MGF Reviews Bajofondo – Mar Dulce

Bajofondo – Mar Dulce
Surco Records / Decca Records (North American release: 7/15/08)
Tango / Dance (House / Downtempo) / Trip-hop

The Bajofondo Tango Club was founded in 2002, and consists of an ensemble cast of musicians from Uruguay and Argentina, the two countries which lay claim to founding the tango music and dance genres. Among the crew is accomplished musician and producer Gustavo Santaolella, who’s helped pioneer the Argentine rock sound since the 1960s and produced records for bands including Molotov, Café Tacuba and Juanes; and Juan Campodónico, who first broke onto the Uruguayan music scene with his work with El Peyote Asesino in the mid and late-’90s.

Both of these men share production credits on Mar Dulce, the latest album by Bajofondo (an international version was available last September, but Decca is working with Surco Records for the North American release), as they’re now known. The name change (which, oddly enough, is not reflected in the album’s tags when played through iTunes) officially took place earlier this year; the band announced, while in tour in Germany, that it reflected their transition in style from more tango-centric material to “contemporary music from the Río de la Plata,” the estuary dividing the two countries from which the members hail. While the music is most often referred to as “tango fusion,” the band tends to eschew this term, instead calling themselves a “collective of composers, singers and artists.” But the “tango fusion” term tends to be an apt one, as Bajofondo incorporates elements of house, downtempo, breakbeat, trip-hop and jazz, resulting in music sure to pique the interest of any music enthusiast.

The instrumental “Grand Guignol” kicks off the album with a low droning sound that makes way for a chunky house-type beat tied in with a contrastingly graceful piano. The ensuing violin work by Javier Casalla adds an element of high-brow disco, as the track finishes up with a splash of bandoneón (a squeezebox instrument that is a quintessential part of traditional tango music).

The bandoneón is back for a more prominent role in “Cristal” which has a more morose tone, as the house beat is replaced by a more laid-back hip-hop-type beat and the violin helps create a dark atmosphere not unlike something heard in tracks by Massive Attack, Tricky and early Morcheeba. Even when things get more upbeat, like in the funk-laden “Infiltrado” and “Pulmon” (which would draw comparisons to Faze Action and Gotan Project), the naturally dysphoric feel of the underlying tango element keeps a delightfully dark tone throughout the set, and the star of most of these instrumentals (aside from the overall lush and atmospheric production) is the aforementioned bandoneón. Pianist Luciano Supervielle gets the center stage on “Borges y Paraguay”, though the violin and bandoneón act as fantastic complements.

While the group really shines on its instrumental tracks, nearly half of the album features guest vocals from artists of varying popularity. “Hoy” (“Today”) is another dark and dramatic track, as the slow, melancholy pace is complemented by the gravelly vocals of Juan Subira. Latin Grammy Award-winning singer (and former member of Argentine rock band Soda Stereo) Gustavo Cerati makes an appearance on the slightly more pop-infused “El Mareo” (“The Sickness”), while another Grammy winner in Tijuana’s own musical impresario, Julieta Venegas (another artist who has teamed up with Santaolalla in the past for his production services), closes out the album with a nice cameo on a reprise of “Pa’ Bailar” (“For Dancing”), the instrumental original of which appears earlier in the album. Some hip-hop elements are also brought into the fold on both “Ya No Duele” (“It No Longer Hurts”), featuring Santullo, and the tango-meets-electro of “El Andean” featuring Spanish hip-hop/flamenco fusionist La Mala Rodríguez.

But that’s not all, as the album features some mainstream crossover potential with guest appearances by Elvis Costello and Nelly Furtado. On “Fairly Right”, Costello adds to the dark tone of the album with some top-notch crooning—this type of style is something that he’s been exploring within his own material for quite a few years now (see, e.g., Costello’s work with Rubén Blades, as well as the 2002 release When I Was Cruel) so it really seems to come naturally and makes this a strong track as a result. And showing that her work with Timbaland hasn’t completely corrupted her, Nelly Furtado puts on an ethereal gem of a performance on “Boldozas Majados”, a nice jazz/hip-hop mash-up with lush production centered around a funky stutter beat.

Unfortunately, this is the first album that I’ve heard by this group, so I really don’t have any frame of reference regarding their ostensive evolution over the past decade. After listening to this album twice through, however, I’ve decided to check out their past work. I don’t think I will stand alone in finding Bajofondo to be one of the most intriguing new bands I’ve heard in long time. From start to finish, Mar Dulce delightfully fresh takes on the contemporary tango sound, melding it with a variety of different genres. Watch out for this one at the end of the year when it’s list time. I usually tend to avoid using the first person in reviews, but this album is that damn good.


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