was ‘Cuatro Chavales’ by Carolina Durante. Feel free to listen to it here while reading along.
Spain is going to feature prominently within my first few publications of 2023. I will obviously post an update once it appears, but Riffs, an unconventional journal on music and material culture, has recently accepted an article I wrote about how Madrid’s early-2000’s bootleg CD market turned me into a Suede fan. Like all untidy music writing, it’s complicated, but hopefully you will like it.
Cuatro Chavales, the sophomore full-length from Madrid quartet Carolina Durante, is remarkable for many reasons, but for me, it boils down to two. First, on a personal level, it required me leaving North America and the physical act of “being there” to feel genuinely excited about indie rock again. Second, as much as Spanish culture feels off-center from even the rest of “Europe,” the record just hits the global popular music zeitgeist on the head (and then keeps on smashing). In October, America’s biggest pop-star (who adopted a polymorphous indie aesthetic to reinvent herself in her thirties) declared, “It’s me, Hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Eight months earlier, Diego Ibañez sauntered across a bridge over the autovía at sunset, lighting a cigarette and loudly declared the same thing. Did the sheer joy of returning to gigs unmasked last year bring out a collective, subliminal acceptance of responsibility?
2022 was great by transitive property, as any year where I get back to Spain is great. My prior visits to Madrid and Segovia, in 2015, came on an extended weekender flying in from Paris. The following year, Carolina Durante formed in Madrid and began recording quintessentially Spanish rock n’ roll shout-along power-jams. Though I had been obsessively listening to the Estepona power-pop trio Airbag since 2008 and had taken notice of their new label Sonido Muchacho, I still managed to snooze on the emergent movemnet which newer groups like Carolina encapsulated. Or, maybe it never went away; I was just gone for too long.
When you’re cursed to be born in a country that celebrates ignorance, it’s easy to fall out of touch with an entire cultural spark that happens to be sung in another language (even if it happens to be your own homeland’s close-second language). Airbag helped confirm my long-standing suspicion that I had been born in the wrong country – namely, the first time I heard the live recording of their 15th anniversary gig and the beachball-bouncing crowd mouthed the synth solo to “Big Acuarium.” In a truly amazing twist, the pandemic drove Airbag into a phase of their greatest activity since the mid-2010’s. They released a great little EP called Discotecas, which included “Disco Azul” a heart-rendering ditty about falling in love with a coworker that sits high atop my favorite songs they’ve ever recorded.
As soon as it was legally possible for Americans to travel to the EU again, Airbag announced that they would play a special gig at Club Ochoymedia (the 8:30 Club, in other words) in Madrid in mid-May. As I did with Blur’s Hyde Park Reunion in 2009, I bought tickets for the gig and then made the necessary arrangements. My partner and I planned our Iberian journey (her first time overseas) around a pop-punk concert, which feels just as cool to write now as it did to plan a year ago.
Less than two weeks before the gig, Airbag announced that their opener would be someone called Temerario Mario, which means “Reckless Mario” (as everything sounds dumber in English). Possibly influenced by Mario’s detached, lo-fi aesthetic online, I let my excitement to see Airbag drown out any curiosity about who the opener was. My presumption was that it would be some Spanish analogue of Christopher Owens (not great) or Ariel Pink (much worse).
I will proudly say now that I was amazingly wrong.
Like a lot of aging punk fans, my early-’20s dalliance with (indie-)rockism had left me largely apathetic about the prior decade of chaff that labels like Sub Pop and Matador had been spitting out. This prevented me from falling in love with artists like Mac Demarco, the War on Drugs, and other references from 2016. Even in the minutes before Mario del Valle and drummer Juan Pedrayes (who constitute half of Caroline Durante and play in several other bands) walked onstage, I let myself chomp at the bit for Airbag to begin.
