Juana Molina

By Vernon Crane

Juana Molina is a bit under the weather tonight. She's taken something – maybe Cortizone – and as a result she's feeling a bit floaty, a bit woozy, a bit lost. She coughs, her voice cracks, she fumbles with her instruments, trips over her words.

Even so, she's extraordinary.

If you've heard either of the albums she's put out on Domino, Segundo and Tres Cosas, then you'll already be familiar with her combination of skewed, pitch-bent, glitchtronica, strummy guitar and wistful, tangential melodies. She opens with Martin Fierro and encores, after a lot of distracted fiddling at the keyboard, with an extended Salvese Quien Pueda. In between, cold or no cold, it's pure magic.

What's really surprising, live, is Juana's Voice. It's a much more supple and powerful instrument than the albums would suggest, bringing to mind everyone from Tim Buckley to Liz Fraser to (gulp) Bjork, and with the aid of her battery of effects, looped and multi-tracked live, she uses it to lay down layers of scat-sung rhythm, cries and keenings that mesh with the keyboard drones to build up a warm, pastel coloured weave, a zero-gravity environment where percussion bubbles up and down, sounds drift and eddy and Juana's guitar just about anchors the whole thing in place.

What's not surprising, given her background as a comedienne, is how comfortable she is on stage, and despite, or maybe because of her protestations about her 'American' English, how charming. She barks, whimpers and howls through the closing section of El Perro, an anecdotal tale of a neighbour's mysterious, non-existent dog, plays a straight, touching, keyboard and voice number about having to leave the States, and dances through Tres Cosas in a quiet, distracted way, as if no one were there watching.

It's hard to explain exactly why listening to her music, and even more so seeing it live is so moving. Perhaps it the lack of obvious, trite sentiment at work in any of the songs, no bombast or melancholy, no strenuous emoting or angst. Instead there's a serene, numinous quality, and Juana, immersed in her world at the center of the empty, imposing stage reminds you of nothing more than a shy, brainy child working furiously away with its crayons. Even the sinister, haunting Isabel resists melodrama, and Salvase Quien Pueda, the most overtly political of her songs has a lulling quality too. Possibly, it's that everything sounds as though it's being sung to her daughter, in a private moment, and that the audience are simply privileged eavesdroppers.

There are a few tracks I would like to have heard: Filter Taps from Tres Cosas, a kind of Martian nursery rhyme played backwards and sunk in a thick current of out-of-focus, fairground ambience, or the long, bass-pulse mantra Sonomos. But maybe that's just me. The reaction is great and the queue to pick up CDs, especially that limited edition collaboration she shamefacedly flogs from the stage, is long enough to suggest that she's made a lot of converts.

So if you've yet to encounter her either live or on record, I'd recommend her unreservedly. If you like any of the artists mentioned above or have recently been seduced by Animal Collective and Ariel Pink, an evening in the company of Juana Molina is about as good as it gets right now.
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