First Listen: Astro, 'Astro'
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Around the NPR Music office, we've all seen an old photograph of Alt.Latino co-host Felix Contreras as a toddler, holding a tiny guitar and smiling. For as long as Felix can remember, when he heard music he wanted to be able to emulate those sounds; to be a musician. Somewhere in my mother's garage, there's a picture of me at the same age, dressed as a tiny dancer. For as long as I can remember, I've listened to music with my body rather than with my ears. Before I can tell you what I love about a song, my body has already molded its movements to every beat and break.
When I first heard Chilean indie-pop band Astro, my body reacted as if struck by lightning; before I could tell you what the lyrics where saying, my hips where rolling in my seat. Astro's self-titled debut is one of my favorite records of the last few years — infectiously cheery, lighthearted and danceable. The electro-pop choirboy sound will no doubt earn the band comparisons to MGMT: Those similarities are cited frequently in the Latin-music blogosphere, and they're accurate, but there are also undertones of Prince and the New Power Generation.
Although Astro's unpolished live show at Vive Latino 2012 was somewhat of a letdown, the album bearing the band's name is practically flawless. Every track shines on its own; there's no reason Astro couldn't be a crossover hit a la Justice. Other Latin Alternative acts can get lost in translation — Puerto Rico's Calle 13 is one of my favorite bands, but if you don't understand the lyrics, you're losing a chunk of the experience — but fun and recklessness require no translation, and Astro is fluent in both.
Recently picked up by the Nacional label, Astro arrives at an interesting time for Latin Alternative music: a solemn moment of activism and reflection. While often danceable, the genre tends to gravitate toward sociopolitical messages as a rejection of the don't-worry-just-dance tunes that dominate the Latin airwaves. In the era that follows the golden age of Rock en Español, many artists have found this gravitas in folk music and folk-electronic fusions, as a celebration of heritage and a firm statement of identity. In fact, one of the countries producing these sounds most prolifically is Chile, with its rich past in folk music.
Yet Astro has eschewed that stance and sonic identity, and that's okay. I adore the spiky poetry of fellow Chilean Ana Tijoux, the melancholy folk-rock of Gepe (also from Chile) and the raging political commentaries of Venezuela's La Vida Boheme -- and these artists are essential. But some days, you need a break and want to just dance. Astro moves with the loose limbs and joyful abandon of the Muppets band, and sports ridiculous mustaches that would emasculate Tom Selleck. Its members sing about pandas, coconuts and eating too many cherry pits (South American slang for the drug ecstasy). I imagine Astro loudly crashing a serious revolutionary get-together, with everyone staring at the band and wondering what to do next. Here's what: Step away for just one second and dance. Daring to celebrate during times of struggle is an act of defiance in itself.