Album reviews: Juana Molina, Penguin Café and Kweku Collins

Album reviews: Juana Molina, Penguin Café and Kweku Collins

Juana Molina

Halo (Crammed Discs)

Starting with her enchanting Segundo album, Juana Molina has cultivated such an indelible style that it might seem confusing if she deviated. Her music comprises repetitive acoustic guitar patterns, wavery keyboard tones, rubbery bass figures and rhythm tracks from homemade sources like hand claps and ticking clocks—and then, there’s Molina’s voice. She’s simultaneously childlike and gentle, but totally self-possessed. Hinting at her contradictions is the cover of Halo, which finds her face, sans nose and mouth, morphed into something resembling a craggy planarian; it’s funny, but unsettling.

Halo doesn’t deviate from her previous pathways, and fans will smile at the 7/8 meter of “Cosoco,” lopsided rhythms being another salient Molina feature. There’s more electric guitar and snare on Halo, and the drum tattoo gets to be a bit much on “Estalacticas.” Molina’s strong suit isn’t such bombast, it’s the gorgeous mellotron string passages on the opening “Paraguaya”; the calmly percolating soundscape of “Cara de espejo”; the interlocking layers of “A00 B01”; the amorphous dreaminess of “Lentísimo halo.” Halo is full of kinks that might seem merely quirky, but cohere into a distinctive and still-enchanting idiom.

Penguin Café

The Imperfect Sea (Erased Tapes)

Recently I asked a frighteningly hip friend what he was listening to, and his answer floored me: “a lot of New Age.” I figured this label—which in the ’80s signified flagrantly pretty instrumental music for organic restaurants—might apply to something else now, but indeed, he meant the classics: “Shadowfax, William Ackerman, that Windham Hill stuff.” Simon Jeffes’ Penguin Café Orchestra typified another branch of New Age, eschewing chimes and flutes for Philip-Glass-meets-Eno minimalism. Before Jeffes died in 1997, he left behind the timeless crowd-pleaser “Perpetuum Mobile.” In 2009, Jeffes’ son Arthur revived the brand as Penguin Café, producing passable ersatz PCO. The Imperfect Sea has grand moments—“Ricercar” and “Protection” are fully developed and pulse with life. But other songs drift in waiting mode. No amount of sonic window dressing can hide the stultifying monotony of “Cantorum,” while the PCO cover “Now Nothing (Rock Music)” sounds more like a George Winston homage, and not much of one. A cover of Kraftwerk’s “Franz Schubert” makes sense, but feels complacent. Reverence seems apt, but some of the elder Jeffes’ nerdy whimsy wouldn’t hurt, either.

Kweku Collins

grey (Closed Sessions)

Straight outta Evanston, Illinois, Kweku Collins was raised by Stephan Collins, a world music percussionist who must be pleased at Kweku’s rising repute. (I wonder what he thinks of Kweku’s occasional slips into Jamaican patois—they bug me, but maybe I should lighten up.) In 2015, just out of high school, Collins released his debut EP, following it up last spring with the acclaimed, self-produced Nat Love, which put him firmly on the Chicago area map alongside Chance, Chief Keef and Joey Purp. A mostly downtempo collection, Nat Love referenced D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, whose navel-gazing predilections come through again on grey, Collins’ aptly titled latest. No tempo rises above comfortable head-nodding; the mood is weary but abiding. Collins’ music beds are appealing, as is Collins’ voice, although he relies on a pretty limited set of gestures. There aren’t melodies to speak of, as Collins often stays on one note before plunging down an interval. It gets repetitive, but guests are well-utilized, like the more authoritative Kipp Stone who comes along to mix things up on the groggy “Things I Know.”

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