Since I started the Omargeddon project, I’ve been paying less overt attention to new music, both new-to-me and newly released material. In fact, my sole contribution to the FT Readers’ Poll was Janelle Monae’s “Pynk”, totally forgetting about the divine “The Way You Make Me Feel” despite nominating Dirty Computer as my album pick. This year, I’m making a concerted effort to be more aware of new tunes and have started a 2019 playlist to help me keep track. For the most part, I’ll be using Spotify’s Release Radar playlist to facilitate this. I usually listen to it at least once a week, and it’s been the source of several new musical discoveries, even more so than the Discover Weekly playlist. Discover Weekly too often labours under the delusion that I want a mix of metal and weedy indie tracks liberally sprinkled with artists I already know about and thus don’t need to discover. That’s not to say Release Radar doesn’t bring up its dud track – apparently since I nostalgically listened to You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby approximately eighteen months ago, it thinks I need a Fatboy Slim remix every single goddamn week. I do wonder how the algorithm susses out what to give me – did I get “Alpha Centauri” by We Are Impala because it’s given me Tame Impala before or because of the At the Drive-In song of the same name? I also had “Bread & Butter” by Horsey, though my feelings about it tend towards “neigh”.

However, I was super chuffed to get Ximena Sariñana’s new single “Lo Bailado”, a cheery tune that injected much-needed warmth into the playlist. It also reminded me that initially I was a bit hesitant about her vocal input to late noughties/early teens Omar Rodriguez-Lopez albums. With the Mars Volta still extant and producing music, I found it difficult at the time not to wonder how Cedric Bixler-Zavala would have sounded in her place.

Solar Gambling is the first Omar Rodríguez-López solo release with Ximena providing lyrics and vocals. It was one of his six albums released in 2009, and at the time, it wasn’t a particular favourite. I didn’t actively dislike it, streaming it from the Rodriguez Lopez Productions website often enough for me to recognise quite a few of the songs when I began listening to it again more earnestly. Up until around this point in his discography, vocals tended to serve as more of a supporting role, and even with the Mars Volta, the music was written first with CBZ composing lyrics and vocal melodies to fit around it. Solar Gambling reverses this trend, with Ximena’s vocals front and centre to the supporting music.

It’s a fairly short album at just over half an hour long, with most songs around two or three minutes, including a few instrumental tracks that serve as codas, blending from previous songs. Drums and bass alternate between bouncy and soft, with guitar and piano airy, borderline stark though densely textured, like chiffon made opaque with multiple layers. And though many of the tracks are fairly similar sounding, this isn’t a criticism, just a reminder that the ORL album experience is holistic in nature.

Solar Gambling uses many musical devices I find soothing – songs blending into a smoothly continuous flow, recurring lyrics and melodies, and alternating fast and slow tracks. This is a formula ORL often uses, regardless of genre, and appears in everything from his EDM albums to his more standard progrock work. Though ‘formula’ could imply rote blandness, the fact that ORL makes it work so effectively across such a wide variety of genres proves it is anything but. The main frustration I have with this and all the other albums sung in Spanish is that I have to rely on Google Translate’s machine interpretation. Lyrics are incredibly important to me, and cryptic/poetic ones with numerous interpretations are my favourite kind of this, so I feel like I’m doing the songs a massive disservice with my ignorance. Notwithstanding my inability to pore over the meaning of the lyrics, I still love them dearly.

Every song on the album is sublime (and very similar – not a criticism) so rather than review every one, I’m focussing on three stand-out tracks. “Las Flores Con Limón” is a gorgeous blend of the ethereal and solid. It’s busy but not overbearing, a slow-fast/quiet-loud waltz. My longtime chum and leading Volta expert Glynnis was reminded of TMV in the intro, and I hear it too although neither of us could pinpoint the exact reference point. I think this is a song mourning the death of trust in a relationship: lo que el tiene no valdra/la sequia de las flores (“what he has will not be worth/the drought of flowers”). It melts perfectly into the droney coda “Colmillo Castrado”. Incidentally, for your edification, the effects at the conclusion sound like they’ve been sampled from Mystical Whale Sounds, and yet still manage to be haunting and beautiful. Such is the sorcery of ORL!

The hummed chorus of “Un Buitre Amable Me Pico” has become a regular earworm of mine. Gently fuzzy guitar fluidly swirls behind Ximena’s powerful, rounded vocals. It’s deep and sonorous but without the aggressive intensity associated with the Mars Volta output of that era, which often felt like being lovingly but insistently punched in the face with music. Like “Las Flores”, it too has a quietly passive coda in “Poincaré”, the reprised chorus paired with soft piano.

Perhaps the closest to the classic everything-at-once ORL sound is “Miel del Ojo”. It’s spacey and moderately psychedelic, like a half-remembered dream about a low dose of psilocybin mushrooms . I’m reminded of Frances the Mute, which makes sense as this review claims that it’s a slower version of the riff from that album’s title track. The longest song at six minutes, it also embraces the ORL trope of one song acting like a microcosm for the whole piece.

Although I originally did have a New Coke reaction to Solar Gambling (i.e., this tastes weird and why fuck with the original recipe?), I now think the reviews I’ve seen are unfairly lukewarm. Ximena took a lot of flak from some fans for being too pop, for being Omar’s then-girlfriend, and ultimately, for not being Cedric Bixler-Zavala. As a twice Grammy-nominated artist, she’s just as likely to have introduced her fanbase to Omar’s music as he was to hers. Fans wanting a heavier sound or the experimental-jazzy output of the ORL solo catalogue to date had plenty of other options and tuned out pretty quickly. In a way, I’m glad I was so wrong about it the first time around, because with time and distance, I have a better appreciation of both the album and Ximena’s contribution to it.

Track listing:
Locomoción Capilar (“Hair Locomotion”)
Las Flores Con Limón (“The Flowers With Lemon”)
Colmillo Castrado (“Castrated Tusk”)
Un Buitre Amable Me Picó (“A Kindly Buzzard Pecked Me”)
Los Tentáculos de la Libélula (“The Dragonfly Tentacles”)
Miel del Ojo (“Honey Eye”)
Vasco da Gama