Weekly (p)reviews: Se ve la vida

Mon Laferte, Milk Carton Kids, Marisa Anderson & William Tyler

When the world ground to a halt last year as a result of the pandemic, Mon Laferte was forced, for the first time in a long time, to slow down. 

“I discovered I had to be more patient,” she says. “I always want to have things done yesterday, but the uncertainty of the world made me realize that I had to be more patient and be more calm.” 

That kind of humility is something so many of us had to come to grips with over the past 18+ months, but for Laferte, coming to that conclusion feels revelatory considering how much this Latin alternative star has packed into her 38 years on this planet.

Mon Laferte. Photo by Joel Orta.
Mon Laferte. Photo by Joel Orta.

Born in Chile to a working class family, Laferte has been grinding away at her career since her teen years. At 12, she was busking on the streets of Valparaiso and Santiago, and a few years later, earned a spot on Rojo, a popular reality TV competition. While Laferte (then performing as Monserrat Bustamante) ultimately didn’t win, she was a fan favorite for her powerful renditions of Latin pop standards. 

As her star rose, she became more and more disillusioned at the industry and tired of singing other people’s songs. Seeking fresh inspiration, Laferte decided to relocate to Mexico in 2007. It was a bold move, even if it did send her back to square one—upon arriving, she was back to performing cover tunes in bars and busking around Mexico City. 

This was also a period where Laferte faced the horror of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A shattering experience, to be sure, but the treatment and her recovery proved to be the final motivation she needed to find her own sound. (She also marked the moment by officially changing her nom de plume to Mon Laferte.) 

Over the past decade, Laferte has worked in an array of musical modes. Her 2015 album Mon Laferte Vol. 1 set upbeat ska amid dramatic alt-rock ballads, folkie laments, and swinging early ’60s-style pop. La Trenza, released two years later, was a delicious exploration of various Latin pop styles that netted Laferte multiple Latin Grammy nominations. Somewhere along the way, she even found time to front the metal band Mystica Girls. 

For her latest album SEIS, Laferte chose to tap into the sounds that have poured out the windows of homes, shops, and cars in Mexico for decades: ranchera, bolero, banda, and cumbia among them. Each song drips with emotion—fury and confusion over women stuck in toxic relationships (“Calaveras”), sorrow over the plight of imprisoned women (“Se ve la vida”), pride and love for her adopted country (“Amigos simplemente”).

The move into Regional Mexican music was a comfortable one for Laferte, as she says that, even in Chile, “Mexican music is part of our culture.” 

“I have been listening to this music since I was little,” she continues, “and watched a lot of Mexican films, especially on Sundays, on open TV channels. It tags along with you. And I realized I know more about Mexican music than even some of my friends who grew up here in Mexico.” 

That knowledge helped when it came to choosing guest vocalists for SEIS. On the first single from the album, “Que Se Sepa Nuestro Amor,” Laferte duets with Alejandro Fernández, a superstar in Mexican pop and the son of ranchera legend Vincente Fernández. Elsewhere, she shares the song “La Mujer” with Gloria Trevi, a pop singer infamous in her native Mexico for being wrapped up in a corruption scheme that landed her in prison for four years. For Laferte, the choice had less to do with those scandals than the trails that Trevi blazed in her career. “She was a rebel and her songs were always ahead of their time,” Laferte says. “When I was little, her songs were forbidden because of their lyrics. I was very inspired by her.” 

Like Trevi, Laferte has never shied away from daring subjects in her songs. Over the years, Laferte has written about abusive relationships, her issues with depression, and, on her 2019 single “Plata Ta Ta,” the demonstrations against government corruption and social inequality in her native Chile.

The deepest expression along these lines on SEIS is “Se ve la vida,” a song Laferte wrote after visiting a women’s prison in Valparaiso to hold some songwriting workshops and sing for the inmates. “I was very impacted by what I saw when I got to connect with them,” Laferte says. “Many of them were there for minor crimes, and they’re just so isolated with very little opportunity to get reinserted into society. That got me really angry but also how I got inspired to work with them. Even though they’re physically in jail, their minds and their spirits and their creativity are still free.” 

With the world opening up again, Laferte is starting to pick up her pace. In addition to her current tour, which stops by Roseland Theater on Thursday, September 16, she already has a new album recorded and ready to be released. And, she says, she’s trying to get as much done as possible now as she is expecting her first child. 

“The pandemic made me discover a maternal side that I didn’t even know I had,” she says. “I guess I’m going to be learning a lot of new things because I’m a newbie as a mom, so I think things might change a lot along the way.” 

