Listening to music sung in a language you don't speak can be a liberating experience: you don't need to analyze the song, or have it ruined for you by pedestrian lyrics, or feel like you've got to know the words in order to sing along. With Mother Tongue, you get the added security of knowing that the language doesn't actually exist (Janubia made it up herself), so not even your multilingual friends can shoot you down with a "you know, it's actually..."
Janubia gives the enthusiastic singer-along quite a bit to work with. Mother Tongue makes extensive use of effects-laden multitracked vocal harmonies and accents, so you can take your pick of lines to follow, or add your own. The lushness this creates isn't entirely due to studio magic. Janubia has a lovely voice, and she sings with authority and emotion borne of long performing experience. Her language, vaguely Romance-sounding, is an apt accompaniment to the baroque Spanish guitar work (courtesy of Alex de Ráfols) that permeates the songs. Percussionist Andrew Mills employs a wide variety of acoustic toys in his frenetic, intricate rhythms. Despite the copious hand drums and the unfamiliar language, though, the group's out-of-the-box approach to songwriting and recording (de Ráfols also produced the record) keeps Mother Tongue out of the world-music ghetto.
Certain tracks cleave somewhat to that style; opener "Setah", with its cyclical, undulating feel, mid-song drum solo, and wistful vocal melodies, is one example. However, there are also a few surprises in store: "De Ju" is carried along by a trainlike drum-kit beat that sounds almost machinelike in its precision. "Haih", the album's final song, is a spooky affair with a striding rhythm and piano that would make for a veritable ambient-indie tune, if not for the vocal acrobatics.
Mother Tongue is built on its ornate production, which isn't necessarily a criticism; Janubia and her collaborators have created a thing of beauty, and the songs' ability to stand on their own is another question. In a more stripped-down setting, they might well lose some of their power. On the other hand, Janubia has considerable charisma as a vocalist, and the musicians' talent can't be overstated. Even if you hate world music and always have to know what the singer is saying, you'll enjoy Mother Tongue. Just relax and let it wash over you.
- Sarah Zachrich




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