Monday, October 7, 2013

Las Fronteras: The Continuing Journeys of Jorge Drexler and Carla Morrison

Through some alignment of the moon and stars, Chicago was graced with two talented Latin American singer-songwriters in the same week, one three decades into a successful career, the other a rising star of indie pop. I attended both shows, and I can safely say that there was zero crossover of audience between them, separated as they are by nearly a generation.  

Jorge Drexler plants his artistry squarely in the tradition of the wandering troubadour (the album cover pictured here reproduces his passport). His songs are literate observations of multiple identities, and given his background, it seems as though they could be about little else. His father, a German Jew, moved to Montevideo, Uruguay as a child to escape the Nazis. His mother is of Spanish, French and Portuguese descent. He studied medicine and became a doctor (like his parents) but decided to be a musician instead. 

After releasing a pair of albums in Uruguay, he moved to Madrid in the early 90s, where he still lives. He began to garner international attention with his 1999 album Frontera, produced by fellow Uruguayan Juan Campodónico. If that name sounds familiar, it should. Campodónico and Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla are the brains and muscle behind Bajofondo’s globally encompassing brew of Río de la Plata music (the waterway separates [or connects, depending on your point of view] the two countries).  Drexler has a Beatlesque melodic touch, and Campodónico’s production illuminates this while simultaneously re-connecting Drexler to the Uruguayan musical traditions of milonga and candombe. Frontera’s electronica-enhanced sound was followed by three more collaborations; Sea, Eco, and 12 Segundos de Oscuridad. I love the sound of all of them, because my senses crave the flavors that these layered musical elements provide. I’m not sure, frankly, that I would appreciate Drexler as much if the arrangements stuck to a more conventional sound.

I brought a slight apprehension with me to the concert hall, as I really didn’t know what to expect. Would there be a band? Or just a guy, a voice and a guitar? The answer, it turns out, was somewhere in between. For the most part, a relaxed and youthful-looking Drexler performed solo on a fairly stark stage, decorated only with a glowing, color-shifting orb positioned at the back. His guitar playing is perfect for his songs, often interrupting simple strumming for odd, jazzy time changes and note choices. He’s a terrific Brazilian guitarist as well. His “band” was a set of foot pedals that sent his voice and guitar through a sequencer, subtly layering the sound of each to create multiple rhythmic and melodic patterns that echoed around the room.  Drexler is clearly enamored of his electro sounds: He brought on a colleague for a few songs to play “percussion” on what looked like a souped-up iPad and even made room for a theremin solo. In the end, Drexler achieved the best of both worlds. The intelligentsia in the audience could experience his contemplative, probing lyrics intimately while the more musically attuned could smile at the ethereal sound, tap their foot and sing along to catchy choruses.

Three nights later, I again found myself entering a concert hall with questions. Carla Morrison is the latest darling of the Latin indie music set. There are multiple identities and influences at work in her music as well. She was born in Tecate, Baja California. Both of her parents are Mexican, but the name Morrison comes from her father’s adopted name, as he was raised on the San Diego side of the border by an Anglo. Carla moved to Arizona for both high school and college and was immersed in the alternative rock scene there. She studied voice, piano, guitar and ethnomusicology before returning to Tecate, where she was in several bands before starting a solo career in 2007. By 2010, she was independently releasing music, starting with a pair of EPs and then the album length Déjenme Llorar in 2012. She has since moved to Mexico City.

I’ve recently been reading an anthology called The Late Great Mexican Border, which argues that “border culture” is a thing unto itself, distinct from Latin America but also different from Latino identity in the United States. People may live on one side of the border or the other, but their ideas and identities are shaped by both. I think Morrison’s music is representative of this. Her songs are simple, but very well written. She writes and sings almost entirely in Spanish, but the music is indie pop at its most pristine, full of twee touches like ukuleles, toy pianos and glockenspiels. Her voice is charmingly delicate; her lyrics survey matters of the heart, especially heartbreak. Now, heartbreak is a longstanding, perhaps even obsessive subject of Latin pop, but Morrison’s take leans more toward sweet melancholy than to tragedy. I like it enough, but it’s not in my daily diet.

Onstage, Morrison is confident, charming, sincere and playful in equal measure. Her band has surprising heft, powering her songs from quiet ruminations to fairly muscular, almost orchestral pop-rock. The drummer and bassist are rock solid yet capable of much finesse, while each side of the stage is flanked by multi-instrumentalists who supply strongly voiced colors ranging from trumpet to electric guitar (and those ukuleles) and synthesizers. Morrison pretty much owns the rest of the stage, whether pounding out a batucada rhythm on a drum, strumming an acoustic guitar or playing her own gorgeous, white hollow body electric. Seriously, it was the most beautiful guitar I’d ever seen, and Morrison made great use of its rich sound. When she wasn’t playing an instrument, she prowled the stage with a hand held microphone. She switched instruments pretty much between every song, and the result kept the music varied as the set moved back and forth easily from quiet ballads to upbeat power pop, even dropping a quick banda into the mix to acknowledge her Baja birthplace. And, in classic pop tradition, Morrison has a penchant for inserting wordless “ooos” into her songs. On the title track from Déjenme Llorar, piano, glockenspiel and tambourine combine on a spare ballad for a little touch of Springsteen’s E-Street Band. (The Boss has been covering, en español, songs by beloved Latin American poet/songwriters on his South American tour. I’d love to hear what he’d do with this one.)

Morrison has hinted that she would like to one day write and sing in English, but for now she is content to develop her artistic identity in her first language. She seems in no hurry to conquer the Anglo market. Jorge Drexler never has, but he really has no need to. He gained a bit of U.S. fame a few years back for his Academy Award winning theme song to The Motorcycle Diaries, Al Otro Lado del Rio. Other than a cover of Mose Allison’s I Don’t Worry About a Thing (sung with his friend, jazz pianist and vocalist Ben Sidran), he’s continued to record exclusively in Spanish. Well, there was also that Radiohead cover. Anyway, I think the difference is that Drexler is a Latin artist who interacts with the Anglo world by choice, while Morrison, the border artist, has a foot on each side and full artistic claim to both.   

We shall see.