Ebe Dancel – ‘Baliktanaw’ review: ex-Sugarfree frontman gives old songs new life

The elder statesman’s voice stands front and centre on the reworks of these beloved songs

Ebe Dancel’s ‘Baliktanaw’ just got a spiffy vinyl release earlier this month, half a year after it came out on disc and streaming. The word that gets thrown around a lot with projects like this is “reimagining”, an allusion to old songs being given new life. In this case, it’s a selection from Sugarfree’s storied four-album discography, recorded between 2003 and 2009. Like most of his contemporaries who have taken a similar route – going solo after successful band tenures – Dancel seems to take no issue with being a nostalgia act, so long as he’s allowed wiggle room to make new music.

This old-songs/new-life business is always thorny. Is this new life necessarily a better one? The promise of a reimagining is semantically skin-deep: to recreate, in your head, an image lost in time but not altogether missing. Sort of like Instagram filters, but for songs. A different set of lens is requisite in such an exercise. But because memory is fluid and impulse can’t be helped, one’s best bet at succeeding is, at the very least, to be in the same emotional ballpark.

Dancel’s Sugarfree songs are some of Manila’s best-loved life soundtracks, and since the band’s dissolution in 2011 he’s earned sage-level tunesmith/elder statesman status. OK, let’s get this out of the way: these songs are unassailable displays of pop acumen, and little to nothing can be done to improve on them. But more on that later.

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In ‘Baliktanaw’ the former Sugarfree singer is taking a stab at self-curation, and the results are a mixed bag. The personnel, thankfully, is an astounding assemblage of talent: his live musical director Chino David is on producer detail; gig mainstays Roger Alcantara (bass) and Paolo Manuel (drums) provide much of the rhythmic backbone; and scene elders Rommel de la Cruz and Michael Alba (another killer rhythm-section pairing) lend the music more gravitas, if that’s even possible. Hale alums are also in the roll call: guitarist Roll Martinez and bassist Sheldon Gellada appear on fan favourite ‘Burnout’, a frequent book-ender in Dancel’s shows.

Are there definitive versions of songs? Are they the original recordings, or how a musician currently plays them at shows? I’m not sure that distance and hindsight are great allies in this regard, and while some numbers on ‘Baliktanaw’ are practically same-ish – like the pensive ‘Kwarto’, but with swelling strings, or the always-brilliant ‘Dear Kuya’, except with wind – others are given curious reconsiderations.

The a cappella spin on ‘Unang Araw’ works on a symbolic level (he’s feeling alone so he’s singing alone, and so on), but the original’s plodding kick-snare cadence is like a phantom limb that’s terribly missed. (Also, I can’t remember the last time I heard an earnest a cappella tune and didn’t flinch. Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner’? The Zombies’ ‘The Way I Feel Inside’?) The hyper-sterile rearrangements of two key cuts off the Dancel songbook – ‘Mariposa’ and ‘Hangover’ – are a bit jarring, ridding the songs of the everyman spirit that informs much of his earlier material.

Ultimately, I’m torn about the voice-centrism of the arrangements. On the one hand, these are Dancel’s best years as a vocalist – he’s gotten as powerful as ever, his pipes putting on more heft, stretching out to even greater limits – but one gets the sense that much of the heavy lifting is left to the singing. (And songs are, arguably, not all about the singing.) The old band went beyond atmosphere; they were a compact world-unto-itself. But Manila loves singers, and atmosphere is often mistaken for embellishment. Something nice to comment on, like the weather.

But outside the hair-splitting, picking up ‘Baliktanaw’ (on vinyl or otherwise – the album’s on streaming services, and PolyEast Records is apparently working on a new pressing) should be a no-brainer for fans of ace Filipino songwriting. The best numbers for this author are probably ‘Tulog Na’ and ‘Hanggang Kailan Kita Mahihintay’ (the lone solo-era tune in the record), because they’re farthest from hyperbole and closer to what keeps Ebe Dancel a compelling listen two decades after he first broke into the mainstream: his heart on a platter, bloodied and heaving and throbbing, his lovelorn listeners vampiric in their desire to devour and commiserate.

Details

Ebe Dancel Baliktanaw album 2020 review Sugarfree
  • Release date: February 29 (digital), September 18 (vinyl)
  • Record label: PolyEast Records
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