Our Daily Bread 473: Xenia Rubinos ‘Una Rosa’

October 14, 2021

ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Photo Credit: Michelle Arcila

Xenia Rubinos ‘Una Rosa’
(ANTI-) 15th October 2021

Plagued perhaps by self-doubt, it has taken the extraordinary voiced Xenia Rubinos five years to follow up the both salacious and flamboyant sensibilities, wit and societal commentaries of Black Terry Cat (one of our ‘choice’ albums of 2016). That album’s sassy provocative ‘Mexican Chef’ highlight was exhaustive enough on its own, without the rest of the songbook’s highly sophisticated, emotive with some very clever if unique forms of composition that played, dipped and accentuated Rubinos’ idiosyncratic deliverance – somewhere between jazz, Carmen, R&B, soul and hip-hop. Let’s say it merited a good sit down and rest.

But Rubinos went as far as to consult the advice of a ‘curandero’ (a traditional healer/shaman found in Latin America and beyond), who diagnosed the artist as suffering from a “loss of spirit”. Whatever the true reasons the singer-songwriter-composer-musician was given a further shove back into the studio by longtime creative foil Marco Buccelli. The exceptional drummer, producer and, it seems, encouraging force for good in Rubinos’ life, helped drag her back to the creative studio process.

In that period of transference from Obama to Trump, and now Biden, a whole lot of anger simmered to the boil: Enough material, crisis and anxiety to extrapolate for an album anyway. Though so much of the vitriol, slogan(ism) launched at Trump from the Left, and the rhetoric of various disenfranchised groups, now seems to have moved on.

With another change in direction, Una Rosa more than ever channels Rubinos’ Latin American heritage and upbringing across a split album of RED rage and BLUE introspection. Going back to before even Black Terry Cat, the voice is once more tonal and some of the time obscured, hidden under cybernetic vocoder, pitch shifter and that annoying effect of gargling that sounds like the vocalist is under water, manipulation. That’s not to say Rubinos hasn’t much to say, as she expresses it in both Spanish and English, whether it’s more wooed, in the style of Bolero, or poignantly heart breaking. Despite the cyber staccato effects she still delivers raw heartfelt plaint on the Kavinsky Drive into futurism ‘Did My Best’ – a song about coming to terms with the sudden loss of someone close.

A transformation of those already mentioned Latin American roots, the album’s title alludes to Rubinos “abuelita’s” (grandmother) wind-up music lamp; its fiber optic lights drawing the young artist in with its ‘swirling colours’. An entrancing object of fascination and nostalgic emotions of belonging, Una Rosa stands in for an array of feelings (from the dreamy to melancholy and futuristic; perhaps even comforting, a sense of security). Triggering a fervour for seeking deeper connections to that ancestry, Rubinos pays homage whilst propelling her grandmother’s favourite ‘cortate las venas’ singers into the present with a twist of futuristic pop on the yearned ‘Ay Hombre’.

Rewired Fado with touches of the rumba, and clav- style rhythms permeate this conceptual (of a sort) album. Each single, at least, is meant to reflect the portrait of a different character in the diorama. The venerable organ with revved up bursts of R&B pop and breaks ‘Who Shot Ya?’ represents (we’re told) a ‘grill-wearing woman and caged little child’: caged like so many young kids caught up in the immigration crisis, held in limbo (a practice that has actually been in place since and before Trump). In fact the visual aspect, character descriptions, were completed before the music, which as the notes suggest has a cinematic quality: no arguments there. Talking of the celluloid, the trebly stubbed bass and deep ‘Darkest Hour’ even features touches of Bernard Herrmann’s heightened stabbing strings: ala the Psycho soundtrack.

On the traditional B-side vinyl flip (the BLUE period as it’s called) Rubinos riles in almost balladry form on the self-explanatory ‘Don’t Put Me In Red’ song against the lighting engineers who insist on spotlighting her in red on stage: what Rubinos calls “Latino lighting”. It’s something I’d never even considered or come across before, but makes sense, the stereotyped fiery Latino spirit and cliché moody tempest effect: a kink of the exotic and sultry too.  And that’s the point. Taking for granted the slights and ways we all condemn ethnicity into convenient boxes. The song is actually quite lovely; a mix of Moroder futurism and wallowing pleaded drama. 

Rubinos and her foil Buccelli have really immersed themselves in this concept. They take familiar melodies, rhythms and tunes and transform them through a contemporary lexicon of protestation, jazz, electronica, soul and pop.

Una Rosa is a magical album that softly delivers hard-hitting on-messages and the experiences of the Latin American diaspora (“we were here before the West was won”) in a rigged version of the capitalist ideal. A different record to Black Terry Cat, Rubinos plays up her rich ancestry for a change and produces a more spontaneous tapestry of future pop music: an ancestry, musical style that has so often been adopted and worn by artist’s with only the most fleeting or tenuous (if any) of connections to Latin America. Expect to find Rubinos once more, featured in our choice albums of the year.

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