Review Summary: the deepest breath you never noticed taking
Who the hell is Rubio and why are people still listening to artists who aren’t her? Husky to a fault and more engaging in her native Spanish than you will ever be in any language, this Chilean producer/songwriter throws down an intimidatingly versatile range of writing instincts like there’s no tomorrow, all while holding the mic with the more spellbindingly rich performance you’ll be blessed to hear in the next five minutes. Real name Francisca Straube, her new album Mango Negro
is comfortably the smoothest thing I’ve heard all year: a seamless hybrid of trip-hop and synth-pop that knows your own heartbeat better than you do and toys with dynamics more dextrously than God manipulating weather patterns. It’s addictive and intelligently arranged and breathlessly sensuous without ever being seedy. You need this album. Listen to it.
While essentially a pop album, Mango Negro
constantly shrouds itself in murk and sways towards moments of unease every time it seems ready to tease its brightest choruses. Rubio knows the strength of her hooks, but she maintains a fierce discipline in dropping them as accents to the rest of their respective songs’ shimmering weave of textures rather than as self-contained sugar capsules. Take the highlight “Agua”, which hits an electrifyingly strong chorus midway, only to throw its momentum out of the window as the track dissipates into a deliciously sinister Latin-styled classical guitar runoff, like a small shapeless creature scurrying back into darkness. Or, alternatively, take the early icebreaker “Pájaro Azul”, which initially agonises over establishing a slick vocal flow over of a glitching loop and hesitant beats, only to unravel entirely over its final third, churning over its bassline while the mix is overtaken by an increasingly overpowering swell of dissonance and synth feedback. Ashes to ashes; gloom to gloom.
These songs present their peaks as fleeting and precious because they damn well are; nothing is to be taken for granted here, yet the album’s wealth of ideas is such that you’ll struggle to pick a point where your attention span falters. Fifty-five minutes of unrelenting suspense are no easy feat to pull off, but Straube keeps her vocals so richly inflected and so focused in their placement that the album is able to confidently feint at the possibility of losing its flow every time it finds it. The result is an illusionary balancing act pulled off with enough poise that its allure carries itself weightlessly. Throughout all this, we get a lot of darkness and not much light, but you’ll find that the way the dusky rouge of the artwork’s palette splays itself over a background of nothingness is apt reflection of how Straube makes herself at home in the shade. For her, this darkness becomes a canvas for things that could never be expressed anywhere else; for us, it swirls into life as a suggestive space for unseen movements and coruscating tension that reach out so fiercely through the music that we could scarcely envisage listening to anything else.
This is the kind of music that dictates its needs directly to your body rather than to any cerebral considerations of what the specifics for the genre balance is and whether or not it can be classed as art pop
. You can dance to this - and you will want to - but suggests the kind of dance where you wrap yourself around the songs’ unresolving inner strain without truly releasing any of your own energy. This will be self-explanatory, but it won’t make you want to stop; Rubio’s affinity for fleeting gratification lends it an eerily infectious scope to that end. Just look at the classic trip-hop creeper “Niño Iceberg”; this track’s spreading-oil-slick tempo and plodding bassline couldn’t be any more transparent in how they labour over winding the spring for its surging exhalation of a let-it-all-go 4-bar chorus, but the thrill is electrifying each time. Those 4-bars were never going to be enough for anyone, and yet there you are waiting for them to burst through again. Before you know it, they’re all you need.
Straube is so adept at playing with sparseness that the album’s breadth of ideas is somewhat camouflaged, but it bears emphasising how much ground is covered here. It’s a rich assortment: “IR” is the kind of eerie ghost-techno that Grimes would sacrifice the antichrist (you know the one) to have in her canon; “Compañera” fluidly integrates glitch into its fibre and flourish alike, while “Nudo” tones things down for an ambient heartthrob that will content even the dreamiest of bedroom pop devotees; “Mango Negro” is a noirish breath of incense in a bathroom thick with steam and heavy thoughts, while “Que Es Lo Que Realmente Importa” is a comparatively bubbly Latin shuffle that punctuates the austerity of its neighbouring tracks with aplomb. Sure, some styles work better than others, and you could
poke holes in tracks like “Tormenta del SXXI”, as it flits a little too breezily between successive shifts of tone, or and the unexpected house banger “Le Especie”, with its slightly dreary ambient second half. You could
make statements about how necessary these parts of the album perhaps aren’t, but you’re so spoiled for choice here that this seems a wasted effort. Hell, the album almost goes so far as an uplifting ending! “Sólo Quiero Que Me Salves Tú” reaches for a hesitantly soaring chorus like a final piercing ray of luminary ultrarouge that your whole family can smile at and home-edit into blockbuster movies of their choice, but, the instrumental closer “El Fruto” quickly brings things back to base with perhaps the most openly ominous arrangement of the whole album. By that point, it should should hardly be a surprise: you know what’s on the table; shut up, lick your lips, and chow down.