Graded on a Curve:
Juana Molina,
Halo

Aptly described as falling under the stylistic umbrella of folktronica, unlike many in the genre Argentinian singer-songwriter Juana Molina has not only stuck around, her music’s gotten better with each release. Much of the reason stems from a combination of warmth and depth as she avoids aspects that can quickly become dated or downright hackneyed. Her latest album Halo continues her forward trajectory, and it’s out May 5 on double vinyl, compact disc, and digital via Crammed Discs.

Juana Molina’s decision to step away from a highly lucrative career as a television actress and comedian in favor of music is a long-established early chapter in the artist’s background. The negative reaction in Argentina to her ’96 debut Rara is no secret either; while contrasting sharply from the acoustic-electronic merger of her subsequent work, the album’s smart indie-tinged guitar pop deserved a whole lot better. At the very least, it rated being taken seriously.

It’s not a difficult record to hear, but it also looks to be technically out of print; the remainder of Molina’s full-lengths are currently available, if only digitally, through Crammed Discs. It took until 2000 and a move to Los Angeles for her second album Segundo to emerge, and this is where the folktronica sensibility essentially begins.

It was a considerable step forward for Molina, and ’02’s Tres cosas extended the growth. It’s shouldn’t be understated how the combination of folkish guitar, rhythm, electronics, and vocals hitting the middle ground between chanteuse and street corner busker cohered into a robust yet subtly expansive whole. A lot of what’s been classified as folktronica peddled newness but fell victim to novelty; think Lilith Fair or Beck retreads married to third-rate Astralwerks knockoffs, but Molina’s stuff is vibrant in its contemporary veneer.

It’s also legitimately (but not calculatedly) weird, and by Son in 2006 she was firing on all cylinders, the streak extending to Un día (’08) and Wed 21 (’13) as the latter found her joining the Crammed Disc roster (from Segundo to Un día she’d worked with Domino) and delivering the strongest record of her career. This presents a challenge which Halo meets without a hiccup.

“Paraguaya” opens with a brittle synthetic rhythm, symphonic threads, and most importantly, the humanity of Molina’s voice, the track exuding an eerie quality that’s enhanced by the strings, which alternate between canned and organic. With “Sin dones,” the mood at first seems woozy, but then it becomes plainly evident just how organized and multifaceted the track is.

A keyboard wiggles in a repetitive pattern as additional instrumental layers and vocals, alternately breathy and siren-like, emerge; the intensely rhythmic redirection in the cut’s second half provides the highlight. “Lentisimo halo” offers a moodier feel in line with science-fiction, though it’s ultimately nearer to Andrei Tarkovsky than James Cameron.

In its opening moments, “In the lassa” is rhythmically energetic but distorted and somewhat sparse. As another bolder beat kicks in, the energy is accented by xylophone and then snare; Molina’s assured singing transcends language throughout. From there, the almost delirious repetition of “Cosoco” attains an unexpected plateau and then rides its fluidity like an expert surfer atop a flawless wave, a scenario reflecting the upward trajectory of her discography.

“Cosoco” is the standout of the record, but the electro-oddity of “Calculos y oraculos” oozes forth with no sense of disappointment. Next to it, the cyclical fingerpicking and vaguely martial drumming in “Los pies helados” is relatively straightforward, though as its five minutes unwind there are plenty of unusual bits to absorb. By contrast, “A00 B01” is immediately and deliciously strange; just when it seems to have settled into its art-groove, a fresh non-disruptive wrinkle arises.

With “Cara de espejo” Molina ups the ante again, taking a keyboard motif reminiscent of Suicide into a fresh zone and then gradually finessing it until it evaporates from the landscape. And for all the eccentricity in her work, she consistently renders it lightly, so that the catchy undercurrent of “Ando” remains intact. The track ends abruptly, as the indefatigable repeato-patterns and hearty voicings of “Estalacticas” ratchet up the intensity one more time. “Al oeste” adjusts the tactic and integrates a touch of gorgeousness (but not preciousness) for the close.

This may all seem like a piling on of praise for Juana Molina, but she doesn’t set a foot wrong on Halo, an album which equals, and with time spent could quite possibly better, Wed 21. It’s something of a stumper that a musician of such immense, unflustered talent persists in being underappreciated, though singing in Spanish no doubt limits her audience. It’s a circumstance that’ll hopefully diminish as positive word spreads on this latest achievement; it’s a record likely to be one of the best of 2017.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • R J

    If you get a chance to see her live, she’s amazing. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and I see live music pretty regularly.

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