Son – Juana Molina
Domino Records 094
Sitting and trying to describe Juana Molina’s latest release Son, all that comes to my inebriated mind is the nebulous term "foreign." What? Could I be applying this definition solely because Molina sings in Spanish, a language I only have a rudimentary acquaintance with?
I don’t think so. Well, I hope not. I mean, Sigur Ros’ Hopelandic, or whatever they and the press called it, certainly didn’t bother me nor make me have this mind out of body feeling. Besides, I can listen to plenty of music from the Congo, Cuba, various Sufi mystics, and the word "foreign" never comes up and I don’t understand shit. Maybe some of that can be thanked to Beatles and Paul Simon records where those melodies are easily classified and mollified for my sorry Westernized ass to the point where I the words didn’t matter.
Arguably, at first listen, describing Molina’s music is not too difficult. To start there are some prevalent Nick Drake influences from the beginning track, in both her style of guitar playing and song constructs. But they aren’t prevalent in the way, say, Alexi Murdoch uses them. For Christ’s sake, "Orange Sky" sounds note for note like something the man of eternal somber would write, and not even Molina’s slow and sparse "La Verdad" with birds chirping and dog food hitting a metal bowl, can compare.
Which leads to the next issue: the obvious Bjork and Eric Satie underpinnings, where electric meets organic sounds (contrasting with Eno whom made electric sound organic); where birds chirping meet drum and bass. Bjork’s "All is Love" comes to mind in particular, where the music has an ethereal quality, a religiousness, which can co-exist despite the clutter, or even din, of the modern world propelling the chorus. One of the most telling qualities of Bjork’s music, and I think in Molina’s music, might be the never ending ability to turn the shattered pieces of the esoteric, even bizarre, into beautiful comprehensible constructs.
The Sugarcubes didn’t provide the proper sterile environment for that. Hell, they had more pressing matters to tackle (alt-rock seen through some Scandanvian-goggles, that in some way can accept Hasselhoff and Elvis Costello simultaneously). Likewise, Bjork’s first release, the house/trance infused Debut didn’t get there, but hinted at what was to come. And then, somewhere around Post and Vespertine, she nailed it. She found a way to communicate through this medium; in a sound oral collage which came at once with beauty and then could fade into dissonance. The winds from the Icelandic tundra being slightly gestated in the studio, to provide an auditory cold howl.
I actually think of the work of Jeffrey Koons and several modern Euro architects (e.g. Dietger Wissounig, Jesse Judd, Alonso Balauger), whose work is the visual manifestation of this style. Constructs which are bathed in earth tone and strange shapes that literally fuse into their surroundings. They don’t dominate. They attempt to be a part of the world, and with an almost cheesy hippieness, one with the world. In their distillation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style, they are symmetrical, to obtain distinction, but made of wood and stone to be indistinguishable.
But with Koons’ work the logical and simple, revealed in this modern style, is transformed. The simplicity is turned on its head. A mental dissonance occurs, where our own logic must be throw out of the window to make it all mentally acceptable. In comparison to his architecture counterparts, Koons doesn’t fall in love with the organic so readily, but rather makes things which are familiar parts of our lives and forces a re-evaluation of those ideas. Bjork falls somewhere in between the two. More a friend of the architects then Koon’s staunchly American interpretation, but a principle adherent nonetheless.
As an extension of Bjork’s work, and in search of an easy to comprehend tag, because that’s what this is supposed to be about, there is something about Mojave 3’s early work which can be reflected in Molina’s Son. "I’ve Got my Sunshine" has just enough Nick Drakeness, just enough dissonance (in the form of hornsso arguably more organic from the get-go and which always yields some critic’s never-ending discourse apropos New Orleans brass bands) to make it work. Just replace it with Molina’s ethereal, dare I say Baez voice, and you come close.
So where does the foreign-ness come from? There are frequencies Molina uses, either through simple knob twists or electric feedback which can’t be easily digested. Just when the song becomes standard in its tropicalia pleasantness, there are these noises, despite the fucking chirping birds, which absolutely disarms the listener. Think of Nico’s post Velvets work, where feedback and goddamn guttural crooning coexisted. Its disarming, even if all of the parts on their own make sense.
In an interview in the July issue of The Believer, Molina describes an annoying noise which kept her awake for months. Eventually she discovered the sound was made by cars driving over a somewhat loose manhole cover. Each cars’ weight yielded a different effect, changing the tone of the tic-tock. She finally wedged a piece of cardboard in the manhole cover, silencing the sound. Molina explains the sound and her ability to hear such sounds as a "noise disease," in which her ears can pick up certain vibrations in ways "foreign to most people" (Molina using my word makes me happy—seriously). Apparently even sounds which are inaudible for the normal ear, based on what doctors have verified, she can hear.
This ineffable foreign element, the strange feedback, is the result of Molina’s listening powers. What she can hear, the sensations Molina gets from these vibrations, is wholly different. Amidst those Nick Drake moments, those modern architectural constructs, the esoteric are sounds which are literally abnormal; dissonant and disconcerting. Making Son as the Spanish says, "they are," awaiting the listener’s attempt at understanding and completing the sentence.