Gustavo Santaolalla’s career has followed a number of distinct but equally rewarding paths. The native Argentinean is the premier rock en español producer, having overseen a number of works by artists like Juanes, Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas, and the aptly named hip-hop group Molotov. For others, he’s probably best known as the new millennium’s Mancini, having provided (occasionally Oscar-winning) soundtracks for such films as 21 Grams, The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel, and Brokeback Mountain. But Santaolalla’s most exciting work involves a collective of Argentine and Uruguayan musicians. Aided by gifted multi-hyphenates like Juan Campodonico and Luciano Supervielle, Bajofondo’s 2002 maiden release, Bajofondo Tango Club, was an inspired blending of tango with electronica. (Let’s put it this way: It wasn’t your father’s Piazzolla.) Three years later, Bajofondo Remixed, employing several DJs and friends, further deconstructed the genre.
Now, with Mar Dulce, Santaolalla takes the eight-member crew in a new, organic direction. Whereas previous works relied on overdubbing, this one finds Bajofondo playing together in the studio for the first time. The result is exhilarating: the sound of a real band playing in real time, pumping out real grooves. The difference is apparent on tracks like “Cristal”—Javier Casalla’s violin and Martin Ferres’s bandoneón evoke traditional tango flair, accompanied by a pure trip-hop backdrop—or the galloping “El Marco,” which features soulful lead vocals from Gustavo Cerati, former frontman for ’80s Argentinean supergroup Soda Stereo. Undoubtedly, this is the work of a deeper Bajofondo. There’s a confidence to their musical explorations that enables them to shift seamlessly from the hip-hop of “El Andean” (driven by Mala Rodriguez’s slick rapping) to the sweeping funk of “Infiltrado” to the dance-pop of “Pa’Bailar—Siempre Quiero Mas.” Other musical guests include Elvis Costello (who unleashes his anguished croon on the lone English-language track, the fairly good “Fairly Right”) and Nelly Furtado, who shows off her Spanish on “Boldozas Majados.” Santaolalla even channels his inner soundtrack composer on a few tracks, including the twisty, chase-scene-worthy “No Pregunto Cuantos Son.” No doubt about it, from first note to last, Mar Dulce (loose translation: “the Sweet Sea”) is a most tasty dive.