Amparo is not so much an artistic statement, but Maria Usbeck‘s personal journey to reconnect with her roots. It’s a record with a purpose and a very personal spin; the results, however, are far from insular.
The story goes like this: Usbeck was born in Quito, Ecuador. At age 17, she moved to the United States by herself, later forming the band Selebrities in Brooklyn, where she found some success. However, she began to long for home, and decided to visit her homeland once again. For the next three years, she stayed in Ecuador, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Easter Island, Barcelona, Lisbon, Costa Rica, Florida, Los Angeles, and finally returned to Brooklyn. During this period, she reconnected with her native language by writing songs in Spanish, making field recordings of the places she visited (some of which later were integrated into the songs on Amparo), and even began studying other tongues such as Quichua from Ecuador, Rapa Nui from Easter Island, Bribri from Costa Rica, and Catalan from Barcelona.
All that labor is synthesized in Amparo, whose namesake comes from Usbeck’s mother and Maria’s own middle name. Produced by Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, the record captures her explorations and reflections with a minimalism that borrows heavily from what she heard in her travels. Its basis lies in electronic pop with modern persuasions, but what makes it stand out is not only the presence of Central American instrumentation or her beautiful lyrics (although both will no doubt turn heads); Amparo excels because of its emotional power.
Opener “Isla Mágica” sets the stage perfectly for much of what follows. Usbeck’s voice is bold and upfront, but always sweet and expressive. It’s full of personality and gives most of the tracks on the album a melancholic setting from the get-go. The music usually features tons of percussion, although the effect isn’t overly busy or danceable; it remains driven enough to give proceedings an interesting pulse, aided on many tracks by timbales, tumbas, bongos, or Indian flat drums. On this track, everything remains playful yet relaxed, as if all your worries no longer mattered.
Hints of Ecuador are best expressed on tracks like “Camino Desolado,” where a quena flute adds melodies and texture, evoking Andean landscapes. Although Usbeck employs instruments and recordings from many of the countries she visited, Amparo never relies on the predictability of genre convention. Rather, these elements serve the songs instead of defining them, coalescing into a style that is all her own.
On tracks like “Moai Y Yo,” Usbeck embarks on a chill synthpop excursion, stepping into a mid-tempo groove. Most of what makes Amparo a great listen is Usbeck’s melodic sensibilities; she eschews hooks in favor of a more inviting and evocative direction. That shines most brightly on “Uno De Tus Ojos,” one of the most beautiful cuts of the collection. Amparo’s magic works best when Usbeck carefully aligns her disparate musical influences into a cohesive whole. Unfortunately, that’s something that the second half of the record lacks, where the songs fall into conventional electronic pop.
Maria Usbeck has crafted an aural scrapbook of this journey, and she’s come back with moments of true bliss. Most of the songs found here are not epiphanies or ambitious forays into establishing new genres, but the intimacy of the project makes it shine, without pretension or heavy-handedness. Usbeck has invited us to listen to her journey, and her honesty makes her a great storyteller.
Amparo is out now on Cascine. Maria Usbeck plays Brooklyn’s Northside Festival on June 9 at 7:30 p.m.