The first thing you'll notice about the new Savath & Savalas album is the absence of Eva Puyuelo, whose aching vocals floated over the modernized Catalonian folk of the duo's previous two albums like a cool, Mediterranean breeze. The second thing you'll notice is the voice of Guillermo Scott Herren in Puyuelo's stead, which may come as a surprise for most who know Herren as the production wizard-behind-the-curtain for Savath and his solo act, the better known Prefuse 73.
That is not to say Golden Pollen (Anti-, 2007) doesn't have as much to offer as its predecessors, 2004's Apropa't and its EP follow-up, Mañana. Herren channels all the precise, multirhythmic composition of Prefuse into pointed organic melody and synthetic harmonic layering so dense that it always seems just a quarter-note from unhinging completely. Golden Pollen is certainly the most developed of his efforts in this regard, featuring a range of modern and traditional instrumentation, including Puerto Rican cuatro, Cuban tres, flamenco guitar, electric bass, vibraphone and Moog synth.
“A program can have this preset sound of, ‘It's a cuatro sample,’ and you can make a beat out of it for a hotel lobby,” Herren says. “I put the instruments together how they're made to be played together, instead of appropriating what they're supposed to sound like and then going, ‘Hey! I can add this synthesizer, and it's going to appease the world-beat crowd.’ I'm not going for that.”
As a singer, Puyuelo was untrained, but the airiness of her delivery aided the melancholic tone of the music. So it's ultimately Herren's unsophisticated vocal work on Golden Pollen that will be the hardest for listeners to reconcile. “Estrella de Dos Caras,” featuring José González, is the album's best track — and perhaps the best output of Savath & Savalas. It allows Herren to harmonize above and below González, who takes the lead with a textured, tonally techno-ized melody. It's the role Herren always played for Puyuelo, and it's what he does best. But what Herren's voice lacks in range and pitch, it makes up for in passion.
“I've always experimented with my own voice where you couldn't hear me,” he says. “That's why I was like, fuck it — I'm not a singer, I'm not trying to sing, and I like to hear other people that try to do the same. I don't want to hear somebody's voice just so perfect that it sounds overly trained. I like to hear the sincerity in somebody's voice when they fall flat and don't give a shit. That sounds good to me.”
Golden Pollen is clearly sincere: “Mi Hijo,” for example, is an ode to his recently born first son. Herren, who is half Catalonian and half Cuban — though raised in the states — sings in Spanish, with “Mi Hijo” fitting the mushy poetic trope dedicated to the awe-inspiring experience of new life. Translated, he confesses, “When I look at you, I see your mother,” and he later simply refrains, “You are my son.”
Herren wrote and recorded the guitar and vocals for “Mi Hijo” in a Chicago hotel room during a Prefuse tour. He recorded himself through a Blue mic into a Digidesign Mbox, both of which he always travels with. On other tracks, he created a rhythmic backing track by “hitting on something for however many minutes.” Although he later spent many hours layering harmonies in the studio, everything on Golden Pollen sprang from humble means.
Herren only intended those initial tracks as a means for jotting down ideas, but he discovered they sometimes worked better than their rerecorded versions. “I mixed half of it in a professional studio, and the other half is totally unprofessional,” he explains. “Then I had to come to a meeting point of throwing away the studio sessions that I just didn't feel comfortable with, mixing them with the unprofessional ones and then let my masterer take control and make it all cohesive.”
Though Mia Doi Todd, Danny Bensi of Tarantula A.D. (cello) and Tyondai Braxton make appearances, you'd be hard-pressed to isolate the outside contributions besides González's. There were even more folks initially involved, but they were wrung through the rigorous editing process he applied to himself and others. “I feel like shit because there are collaborators that did their job and got paid, and they're probably like, ‘Why the hell would he just throw that away?’” Herren says. “But it's a matter of coming out truthfully. Whereas Prefuse is always gonna sound like whatever's coming out of this dude's machines, [with Savath] I was able to show a more human aspect — a spectrum of being a human being.”