When I first heard the opening strains of Julieta Venegas’ “Oportunidad,” I thought I’d encountered a Robin Holcomb album I missed.
Then a drum machine kicked in, and Venegas’ powerhouse voice burst in. The illusion was disrupted, but as it turns out, only for a moment.
Venegas has been compared to Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey, and as a marketing angle, it works well enough. Venegas certainly would fit in the whole women-in-rock-Lilith-power thing, but certain things, aside from her singing in Spanish, make Venegas stand out.
First off, when was the last time Sarah McLachlan ever slinged an accordion? The seminal polka instrument’s sound is vital to Venegas’ brand of singer-songwriter rocaroll.
“Antes,” for example, sports the squeezebox’s timbre effectively complemented by plucked strings. On “De mis pasos,” the accordion supplants the guitar in playing rock’s best loved chord progression, I-IV-V.
And none of it sounds remotely ethnic. Well, maybe slightly.
Venegas’ music is infused with the kind of perilous balance between traditional Latin American music and rock music similar to Café Tacuba. Is it no surprise that members of Tacuba make guest appearances and that the album was produced by Gustavo Santaolalla?
Venegas also possess a voice that can crumble walls as well as Sinéad O’Connor’s but maintains a bittersweetness that doesn’t sound precious. If a Celebrity Death Match pitted Venegas against Jewel, Venegas would whop some major posterior. (In a match with Shakira, however, I’d put my money on Ms. Merabek R.)
But when Venegas trades the accordion for the piano, those reminders of Holcomb pop up again.
Holcomb, who released two albums in the early ’90s that realized a downtown New York aesthetic in folk-pop, shares little with Venegas aesthetically, but it’s difficult not to notice some of the same chord voicing in both their slower pieces.
It’s as if Venegas found Holcomb through six degrees of separation, and Wayne Horvitz snuck into the studio while Santaolalla wasn’t looking.
All of that to say Aquí is a stellar debut from a performer whose music sounds like everything and herself at the same time. Does that make sense?