This is a well-worn cliché, but to me, New York City sounds like a tenor saxophone. Whether this is an abstraction derived from the cacophony of traffic noise that fills its bustling streets, or just years of internalized media depictions, or my own experiences as a fan of live jazz, Mingus Mondays etched permanently into my brain and thus forever associated with the contours of Lower Manhattan– I’m not sure. But New York City sounds like a tenor sax. Barranquilla also has a sound: it’s a faint vallenato, playing in the distance from some neighbor’s kitchen window. Buenos Aires? God, it’s been so many things over the decade I’ve lived here. These days, though, it’s the music of María Pien.
I found María Pien by perusing the “free” tag on Bandcamp. This is how I’ve found a surprising amount of great music, further disproving the myth that the only people interested in giving their music away for free are generic, interchangeable electronic “acts” (usually one dude with a laptop and some cursory knowledge of Ableton) or equally generic and interchangeable Flatbush punk bands. María’s first album, La Vuelta Manzana, was offered as a free download on the aforementioned service and became an instant favorite; a lovingly hand-crafted collection of whimsical summersongs and rain-soaked ballads– even a disconcertingly anachronistic tango– all zestfully performed by an artist who (at least sounds like she) is having the time of her life. The clear highlight for me was the track “Fantasía en G Para un Pueblo al Sur del Mapa“, a sheer masterpiece in folk-pop craftsmanship taking the form of a love letter/compassionate plea to a beautiful city that too often behaves like a petulant child, and whose considerable charms can be easy to take for granted. I raved about the track to everyone who’d listen, played it on a podcast, and included it in the mix I made for the Summer Mixtape Blog Ring over at In Pursuit of Expression. It’s just a stunner of a track.
One of the drawbacks of downloading free music from Bandcamp it’s that it’s never really free– you know the adage about free lunches. Like many services that purport to be free on the age of social media, its true cost is in the value of data aggregation. By downloading the free content, you agree to be quantified and put on a spreadsheet for further peddling and who knows what else. True, it’s a minor nuisance– a tour announcement here, an obnoxious PR e-mail there– but there’s something I miss about being able to sample some music and politely excuse myself from any further contact with minimal hassle. Sometimes, however, it pays off to not click that inconspicuous “unsubscribe” button at the bottom of every one of these automated e-mail templates. Like when María Pien sent an e-mail announcing the follow-up to La Vuelta Manzana, which was already written, recorded, mixed and available for instant streaming. Like a surprise gift from an old friend.
The name of María Pien’s second album is Malinalli. It is, at first glance, a more modest album than its predecessor: fewer songs, shorter length, sparser sound with more conservative arrangements. But what Malinalli truly is is a subtly magnificent album, more cohesive and self-assured than La Vuelta Manzana, and a huge leap forward for Pien. It is an exercise in songcraft, made up almost entirely of classical guitar-based ballads, and aside from its exuberant opening and closing tracks, an altogether more laid-back affair. Doffing the intricate architecture of her debut, letting the songs stand on their own as minimally adorned compositions, reveals an emotional depth to Pien’s register that her previous work only hinted at. And while there are plenty of moments that match the doe-eyed playfulness of her debut– the nursery-rhyme syncopation in “El Muerto en la Heladera”, the delightfully unfurling title track, the Luis Buñuel fever dream that is “El Sapo”– it’s the unguarded moments of unabashed melancholy where this album shines brightest. The melodic elegance of songs like “Madera y Mano” and “Una Palabra” (posted above), as well as the impassioned sincerity in Pien’s delivery, make these songs the clear highlights of the album.
“Una palabra bastó para traerte hasta aquí”, María Pien sings in the aforementioned track. One word was enough to bring you here, as if the distance between us was but a story. As if your presence was the springtime. There’s a song on La Vuelta Manzana titled “Spring Inside“, a lovely Joni Mitchell throwback arranging disparate strands of memories into a vivid portrait of a fast-fading spring. María Pien is very interested in seasons, in memories and in spaces; her songs exist in the convergence of the three. There’s an unspoken stillness to even our most uproariously joyous moments, a quiet understanding of the significance of these moments, that runs like a lace between the people who share in it. It flies off of us like specks of mercury, onto the streets and buildings and people that surround us. We mark these things permanently with the ghost of our revelry, and the passage of time colors them a melancholy hue. A song like “Una Palabra” taps into this emotional space expertly, complementing a stately classical guitar chord progression with a tasteful bed of strings, the song resolving like a memory slowly fading in the horizon.
María Pien ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to finance the special-edition physical release of Malinalli. Good timing and dumb luck resulted in my contribution being the one that pushed her past her goal, and my donor reward was that she’d record a cover of any song of my choosing. I suggested Tom Waits’s Blood Money ballad, “All the World is Green”, and María delivered a stunning version. Check it out below.