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2015/01/04

Jorge Drexler

by Jav Rivera

It was early morning and I was too snug to get out of bed. My alarm went off and the radio station was recapping the Oscars. They mentioned the name Jorge Drexler and his award for Best Original Song for the film Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries). They played an excerpt of Drexler singing a capella and suddenly I was awake. He had a gentle voice and the melody was tender. I rolled out of bed and quickly wrote his name down. I had never heard of Jorge Drexler, nor had I seen the film. Yet.

Jorge Drexler
Although I had been aware of the film, having seen the trailer months earlier, I had not seen it when the radio alarm went off. But now I was intrigued by both the film and singer. Not so much because of the award, but because the lyrics to Drexler's song "Al otro lado del río" produced imagery that I couldn't connect with the scenes of the film's trailer. I wondered what a river had to do with the film.

Clavo mi remo en el agua
llevo tu remo en el mío.
Creo que he visto una luz
al otro lado del río.


English Translation:
I plunge my oar in the water
I carry your oar in mine
I believe I have seen a light
On the other side of the river


With my interest piqued, I finally watched Diarios de motocicleta and was beyond impressed. The river, as it turned out, was a very important factor in the main character's life. I immediately bought the soundtrack to the film, which was primarily made up of music by the film's composer, Gustavo Santaolalla (another artist I fell in love with). But the soundtrack also included Jorge Drexler's award-winning song, "Al otro lado del río." (And eventually, I bought the DVD of the film once it was released.)



That wasn't enough for me. I researched Jorge Drexler and discovered that this Uruguayan musician had been making music since 1992. I didn't know anything about his other music, so I bought his 2004 album, "Eco", which was his latest release at the time. The version I bought included "Al otro lado del río", which was added to the album after the song had garnered so much attention. Much to my surprise, "Eco" was one of the most flawless albums I ever bought. So good, in fact, that even the magnificent "Al otro lado del río" felt out of place. Even though it worked to add the track for promotional purposes, "Eco" was an already great enough album and artistically didn't need it.

Mostly, the album proved to me that Jorge Drexler was an artist that I should be paying more attention to. So eventually, I bought everything he had released by that time (and I continue to buy anything he releases). Comparing his music from his early days to his current music, you can hear a distinct change in the production and quality of his music. "Eco" was clearly a landmark album for Drexler. That's where I noticed the biggest change occur (more about that later). But all of his music has a certain quality, so to choose just one album to focus on seems a shame. Instead, I'll highlight selected tracks from a variety of his albums.

I'll start with "Eco" since that's the first Jorge Drexler album I bought. As I mentioned earlier, "Eco" is a flawless album. There's a variety in styles, excellent production value, and incredible song craft. Comparing this album to his previous work, one thing that stands out is the recording of Drexler's vocal work. Before "Eco", Drexler's vocals sounded flat and almost in the background. Don't misunderstand this statement. Drexler has a beautiful voice and it's clear that the man can sing, no matter what album. But I'm specifically referring to the manner (or quality) in which his voice was recorded prior to "Eco". It may be easier to say that his earlier recordings sound like they're using a cheap microphone. (Recording engineers would probably disagree, because technically, that's not the real issue. But the majority of people aren't engineers, so this statement is just a means to help explain my point.)

With "Eco", Drexler's voice sounds rich and in the forefront. It's almost as if the microphone and his voice had become more intimate. A great example of this union is in the lovely track, "Salvapantallas". The song, whose title is translated as "Screensavor," is a simple tune about a photograph on the writer's computer. The photo of course being someone he cares for deeply. It's on "Salvapantallas" where Drexler's voice leads the music. It's accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar riff and a delicate keyboard/synthesizer in the distant background. For me, "Salvapantallas" is one of the strongest tracks on the album and easily one of Drexler's all time best.

"Guitarra y vos" is one of those unusual tunes that fits in multiple genres. Drexler combines standard rock instruments with a rap-like quality. It might be considered closer to hip-hop but it's really its own thing. The lyrics, especially, stand out. Drexler talks about all the things important in life. But when it all boils down, the most he can give is his guitar and voice.

The last track I'll highlight from "Eco" is my personal favorite song by Drexler. "Deseo" isn't just my favorite on this album, but of all his albums. The production/composition alone is absolute perfection. Each instrument is just as important as the others, and if any of them were taken out, the piece would weaken. The heavy bass, the melodic guitars, the various instruments all add something, with Drexler's voice and lyrics being the icing on the cake. "Deseo" translated is "Desire" which is the perfect reason why the track has a somewhat romantic, even sexy, sound to it. It's not cheesy romantic -- it's better described as sensual.


