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Sur o No Sur

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Album Review

Quite an accomplishment, Kevin Johansen + the Nada's Sur o No Sur spans 20 tracks and innumerable ideas, resulting in one of the more interesting, creative, and eclectic Latin albums released by a major label during the early 2000s. Johansen sings, plays acoustic guitar, writes the songs, and fills the album with a wealth of witty wordplay. The guy lived in New York City for a decade, leaving the Big Apple for Buenos Aires after the recording of this album, so he's perfectly bilingual and shifts back and forth between Spanish, English, and Spanglish throughout Sur o No Sur. And not necessarily from one song to the next, either. Songs like "Star Estrella" find him flip-flopping between languages constantly, which can be fascinating if you enjoy such bilingual wordplay, especially when it's this witty. Johansen's wit extends beyond his wordplay to his music, also. Just as he plays with language and never ceases to surprise you with his usage, his songs are likewise playful. He and his band flip-flop musical styles the same way he does languages, from song to song certainly but sometimes also within the same song. This is a guy who purposefully circumvents convention, an act that is especially applicable to the often generic constraints of Latin music, with its laundry list of regional styles that often vary only on the basis of instrumentation, rhythm, or dance. So you get songs like "La Procesión," one of the album's most amazing moments: Johansen opens the song with an a cappella incantation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers ("Give it away, give it away, give it away now/Give it away, give it away, give it away now") before breaking into an energetic hybrid of flamenco and cumbia topped off by some beautiful singing in Spanish. And this is just one song among 20, some of the other more interesting ones including the title track, "Star Estrella," "Down With My Baby" (a really fun song Johansen accurately describes as "Barry White meets Nirvana"), "Cumbiera Intelectual" (a great showcase of wit), and a cover of Serge Gainbourg's "La Chanson de Prevert" (sung in French, no less!). Sur o No Sur is the sort of album that's so overflowing with ideas — some of them more successful than others, granted — it offers new revelations with each listen, and the more studied you are in language and music, the more you're likely to appreciate Johansen's talent. This is exactly the sort of highly literate, multicultural music that critics and bohemians live for, the sort of music your more worldly friends are likely to force upon you ("I'll burn you a copy, you just gotta hear this!"), the sort of music coffeehouses and bookstores were built to play — Sur o No Sur is that wonderful, quite an accomplishment indeed.


Born: 1964 in Fairbanks, AK

Genre: Pop in Spanish

Years Active: '00s

One of the rare eccentric, eclectic recordings artists who managed to court major acclaim, both critical and popular, Kevin Johansen and his band, the Nada, charmed audiences throughout Latin America, in Argentina especially, and racked up three Grammy nominations for only their second album, Sur o No Sur. A multicultural artist to say the least, Johansen was born in Alaska of all places but grew up in Argentina, the son of an Argentine mother and an American father. He moved to New York City in...
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Sur o No Sur, Kevin Johansen
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