Mon Laferte performs at Roseland Theater (8 NW 6th Ave, Portland OR) on Sept 16, w/ Flor de Toloache. 8 pm. Tickets: $49.50

The Milk Carton Kids @ Aladdin Theater, Sept 8, 2021 / Marisa Anderson & William Tyler @ Mississippi Studios, Sept 12, 2021

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the release of Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith’s multi-disc collection blues, bluegrass, zydeco, gospel, and the various other strains of Americana. When it arrived in 1952, it served as a wellspring, feeding young musicians who eventually spurred the folk music revival of the ’60s and beyond. And with its subsequent reissue on CD in 1997 and in a new vinyl edition (via Mississippi Records) in 2014, the impact of the Anthology has only grown, even as the ripples from its initial release have warped and doubled back on themselves. 

There was no clearer understanding of the continued influence of that set on today’s roots music—and how some musicians have dared to build modernist structures on its foundation—than the performances by a pair of duos that happened this past week in Portland. 

The Milk Carton Kids, the California-based project of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, see little point in messing with folk music’s most elemental expressions: acoustic guitar and vocal. Throughout the majority of their recorded work and their live sets, the pair return to those core values with the only modern trapping being the Ear Trumpet Labs microphone that they huddle around for amplification.

The Milk Carton Kids @ Aladdin Theater, Sept 8, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
The Milk Carton Kids @ Aladdin Theater, Sept 8, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

At the same time, the Kids’ version of folk music has also been polished and streamlined and dressed in a well-tailored suit. Their 45-minute set opening for Portlander Haley Heynderickx last Wednesday (they would swap roles the next night at Revolution Hall) wasn’t lacking in emotion. Even in its mid tempo drive, “Younger Years,” a track from their 2018 album All The Things I Did and All The Things I Didn’t Do, poignantly evoked days of wasted youth in an unforgiving rural landscape. And Pattengale’s vocals on “There By Your Side” felt like they were being cathartically pulled from some deep vein of heartbreak. 

It all seemed entirely effortless for this pair. Pattengale peeled off splendid solos from his vintage acoustic guitar without breaking a sweat. They slipped into their Everly Brothers-like harmonies with ease. And their onstage banter, which consisted of a lot of good-natured ribbing of one another, had the timing of a well-rehearsed vaudeville act, even if it was seemingly off the cuff. It’s the byproduct of a duo that has been working together consistently for a full decade, but it left little to chance and almost no space to surprise. 

Even after multiple spins, Marisa Anderson and William Tyler’s debut collaboration Lost Futures, released in June via Thrill Jockey Records, still has the power to astound. The two master guitarists pull from the same Anthology-born source material as the Milk Carton Kids (I hear echoes of Ramblin’ Thomas’ “Poor Boy Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” in Tyler and Anderson’s deliberate, impassioned playing), overlaying it with the influences of atmospheric electronic music, jazz, and psychedelia.

While Anderson and Tyler would likely acknowledge all of that, they still don’t seem to know or care how to categorize their music. Anderson mentioned last night during their set at Mississippi Studios that Lost Futures had somehow landed at #3 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums chart. “I don’t think bluegrass uses dissonant minor sevenths,” she joked. Tyler, a native of Nashville, retorted, “Those are city people chords.” 

The nearest the set got to bluegrass was the appearance of violin player Gisela Rodriguez Fernandez for the final few songs. Her additions to the sound were less fiddle stomp than they were scraping discord and a hazy counter to the melodies that Anderson and Tyler locked into throughout. Fernandez’s spark was fanned into a flame with the addition of Patricia Vázquez Gómez playing a quijada and Lost Futures’ producer Tucker Martine slipping into the background to quietly thump on a floor tom.

Marisa Anderson & William Tyler @ Mississippi Studios, Sept 12, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.
Marisa Anderson & William Tyler @ Mississippi Studios, Sept 12, 2021. Photo by Robert Ham.

The quintet were in full conflagration on “Something Will Come,” a loud, droning wonder set to the clockwork rhythm of Anderson’s repeated guitar phrase. They thundered forward for nearly 10 minutes, kept in check only by an hourglass that Tyler turned over to mark the start of the song. Once the final grain of sand slipped through the funnel, the piece fumbled to a charmingly gawky end.

These four guitarists are clearly finding many different nuggets of inspiration within the work compiled on Anthology—whether it’s the pure source material or the way that it has been refracted and rearranged over the past seven decades. The one quality they do share, either in their pairings or in their individual projects, is what makes Smith’s set such an unforgettable and irresistible listen: the unmatched release that music provides to the soul. All four left their respective stages noticeably lighter in spirit than when they arrived.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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