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Tango is crying out for reinvention. The death of Astor Piazzolla in 1992 marked the end of the last great era of experimentation. Perennial revivals and occasional new approaches pop up in Buenos Aires but there is still a creative void in the genre.
"La Revancha del Tango" by Franco-Argentine outfit Gotan Project takes tango away from the ballroom, the floorshow and the heavy nostalgia that lingers in every step of the dance. Acoustic guitar, piano, double bass and bandoneon (the plaintive button accordion vital to tango) are overlaid with dub treatments, screeching violins, fast trancey beats and speech samples. They are clearly on a mission to get tango into clubland.
Their use of tango comes from the classic thumping, dance-friendly orchestral sound of the 1930s and 40s. The repetitions, sudden shifts in direction and melodramatic flourishes fit neatly into the frantic pace of the contemporary dance beat. But this is music for the lounge, not the salon. Most numbers open with promising stridency but this can soon drift into a level, blase series of variations. And some will find it soporific. The liveliest track on the album, "Last Tango in Paris", is the leastgroundedin tango. The energetic chacarera "La del ruso"finds the ten musicians liveliest when doing jazz-style improvisations.
Their songs are given some smoky (not always tuneful) female vocals on "Una musica brutal" and the great Piazzolla-Solanas song "Vuelvo al sur". Some of the singing recalls the past glories of tango cancion but is essentially decorative, evoking more than it delivers.
Which is, I suspect, the project Gotan have embarked on to explore, and exploit, tango's suggestive qualities, its melancholy moods and romance, and its local mythologies. Their music hints at shadowy cobbled backstreets in Buenos Aires, the elegant couples dancing while democracies are toppled and the memory of tango as its one great export. Like a soundtrack, you keep wondering what the film might look like.
Those looking for a new tango maestro must keep on waiting. Whilst this album is daring on its own terms, and achingly stylish, it will not have tango conservatives threatening the lives of Gotan's musicians as they did Piazzolla.
This is a trippy, slickly-executed and utterly modern tango sound, but a bit too harmless and non-committal. Where the band go next with tango, or dance,or jazz,is an open question but they'll probably go somewhere interesting.