There were a whole lot of ideas swirling around on Xenia Rubinos’ impressive 2016 sophomore ouing Black Terry Cat, just as there were a whole lot of ideas on 2013’s Magic Trix, the debut that launched Rubinos’ rewarding, if sporadic, career. Rubinos — who was born in Hartford, CT, went to the Berklee College Of Music, and now is based in New York City — is filled with great ideas. She synthesizes them potently on Una Rosa, her first new album in five years, which flits between a disparate array of sounds and styles with ease. Rubinos funnels anxieties about her place in the world into songs that are powerful and exuberant and surprisingly bright. Una Rosa feels more off-the-cuff than her past two records, and by becoming looser and a little less self-conscious, she has only become more impactful.
Rubinos has long expressed worries about being boxed-in by the music industry due to her Cuban-Puerto Rican heritage. By making frizzled, punkish music on her first two albums, she purposefully pushed back against any preconceived notions of what a quote-unquote Latin artist might sound like. But Rubinos uses her identity as a guiding light on Una Rosa, in one sense quite literally. A music box lamp from her abuelita’s room was the album’s jumping-off point — a rendering of that lamp adorns the cover and informed the sounds of Una Rosa. The music box would, naturally, play a song, one that she would later learn was written by Puerto Rican composer José Enrique Pedreira. But even as Rubinos covers it in the opening moments of Una Rosa, she retains all the mysticism and unreality and nostalgia of hearing it first during childhood, the song like a flickering beacon that wafted in on a dream.
“There she is … no, wait, there she is,” Rubinos coos on the introductory track, a glittering twinkle in her eye as she chases what feels like a nearly-forgotten memory. “I felt something but I didn’t understand it,” she said as a way to explain the deep connection she feels to the music of her culture. “[Una Rosa]’s my exploration into these sounds I grew up hearing and into this aesthetic — in my own way. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but this is how I hear it, you know?”
How she hears it is populated by sounds and samples that sweep all of her interests and influences into one grand, dramatic picture. There are chirps of radio broadcasts and the satisfying click of a car’s turn signal and interpolations of lullabies and hymns that Rubinos grew up hearing throughout Una Rosa. “Ay Hombre” ends on pounding synths pulled straight from the John Carpenter playbook by way of the Are You Afraid Of The Dark? theme; “Darkest Hour” boasts piercing strings that recall Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho shower scene cue. “Worst Behavior” (not a Drake cover) sounds like mid-’00s R&B, most specifically “My Boo,” or maybe those same sounds as filtered through Tinashe’s “2 On” a decade later. The empowering “Sacude” is her take on a rumba. “Cógelo Suave” channels slinking jazzy confidence into a collision of nonsense vocalizations that she says were inspired by mimicking the likes of Billie Holiday and Judy Garland when she was younger. On “Did My Best,” Rubinos goes full Imogen Heap, stretching her voice into layers of taffy, all piled up like a vulnerable but impenetrable fortress.
Rubinos’ voice is often manipulated throughout Una Rosa, processed and spit back out in alternately chilling and warm fashion. It’s an indicator of the instinctive way these songs were pieced together in and outside of the studio, where she’d only do a few vocal takes before taking it digital to make it sound exactly how she wanted. Working with her longtime collaborator Marco Buccelli, Rubinos adopts more electronic textures this time around, largely forgoing her previous albums’ scrappy sound in favor of rubber-band beats and sparkling production.
That malleability extends to the different perspectives Rubinos sings from throughout Una Rosa. She builds characters into her songs, uses her one voice to speak for many. On the invigorating rebellion song “Working All The Time,” she is just one cog in the capitalist machine whose experience are neither unique nor justifiable. “I’ve been working all the time,” she bemoans. “It keeps repeating upon me/ The same old story, it keeps repeating upon me.” Many of the songs on Una Rosa also have a demanding specificity. “Don’t put me in red,” she insists on one. “Ask me where I’m going/ Don’t ask me where I’m from/ I speak in three languages/ You barely speak in one.” On “Who Shot Ya?” (not a Notorious B.I.G. cover), she lays out her frustrations with the police and ICE and the rich boys of the world: “My and my girls in the streets so loud/ ‘Cause we’re done with your ass, you should have known by now.”
Una Rosa is an impassioned album, one that builds on the sounds Rubinos has been working with for almost a decade while also kind of blowing them up completely, or at least translating those sounds to a wider screen. Despite coming on the heels of two great albums, it still seems like a breakthrough — an album that’s more sweeping and cinematic and compulsively listenable than anything that’s come before. Una Rosa feels in conversation with not just Rubinos’ heritage but all the sounds and ideas that make up a single person, refracted and reflected in just 42 minutes’ time. “What is this voice?/ And who is that?” Rubinos muses toward the end of the album. I think she’s found her answer, or at least the beginnings of one.
Una Rosa is out 10/15 via Anti-. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note:
• Coldplay’s Music Of The Spheres
• Young Thug’s Punk
• Tom Morello’s The Atlas Underground Fire
• Jason Isbell’s Georgia Blue covers album
• Dean Wareham’s I Have Nothing To Say To The Mayor Of L.A.
• Hayden Thorpe’s Moondust For My Diamond
• Julia Shapiro’s Zorked
• The Darkness’ Motorheart
• Finneas’ Optimist
• Fire-Toolz’s Eternal Home
• PinkPantheress’ to hell with it
• Gold Dust’s self-titled debu
• Remi Wolf’s Juno
• The Melvins’ Five Legged Dog
• Namesake’s Redeeming Features
• Surfbort’s Keep On Truckin’
• Lilly Hiatt’s Lately
• Le Ren’s Leftovers
• Toby Keith’s Peso In My Pocket
• Dos Santos’ City Of Mirrors
• Norah Jones’ I Dream Of Christmas
• Pokémon 25: The Album
• The Beatles’ Let It Be special edition
• Disclosure’s DJ-Kicks mix
• John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies’ Halloween Kills soundtrack
• Another Michael’s Unplugged Music And Big Sessions
• Johnny Marr’s Fever Dreams, Pt. 1 EP
• Field Music’s Another Shot EP
• Robin Guthrie’s Mockingbird Love EP