Gabriela Marrone’s Altas Planicies is the very quiet work of a true pioneer. Born of rural, Argentinian descent, but cosmopolitan via adolescent growth, Gabriela took what could have been a forgettable life as a diplomat’s daughter and used it as a way to develop personally into the inspirational force she came to be.
Early, creative influences that people with good taste should nurture (the music of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles) and personal, roots music from her own childhood (tango, Mexican rancheras and Irish folk music) pushed her to pick up a guitar; to become a singer/songwriter. When not pursuing her musical career or a budding interest in acting, Gabriela would travel around the world recording music that spoke of an intriguing blend of Spanish psychedelia and harder, English folk/rock and prog. Historically important, albeit not musically “worth it”, it was her work in the ‘70s that helped pave the way for many female vocalists who formed part of the “Rock En Español” movement that would sweep Chile and Argentina.
By the ‘80s, one could sense Gabriela beginning to develop an unique streak more tied to the unimpeachable mid-70’s work of Joni Mitchell. Her own life had by then be transformed as an immigrant living in Los Angeles who came into contact with the life of other Latin American migrants like her trying to make a living in a foreign land. Largely eschewing hard rock for jazz-influenced folk and Pop with a heavy West Coast vibe, on albums like Ubalé — a quite special, little-known masterpiece of Mitchell-like Art Pop — Gabriela kept pushing for new angles to take her South American roots. If it sounded entirely personal, it was because she was finding ways to expand on the personal lyricism of her early influences. It was then that personal movement throughout Europe led to exposure to all sorts of other styles like fado, bossa nova, and continental folk music, and those had started to infiltrate her own music.
Self-financing her own productions, sometimes offering only homemade milanesas and potato fritters as payment for their work, these releases were a true labor of love. Those early ‘80s records, one even sung entirely in English under a Scandinavian company’s dime, led her to work with musicians like David Lindley, Robben Ford, and Alex Acuña, who facilitated Gabriela’s own growth as a songwriter with Ubalé remaining firmly her creative awakening.
For a long time in her life Gabriela had avoided living or working in her homeland. Due to the constraints placed by the repressive regime on artists, Gabriela had to make most of her creative work outside of Argentina and in Los Angeles, California. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with Argentina’s political climate liberating, Gabriela finally felt enough confidence to come back home to Buenos Aires and try something different.
Altas Planicies, would take inspiration from two things: the ambiance of the Argentinian high plains and experimental music little-known/heard in her homeland. Working with members who helped her create Ubalé and new school, Argentinian esoteric trailblazers like Pedro Aznar, husband Pino Marrone, and ECM tango genius Dino Saluzzi, Altas Planicies presents a wonderful marriage of minimal jazz and ambient folk Pop.
Never quite losing her eye on adapting traditional music through a vanguardist prism, one listen to the opening track “López y Su Tía Esther” squares you exactly to what she was going for. Essence of tangos transmuting through spectral synth planes, Altas Planicies saw no need to water down the poetic license of her past if it still had a role in these new, unusual ideas.
Airy, quite spacious, and given to very subtle instrumentation, on a lot of the tracks on Altas Planicies the heavy lifting was done by Gabriela’s vocals. To my ears, taking the role an accordion might have played in the past, it’s her vocals that bellow softly or reach for lofty heights moving nocturnal songs through all torrents of emotions via delicate, precise ideas. “Llevame A Ver La Luna”, a song with more atmosphere than chord changes, making the perfect case for how brilliant this change in her music was.
When barely there drum machines, waltz around hints of Mexican ranch music, and faintly glowing synthesizers restrain themselves around Gabriela’s voice, songs like “Un Día Termina Hoy” and traditional folk standards like “Canción Mixteca” find an unlikely terminus in the Italian minimalism hinted in her background and the aeons old plaintive, minimalism of classic Latino torch balladry. If Joni Mitchell’s Blue had a rightful heir in the era of digital production, the second-half of Altas Planicies, especially on songs like “Se Va La Segunda” and “Como Te Extraño Mi Amor”, make its case that even Joni could have found a way through this electronic mush of time through their example.
By the time you journey to the end, all the way to its title track, only a flute and Gabriela’s voice carry the whole album to its crowning finale. Growing via silent structures, “Altas Planicies” builds like heat striking the floor. Quite invisible currents, ebbing upward with every emotional, musical crest, seemingly, moving in tandem with Gabriela’s liberal phrasing, carry this song. We may not feel the movement, but the reach of Gabriela’s grasp is so palpable that high drama reaches us via some of the least likely whispers in the osmosis. From a whisper to a dream, it’s all there just waiting to be experienced. Go back, just a few songs before, and hear how little it takes to get you there.