Okay, I admit it. I do not understand Portuguese. I do not have a clue to what the words on the new Tom Ze record are about. The compact disc the label sent for review does not come with a front cover, lyric sheet, translation page, or liner notes. I have repeatedly played the new Tom Zé record, but it seems the more I play it, the more lost I get. Is Zé making fun of the bossa nova music genre? That’s what it seems like, though I cannot be sure. Maybe something more meta is going on — is this a disc making fun of discs that make fun of bossa nova?
In the end, none of this matters. Most North American listeners are like me. They will have little understanding of the cultural contexts or what the lyrics mean in English. We will only have the exotic sound of the music. The question becomes, is this a fun album in which to get lost? The answer is an emphatic yes.
This is wild, wacky, and wonderful noise with traces of tropical breezes and swaying foliage sighing through the instrumentation, pretty vocal harmonies provided by women with lovely voices and alliterative sounds mixed with grunts and oys and whatever. Zé’s vocals are rough and manly, in a playful way. He has a strong sense of rhythm that makes this dance music infectious, even when Zé lays down a speechified rant to minimal accompaniment (such as on “João Nos Tribunais”).
The music is also sexy. How can an album full of subtle sighs and gentle rhythms not be? Many of the songs seem to be endless churnings that seem headed to a climax, and whether or not it comes seems irrelevant. The fun lies in the efforts. The music may not be orgasmic as the release becomes of secondary importance. Instead, just getting worked up is an end in itself.
There are some words in English on the album, most notably on “Outra Insensatez, Poe!”, that features a duet between Zé and David Byrne (the album is on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label). The song begins with Zé groaning in Portuguese to a lilting acoustic guitar accompaniment. Byrne then delivers his English translation in a smooth voice. The narrator complains that it’s New Year’s Eve, and while fireworks burst in the air, his love his has left him, so he feels pain like the “chicken pox and then measles and then a nasty fever that entered my chest like an invading army with barbed wire wrapped around my young skin”. Zé continues his lament and Byrne continues his translation — and the difference between the two vocal styles — Zé’s sandpaper-y moans and Byrne’s dispassionate and straightforward delivery creates a comic effect. Ze’s over-emoting comes off as purposely solipsistic. Byrne’s deadpan conveys a droll double-meaning.
Indeed, a sense of humor pervades the disc. Whether it’s chorus that echoes The Beatles (“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”) on the fancifully titled “Roquenrol Bim-Bom” or soccer crowds chanting on “Brazil, Capital Buenos Aires”, there always seems to be something off-kilter on every song that makes one listen closer as if this would reveal hidden secrets. Who knows what this mystery may be? For all I know, the album contains the world’s greatest egg salad recipe. But there’s no riddle as to how to enjoy the disc — just put it on and listen.