There's an arc to the more energetic instrumental pieces that's well-worn and provides few surprises for the listener, which is perfectly fine if you're jumping up and down, dancing at a concert or impressing friends with your "new"-sounding latinoamericano album at that dinner party.
But there is enough to like about Presente to not brandish it with being totally dull. Sure, other songs like "Lluvia," "Cuesta Arriba," and "Pena En Mi Corazón" are so straight-forward you could be forgiven for thinking they were the same pop song made by a less creative band (but made tango-y and with slick production values by this band). And in 21 tracks, it's not surprising a few instrumental pieces seem like filler. Often you feel like you're listening to one long track called “Let's Have Fun With A Bandoneón!” at the behest of your cool tango dance teacher, which, again, is no bad thing if this genre really puts the urge in your murga. Some choices seem a little underdeveloped, like the harmonies of "Oigo Voces," which, while it captures your attention, does little more than hum a version of what could be another instrumental piece on the album. And random additions that reach for comment on globalisation (or something) like the Mandarin television report in the break of "A Repechaje," are just puzzling. (Why Chinese, and why is that the only track that explores other voices?)
It could be that without the scattering of other Latino stars that elevated Mar Dulce, Presente suffers a "blandening" from the band's collective contribution. Maybe because Bajofondo isn't just a pop band it suffers from its parochial bent and can't properly leave behind its origins? While there's an undeniable musicianship master class at work, there's also a lack of definitive artistry, which makes Presente overwrought (in instrumentation) or underdone (in structure and lyrics). But it's alright. What's to hate? Santaolalla, Juan Campodónico, and their crew are clearly passionate about the details, even when the whole goes wayward.