It’s been a long time coming (half a dozen years since Próxima Estación: Esperanza, and nearly ten since Clandestino), but Manu Chao is finally back in solo mode, and on La Radiolina he's certainly firing on all cylinders.
The album was recorded in Chao’s adopted home city, Barcelona, and comprises sixteen short snapshots of multi-lingual pop-rock built around the French-born Spaniard’s simple acoustic guitar strumming and deceptively likeable semi-spoken double-tracked vocals. His global pop sensibility remains finely tuned, with lilting beats, fragments of flamenco, Spanish guitar, sumptuous horn refrains, the habitual recycling of motifs from past songs, ubiquitous police sirens and other assorted sonic accoutrements variously deployed to ear-catching effect.
Same old, same old Manu, then? Well, not quite because liberally scattered throughout the album is a series of fast, guitar-driven rock songs that hark back to the days of Chao’s previous band, Mano Negra, and the agit-prop of early Clash records.
These tracks are rattled through with an urgency that has them almost bumping up against each other, or shocking their mellower neighbours out of their cosy catchiness. Politik Kills, for example - an exquisite, off-beat brew of country guitar twang, mariachi trumpet and a melodic refrain that nags at the brain for hours after hearing it – suddenly gives way to the thudding, power-chord-driven rebel-rock of Rainin in Paradise (on which Chao rails against corrupt and hypocritical leaders everywhere). And the sweet and loose Mundorèvés relaxes incongruously between a plodding The Bleedin Clown (surely Manu's worst 110 seconds ever?) and El Hoyo, a manic clash of wailing electric guitar, sirens, punchy dubbed-up brass, Marleyesque vocals and wild, disembodied voices.
Five sketchy 'bonus' tracks at the end of the CD arguably threaten the cohesion of the album, but there’s always been a sense of work in progress about Manu Chao’s recordings and, whether by accident or design, the scatter-gun approach to styles on La Radiolina somehow manages to gel into a pleasing whole, signalling a welcome, delightful return to form.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.