Until 2002, Marisa Monte had been one of Brazil’s biggest underacheivers. Everyone knew she had a beautiful voice, all the songwriting skills she needed, and a whole lot of ambition; but it didn’t seem like there was a clear vision behind her career. She started out as a young MPB rebel, but her first couple of albums were poppy and lighter than she probably wanted them to be. She made her big look-at-me move with A Great Noise, a live/studio combination disc with some lovely stuff on it, but the most radical thing about it was the semi-pornographic booklet art housed from Carlos Zéfiro. When the too-mellow Memories, Chronicles, and Declarations of Love didn’t blow up hugely (maybe because the title was longer than the album), a lot of people got the idea that it just wasn’t meant to be for ol’ MM.
Then she hooked up with a couple of old friends (Afro-Brazilian pop wizard Carlinhos Brown and weird-wave poet Arnaldo Antunes, who was one of the three singers in Títas) and formed a super-group called Tribalistas. Their self-titled album did gangbusters all around the world and changed everything for Monte, who was widely seen as the straw that stirred that drink. Just like that, she was back on the radar, and people really wanted to hear what she would do next.
With this much riding on the outcome, it was a given that Monte would do something huge and splashy. So what she’s done is come out with two simultaneous albums. Infinito Particular consists of older songs Monte has never been able to figure out what to do with. (My review of the other one, Universo do Meu Redor, can be found here.)
Resurrecting songs from the past is usually a horrible idea for an artist, because typically there is a good reason that a certain thing never worked. Fortunately, Monte had a great idea: hook up with Brown and Antunes for several of the tracks and recreate the vibe! Kinda boring, perhaps, but canny. It is not a surprise, then, that a lot of these songs have the same dream-like hyper-cooled pop feel as Tribalistas. “Vilarejo” (the stunning first single), the title track, “Gerânio”, and a few others here might be outtakes from that album—they all have the same circular structure, the same happy-sad saudade wed to heartbreakingly perfect chord changes, the same sense of lullaby perfection. But without the other voices (Brown’s surprisingly sweet crooning, Antunes’ Brazilian-Tom Waits grunt), they feel just a little bit emptier.
There are songs here that break out of the mold just a bit. “O Rio” brings in the songwriting skills—but not the voice—of flavor-of-the-month singer/actor/activist Seu Jorge, and the feel of the track is, in fact, a little bit different. And when Adriana Calcanhotto helps out with some pretty psychedelia on “Pelo Tempo Que Durar”, it gives the album a little more space, a bit more light.
The biggest problem seems to be that none of the songs seem to go anywhere. Once you’ve heard the swoony melody of “Quem Foi”, a semi-bossa with a luscious horn section and some skittery electronics hiding underneath Monte’s jazz-diva vocals… well, that’s pretty much it, and it doesn’t get deeper on subsequent listens. It sounds a whole lot like “A Primeiro Pedra”, in fact, except that the latter has a cool wah-wah section that lasts for about five seconds. Really, only the acid-rock slow-jam “Pernambucobucolismo” really stands out as something new and unusual.
The album is impeccably produced—all the songs gain 1000 hit points on headphones—and all the songs are very pretty, so I can’t rank this very low. But I can’t do backflips over it either. It’s just kind of… there, sitting in the corner, looking sweet but not really wanting to dance. Other records, less pretty but more fun, are waiting impatiently for your attention.