Review: Ramona Cordova – “Naive”

Home recording has been a blessing to the indie world, a truly democratizing force in a musical toolkit constructed out of DIY ethos. Yes, for every Daniel Johnston, there are thousands of never-knowns toiling in obscurity. But, when used right or even used wrong but interestingly, the art of the home-recorded LP can be as anthemic as the broadest, loudest, brashest hook from the biggest stadium-rock band out there. And potentially more filled with meaning and the artist’s fingerprints.

Which, in a way, leads us to Ramona Cordova. Like Bibio, whose quirky and cyclical alt-folk stylings they sometimes coopt, Ramona Cordova, aka Ramona Vicente Alarcon, started their journey with illuminating pseudo-home recordings like 2006’s The Boy Who Floated Freely. And, like Bibio, they have retreated to the studio in search of new sonic terrain. On Naïve – their new outing and first new LP proper since 2017’s On Paper – Alarcon works with a wider and sometimes more nuanced palette than before and, though the record’s best moments seem perfectly well-suited to a lo-fi adventure, it’s a fascinating collection. Even in a studio proper, Alarcon shines.

Alarcon nails the whole “scope thing” on “Loving Him,” where twinkling xylophone and saccharine-synthesized strings buoy their lovely falsetto, a real staple for fans who frequently wonder how Alarcon comfortably can hit notes often reserved for the ascending clarinet. The piece, like a good chunk of the record and much of Alarcon’s canon, lacks percussion and that gives its vaguely blithe refrains a touch of doo-wop charm. On “Woke,” they even revert into circular jazz patterns on the guitar and a borderline-funky tambourine flourish – but still manage to make the proceedings feel weighted and meaningful.

Elsewhere, Alarcon unfurls material that, even if not lo-fi in practice or initiation, sounds lo-fi in its construction. On the harrowing “Men on the Mountain,” they position a fuzzy and simple, lo-fi electronic beat dead center, with only the occasional accompaniment of electric guitar and found sounds. What’s really dazzling, as always, is Alarcon’s fragile-as-glass voice, which quivers beatifically when they repeatedly extend the syllables of a phrase like “you choose.” “The Bridge Works,” another slowly unfolding piece, features some studio-manipulated or studio-polished vocals – nice effect, indeed – but the thing that’s most captivating is the warbly take on Alarcon’s guitar, which falls somewhere between a music box and a busted ukulele. These are lessons learned from the turf of the lo-fi singer-songwriter; Alarcon has not forgotten from whence they came.

There are, of course, lesser moments – namely, the opener “Mouth of Autumn,” which features stunning, lush acoustic guitars and strings, but where Alarcon foregoes their usual falsetto for a deadpan spoken-word sing-song à la Adam Gnade. Elsewhere, though, Alarcon is stunningly on-point, as on “Still” – which, on their website, Alarcon writes was brought about by “the murder of Eric Garner and the feeling of being choked-out and suffocated under the weight of systemic oppression.” Alarcon’s refrains are ghost-faced effective and call to mind both the horror of the Garner incident and the larger, perhaps even sadder systemic realities that perpetrated it.

Then, there’s the closer, the appropriately titled “The End.” It’s essentially a repeating measure on somewhat-muted piano keys but, on it, Alarcon’s falsetto is just devastating – the only parallel that comes to mind is the Lesser Birds of Paradise’s gorgeous but Kelvin-cool take on “You Are My Sunshine.” In the closing, Alarcon references a line or two from R.E.M.’s perky “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and their dour delivery, the sadness that bleeds through the occasional found-sound pastiche, is true anti-pop. Only Alarcon, who is essentially Europe’s version of Bill Callahan, could make Michael Stipe’s delivery about the downfall of society feel halfhearted.

There’s a lot of space and air in which listeners can get lost in Alarcon’s latest LP. But, true to form, even though they went into the studio, they kept their arrangements fairly rudimentary – and effective, as always. It doesn’t lack sparkle; it just lacks the overabundance of fireworks. In the end, Naïve is a gorgeous document from an artist just starting to explore the potentials for their sound in a more professional setting. Yes, home recording has been a blessing, but Ramona Cordova is showing there are other paths out of these woods. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, July 1, 2021

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About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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