Rico Blanco’s silhouette peers into what appears to be a doorway or window on the cover art of Dating Gawi. We could translate the record’s title in English as “Like the Old Times”. And the art is appropriate: we could imagine that Rico’s figure is looking beyond a scenery into a distant but bright past.
The entire package of the album is minimalist. Everything from liner notes to the lyrics sheet to the CD itself is just an all-caps typeface on solid white or gray. There is no imagery beyond the earlier-described cover art.
This is in harmony with the album’s sound, as we find out when we start spinning the disc. In Dating Gawi, Rico delves into the “back to basics” spirit of music-making that appears to be the current trend among mainstays of the Filipino alternative music scene: Sandwich went back to their heavy late ’90s sound with 2013’s Fat Salt & Flame, and continued the exercise with 2015’s Debris; Imago, following the departure of Aia de Leon, distanced themselves from the teeny-bopper-friendly tunes of Blush and revisited their resounding Take 2 palette with 2014’s Kapit (Hold On); and, perhaps most remarkably, Pupil paid homage to classic rock with 2015’s Zilch, wherein they dropped the fancy guitarwork and delivered anthems brimming with brash riffs.
This exercise in distillation, in bringing out the essential in their music, is seen even in the manner of Dating Gawi‘s creation: for this album, Rico recruited three bandmates, and sticked with them for all eight tracks. The collaborators are quite fabled names: Hale’s guitar man Roll Martinez, Eraserheads/The Dawn/Cambio bassist Buddy Zabala, and prolific legend Raymund Marasigan (whose credentials include Eraserheads, Sandwich, Cambio, Pedicab, Gaijin, Squid 9, and Assembly Generals).
The connection with Raymund Marasigan and Sandwich comes to mind when listening to Dating Gawi‘s closing track Chess, which is a spiritual brother of Sandwich’s Back for More, the debut single from Fat Salt & Flame. Both songs speak of the punishment one has to suffer if one is to fight for real love.
Note: translations into English for the songs’ lyrics, as well as song and album titles, are the work of the author. It goes without saying that translations can only go so far in reproducing the wit and spirit of the original words.
Putok-putok ang iyong nguso
Bali-bali ang mga buto
Bukol-bukol ang iyong ulo
Punit-punit ang iyong puso
Hindi mo kayang umibig
Kung ayaw mong masaktan
Mag-chess ka nalang
(Lips are swollen
Bones are broken
Your head’s in patches
Your heart’s in pieces
You can’t love
If you can’t be hurt
Chess is the only game you should play)
At the other end of the record, Parang Wala Na (Feels Like It’s Lost) opens the album with confident riffs; bare guitars and Rico’s yearning voice lead the way. The song, although it is about a love slipping away, showcases the trademark serio-comic songwriting of Rico Blanco.
Hindi mo na ako niyayaya
Nanonood ng sineng mag-isa
Hindi mo na ako hinahanap
Magkaiba na rin ang pangarap
Parang wala nang pag-ibig
Parang wala nang pagmamahal
(You no longer desire my company
To the movies, you go without me
You no longer want us together
Even our dreams have parted ways forever
It feels like there’s no love anymore)
Like with the specific memories shared in Parang Wala Na, in Videoke Queen Rico juxtaposes mundane circumstances with the heaviness of feelings. But in this track, the most dramatic of the record, he puts on the show. Rico employs his trademark pleading voice as he sings to the videoke (video-karaoke) enthusiast who has stolen his heart.
Sa tinig at iyong mga
Ikaw ay bituin
Ako ba’y maaari mong mapansin
Ikaw ba’y maaaring maging akin
(Awestruck and amazed
By your voice, I was dazed
Your eyes sparkle
You are a bright star
Can you give me a sign
Will you ever be mine)
Two other songs in Dating Gawi demonstrate Rico’s talent for musical dramatics colored by tongue-in-cheek lyrics: Umuwi Ka Na (Come Home), and Wag Mong Aminin (Don’t You Admit), both of which are about love lost or being lost. The latter track features some brilliant lines; Rico sings about a coming heartbreak thus:
Maawa ka sa akin
‘Wag mo namang derechuhin
Na alam kong parating
(If it’s possible
Have pity on me
Crush my heart slowly
What I know; a heartbreak)
As the lines are sung, “‘Wag mo namang derechuhin / Patalim / Na alam kong parating,” the notes stop and start with a meaningful beat, reflecting the rhythm of impending pain and sorrow being negotiated by the persona.
Another track, Walang Basagan (Don’t Burst My Bubble), possesses a much different attitude. Here, the music is relaxed, matter-of-fact, and blithe.
Sabi nila hindi ka raw magiging akin
Sabi nila hinahabol ko daw ang hangin
(They say that you will never be mine
They say catching the wind takes a long while)
Two more songs round-up Dating Gawi by embodying the stand-out features of Rico’s songwriting: Sorry Naman (difficult to translate in few words, but means a mocking or sarcastic plea for forgiveness), which has that casual language and strains of absurd humor that borders on novelty; and Alaala (Memory), which delivers on the nostalgia promised by the album’s title. The latter is notable as well for its agreeable pop sound, reminiscent of the ’90s Filipino band scene and Rico’s own former band, Rivermaya.
The brevity of Dating Gawi‘s eight tracks disguises the variety of affections with which Rico Blanco explores the central theme of love; this all-Tagalog album, after all, is a barebones tribute to that most universal subject of all music.
It is a short record, easy to listen to from start to end. And indeed it feels as if Rico Blanco had a breezy time fleshing it out. It probably was not too easy a project in reality, even for the veteran musicians behind the record; but that’s how effortless the craft seems, when it’s Rico Blanco himself who’s belting out the words and melodies.