At the start of Ondara's third album, 2022's wry and effusive Spanish Villager No. 3, he sings, "Look now what I've become, someone from another space and time." It's from the opening track, "An Alien in Minneapolis," and could very easily describe how the Kenya-born, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter sees himself over two albums and a Grammy-nomination into his career. However, while the album is certainly born out of his own unique life experience, it's actually written in the guise of the titular character, an alter-ego of Ondara's that first populated a short story, then a graphic novel, and now an album. There's a bigger, more robust playfulness to Ondara's work here, as if he's trying to push beyond the folky troubadour sound that made him famous. Where 2020's Folk n' Roll was recorded quickly, just after the singer went into isolation during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spanish Villager is a lush recording, full of vibrant piano, guitar, and even brass flourishes. It was produced with the singer's longtime collaborator Mike Viola and benefits from musical contributions by Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith and Griffin Goldsmith as well as instrumentalists Sebastian Steinberg, Tim Kuhl, and Jeremy Stacey. There's a warm lyricism to many of the songs, with Ondara's rich tenor framed in shimmering guitars and insistent percussion grooves. It's an evocative sound that brings to mind the work of classic artists like Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Fleetwood Mac, all of which makes sense given that Ondara toured alongside Mac's Lindsey Buckingham prior to the pandemic. Still, there are deeply poetic and political ideas at play on the album as Ondara further explores themes of dislocation, identity, and how the American dream often eludes and fails immigrants. Much of the album plays as an odd travelog, a "Contrarian Odyssey," as he sums it up with the final song. He moves through various cities, as on the hooky acoustic anthem "A Blackout in Paris" and the yearningly romantic, organ-accented "A Drowning in Mexico." There's an imagistic quality to his writing, marked by vignettes that symbolize a world on the brink and people struggling just to get by. This leads up to the cinematic "A Prophet of Doom," in which democracy is literally "on the line" and Ondara asks, "Are you racking up a debt, cutting wood in Afghanistan?" Later, he ponders a fated escapism, singing "Take some time off, ride a bicycle, take a sabbatical, pet your animal/Put your finger in a socket, and watch it all blowing up." Thankfully, humor and Ondara's knack for referencing pop culture iconography keep things from getting too bleak. On the twangy, Elvis Costello-esque "A Suspicious Deliverance," he defines the dark irony of his world view, singing "Like the Greeks of ancient/Reaching a trepidation/Look at the movie star/Look at him Captain Picard/Show me an observation/Of a better civilization." Perhaps Spanish Villager No. 3 is Ondara's call for that better civilization. It's also a boldly transformative pop album.
Spanish Villager No. 3 Review
by Matt Collar