Los Angeles-based group Cuñao is a hard band to pin down stylistically. The music the group makes seems to fit somewhere under the broad umbrella of folk music, drawing from acoustic sounds from across the Americas. At the same time, the dynamic soundscape the group creates is one that indexes no particular place. Listening to sophomore album Rayuela, though, it seems counterproductive to try and put each piece under a microscope - the textures that the group weaves together create something far greater.
With 16 tracks broken into four thematic sections, Cuñao creates something both solid and serene on Rayuela. Rooted in such diverse sources as avant-garde Argentinian literature (the album's name comes from Julio Cortázar's 1963 stream-of-consciousness counter-novel) and the specific musical backgrounds of each of the quintet's five core members, Rayuela is meant to facilitate a multitude of listening experiences, with each section or episodio able to stand alone as well as come together in a blissful whole to be played from start to finish. They call it "choose-your-own-adventure", but it feels more like playing with building blocks. There are no wrong answers, only the potential for new ways of hearing and understanding the album with each replay.
Each episodio has an evocative title: Agua, vida y muerte; Cosas del corazón; Qui?; En route. The vignettes within each one tend toward the pensive, framing loss, love, and life within acoustic melodies, ranging from the gently pastoral to the strangely whimsical, each song a new and intriguing dream.
Rayuela, though, is well-grounded in reality. Opening instrumental "Las Herramientas de Rayanya" is a piece inspired by death. "Fortunato" engages with immigration and homesickness, and was originally part of the group's Latin folk opera project Canción Del Inmigrante. Cuñao writes and plays from places of personal truth, even at their most fanciful. Take "La Luna y La Ballena" - the moon and the whale. A brief, guitar-based instrumental that begins episodio Cosas del corazón, it is atmospheric but does not exist simply for atmosphere's sake. Rather, it is thoughtful, wistful, substantial, the sound fleeting, but the feeling rooted deep. That is a consistent feature of the album, one that is both structurally effective and emotionally affective: the ability of Cuñao to transport their audience to a world just fantastic enough to believe.
For as many themes and experiences as Rayuela comprises, Cuñao maintains an overall cohesive sound. Classical guitar, violin, mandolin, accordion, cajón, and voices lay a buoyant foundation, supplemented by other strings and percussion throughout the album. The production of Rayuela is minimal, giving it the intimacy of a well-executed in-studio session and room for the aural equivalent of natural light. It's that feeling of full-body presence that gives Rayuela's tunes such texture and impact. From the warm, down-home pickings of "No Me Alcanza" to the soulful organs on electrified "Que Qué?", and from Dominican rocker Alih Jay's vocal feature on the impassioned duet "El Compás" to jazzy closer "A Media Tarde".
Both beautiful and thoughtful, Rayuela makes for a luscious listen. Always warm, never blistering; energetic, never overwhelming, it makes for a well-balanced collaboration between the musical hearts and minds of the Cuñao collective.