Wednesday, August 8, 2001

Between the buttons

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, the second full-length solo album from Manu Chao, fulfills in an odd sort of way the heat-stroked imagery conjured by Wall of Voodoo many years ago when Stan Ridgeway imagined the "Mexican Radio."

However, Esperanza is largely a continuation of the work Chao started on his solo debut from a couple years ago, Clandestino. Of course, he’s been at this "rock en Español" gig (as it’s been labeled) for longer than most critics who bandy about the term have been scribbling. Chao was the driving force behind the legendary guerilla-punk cultural fusion outfit Mano Negra. So it’s with great trepidation that one should attempt to pigeonhole Chao.

This much we know: There’s something here in the playful grooves and between the buttons; waiting at the station for an unknown train to take the music to points undetermined. Chao lays out deceptively simple rhythms, rhymes and riffs, allowing the listener to either dig into the wordplay and sunny, disconnected poetics or sit back and enjoy the scenery. Somewhere in the static between clear frequencies and real-world destinations, Chao is laying out sounds and deadpan-hysterical impressions to the other folks on the platform like a busker with a crate of homemade instruments. On Esperanza, he dives into Latin rhythms with a particular emphasis on a Caribbean flavor. Chao bases his sound sketches around a finite, funky aesthetic that, on the surface, is limited. But if you listen to the little tweaks, whirrs, whines, scratches and honks, there’s a limitless playfulness at work here. Chao’s singsong delivery adds to the impression that

Esperanza could easily work as a child’s record. That playfulness extends to an ongoing "version" relationship with his own song, "King of Bongo," originally performed by Mano Negra. The song about a small-town monkey taking on the big city turned up on Clandestino and on a Putamayo children’s record before the music (if not the lyrics) was self-appropriated here.

Listen deep or let it slip over you as a sort of life-on-hold music. Hell, dance around your living room to it or trip out whilst holding your smoke. Any way you look at it, Esperanza is a fabulous sound track with which to close out your summer.

E-mail Chris Handyside at


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