The third CD by Spanish singer-songwriter Bebe, Un Pokito de Rocanrol, is her most sonically eclectic to date. (Buy it from Amazon.) As its title suggests, it’s slightly more conventionally rocking than 2005’s Pafuera Telarañas or 2009’s Y., with more electric guitars and a charged, postpunk energy on multiple tracks. But Bebe has always had a barely controlled edge of fury that’s made her one of the most compelling women in Spanish-language pop, and this time out, that side of her is more evident than ever. Hell, start with that cover, with her masking her face behind a cow’s skull.
Bebe‘s an artist who’s hard to file. Sure, there are other adventurous women working in superficially similar fashion – Natalia Lafourcade and Julieta Venegas in Mexico, Ana Tijoux in Chile, Andrea Echeverri (both in and out of Aterciopelados) in Colombia, and Mala Rodriguez in Bebe‘s native Spain. Hell, even Paulina Rubio is weirder than she’s often given credit for being. But she’s frequently more fierce than any of those women (even Tijoux and Rodriguez, whose work falls closer to hip-hop than pop/rock), and her voice and performance are often a direct challenge to the dominant gender stereotypes of Spanish culture. Where Venegas and Lafourcade are frequently flirty, and Echeverri transformed herself from punk to hippie after having a child, Bebe is in the listener’s face, her voice raspy and emphatic.
On the cover of Pafuera Telarañas, she was dressed in gender-bending punk garb – black jeans, a black button-down shirt and tie, and short, spiky hair. The album, which was ignored for quite a while before suddenly earning five Latin Grammy nominations at year’s end, was summed up well by its first single, the furious “Malo,” which called out a violent lover atop a backing track that mixed flamenco guitar with sudden stabs of turntable scratching. Six years later, it’s as powerful a statement as ever. The only link I can find for the video is un-embeddable, so go here, check it out, and come back.
Her second album, Y., was a much more stripped-down and quiet affair, dominated by acoustic guitar and vocals that purred and growled more than they barked. It’s a good record, but I don’t find myself listening to it as much as I did Pafuera Telarañas in the year or so after I first bought it. Un Pokito de Rocanrol, though, feels like it’s going to dominate my listening for a little while.
The album kicks off with “ABC,” a noisy collage of sounds. Slow acoustic guitar is backed by a wave of fuzz and big, emphatic hip-hop drums, as Bebe recites her lyrics in a witchy snarl, gradually shifting to a flamenco-tinged vocal as a stinging postpunk guitar figure begins to repeat insistently behind her. It’s a hypnotic song, full of restrained fury, and it sets up an album that’s going to demand close attention and repeated adjustments to the listener’s perspective.
The first shift comes with the second song; “Adiós” is a perky, pulsating kiss-off, set to a rockabilly guitar riff and a thwacking rhythm track. Musically, it sounds like it could have come off a Joe Strummer solo album, but the biting lyric – on which she declares, simply enough, that she’d rather be alone than be with the “you” she’s addressing – is pure Bebe.
Each of the album’s songs marks a sharp left turn from the one before. “Me Pintaré” is a thumping dancefloor chant, driven by zapping synths and handclaps, reminiscent of Le Tigre; “Sabras” is an anguished acoustic guitar lament; “Compra/Paga” is an almost literally breathless anti-consumerist rant over a punk-funk bass-and-drum attack straight from the DFA playbook; on “K.I.E.R.E.M.E,” she raps over high-speed electro-funk; and on and on. None of this album’s tracks sound like the others, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. If the surf-guitar-fueled “Qué Carajo” doesn’t get you off your ass, you might be in a coma and not know it. This is one of those albums, like Tego Calderon’s El Abayarde Contra-Ataca, that seems almost guaranteed to leave its intended audience both baffled and thrilled at once. It’s Bebe’s way of pushing everyone who thought they knew what she was about. Not pushing them away, mind you; just pushing (or pulling) them forward with her as she journeys inexorably onward. If it winds up earning her as many Latin Grammys as Pafuera Telarañas did, that would be a truly optimistic sign for Latin pop, which is frequently too conservative for its own good.
Here’s the video for “K.I.E.R.E.M.E.”: