Maria Usbeck’s solo debut, Amparo (Cascine), is a record of subtle hooks and profound but complicated joy and wistfulness. Recorded with Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, this first collection of songs by the former Selebrities frontwoman sung in her native Spanish paints a three-dimensional world in acoustic colors.
It is the percussion that strikes you first. The marimba is frequently the most prominent sound element on Amparo, its glassy notes bouncing back the light of the melody, but also bending and shifting that light, revealing a multiplicity of colors and disrupting the easy flow of those deceptively simple melodies in a way that’s never jarring. The layered hand drums on the gorgeous piano ballad “Uno De Tus Ojos” give the song a subtle propulsion that’s almost reminiscent of techno without overwhelming the delicacy of the piece. Those drums create a backdrop for some of her strongest singing to find its own organic rhythm, slipping between, subverting, and teasing those harder beats. “Playa Escondida” paints the Mexican beachfront with beats closer to a dance party, but also shade the narrative and aren’t content with just pushing forward.
But Usbeck’s voice is also striking. A wordless background vocal rises and dips and never quite repeats the same way on “Isla Magica.” On “Moai Y Yo,” she shifts from the foreground to background as she narrates in a relaxed mode reminiscent of Caetano Veloso. Meanwhile, “Playa Escondida” moves from spoken word into diamond-hard rhythms, while “Lapislazul” conjures the blue of the title in a voice that seems to teeter on the edge of the world.
The traditional Andean music of Usbeck’s childhood in Quito is conjured with the prominent use of pan flutes throughout the album. That breathy, woody tone is chopped up by low drums and silvery hi-hats on “Camino Desolado,” as Usbeck paints a picture of the eponymous desolate road in a voice alternately beckoning and warning, dropping into a whisper and fading out before surging back. Those flutes reappear as a key part of the backdrop of these very urban songs that also includes field recordings of rushing water and birds. Amparo insinuates instead of proclaiming and it’s all the richer for it. Snatches of melody embed themselves in the listener’s brain like the softest jagged shrapnel. There are things here to unpack for ages.