A review of an album by one of my most favourite artists. Excuse the fanboyness, excuse the translated song and album titles, and do check out the videos below.
Though the labels of ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ have become dated when applied to music genres, a cheat-sheet to their meanings could read: ‘mainstream’ – music that meets listener’s expectations; and ‘alternative’ – music that subverts, surprises, and makes you active in the listening experience. Of course – and why these labels are mute – sometimes something unexpected reaches the mainstream, or a mainstream artist experiments and is successful; and sometimes artists are labelled ‘alternative’ only because they haven’t been signed to a major label yet – underground ‘cred’ given to predictable sounds, or ‘edgy’ fashion choices. Nowadays, a spectrum exists – a gradient from ‘fashionable’ music (tracks that use sounds a la mode), to music made by musicians and producers who love music. Critics place artists along it and points are rewarded if, along this spectrum, the sum of an album or song delivers on the promises of the title, the themes, the melodies, the instrumentation choices, the arrangements, and the lyrics, within the genre it purports to be a part of. What divides critics, mostly, is not genre, but whether an album or song’s listenability is a good thing or a bad thing. What demands more attention from a listener can be a masterpiece to some, or a tedious chore to others. Similarly, a catchy pop tune can irritate some critics to the point they decry the collapse of modern music, but to others still, it’s pure catnip. Mediocrity – when an artist finds a ‘formula’ – is, as always, best avoided.
This long-winded introduction brings us to Los Momentos (Moments), the sixth studio album by Julieta Venegas. As an artist, she has been labelled as both ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’, has had cultish underground support, and been the Queen of Mexican Pop – all the while remaining (more or less) a critic’s darling; keeping her integrity even when she lost the emo-fanbase and gained notoriety as an artist played at weddings. For those not acquainted with the world of Spanish-lyricised music, this is the equivalent of a Bjork or PJ Harvey (or any ‘alternative’ female artists who started their career in the ‘90s, with a distinct, divisive voice) releasing an album of extremely catchy pop songs, having cross-over success, releasing a second poptastic album quadrupling the sales of the first two ‘alternative’ albums combined, and with no critic declaring a Madonna “what the…?” moment. And unlike Shakira, who – as Latinoamerica knows – started out as ‘alternative’ herself, Julieta Venegas has doggedly never sung in English (except for some Beatles covers once found in the depths of YouTube), even though she was born in the US and has been fluent in the language all her life. In fact, Bjork is an apt comparison: they both started in punk-rock bands (Venegas in Tijuana No!), and both artists’ solo albums are marked by a progression in musical exploration. In both cases, there’s no question of intention: you can imagine them rebuking, “Shut up, look, I know what I’m doing.” There’s a truth to wherever they find themselves creatively: they’re never cynically pandering to anyone but themselves. Well, at least that’s the perception.
Unlike Bjork, however, Venegas has always been approachable: her lyrics, even in the ‘dark days’ of albums 1997’s Aquí (Here) and 2000’s Bueninvento (Good Invention), have an urgency and outcry in them – her voice lets the listener in on how she feels, all at once asking if they’ve ever felt the same way, too. So it’s no surprise this, coupled with a healthy sense of humour and self-deprecation, translated well to her pop ‘stage’. Yet, was it a ‘stage’? With Los Momentos has she broken her mainstream run? You could argue 2010’s Otra Cosa (Another Thing) was already a turning point. It still sounded like pop, but it was pop the indie kids were listening to. That album sold considerably less than the ‘big one’ Limón y Sal (Lemon & Salt, 2006), and even less than MTV Unplugged (2008). Otra Cosa’s most memorable feature was the brilliant, sexism-defying video for single Bien o Mal (Good or Bad), and songs that were frustrating in their… perfectness? On the spectrum, Julieta Venegas was delivering on the promise of Julieta Venegas. There were new sounds, the lyrics were well-written – relatable without being overly-revealing – but by the final couple of tracks, there was this irksome boredom – as if Venegas was checking her watch, sighing, whilst spinning five plates in the air, simultaneously. Technically, she could now create happy and hopeful songs, with just enough earworm to please the mainstream and not piss off critics, without breaking a sweat.
Los Momentos’ first track begins with the word ‘hoy’ (today) just before the accompanying piano joins in, as if to suggest this is now, a new page, listen up, forget the catalogue – I’ve had a moment of clarity. It’s disarming. Venegas’ phrasing has changed – much more so than first singles Tuve Para Dar (I Had to Give) and Te Vi (I Saw You) hinted at. This is a much harder thing to do than exploring new instrumentation or going ‘electronic’. As she’s stated in pre-release interviews, Los Momentos seems to be a fusion of past and present incarnations of Julieta Venegas. Second track ¿Por Qué? (Why?) best encapsulates this fusion: her signature accordion drones a refrain not out of place on Aquí, then she almost raps the first two verses, like a children’s clapping game. And yet, the accusatory song ends with strings plus synth, sounding like nothing else in the repertoire: there’s the epic-ness of Bueninvento and the slick, understated-ness of Otra Cosa, but this is a totally new sonic emotional landscape for Venegas.
Throughout the eleven short tracks, Venegas’ unpredictable phrasing keeps you on your toes. She shares her musical discoveries without too much fanfare. She doesn’t indulge, even though the subject matter of most of the songs seems to call for it. Venegas has acknowledged the possible trap of a ‘boring’ post-baby album, and was surprised she felt more let down with the world than overcome with love after the birth of her first child. She’s upset; she’s protective; she’s fed up and angry and tired, but still expectant – she still includes us in the narrative. This inclusive warmth simmers in Los Momentos more than it bubbles over. The most surprising tracks are No Creí (I Didn’t Believe) and Volver a Empezar (Start Again) – two of the first ballads since Aquí – barring the sentimental Ultima Vez (Last Time) from Limón y Sal – which are quietly devastating. Perhaps more so because Venegas has proclaimed wisdom in her love poetry for a few albums now: it’s selfishly upsetting when the artist who could advise and cheer you up has a moment to herself to grieve.
Critic’s hat off.
The year was 2005. I went to my first Spanish tutorial at university. I had chosen to study Spanish because I had about three friends who had already lived and studied it abroad. I also figured it was a useful language for travel. This rationale was reflected in the classroom. People who choose to learn Spanish in Australia are generally the more intrepid types: those who go to French carry on the British tradition of lingual-snobbery; to German and Chinese, the entrepreneurial types; to Japanese, the meticulously exotic. I was still, at this point, English-centric in my music tastes. Then, one of my friends who had done the ear-work with Spanish music, gave me a burnt copy of Julieta Venegas’ 2003 album Sí (Yes). Initially I was skeptical of the easy-listen, but listened to it a lot because Venegas’ intonation was very clear and I could pick out words I had learnt. After memorising every melody on the album I ventured online to find her back catalogue. I’m sorry to say that I “downloaded” (or “stole”) all of her songs before I went to live in Spain where I could finally purchase a CD. The first song I heard away from the pop of Sí was Casa Abandonada (Empty House) – and what an awakening that was! It was the first time I’d heard anything ‘alternative’ in another language – it was a song unlike any other song in any language I’d ever heard. From that moment, I was transfixed. I injected Aquí and Bueninvento into my ears nonstop. I sought out every other song I could find of hers. And luckily, Venegas likes to collaborate (unlike the majority of English-language artists). Through her I was introduced to a plethora of Latin American artists, like: everyone on the Amores Perros soundtrack, Cafe Tacuba, Soda Stereo, Bajofondo, Fangoria, Miguel Bose, Anita Tijoux, Ceci Bastida, Natalia Lafourcade, Porter, Miranda, Paula Rubio, Cote, Lenine, and many more.
As my Spanish improved, meaning in the lyrics revealed themselves, and as Limón y Sal and the MTV Unplugged album came out, I was suddenly a part of the fanbase waiting and watching what Venegas would do next. During this time, I came across the blog, Club Fonograma, which critiqued and had news on ‘alternative’ Latino music in English, which then opened me up to a vast new world of listening. As a bonus they seemed to be muy fans of Venegas, too.
Through the critiques I could now fully understand of Venegas’ albums and career, I discovered that it was no coincidence – no force of will – that I ended up loving her through her music. Like me, she seemed restless and full of self-doubt, and yet had the ability to transform herself when she was aware of behaviour becoming a burden. Her lyrics are thoughtful and philosophical; there’s a distance between the actual feeling and the rumination on it later through her songwriting – a way I approach my own writing. But what resonated with me most was this draw towards a lighter side – a deep-seated need – to revel in positivity and hope, lest the demons of doubt and insecurity overwhelm. And career-wise this meant she became ‘mainstream’, though it was an outer reflection of the changes she made inside, rather than a calculated step towards bigger financial reward.
I realise this is a construct: I’m projecting this narrative onto an artist that I feel ‘represents’ an archetypal struggle I deal with – I am saying “OMG, she totally gets me”. But I need to clarify this when writing critically about her. Venegas’ music is some of the only music with lyrics (I understand) that I can listen to while I write (except music reviews: I listen to the music I’m reviewing when I write music reviews). In fact, it bolsters me; it feeds me, creatively. So when I critique a Julieta Venegas album, I feel like I’m critiquing my own creative choices. Bottom line is, I’d be listening to Los Momentos on repeat even if I wasn’t reviewing it, even if I didn’t like the new direction it takes: I would just need to know what Julieta Venegas did next – and understand it on not just an intellectual, but visceral level.
So when I found out Venegas had become uncertain and vigilant, and prepared to battle her demons again after the birth of her daughter, I took a sigh of relief. I did worry a post-baby album would turn her world saccharine, ie mediocre. (Like she owes me anything.)
Critic’s hat back on:
Los Momentos succeeds because it is again the reflection of Venegas’ internal life at conflict: it strikes closer to the bone. It’s a cohesive album, perhaps the most fluid since Sí, with opening and closing tracks, Hoy (Today) and Un Poco de Paz (A Bit of Peace) respectively, echoing the sonic choices – a children’s chorus – in the other. In fact, the whole album balances sound and theme: hinged on the Anita Tijoux and Ruben Albarran starring Vuelve (Return), a humanist stand to reclaim the night, incomparable to Tijoux’s last appearance on mega-hit Eres Para Mí (You’re For Me). And while that track’s salty – and somewhat creepy – declaration of love was fun, it’s great to hear Venegas pissed off again. And though there’s a weird schadenfreude enjoying Venegas like this, it means a return to her most relatable self. Now she has explored the lighter facets of her personality, we get a fuller package: that fuck-the-man punk attitude, that strength in owning sadness, that light touch to love, and that weary storyteller, despite which has a glint of hope in her eye.