Drexler's music is very much influenced by traditional Uruguayan music mixed with jazz, pop, rock, and electronic music. Going backwards to his earlier (pre-"Eco") albums, Drexler was on safer grounds. His musical experimentation was less apparent during those days.

From his "Frontera" album, released in 1999, the track "Memoria del cuero" is the stand-out song. It's got a thumping dance beat and a distorted voice track, all surrounded by electronic-type rhythms. This can easily be combined to visuals in a movie set on the dance floor with a laser light show bouncing all over the walls. It's not what you'd expect from an artist who wrote the very somber, acoustic song that won his Academy Award.

And from his 2001 album "Sea," my favorite is easily "Un país con el nombre de un río" (translated: "A Country with the Name of a River"). Here, Drexler smoothly blends an acoustic guitar with electronic elements. His voice is finally reaching the quality of "Eco" and the writing is touching. In fact, one of his best traits as a writer is his point of view. Many of his songs could almost be deemed as political, in the sense that he writes through the eyes of the people struggling to survive. It's on this track when you really see the master come out from underneath the shell of a student.

And though his writing has always been one of his strongest qualities, I don't often listen to his earlier work because everything after "Eco" is just so much better. It's not that his music or writing wasn't good; it's the recording/production quality that I have trouble getting past. Fortunately, in 2008 Drexler released a live double-album titled "Cara B".

It's on this release where some of his rare and older tracks are performed in a more stripped down manner. With all that unnecessary production from those early albums, it's easier to hear the true nature of the music, and can finally be appreciated. Many of the tracks, in fact, are performed with just Drexler and a guitar. There are other instruments as well, but his voice and acoustic guitar are the most prominent. These versions are so good that I was surprised to find out that many of them came from his pre-"Eco" albums. And those early tracks benefit the most from this live album. Some of the more memorable tracks are "Dance, Dance, Dance", "Horas", "Soledad", "Dove sei?", "Toíto cái lo traigo andao", "Milonga paraguaya", "Zamba por vos", and "Dance Me To The End Of Love".
 
Going back to 2006, Drexler released "12 Segundos De Oscuridad". This album almost sounds like a continuation of "Eco" with its song variety and experimentation. But it's hard to describe the difference. It almost has a softer edge to it without slowing down the pace. Gentler might be a better way to explain it.

Ten of the twelve tracks are original compositions, but it's the cover of Radiohead's "High and Dry" (from their album, "The Bends") that shocked me. I hadn't noticed the title of the song when I first played it. And since it's a very different take on the song, I was unaware that it was a cover. But then as Drexler started to sing, I noticed two things: one, he was singing in English (a very rare thing for him), and two, the lyrics. As he got to the main chorus I recognized the tune. I thought to myself, "Oh wow! This is such a cool version of this song." And it truly is. It's Drexler and an acoustic guitar. If you don't already know Radiohead's version, Google it and you'll hear a very different song. At this time in Radiohead's career, they were still primarily an alternative rock band using the standard electric guitars, drums, and bass line up (they've since moved well beyond that). Drexler's version of "High and Dry", on the other hand, has a "Spanish" flavor.

The two other tracks that stand out for me are "Inoportuna" and "El otro engranaje". The former mixes upbeat, catchy music with slow, sad vocals. The lyrics are pretty dark, actually. Drexler basically talks about how life doesn't wait for you, especially when wrong things happen at wrong times. The latter, "El otro engranaje", brings in a brass section. And though in the past Drexler's music has used various instruments, including horns, "El otro engranaje" makes them more apparent. This seems to foreshadow his work on his next album, "Amar la Trama".

The follow up album to "12 Segundos De Oscuridad" was 2010's "Amar la Trama". This is an interesting album because after "Eco" and "12 Segundos..." I wasn't ready for something so different. In fact, at first I was taken back. I wasn't sure if I liked it. It had a very live band sound to it. The music contained a lot more brass (horns, trumpets, etc.) instruments than his previous releases.

