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ALBUM SPOTLIGHT

Finding a sharp focus

September 02, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Manu Chao

"La Radiolina" (Nacional/Because)

THE title of Manu Chao's third solo album, his first in six years, makes us imagine the world music wizard as a broadcaster with his own little radio station -- a diminutive radiolina -- that we can tune in and out as time and leisure allow. His music isn't confined to a finite CD but part of an ongoing program, like a play list to which songs can be added.

The artist, now on indie labels after leaving Virgin Records, has said he may create just that on his website. But the concept of an expandable, continuous album applies in retrospect to the singer-songwriter's entire body of work, a series of musical and thematic threads that weave from track to track, album to album over almost a decade.

The Barcelona-based, Paris-bred musician went on the air, so to speak, with his acclaimed 1998 solo debut, "Clandestino," and picked up the threads of his migratory sonic explorations in 2001's "Próxima Estación: Esperanza."

Now, like an intermittent short-wave transmission that suddenly catches a clear and vivid frequency, "Radiolina" comes into sharp focus, defining a mature sound in a mesmerizing collection of 21 new tracks.

Chao has always approached musical ideas in two ways: in loops and layers. He intentionally repeats riffs and licks from one track to the next while creating a hypnotic soundscape with interlacing elements, including sound effects and snippets of spoken dialogue. This time, he sustains the same free-flowing, layered approach, but with a lot less studio gimmickry and a lot more musicianship.

The Chao sound that once seemed so simple now resonates with rich textures and dynamic arrangements, including punchier percussion, brighter horns and sharper guitars. In this sense, the new album closes the gap between the artist's punk-charged live performances and his more laconic, almost lackadaisical studio work.

There's nothing casual about "Radiolina" (in stores Tuesday), despite the straight-on cover photo showing the artist with a T-shirt and cargo pants, thumbs resting on his belt. This is music made with wide-awake urgency.

Chao telegraphs his heightened political concerns with a song title written on the cover -- larger than the CD title itself -- in cut-and-paste text like a subversive flier or a ransom note: "Y Ahora Que?" it says. "Now What?" That track appears near the end of the album and recycles the edge-of-despair lyrics of an earlier number, "Mundorévès" (Upside Down World). Chao speeds up the beat, adding alarming guitars that sound like emergency sirens and an unanswered chorus: "What do we do now?"

But he first poses the question in the opening song, "13 Dias" (13 Days), about a loss of love, thus linking his personal and political quandaries, offering answers for neither. Incongruously, the opening song's emotional emptiness is couched in a vaguely country beat with plucky, banjo-like guitar picking.

Similarly, the heavy political indictment of "Tristeza Maleza," which warns President Bush about the world's "infinite sadness" and "inflamed passions," is accompanied by an irresistible club vibe and rousing horn lines.

The same jarring juxtaposition between celebratory music and sober lyrics is at work in "Me Llaman Calle" (They Call Me Street), a catchy rumba flamenca about prostitutes in Madrid, written originally for the 2005 film "Princesas." The song's graceful sway and anthemic melody strike the note of hope and human dignity found in the line "my heart is not for sale." In the background, a roll call of names demands respect for anonymous streetwalkers as individuals.

The street has always been Chao's inspiration. In "Hoyo," he jettisons his worries and taps into the cacophonous energy of Third World barrios, including Mexico City's menacing Tepito, propelled by a brash punk/ska and reggae spirit. But in the end, Chao attains his utopian world of harmony and fulfillment only in dreams and death, lulled by the sweet but haunting melody of "Otro Mundo" (Another World).

The magic of Manu Chao is that, despite his sometimes grim vision, he offers optimism in his mesmerizing stream of music.

Stay tuned.

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.

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