Babasónicos: Never Too Much

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Too much has been said and written about Babasónicos. Both fans and critics delight in the challenge of trying to decipher the mysteries behind their encoded genius; the odd cultural references to fads from the past recycled in futuristic formats, the clever wordplay in their lyrics, and the instant quotes hiding in their verses. But maybe the biggest mystery of all is how Babasónicos managed to attain massive popularity while not compromising their inner weirdness. Babasónicos is sort of an acquired taste, a quality that generally works out great for a niche or cult following, but not always for transnational stardom.

With their new album, Mucho (Universal Latino, ’08), and their fifth and largest North American tour to date, the Argentine band aims to expand their myth beyond the agonizing rock en español scene, hoping that open-minded Anglo listeners will understand that their version of rock music is “much more than just a Spanish translation of English rock.”

With only 31 minutes of running time spread across ten tracks, Mucho manages to say much more than some ambitious double albums by other artists. Rockstar promiscuity has been a recurring theme since the song “Camarín” from their 2002 album Jessico, and here it’s present in “Como eran las cosas” (Qué ridículo es que pienses/Qué todo es tuyo inclusive yo. Eng: It’s so ridiculous that you think everything is yours, including me), “Las Demás” (Te da miedo enamorarte perdida y locamente de mi/Sabiendo que también me gustan las demás. Eng: You’re scared of falling hopelessly and crazily in love with me/Knowing that I also like the other girls), and the first hit single “Pijamas” (Te propusé mi casa, nada neutro/Te dije trae tus pijamas/I suggested my place, nothing neutral/I told you to bring your pajamas).

There are only a few moments of straightforward up-tempo rock, like “Cuello Rojo,” where Dárgelos seems to be defending Babasónicos in court, the jury being popular taste. And then there’s “Estoy Rabioso,” a sort of flashback to Babasónicos’ first classic hit, “D-Generación” in 1992, when he says he doesn’t care about others’ opinions about the band, but this time in a furious way, sonically closer to Jessico’s “Soy Rock”. “Microdancing” is Mucho’s surprise gem, an obvious dance song with an early nineties techno feel and a catchy hook designed to be played both in an arena concert and at a rave. The album is completed with “Nosotros,” where the minute-long intro breaks with the instant gratification norm of the other songs, and “El Idolo” where guitar master Mariano Roger takes the listener back to the spaghetti western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone.

Mucho is Babasónicos’ third album published in the US by a major label, but it’s the ninth official album of a prolific career that goes back over fifteen years and includes several other recordings in the format of bootlegs, b-sides, remixes, and even a soundtrack.

The band’s long history is divided into two big chapters. The first one goes from Pasto (Sony, ’92) to Miami (Sony, ’99), and it tells the story of a group of friends from the outskirts of Buenos Aires who became the spearhead of what in the nineties was called “alternative music”. If in the eighties the members of Soda Stereo were considered the ambassadors of the modern rock en español aesthetic, in the following decade, Babasónicos, of all the gen-x bands, had the most potential to claim that spot. But while Soda Stereo aimed for mainstream acceptance from the start and became a lot more sophisticated and experimental in the last stretch of their career, Babasónicos took the opposite path.

During that whole first chapter, they explored almost every musical genre that exists, from hip-hop to bossa nova, from heavy metal to disco music, from hardcore to bolero. Those were the days of total unpredictability from one album to another.

Then something happened. After the commercial failure of Miami, they were dropped by their record label and DJ Peggynn left the group (he had been the first DJ ever established as a full-time member of a rock en español group), but in 2001, they came out of that crisis with their most successful and critically acclaimed album ever: Jessico (released in the US by DLN in 2002). Suddenly Babasónicos became massive. They were played on TV and Top-40 radio, and started touring the whole continent. But strangely enough, their music didn’t have to suffer any drastic change to achieve this. Popular acceptance “wasn’t something we were aiming for, it just happened,” tries to explain drummer Diego Castellano, on the phone from Miami, of all places. Somehow, people “started to understand us.”

It wasn’t only the Argentine kids who all of a sudden got them, in this current second chapter, Babasónicos finally became the new Soda Stereo: the best export of Argentine rock for the rest of Latin America. Mucho is still part of this same chapter of constant apogee. Now, the biggest difference between this new Babasónicos and the Babasónicos of the nineties is that after Jessico, that random cross-genre exploration that used to characterize them seems to have been left behind.

Jessico was the album where we defined the current sound of Babasónicos,” continues the drummer who also goes by the nickname Panza. “We found an identity that we feel comfortable with. Songs became more concise and albums a lot shorter.” But they also became very similar to one another. Babasónicos didn’t stop experimenting; they just minimized the spectrum of genres they experimented with. Bolero, country western, electronica, dance-rock and old movie soundtracks became the core of what’s now the Babasónicos sound, and every new album is a closer approximation to perfecting that same mix.

In the new millennium, Babasónicos became obsessed with trying to come up with the perfect song, something evident in the last three albums, and more than ever in Mucho. While catchy melodies and sing-along hooks became more prevalent, their lyrics became more obscure, usually reflecting frontman Adrián Dárgelos’s love for literature and just plain camp retro-culture. They always include some implicit level of androdynous erotic innuendo, which has earned him the common Bowie-in-the-Ziggy-Stardust-phase comparison.

Detractors may point out that Babasónicos lost their edge when they stopped surprising listeners with unexpected twists and mutations–that they just found a successful formula and kept repeating it. But is it fair to expect more risk-taking from a band whose basic characteristic is sounding so unique and being at the same time “tan freak y tan popular” while never following the current trends of the market?

Mucho may sound a bit too similar to its predecessors Infame (Universal, ’03) and Anoche (Universal, ’05), but is too much of a good thing necessarily a bad thing?

Now the big changes are definitely on their way and Mucho may be the last paragraph of this second great chapter. While finishing the mixing of the already recorded album, the band’s bass player Gabo Mannelli died of leukemia. This is particularly tragic in a band like Babasónicos, in which the members, in addition to being bandmates, were a big tightly knit group of friends. “Babasónicos was one of those atypical cases of a rock band that maintained the same members for over fifteen years,” recalls Castellano, who agrees that this factor will make Gabo’s replacement a lot more complicated. “We still don’t know what we’re going to do about that, we’ll see when the time comes…” So far, for this tour, Gabo will be replaced with Carca, a solo artist, friend of the band, and old time sporadic collaborator.

If history is to repeat itself, Babasónicos will overcome the crisis, promoting themselves to yet an even higher level of success. One thing is certain: there’s still “mucho” more to expect from them.