When it comes to making music available, record labels — especially the majors — are obsolete, and that’s hardly news.
The suits who didn’t see — or just plainly dismissed— the internet are now desperately trying to catch up, but iTunes and a zillion others are still beating them to the punch, digitally releasing some of the best albums in the world long before they reach store shelves in the U.S.
In the Spanish-speaking world (I’m finally getting sick of the word “Latino” and all its negative connotations … but that’s a subject for another column), one of the latest great finds is Cara B (B-side), the double, hit-less, minimalist live album by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler (and the second one since he won a Best Original Song Oscar for ‘Al otro lado del río,’ included in The Motorcycle Diaries soundtrack).
For those who don’t know Drexler’s extensive body of work, the album is ideal, even if the iTunes edition is virtually decapitated.
“iTunes didn’t include the intro? How ordinary,” Drexler says, driving from his home in Barcelona to his home in Madrid. “That means somebody, when transferring the album, decided that a 30-second song wasn’t important … which proves what I always thought: that Cara B is not an internet record. I love the internet, but Cara B is meant to be had in its totality, with the booklet, the photos, and the liner notes, which I wrote myself for the first time.”
That meticulousness has been a constant in his career. An eye, ear, and throat doctor by trade, Drexler used to write, record, and perform in small bars in Uruguay until he opened for Spaniard Joaquín Sabina in 1995. Sabina flipped over his songs and told him, “What are you doing in Uruguay? You should come to Spain. I’ll help you.”
Sabina kept his word, and soon after that first encounter Drexler started a Spain-based career that earned him a solid reputation as a superb guitarist (he’s a grand disciple of Andrés Segovia), poet, and songwriter. Never a mega-seller, he established himself as a rock-solid cult figure in Spain, Argentina, and Uruguay, until Sea (2001) earned a Latin Grammy nomination as Best Latin Pop Album and, surprisingly, his song ‘Al otro lado del río’ received an Oscar from the hands of Prince (beating out Andrew Lloyd Webber). It was the first time a Spanish song received such an honor. But, instead of using his victory as a way to record the usual epic duets albums (30 artists have recorded his songs), or making sure his music was played on the radio, he intensified what he does best: writing good songs, recording artsy albums, and performing magical, intimate concerts.
“When actors say that the Oscar has a very short lifespan, I don’t think they’re telling the truth,” he says. “Look at the posters: ‘Academy Award Winner’ such-and-such. And for an actor, it has a lot more weight than for me. In my case, the Oscar is a prize I wasn’t expecting, nor was I living for it. I’m proud of it, but I have to constantly control everything so that the media fever doesn’t eat the other part of the project. But, ultimately, the best thing about it is that it validated and gave me freedom to continue doing what I always did: artistic albums and good and better songs. At least, I try. That’s the only thing that keeps `Uruguayan musicians of my generation` going.”
Drexler, a soft, warm vocalist, is an accomplished instrumentalist who usually finger-picks, sings in five languages, and can excel in styles like bossa, folk, reggae, and ballads. But it is his well-constructed compositions (especially those in the Uruguayan murga, candombe, and milonga styles) and his poetry (an honest, well-balanced mix of humor, love, heartbreak, and existentialism) that set him apart. The first part of Cara B concentrates mostly on his own songs, and the other CD (Cara C) is made up mostly of covers, including an incredible, milonga version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love.” (The heart-wrenching milonga, a syncopated 2/8 form with accent on the first of eight beats, is a rural guitar style that’s an Argentinian and Uruguayan equivalent to the blues.)
“If there is somebody who embodies the spirit of the great milonga masters like `Uruguayan Alfredo Zitarrosa`, that’s Cohen,” Drexler says. “You know, the suit, the melancholy … that’s why his version came up as a milonga, and that’s why I’m wearing a suit in the album. Songwriting is serious stuff.”
Next for Drexler is the score of The City of Your final Destination, the new movie by James Ivory (Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day), starring Anthony Hopkins. The story takes place in Uruguay, but the movie was filmed on location on many green, open spaces in Argentina, which gave Drexler the chance to re-explore the folkloric music of two Uruguayan masters: legendary Eduardo Fabini and semi-forgotten Santiago Chalar.
“James gave me complete freedom, and I’m re-discovering the music of those two greats and enjoying playing folklore on the one hand and the classical style on the other,” said Drexler. “After Cara B, this is my greatest and most pleasurable challenge right now.” •