Gustavo Santaolalla

Camino

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Argentina's Gustavo Santaolalla is not terribly well known to the English-speaking world, though he's won Academy Awards for his film scores for Brokeback Mountain and Babel, two Grammys as a record producer (Juanes and Café Tacuba), and 14 Latin Grammys. Camino is his first recording under his own name in 16 years. It is tangentially related to its immediate predecessor, 1998's Ronroco -- named for the ten-string Andean folk instrument that descends from the lute family. That record featured original compositions rooted in Santaolalla's native folk traditions. The music on Camino is more intimate and personal, but still reflects Latin influences. These elegant, mysterious tunes were written over 15 years; all but three were held back from other projects with a future album in mind. Santaolalla plays not only the ronroco, but a bevy of other stringed instruments, keyboards, pipes, percussion, and bass harmonica. "Alma" recalls the haunting spirit of Ronroco. Perhaps that's because it was written a year after its release. Played on the instrument, its lilting, melancholic melody is highlighted by muted keyboards, pipes, and guitarron. The ouroboros-like "Vamos" features layered string instruments and a spooky guest fiddle spot from Punch Brother Gabe Witcher. "Requiem" features the artist on bass harmonica. Initially, its skeletal instrumentation feels as if it were being composed on the spot, but as seconds pass, a clearly identifiable melody asserts itself. With a pump organ adding chords to the harmonic line, they create a bittersweet lyric worthy of the title. This highlights one of Santaolalla's core strengths: an ability to create something nearly magical from very little. It gives way to the lush, lonely string interplay and keys on "Cordon de Plata," which, despite its sparseness, feels cinematic. The gradually developing "Parana" is among the loveliest moments here; it's a 6/8 waltz played on the cuatro with percussion underscoring its dancelike quality. "The Maze" employs counterpoint in creating an edgeless dissonance from treated guitars, ronroco, and bass. "Wait and Then" is a simply constructed meditation on guitarron tuned like an oud. "Seguir" is almost pastoral as it weaves ronroco, bass, tres, and other percussion through its tender lyric line. It stands in stark contrast to the closer, "Returning," an outtake version of the one used on the stellar, BAFTA Games Award-nominated score for the video game The Last of Us. The ronroco makes full use of an organic reverb technique, with the impressionistic melody caressed by airy keyboards that coax more strident -- yet no less economical -- lines from the instrument. For all of its understatement and artful use of space, Camino is as powerful as it is personal. It communicates like a traveling storyteller, gently weaving tales that, though brief, offer larger implications: their origins secret, their destinations determined by the listener.

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