For a woman who just turned 51, Juana Molina still sounds remarkably youthful. Wed 21, her first album in five years, bounces and hops to the infectious vocal harmonies she weaves throughout its uniformly excellent tracks. More refined and alive than previous efforts, Wed 21 is a uniquely compelling piece of art-pop and one of the finest albums of the year.
To compare Molina to other artists would be doing an injustice to a sound as unique as hers, but comparisons with Stereolab are inevitable. The formula of krautrock beats, manic keyboard stabs and airy vocals carries across both, but where Molina deviates is in her incorporation of tango and world music elements to create an incredibly strange, but utterly hypnotic sound. It’s warmer and richer than Stereolab and their cool, lounge act experimentation; and also, probably, lacking the forced Marxist dogma that’s so often cause for eye-rolling with the latter.
The lack of actually knowing Spanish presents a problem similar to that of Radio Radio – the French-Canadian hip-hop collective who use both French and English simultaneously – in that I can’t actually judge Molina based on lyrical content. It could have the guile of a brick and I’d never notice the difference. Instead it’s all about how she sings her foreign devil-tongue, which is fortunate for her since she sings it brilliantly. Airy, mystical and, probably playing up her own foreign mystery to please people like me, alternately otherworldly and defiantly impassioned. The intricacy and craft of the layers and layers of vocal harmonies that provide the ambience of the album, in particular on tracks like Las Edades, approaches Brian Wilson levels in how it plays with the voice as an instrument.
As for the other instruments, they dance around Molina in hypnotic cycles of guitar and keyboard. They have the swirling wooziness of The Soft Moon, but the grounding and flair of her Latin American heritage. Think the mariachi, then loop it, make it a bit weirder and discordant, drop about six ethereal, chanting voices over it and you’re roughly there. I’ve heard someone describe it as ‘the most annoying thing they’ve ever heard’ and, in a sense, I can kind of get where they’re coming from. The endlessly looping patterns occasionally begin to grate but, once you immerse yourself into the spiraling madness of Molina’s work, it all coagulates into a beautifully manic mess.
As an album that enthralls from start to finish and puts itself out there as a genuinely unique piece of work, Wed 21 is by rights the first album I’ve heard this year that feels worthy of an A+. Where other albums have faded or started off sluggish, Wed 21 maintains the same mad tempo. Where other albums have stayed consistent at the cost of flair, Wed 21 contains both in abundance.