Two albums involving producer Raül Refree are released early this year, and his name appears prominently on both, suggesting a collaborative involvement deeper than that of the typical producer. On the face of it the two projects are very different: one is recorded with Lina, a singer of the soulful Portuguese style of fado, the other is with former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo. But what these records have in common is that in both Refree takes away guitars from places where they might seem integral: the fado genre in the case of the Lina album, and a musician who made his name playing that instrument in the case of Ranaldo.
In some ways the Lina album is a logical next step for Refree. He is known for having produced the first album by nuevo flamenco star Rosalía, updating an ancient and reverently respected form with a complex heritage and bringing it to new audiences, so he has the credentials to do the same for fado. The album is comprised of songs popularised by Amália Rodrigues, known as the Queen of Fado. While Lina brings fado tradition to the music with her singing, Refree’s contributions break with that tradition, rejecting guitars in favour of piano and analogue synths.
This results in a quite different timbre to that of traditional fado: the deeper resonance of the piano is boosted further by judiciously deployed synth sounds and the effect is slower and more dreamlike. Quando eu era Pequenina is particularly beautiful, with its expansive piano chords and haunting synth sounds, while Os meus olhos são dois círios, rooted in electronics, is flatter but, thanks to Lina’s vocals, scarcely less beautiful.
Fado is traditionally a melancholy, nostalgic form, and Refree’s arrangements don’t detract from that, but in backing Lina’s singing with a sound made ubiquitous by dream pop he does risk making fado seem more mundane. The Lina_ Raül Refree album won’t necessarily be warmly received by fado aficionados (aficionfados?) but may well become a gateway into the form for open-minded listeners.
Names Of North End Women is the second album Refree has worked on with Lee Ranaldo; he also produced the sprawling Electric Trim in 2017. Whereas that album was guitar-led, here Refree throws out most of the guitars once more, crafting music that is shaped around samples and melodic percussion such as marimba and vibraphone. Some tracks take recordings found on old cassette tapes as their starting point, and there are contributions to the lyrics from author Jonathan Lethem, which Ranaldo often delivers in a style that’s close to spoken word.
All of this makes for a curious mix of musique concrète, poetry and Ranaldo’s longstanding metier, avant-rock. The near-absence of guitars means that there is a sparseness to some of the tracks, but the prominent percussion, combined with samples and effects, makes for an industrial feel on many songs. In New Brain Trajectory, for instance, synths and percussion clatter along – the mood is industrial, but it conjures textile factories more than the forges and body-shops invoked in much industrial music. Elsewhere the rhythms that gradually develop call to mind African music, or at least the post-punk musicians it has inspired: there is a definite Talking Heads feel to the title track and Light Years Out.
If Raül Refree hopes to make a name for himself as a disruptor and innovator then these two quite different records will no doubt help him along the way. In Ranaldo he has a collaborator who is deeply rooted in experimentation and boundary-pushing, whereas Lina is a less established musician who seems no less keen to move forward her genre. After working with Refree, Rosalía went on to record an album that was equal parts pop and flamenco: it will be interesting to see whether Lina’s career follows a similar trajectory.