"Amar la Trama" has some catchy tunes, and even one track, "I Don't Worry About a Thing", had a duet with Paul McCartney. (Yes, The Beatle, Paul McCartney.) And though the album wasn't bad, I just wasn't expecting this kind of music from Drexler. And that's the thing about expectations; it can distort the truth of things. A few months after first listening to it, I had gotten in the mood for Drexler's music. So I started playing all his albums. When I got to "Amar la Trama" I finally heard it for what it was: a magnificent entry to his already stellar collection.

Now that I had smacked myself on the forehead for being so idiotic with my initial reaction, I was hooked. I listened to it over and over for days and days. It got to the point where I wanted to know more about the album's production, and why it sounded so different. I did a little research and discovered new reasons to love this album even more. First of all, the album was recorded in just four days! For those of you who don't know, most albums take weeks, months, or even years to record. Second of all, the band played live during the sessions which helped get that full sound. Instead of the more modern (and now typical) manner to record instruments separately and mix them together, Drexler and his band got in a big circle and recorded together live. The deluxe version of this album includes videos of some of the tracks being performed/recorded. It's great to see Drexler surrounded by his band playing together. He looks at ease and the entire group look like that they're having the time of their lives.

One of my favorite tracks from "Amar la Trama" is "Mundo abisal". It's a great example of this live, full band sound. There's one point of the song where the saxophone goes into a solo. But it's what happens at the beginning of this solo that is unique. The mix gets muffled as if the speakers are being covered up by a pillow. Eventually the mixed pulls out of it and clarity is once again restored. That first time I heard the song I was confused, but it stuck in my head.


The album's opening piece, "Tres mil millones de latido", gets you right in the mood for a very "brass" album. I, personally, can't get enough of that ending. I love the loose feel of the brass section spinning around. I equate it to a couple of painters throwing paint on a canvas in random, yet unison, fashion. I love the ending so much that I have to start the song from the beginning just to hear it again.

But above all, the best song on "Amar la Trama" is "Noctiluca". With its clean electric guitar strumming, Drexler gives that intimate feel again. It's just him and a guitar, and an occasional ringing of a music box in the background. The minimalism creates a very personal atmosphere. And to add more heart to the song, as it turns out, not only was the song written for his son, but his son is also the one turning the music box.


His latest release, "Bailar en la cueva", is highly influenced by dance music, and the title track starts things off with a joyous beat. What I enjoy most about this album is the fact that his previous album was a very different genre. Whereas "Amar la Trama" focused on brass, "Bailar en la cueva" is more electronic, with thumping beats. It's a fun album and a great way to introduce Drexler to anyone who enjoys party music.

And tracks like "Organdí" and "Todo cae" remind fans that Drexler can still produce heartfelt songs, no matter what genre he takes on. "Toda cae" is also a bit reminiscent to a Beatles tune from their "Sgt. Pepper" days.

Dance music may not be on the top of my list, but even I couldn't help but wiggle my ass and tap my toes to Drexler's 2014 album. If I had to choose, my favorite track on this album would be "Bolivia". It's got a slithery sound, like a snake trying to tempt another. Drexler seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and is fearless in his execution. From traditional Uruguayan music, to jazz, to dance, to folk, to electronic, to pop -- Drexler is the master of genres. He's not afraid to mix things up and experiment. It's as if he has a carefree attitude about experimenting while respecting the art of music. I think it would be a better place to live if all artists were as courageous as he.


And now that I think about it, it's amazing to me how a short moment on the radio turned me onto one of my favorite artists. Jorge Drexler has inspired and influenced me as an artist, but more importantly, he's brought so much incredible music to my life. I hate to think of my life without it. And with every new album, I cannot wait to discover what kind of music and experimentation Drexler decides to try.

For more information, visit Jorge Drexler's official website: www.jorgedrexler.com


TRIVIA: At the 2004 Academy Awards Ceremony, the producers did not allow Jorge Drexler to perform his song, despite being the songwriter and singer of the tune. It was deemed that Drexler was not a famous enough performer. The song was instead performed by actor Antonio Banderas and guitarist Carlos Santana. When Drexler won the Oscar, he sang a verse from the song a cappella, followed by a simple "Thank you" before walking off stage with award in hand. 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this essay - I found Drexler through the NPR show alt.latino, starting with Bailar en la cueva. I am a Spanish language learner and really feel a thrill when I can understand the poetry of Dexler's lyrics. I appreciate your notes about the albums I haven't been grokked yet - I will keep going!

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    1. Thank you, spinnity. I'm happy this article coincided with your interest in Jorge Drexler.

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