“In every instance on Five Spanish Songs, the original trumps the cover. In some sense, even if all this EP does is turn more listeners on to Sr. Chinarro, it will have been a success, but Destroyer can’t bring anything new to the table.”
Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
English isn’t an easy language to master. It has a wide range of sounds, a specific grammar and syntax, and depending on your definition, the largest vocabulary found anywhere in the world.
Even so, Dan Bejar is kind of over English. After almost 10 years as the only constant member of Vancouver indie rock band Destroyer and part-time songwriter for The New Pornographers, Bejar announced Destroyer would be releasing an EP, straightforwardly titled Five Spanish Songs.
“The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable,” the accompanying statement read. “It felt over for English; good for business transactions, but that’s about it.”
The only foreign language Bejar knows is Spanish (not French like a good Canadian), so Destroyer recorded and released an EP covering five songs from Spain’s own Sr. Chinnaro. For the uninitiated, Sr. Chinarro is the pen name adopted by Antonio Luque. Constant across every one of Luque’s songs is a dry humor and a confident baritone voice — think Bill Callahan — but the music never gets in the way of his impressive descriptive talents, which are immediately apparent to even novice hispanohablantes.
Five Spanish Songs gets off to a relatively strong start with “Maria De Las Nieves.” Originally from Sr. Chinarro’s fantastic Presidente, the opener finds Luque’s lyricism at its finest, depicting a captivating scene where partygoers are “esterilizantes con alcohol, practicantes de una rara religión.” Bejar’s adaptation here is faithful, perhaps too much so, but it highlights the problems inherent in Five Spanish Songs.
Bejar’s Spanish is surprisingly passable (for a Canadian), but his voice lacks the authority required for Sr. Chinarro’s detached, observational judgments and fans who recognize Bejar as “that other guy from the New Pornographers” will know that his reedy, thin voice isn’t exactly a baritone. Equally problematic is the fact that too many of the covers themselves seem half-baked. “El Rito” starts out with an energetic power pop riff that Bejar can’t quite seem to capitalize on, and “Del Monton” might as well be a parody of insipid European café muzak.
In every instance on Five Spanish Songs, the original trumps the cover. In some sense, even if all this EP does is turn more listeners on to Sr. Chinarro, it will have been a success, but Destroyer can’t bring anything new to the table. There’s a disconnect between artist and listener persisting throughout the 18-minute run time that goes deeper than a simple language barrier.
Spanish does afford some creative liberties that go beyond being a novel diversion for an English-speaking band — for one, it allows Luque to rhyme the words “Franz Kafka,” which might be challenging in English — but it would be a stretch to call Five Spanish Songs anything more than a poorly conceived stunt. English is the native tongue of Mark Twain and Bob Dylan and David Foster Wallace, hardly “spent” and “despicable.” Right now, the Spanish-language indie music scene is better than ever (check out Chile’s Gepe and Alex Anwandter or Venezuela’s La Vida Boheme). It certainly doesn’t need Dan Bejar.
It’s hard to tell just how tongue-in-cheek Bejar’s statement was. Regardless, if Five Spanish Songs had been designed as a tribute to an elite songwriter rather than a kiss-off to an entire language, perhaps it would have been more honest and creative.