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Juan Wauters - La Onda de Juan Pablo Music Album Reviews

On his first album sung entirely in Spanish, the Uruguayan-American singer-songwriter finds poetry in small moments, with low-key craftsmanship that matches his songs’ quotidian subject matter.

Juan Wauters doesn’t need big drama to stir up big feelings. The following are a few images that precede some of the biggest musical moments on La Onda de Juan Pablo: A boy dreaming about being his soccer-superstar hero; an older couple sitting in their garden and missing their son who left home; and Wauters buying himself some pants. Anyone who has ever looked around a crowded subway car and been momentarily captivated by the volume of thoughts floating through all the brains within a short radius should recognize a similar wonder in the sounds and stories of La Onda de Juan Pablo, the singer-songwriter’s first album sung entirely in his native Spanish.

The context of how the Uruguay-born, Queens-raised Wauters made this album reinforces that wonder. La Onda was recorded across several Latin American countries where he traveled or lived over the past two years, mainly using recording equipment that he carried with him. Wauters wrote these songs in different genres endemic to those countries, including Afro-Uruguayan candombe, Latin American bolero, and Mexican bolero ranchero. The styles inform his songs about neighborhoods, families, work lives, and his own relationship to all of the above—assisted by the very musicians he met playing on streets and in plazas. It’s his voice, but it’s also theirs, one man’s travelogue autographed by the people he befriended along the way.

Like its images, La Onda’s smallest sounds often hit the hardest. On “El Señor,” a Buenos Aires folk guitar player named Alejandro Dominguez feathers delicate fret-board wizardry through a clock-ticking rhythm for a pirouetting instrumental coda that gently expands and intensifies like dilating eyes. Wauters, meanwhile, narrates a story about nothing more than a man who decides to be the only one in his family to move away from home. Wauters’ ode to public transit, “Blues Chilango,” is pure, centering zen, opening on tingle-inducing bongo taps from Mexico’s Izakúm Vazquez and gliding to a stop with a perfect sax solo by Puerto Rico’s Juan Botta, which practically shouts for the joy of people-watching after Wauters just lists them off as they pass: “Un carnicero, un electricista, un carpintero, un relojero” (“A butcher, an electrician, a carpenter, a watchmaker”).

It all pulls even tighter when Wauters sings about his own place in the world on the contemplative centerpiece “Mi Vida.” Inspired and accompanied by a 25-string guitarrón chileno player named Luciano Fuentes Borquez, whom Wauters saw performing payada music in Santiago, Chile, he sings about riding his bike and making peace with the hand he was dealt. “Qué vida triste me tocó a mí vivir/Pensaba hoy” (“What a sad life I ended up with/I thought today”), he sings, before immediately contradicting himself: It’s also pretty good—he has a girlfriend, a son, and a nearby neighborhood park. Wauters doesn’t lust for life, nor lament it; it’s a satisfied ambivalence that pairs well with a sense of humor.

That’s something he’s always had. Wauters occasionally adds a dash of deadpan to his straight-faced delivery, as when he sang, “Like a movie that is good/You require my attention” on Who Me? He pulls a similar punch here to open “Blues Chilango,” cutting down the pretension of elaborate similes: “Soy como un hombre que trabaja con su barco/Como un hombre que trabaja con su tierra/Pero vivo en la ciudad.” (“I am like a man that works with his boat/Like a man that works with his soil/But I live in the city”). Time and again, Wauters sides with extreme straightforwardness over metaphor, preferring the power of moments uncontaminated by interpretation. Street-vendor jingle “Disfruta la Fruta” lingers on just one chord as he lists different fruits that he likes to eat—and if that sounds unlistenable to you, maybe don’t go see him perform, where recently he’s sung the song in changing iterations for 30 minutes.

Wauters neither tries to innovate nor panders to tradition. He just plugs in his own voice: He’ll cram a wordy phrase into a split-second gap and place inflections awkwardly, banging up songs with a slightly amateur wobbliness. He doesn’t have the chops of late Uruguayan guitar icon Alfredo Zitarrosa, or the golden pipes of Mexican-American pop treasure Julieta Venegas, or the wordsmithy depth of eternal Queens guy Paul Simon (in spite of a certain uncanny resemblance when he performs alongside his longtime friend and collaborator Tall Juan, who adds guitar and bass to the album’s energetic peak, “Candombe”). But Wauters doesn’t aspire to this type of stardom; he prefers looking at all this great music that came before him as personal inspiration as opposed to an ideal. Wauters’ greatest strength, after all, is what he sees in everyone else.

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