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Juana Molina
ANRMAL Richard Foster , November 20th, 2020 08:50

That rare thing: a live album that is also, actually, a really good album

Not being the biggest fan of the genre, I think I have only ever played a handful of “official live” LPs more than twice. Ironically this blighted year has already produced some that are really worth your time; the recently released Stooges 1970 show, Live At Goose Lake being a prime example. Another one really worth a listen is ANRMAL, by Argentinian chanteuse and one-time comic, Juana Molina. It was recorded literally on the edge of lockdown, during Mexico’s NRMAL festival back in March, and has a spirit that is as indefinable as it is beautiful. The spirit contained within (found in the album’s title) points to the fact that everyone realised they were dancing on the world’s edge. It is possibly Molina’s best record to date.

What makes this particular record such a great live recording? This may sound like the most pretentious guff, but there is something, some genie spirit, in the opening seconds, where Juana Molina raps out “ola” and gets cracking with a rousing punk take on ‘Un Dia Punk’, that makes you know this is going to be a hell of a show. There is something in the elation of the “muchas gracias” at the end, too. A human spirit imprinted indelibly into the often stilted world of the live record.

Molina’s music is normally associated with hypnotising, groovy cuts such as 'Un Dia' and 'Tres Cosas'. Despite this often demure image, there is an awful lot going on in all of these live versions, many of which seem determined on finishing in a radically different way to that in which they started. The opener, ‘Un Dia Punk’ is a blast, a sped up, shiny folk-punk knockabout; the track’s mellifluousness putting me in mind of Steely Dan at their most transatlantic. The same can be said of the guitar break in the second track, ‘Eras’.

There is an extra twinkle in the eye of many of these takes: ‘Paraguaya’ sounds positively naughty, even with the melancholy string-like synths and metronomic tick of the stripped back beat. That this track is followed by a punk version of the same song (with Molina revealing herself to the White Goddess in witch form) is a fabulous move. Now the listener feels trapped in a multicoloured, fast-forwarded version of what went before. That initial switch, and subsequent drops and surges are addictive to listen to.

Despite all the uptempo passages and mid-track turnabouts, there is a feeling of remove that gives this record its almost supernatural power and grace. ‘Estalacticas’ is presented as a beautiful stop-start number; the ever-so-slightly vocoded vocals slightly estranged from the mix, floating on top of the whole, like sirens guiding a ship to its doom. And the considerable electro-folk vibe on display in ‘Bicho Auto’ is as gimlet-eyed and starry-spaced as a layabout hippy who's just found a big lump of Morrocan in the wool of their Afghan jacket.

The gig also superbly captures the intimacy of Molina’s recorded work. ‘¡Ay No Se Offendan!’ begins as a beautiful moment of calm, driven by a looped rhythm built (maybe) from a vocal sample. It’s the sort of hypnotizing thing you’d hear on a Maarja Nuut record. All is groovy until the synth takes up a jazzy lick and we are back on the soul train for a short ride. ‘Sin Donnes’ begins in a similarly horizontal manner, but suddenly gets wind in its sails courtesy of some extremely funky drum patterns. The same can be said for the closer, the “official” take on ‘Un Dia’, which is a beautiful, extra-bouncy version, given a kick up the rear end courtesy of some toms and kick drums and a sax (I think) gatecrashing the party.

Previously, with the original shows compressed and repackaged into spaces and objects they were never originally designed for, live albums often never really passed muster. They were sold as the makeweight to tide an act over between albums, or released by backstreet operations to those desperate to hear things they could never access; over or underproduced and packaged, quickly forgotten. In these times, this traditional ugly duckling of the release schedule could now fill a very important role: if only as a memory device for those looking back to wonder just what the fuss was all about. Especially with recordings as enlivening and refreshing as ANRMAL.