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Xenia Rubinos, an Elegant Contradiction at Mecury Lounge

March 12th, 2014

Xenia Rubinos – Mercury Lounge – March 11, 2014

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Great music thrives on contradictions, when fast meets slow, loud meets quiet. This explains much of the power behind Xenia Rubinos, who delighted the late-night Tuesday crowd at Mercury Lounge. Matching smooth R&B pop with serrated melody, countering dancehall beats with wonderfully weird arrhythmic breakdowns, layering prerecorded samples with live playing, Rubinos was a walking contradiction … or, more accurately, a dancing contradiction. The set drew exclusively from last year’s acclaimed Magic Trix release, which is one of those not-quite-sure-how-to-pull-it-off-live albums. The answer was Rubinos singing and playing on keyboards, utilizing plenty of samples and digital effects while Marco Buccelli accompanied on drums, driving the beats and changes with machinelike precision.

The material was a perfect mind-and-body mix, driving the crowd to move along to the infectious rhythms and then subtly shifting the beats and the melodies. The result was a unique blend of modern-day dance pop and old school jazz fusion. “Cherry Tree” was a representative highlight, beginning with presampled keyboards and impossible drumming from Buccelli, the focus, as it was for much of the night, was on Rubinos’ voice. When she opened her mouth into a wide-open smile, the vocals seemed to just pour out with a sheer, overwhelming joy. The song then shifted to a middle-section syncopated breakdown that felt separate, but still the same, before winding its way back again.

Occasionally, the Bronx native sang in a peppy, conversant Spanish, like on “Pan y Café,” which sort of felt like a conversation overheard on the street set to an almost psychedelic melody. But “Hair Receding,” which seemed to combine all of her strengths into one tour de force piece, was my favorite of the night. Opening with long, dissonant organ chords, nearly free-form, Buccelli then fluttered some very funky drumming, the duo playing point-counterpoint. Eventually the two concepts overlapped as other bits of music were subtly introduced until it felt like four songs layered together, all while staying quite groovy. It was both simple and elegant and deliciously complicated all at once. But unlike most contradictions, you could dance to this one. —A. Stein