Manu Chao

La Radiolina

(Nacional; 2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 8 September 2007

Six years after his last proper album, Proxima Estacion: Esperanza, Spanish rocker Manu Chao is back with La Radiolina. It's a safe album, almost exactly what you'd expect from Chao. The artist continues to be the best (perhaps only) provider out there of Clash-inspired polylingual punk rock, but for a musician who built his solo reputation on quirkiness and innovation, the disc feels a bit flat. Entertaining, yes, but hardly innovative.

Chao's charm, at least for me, has always lay in the simplicity and catchiness of his melodies. His lyrical focus tends to be empty leftist sloganeering or slightly-too-cute heartfelt declarations (1998's Clandestino having a few noteworthy exceptions). Then again, these songs are also often sung in languages I barely understand, which renders them merely elements of the overall sound; plus, he does have a knack for weaving that together. He'll develop a pretty simple idea and then toy around with it, often recycling melodic elements or entire beats (Esperanza's "Homens," for example, uses the same beat as Clandestino's "Bongo Bong"; several songs on the limited-edition Siberie M'etait Contee [2005] use melodies drawn from Chao's work with Amadou & Mariam on Dimanche a Bamako [2005]).

Where Esperanza was a keyboard-and-samples album, this new one highlights his band's impressive skills on six strings. Some of it is straight-ahead punk rock; there are also moments (especially on "Me Llamen Calle," the goofy "La Vida Tombola," and "Mundoreves") of careful finger-picking and flamenco. "13 Dias," "Y Ahora Que?", lead-single "Rainin in Paradize" (and it's back-half doppelganger "Mama Cuchara"), and "El Kitapena" fall into the former category. Chao still plays around with the production and adds elements of Catalan folk music and gypsy guitar, but these songs are some of the most straightforward of his repertoire.

Even as far back as Esperanza critics were complaining of repetitiveness on Chao's part, and La Radiolina isn't likely to change that. While the disc strips away most of the sampling work that defined Esperanza, it doesn't shift all that much from the mold that Chao established on Clandestino. The music may be less willfully childlike, and the greater focus on flamenco is welcome, but this is not nearly the radical shift one would hope for given a six-year absence. His work in the interim has been far more adventurous, and it's a shame he didn't attempt at least to move toward some of the darker territory he explored on Siberie. For one of the architects of Spanish-language rock with Mano Negra, one wishes that he'd be less prone to stasis (and, in too many cases, lefty pablum). Still, it's good to finally have the guy back in the spotlight; we can do a lot worse with our rock music.