Argentines have historically depended on their singers and instrumentalists to save the country's soul during its darkest days—the rags-to-riches rise of tango idol Carlos Gardel placated the immigrant poor during the Great Depression, and youth mobilization around the rock en español movement helped finish the Dirty War of the early 1980s, for instance. But even this proud tonal tradition couldn't rescue the South American nation from the chaos and anarchy of 2002 that ruined nearly every section of society but especially affected musicians.
Bank shutdowns prohibited record labels from spending money to release or record any albums. Without any financial reward, musicians gave up their aural ambitions and worked at menial jobs—who gives a fuck about artistic vision when you have to eat? Even big-name Argentine acts found it difficult to tour outside of their immediate provinces—not only was traveling too expensive, but immigration officials across the Western Hemisphere also hesitated to grant them artist visas, fearful these groups would try to defect.
It's appropriate, then, that Argentine rockeros Babasónicos finally achieved widespread recognition during this end-times environment. Like Cassandras peering into their dystopic destiny, Babasónicos predicted the annus horribilis that would be 2002 for their beleaguered nation on their 2001 album Jessico, an effort that ranks with What's Going On and London Calling as one of the angriest, timeliest yet most beautiful testimonies recorded.
The band's core members—singer Adrian Rodríguez, bassist Gabriel Manelli, guitarist Mariano Domínguez and drummer Diego Castellanos—had already garnered some fame in their native nation thanks to incessant touring and an unrelenting output of albums (10 in the 10 years of their existence). But their flashier contemporaries overshadowed the band in the United States; fans considered Babasónicos to be a group whose mixture of glam rock, Blur-esque aspirations and a healthy dose of electronica played well but wasn't particularly distinctive.
Babasónicos' reputation changed, however, with the recording of Jessico. Hearing Jessico is akin to visiting a once-elegant country that faces a destruction it doesn't even know is imminent. Setting the tone for Babasónicos' grim approach to their homeland is Jessico's album cover: a phallic cactus that's about to enter what looks like a nice round butt. Opening the CD case, the rape is complete; Argentina, Jessico's artwork says, will face tortuous times.
The album's lyrics continue this pessimistic interpretation of the country. Instead of openly condemning politicians and their policies through clever swears and brutal screams like their contemporaries Bersuit Vergarabat and Los Auténticos Decadentes, Babasónicos undertook a psychological examination of their countrymen's lives. The protagonists in the tracks of Jessico are defeated individuals no longer caring about the fate of their society, instead engaging in meaningless sex and massive substance abuse to bide their time before they die. The young abandon their towns for the big city or destinations abroad; God, "instead of praying for me, went to dance at the disco," according to the wryly tragic "El Loco."
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Dour stuff, really. But Jessico, while a mournful condemnation of an apathetic populace, also functions as delicious escapism with its churn of axe chords, drum thumps and keyboard swanks. Babasónicos switches fast and furiously between musical concepts on the album, swinging heavy-metal howls on "Soy Rock," then following it with the Chinese-influenced charm pop of the aforementioned "El Loco." A post-Western collage of twangy guitars, yodeling voices and cowboy posturing influences all the tracks—it's as if John Wayne's Monument Valley obnoxiousness now gallops in the pampas. The end product is intoxicating; it's no surprise club-goers across Latin America are currently losing their hearing to a recently released Jessicodance-mix compilation.
Critics rightfully acclaimed Jessico immediately upon its release. Rolling Stone's Argentine edition decided it was the best album of 2001, as did bible-of-Latin-alternative La Banda Elástica. Jessico reached the United States last year, and it sounded like history before the fact for curious record buyers as doom-and-gloom dispatches from Argentina haunted the news. The resulting demand for the album allowed Babasónicos to tour the U.S. in late 2002, despite their country's troubles. The band encountered passionate audiences of both Mexican and Argentine extractions, their bitter rivalry now forgotten under the solidarity-through-poverty banner.
Today, Jessico plays like prophesy, and people consider Babasónicos the sonic seers who divined a country's future through organ licks. And as Argentina's troubadours emerge from the rubble and begin howling their jeremiads for the world to discover, let us not forget that it took Babasónicos to motivate them. For that, Babasónicos deserve the presidency rather than Carlos Menem. Hell, glam rockers at the helm of Argentina would do better than that hijo de puta.
Babasónicos perform with Vincentino and Enjambre at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-1057. Tues., 8 p.m. $20. 16+.