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By Michael E. Miller
Spanish singer Pau Donés and his fusion band Jarabe de Palo prove on their latest album, Un Metro Cuadrado, that thinking inside the box can be as creative as thinking outside it.
"It's important that people have a little space where they can go and be themselves," Donés explains of the album's name, "[a place] where they can wear what they want, be who they want, and only let in those they want to let in."
While this vague thera-speak might suggest icky smooth jazz or sleepy rainforest music, Un Metro Cuadrado showcases not only Jarabe de Palo's usual irresistible blend of alternative Spanish pop, but also a series of well-placed contributions from Brit rocker Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Uruguayan troubadour Jorge Drexler, and Cuban salsa goddess Lucrecia.
The collaborations are a testimony to the widespread appeal of world beat rock and fusion, a genre Jarabe de Palo helped pioneer in the late Nineties by mixing dashes of blues, flamenco, and Caribbean rhythms into a jingly pop porridge.
"I chose [the collaborators] because they could give us what we needed for the songs we wanted to create," Donés says of their distinct styles. "I had something to learn from each of them."
Un Metro Cuadrado is the band's fifth since the 1998 title track of its first album, La Flaca, became an overnight success in Europe and Latin America. Ample use of vocal harmony and underlying Iberian and Latin American rhythms distinguish this album and give the songs a reflective and almost melancholic ambiance.
"Entre las Barcas" ("Between the Little Boats") is an acoustic lullaby to a lover who sensually bobs and sways. The mesmerizing coo of Donés and Drexler's voices on "Que Bueno Que Bueno" has a trancelike effect when combined with the singers' sweet Brazilian cadence. The pattering of flamenco clapping falls like rain on the Hynde/Donés duet "Cry," creating what sounds like a Spanish version of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts."
But Jarabe de Palo doesn't let listeners stay in that wistful world too long. Other songs are hard-driving, relying on twangy blues and spicy, celebratory salsa.
The album's lead track, "1m2," is true to its mission. The band rocks and rolls like a group of teenagers during an uninhibited garage jam session. "Escriben Más Canciones" begins as a soft rock flamenco and then switches tempo when Lucrecia suddenly blasts Celia Cruz-style into the microphone, accompanied by salsa scales and a one-two-three beat.
"Cry" is the only English track on the album, and despite a recent appearance on Alanis Morissette's video for her song "Everything," Jarabe de Palo has no definite plans of making the crossover to the English-language market.
Donés says he doesn't see the need. "We sing in Spanish. That's our native tongue. We sing in that language all over Europe, and the people who come to our shows might not always understand the lyrics, but they understand the music," he explains.
Neither Hynde nor Morissette speak Spanish. Both approached Jarabe de Palo about collaborations because they were intrigued by the rollercoaster of emotions that the band's music invokes.
"It's the same thing that attracts us to them. Their songs transmitted a lot of things to me. They made me happy or sad even when I didn't understand what they were saying," Donés says of Hynde and Morissette. "Between the music and the lyrics, the important thing is to create feeling. It's like the first time I heard 'Let It Be' by the Beatles. It's a beautiful song that inspired me simply because it's a nice melody."
But understanding Jarabe de Palo's lyrics is definitely an added benefit. One of the reasons Spaniards adore the group is its witty lyricism, which flows in the same vain as Anglo band Barenaked Ladies.
The Santana-esque number "La Flaca" was based on a trip Donés took to Cuba, where he spent much of his time pining over a poor bar girl: "For a kiss from the skinny gal I'd do whatever it took/Those 40 kilos of salsa/She says she sleeps during the day to fool her hunger/I wet my sheets as the song says remembering the affection she toasted me that first day."
The lyric comes across as a brutally honest confession of the search for the exotic other and a sobering encounter with social reality.
"When they started in Spain, it was a boom because of the feelings that each song held. The lyrics they write have a lot of messages about life and feelings, of daily things that we all identify with," says Barcelona native and Miami resident Queralt Puig. "I can assure you that there isn't a Spaniard who doesn't know songs [from the band's first album] like 'Grita,' 'La Flaca,' 'El Lado Oscuro,' or 'Dueno de Mi Silencio' by heart."
But don't ask Donés to explain the songs, because he won't. "It's like they're not really mine. I just like to write them and then let the listener interpret them," he says. "If someone tells you the end of a movie, you lose a lot of details. I want listeners to draw those lyrics into their own world."
But he re-emphasizes that the mother tongue is less important than the sound it makes when combined with an emotive array of instrumentation. "I don't make songs for others; I write them because of my own inner needs. Still, they have a way of reaching people," Donés concludes.