Best known as a source of expensive import EPs from A-list American indie rockers, the Spanish label Acuarela has also quietly developed a healthy stable of intriguing European acts. Refree, a songwriting vehicle for one Raul Fernandez, may be the most rewarding of the imprint's Spanish-speaking acts.
La Matrona is Fernandez's third collection of deceptively gentle pop songs. Like Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, Fernandez treads lightly, building his songs around clean guitar and piano, but delivers mind-expanding pleasures when held under the microscope. Refree owes as much to Smile's pop-as-art vision as it does to the dinner jazz, AM gold and easy listening blues that it readily recalls. "La Reina de les Neus" best encapsulates Fernandez's thief in the night approach. It's easy to dismiss the song's schmaltzy cello, lullaby guitar strums, floataway vocals and glossy Rhodes piano as compositional fluff, but the melodic hook is pure bullion. It's definitely a song that stays stuck in your head because of its quality, not its repetition -- and when it eventually breaks into celebratory "bop ba da da da da"s that express undeniable vitality, you'll be reminded that pop music truly is a universal language. If you're willing to sit down and listen intently, La Matrona will shower you with similar instances of unshakeable bliss, wrapped in inscrutable glimmer.