Valenzuela Sharpens the Knife

By: Marcelo Báez

If you actively follow Latin American indie music then you know Chile has no shortage of talent. Alex Anwandter, Javiera Mena, Gepe and all their close cohorts seem to be spearheading the new Chilean new wave—while the old guard is still kicking. But one successful singer-songwriter seems to be carving a path of her own outside of Anwandter or Mena’s clique: Francisca Valenzuela.

Valenzuela’s third album Tajo Abierto (which translates as “sliced open” or “open cut”), released last week, is a great follow-up to 2011’s Buen Soldado. The first single, “Prenderemos Fuego Al Cielo,” is a catchy piano-and-string-driven gem. Valenzuela’s melodramatic timbre soars beautifully on this modern disco song. It’s perfect pop. But that perfection could be part of what has kept Francisca from being considered one of the gang.

There’s an interesting formula in Valenzuela’s music; all her tunes are edgy and serious, but still radio-friendly. Inject her works with more grit and we could have our own PJ Harvey. But make her songwriting slightly safer for work and we’ll be stuck with another Alicia Keys. Case in point, “No Esperen Mi Regreso,” “Perfume De Tu Piel,” and even “Siempre Eres Tú”—all solid pop songs—would do well on a Starbucks compilation. “Catedral,” with its trip hop beat and slighted distorted leads, might be a little much.

Unsurprisingly, “Almost Superstars,” Francisca’s only English-sung tack off Tajo Abierto, is exceptional. Probably because a good portion of her life has been spent in California and thus Valenzuela’s command of the English language is flawless. But it’s good to know she’s fully capable of going up against the big kids (unfortunately, Spanish-sung indie music is still largely insignificant to most of those in the music biz).

The album exhibits a trio of star producers—Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Jesse Rogg (Banks, Sam Sparro) and Valenzuela’s romantic partner, Vicente Sanfuentes (Matías Aguayo, Amigos Invisibles)—and that eclectic mix is more evident in the second half of the record. “Estremecer” sounds like it was recorded in Depeche Mode’s studio while the softer “Cuequita del Corazón” is closer to Valenzuela’s overall sound and Chilean folk roots. Interestingly, she tackles all the different styles very well. No song included here, no matter how lavish or broody, is too big for her.

While Gepe, Anwandter, Mena and Co. often flirt with kitsch and camp—a risky tactic because most of Latin America is too self-conscious to fully embrace either aesthetic—Francisca can be seen as a nuanced and more accessible songwriter. She doesn’t need to sit at the cool kids’ table in order to succeed—in fact, Francisca seems to do better for herself than all her colleagues put together. Still, even if Tajo Abierto is one well-rounded record, it would be intriguing to hear what Valenzuela can do if she sliced just a little deeper and purposely showed us more gore.

LOGISTICS: Tajo Abierto by Francisca Valenzuela, available now

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.