This Is How You Smile is the latest album from South Florida indie artist Roberto Carlos Lange, better known as Helado Negro. It’s a beautiful, meditative continuation of 2016’s excellent Private Energy that’s even more cohesive and complete. On that last record I was really drawn to 4-5 songs but never got fully into the flow of the album. (I would play “Transmission Listen” on repeat). Smile just feels naturally whole. Don’t look for those 1-2 catchy tracks; there’s something more subtle and controlled here, something more transfixing to get lost in.
Lange didn’t begin singing until his 30s and you can hear this in the somewhat tentative way he still sings, as if he’s recording for only himself to hear. It brings such a warm intimacy to the music. There’s a ’60s Brazilian Tropicália sound to a lot of it—the great Caetano Veloso himself feels present at moments, as does the aura of Devendra Banhart—but there’s also a universal and timeless quality to it. The gorgeous production is soft and comforting, but get a track like “Running”—which wouldn’t sound out of place on Beck’s Mutations—on a good set of speakers and you can really feel the bass boom.
Lange is of Ecuadorian descent and grew up in the cultural melting pot of Florida. There are strong feelings of childhood and identity in these songs. There’s also a vivid sense of imagination. The album title comes from a Jamaica Kincaid poem about a loving but controlling mother who forces life lessons upon her daughter (“This is how you smile.”). This album is part nostalgia for the sun-soaked streets of that childhood, and part celebration of freedom from any expectations of how to be (“No one can tell me how to smile!”).