Andrés Calamaro – Beyond Prolific

By 02 August, 2010

Prolific is usually the key word that pops up in any intent of describing Argentine singer-songwriter Andrés Calamaro. He must have hundreds more songs released than anybody else in Latin rock. Granted they’re not all pieces of genius work but amongst them are plenty more than a handful of immortal tunes that heavily influenced South American and Spanish pop music throughout the past three decades.

However, when introducing his work to non-Spanish speakers, I like to focus on other aspects, rather than just his ability to pen infinite tunes in record time. And that’s when things get a little complicated. You see, I happen to think that Andrés Calamaro is the best lyricist in rock en español, but his song-writing proficiency is very much based in the profound love he professes for the Spanish language, expressed through imaginative poetry full of witty word-play for the attentive listener. And none of that can be translated; hence it’s hard to appreciate for the foreign listeners.

I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina just two years before Andrés made his official debut with the candombe-rock fusion band Raíces (Roots) in 1978. He was just 17 years old then but he didn’t achieve any notoriety until 1982 when he joined the emblematic 80’s band Los Abuelos De La Nada (the grandfathers of nothing).

Los Abuelos de la Nada – “Costumbres Argentinas”

Those were the days of an unlikely local rock apogee back in Argentina. Thanks to the Falkland Islands war with the United Kingdom, the governing military dictatorship banned all English language music from the radios and TV forcing programmers to look into vernacular music, thus boosting the local music industry. This, in time, generated a whole new wave of modern “rock nacional” (as it’s labeled in Argentina) that broke away from the pretentiousness and hippy aesthetics of the 70’s anti-establishment prog-rock.

So I pretty much grew up in an environment where rock in Spanish was mainstream and Los Abuelos De La Nada reigned supreme. By the time I hit my pubescent years and started developing my musical tribal identity I, like many other kids of my generation, considered rock music to be the mainstream, the status quo against which we should rebel. It was the music of our parent’s generation for god’s sake! So many of us found refuge in hip-hop and house music.

I went through my high-school years living in an imaginary Bronx inside my head and being totally oblivious to what was going on in rock music. I lost complete track of Andrés Calamaro, who I barely acknowledged, and did not pay any attention to his late-80’s/early-90’s solo career. Nevertheless, some of his mid-90’s tunes with the Spain-based band Los Rodríguez, were party anthems impossible to avoid during those days (and still remain in that status till these days).

I didn’t really discover Andrés Calamaro as the amazing artist he is until college. My love for hip-hop peaked then and sparked my interest in intricate rhyming and funk. Surprisingly these two things were still hard to find in the then-barely-emerging local hip-hop scene but were very evidently present in Calamaro’s recent work.

Alta Suciedad (a play in word between high society and high dirt), released in 1997, marked the glorious return of Andrés to his native Buenos Aires after a stay in Madrid, and also marked his peak in popularity as a solo artist. To many, his best album to date, Alta Suciedad featured a slick production by Joe Blaney (The Clash, Keith Richards, Prince) and Andrés at the apex of his creative genius. “Flaca,” with its unconventional song-structure (over two minutes of instrumental outro), was an unlikely radio hit, but the originality of the lyrics (“I left behind our past memories, forgotten in the back of the guests-room’s closet”) and the compelling beauty of the video clip, plus the pretty girls in it, made it the most remarkable hit of that year and turned Andrés into the new Messiah for the sensitive college-age porteños, myself included.

“Flaca” (from Alta Suciedad)

A period of hyper-productivity followed the success of Alta Suciedad and was kick-started with the uneven but equally genius Honestidad Brutal (Brutal honesty, or more accurately bluntness), in 1999. This 37-song double album (released in a single disc abbreviated version for the international market) was also produced by Blaney and includes, in my humble opinion, some of his most beautiful songs: “Los Aviones,” “Paloma,” “Te quiero igual,” “Cuando te conocí,” the funky “Más duele” and the tango “Jugando Con Fuego;” but also featured some self-indulgent oddballs like his ode to Diego Maradona (in the past, the football superstar had used Calamaro’s song “Mi Enfermedad” as the soundtrack of his comeback to professional league football after a hiatus).

Not a year went by after the release of Honestidad Brutal and Andrés took the record industry and his fans by surprise with El Salmón, a five-disc album that’s equally experimental, dirty, mysterious, unpredictable and utterly arrogant. El Salmón marks the beginning of Calamaro’s darker years. The last one of those 102 songs was titled “Este Es El Fin De Mi Carrera” (This is the end of my career) and it does feel like that, the whole Salmón experiment feels like the work of a self-destructive genius-gone-bonkers.

“Te Quiero Igual” (from Honestidad Brutal)

“…Besides the kamikaze method of frenetic song-writing, focusing only in turning the sacred fire of inspiration and madness on… an easy prescription, avoid reading newspapers, radio, tv, cinema and if possible leaving home (…) days lasted unspeakable lengths, and during important periods the maximum penalty and ultra-violence were reached (…) giving you more details would be brutal. (…) we continued recording in the darkest room of my house, it’s true that we could’ve ended in jail or in a hospital…”

That’s how he described those days of compulsive song-writing that lead to El Salmón, an album mostly recorded in a lo-fi home studio with some guest friends but also with Andrés playing most or all of the instruments and improvising lyrics on the go on many of the tracks.

The post-Salmón period was even darker. In an even greater fuck-you to the record industry Andrés, secluded from all social interaction and living in hiding, released a free-to-download collection of MP3 (Deep Camboya) and hosted from his own website, blog and on-line radio (Radio Salmón Vaticano) where he indulged in home studio experimentation even more.

Many thought his music career was over but in 2004 he made his timid comeback with El Cantante, followed by Tinta Roja two years later, two albums of mostly covers, something odd for a musician known for his compositional skills. In between those two he gave a big concert in Buenos Aires that was later released as his first live album/DVD with the obvious title El Regreso (The Return).

“Nostalgias” (from Tinta Roja)

With a much healthier appearance, apparently cleaned-up from drug abuse, and a new girlfriend (actress Julieta Cardinale) and baby, the new Andrés released three more albums in recent years, El Palacio de Las Flores (a collaboration with Litto Nebbia that didn’t have any repercussion), the much more successful La Lengua Popular and his latest, On The Rock.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of his renewed popularity a career compiling collection of sorts was released under the title Obras Incompletas (incomplete works), a box-set of six discs and a dvd with plenty of rarities, covers, outtakes and unreleased tracks, plus many of his solo-career hits and collaborations. Of course, it’s an incomplete collection because he has many other remarkable songs (with Los Abuelos De La Nada and Los Rodríguez) and also because his prolific career is nowhere near to an end.

The comparison of Andrés Calamaro with Bob Dylan is quite a recurrent media cliché, but I see him as more of a South American Lou Reed and even though he’s not a rapper per se (and when he did try to rap in El Salmón’s “Enola Gay” he was hella wack), his uncanny ability to rhyme Spanish words in ingenious ways puts him directly at the top of my favorite MC’s and I’m pretty sure if he was born just a decade later he would’ve been the Latin American Mos Def.

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