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Thursday, October 5, 2023

Maria Elena Silva - Dulce (Astral Spirits Records and BIG EGO Records 2023)

By Gary Chapin

To the list of things I didn’t know I needed, I will now add Maria Elena Silva’s Dulce, featuring Silva’s songs, voice, and guitars, Marc Ribot, guitars etc.,Chris Schlarb, guitar, Carey Frank, Hammond organ, along with Danny Frankel, Stephen Hodges, and Scott Dean Taylor all percussing.

Silva’s voice is, in fact, dulce—sweet, airy, vulnerable—in most places, especially when framed by the gravitic intensity of Ribot’s high-tension electric and Frank’s organ (what a sound those two make!) but, as we learned from Billie Holiday all those years ago, sweet, airy, and vulnerable have an intensity all their own. The production brings this out, sometimes to a remarkable level—the whispers against the howls.

(I am reminded that, when microphones were first developed, folks were amazed that you could have a quiet voice singing in front of a big band, and the voice would command the room. That’s us at FJB, still in wonderment over century-plus old technology.)

“Love, If It Is So” plants the first flag, a rocker that becomes ecstatic in three/four—Silva insisting “this is love,” the title telling us she’s trying to convince herself. The percussion creates a fluid that the guitar rides, a complementary/rebutting story that could have tranced me the whole length of the recording. Instead, cutting itself short, choosing not to overstay.

“Envolvero I” gives us a quiet recitative before “Ruido Blanco,” a plaint in Spanish that starts with a folk waltz feel that keeps going while the layers pile modestly on. I do not speak Spanish, and, confession, often I prefer songs in languages I don’t understand because then I am not chained to the meanings of the words. As a writer, I am envious of those who can evoke without having to articulate.

Which is not to damn with faint praise. For “Jasper,” a talking/singing, haunted story, Silva’s way with words is heartbreaking. The track also demonstrates the connection between song and sound. Silva sings, “here comes the rain,” and the band—starting with some sweet sweet brush work—picks up to present us: rain. Followed by a Ribot solo that keeps us up at night. The abutment of folk, pop, and abandon is perfect.

I came to Dulce via Marc Ribot. He was the hook. Or the bait? (I don’t fish, folks.) But the songs are what hold this together (as it should be). I can pick out this excellent bit, or that piece of fantastic, but without the context of Silva’s songs they would be empty. I am suspicious of romance, as a rule, but only because it can be as enticing, intriguing, tragic, and sweet as this record is.

PS, It’s interesting that the number one thing-I-didn’t-know-I-needed from last year (Mali Obomsawin’s, Sweet Tooth ) also played with the sweetness theme. Probably not a coincidence, even if—if!—my own d’rothers are the only common element in this equation.