Mario began his set with a few solo songs – just him, his acoustic-electric, and (what appeared to be) everyone in the audience below the age of 35 screaming along to everything. “Oh, this dude’s a phenomenon here,” I told my partner, “Of course he is.” Within a couple songs of Pedrayes joining him on drums, I found myself yelling at her, “I kind of love this kid!” unable to wipe the smile off my face. He and Pedrayes covered “The KKK Took My Baby Away” during their set (a potent reminder of just how important the Ramones have always been), and they spent almost all of Airbag’s thrashing through the crowd, climbing onstage, and embracing in tandem stagedives. I had never seen anything like it before, particularly as such a flagrant fuck-you to Spanish laddish machismo (even more so considering how “chaval” closely translates to “lad”).
All four members of Carolina Durante present different visions of sexual ambiguity, too, which, coupled with their unconventionally photogenic looks, make them the perfect rock n’ roll band for the 2020’s. Even their respective ages are difficult to guess, since they’re tight as hell musicians who still carry themselves as if they looked and sounded like shit (recalling musical urbanitas like The Strokes in their rawest moments). Diego Ibañez delivers a glorious mix of David Yow’s madman energy and David Gedge’s purposefully unsophisticated vocals, beneath a unibrow-scowl that brings to mind a brash young Liam Gallagher. If they’d formed ten years earlier in the UK, they may have supplanted the Arctic Monkeys as “the century’s saviours of Rock music,” but they formed in 2017 in Madrid, so they’ve had to settle for being one of the most exciting rock bands on Earth, largely unknown to the 7.35 billion people who don’t speak Spanish. Their Iberian contemporaries who chose to sing in English such as Hinds and Mourn have earned a following in that world, but they haven’t exactly taken it over. Either way, cultural traits like “la retranca” (ambiguity of personality/intent) are impossible to translate lyrically, no matter what language. The more I understand what Ibañez is singing, the more confused and intrigued I get about where he stands. And that’s fine.
I’ve grown increasingly skeptical and/or distasteful of outsider, English-language analyses of Spain – as enjoyable as Gerald Brenan and that ilk can be to read – but if I could insert my two cents as an English-speaking outsider who’s developed my own complicated relationship with the country: visiting Spain as an American feels like you’re sitting in a stranger’s living room with your feet up on their coffee table. It finally hit me just how off-center Spain is from “Europe” in 2015, and this time last year, it felt even more like a peripheral bubble with its own universe of art, food, and quality bullshit (even their interpretations of stuff created in the English-speaking world) that anybody from anywhere could enjoy or appreciate, but never understand.
This is all strange to write, since Carolina Durante has myriad points of reference in English-speaking indie music. It reveals their Spain to be an (infinitely better) alternate universe in which Doolittle made the Pixies – perhaps Carolina Durante’s most obvious Anglophone influence – superstars in their prime. The whole first half of Cuatro goes straight for the throat in that loud-quiet-loud way, and if “Tu Nuevo Grupo Favorito” doesn’t come true by its first chorus, well you’re about to start yelling along whether you want to or not. By the fifth track, “Urbanitas” (perhaps my favorite track on this thing) the scream-along choruses pound into your skull and played at the right volume, feel like they could peel your wallpaper. Cuatro Chavales feels calculated to be the record that should make Carolina Durante the biggest band in the world, even if that “world” is the self-contained one south of the Pyrenees.
So, let me return to that first point about what makes Cuatro Chavales such a landmark album to me. Ageing American music writers (cough) love to offer opinions about why rock music has “declined so much in cultural prominence” without even thinking what a tiny slice of the world we are. It’s that imperialist mentality that’s so easy to fall into without seeing how and why things don’t have to be that way.
Venues wouldn’t be so stringent and overpriced if our government weren’t too chickenshit to dissolve Ticketmaster and Livenation. People would pursue their creative dreams and be happier if they weren’t tied to soul-crushing employment for health insurance, and more people would come out and stagedive if ambulance rides didn’t cost $1000. Most importantly, it would be easier for us to admit that, sometimes, we are the problem, if we lived in a country that didn’t make a vast majority of us feel that way from birth. I make no pretenses that Spain is bereft of its own problems, but for me, hearing Carolina Durante shines a bright light on just how much more fun we could all be having.