I was underwhelmed with this CD, and now I’m overwhelmed by it. I’ll briefly explain the former and explain the latter in depth, but first, let’s talk about subtlety.
It’s good. I mean, sure, there are times when we all want (and need) to bang our heads, to let our freak flags fly, to rock like a beast and clean up later. But we must never forget how to be subtle, how to hint instead of demand, how to whisper instead of scream, how a single rose offered at the right time can mean more than two dozen thrust boldly at someone. Blatant is good, but subtle is good too, and mostly better, especially when we’re engaging in the most blatant act of aggression in U.S. history, and when —
Oh, yeah, subtlety. Um, let’s just pretend I didn’t actually say that last part, but let you figure out for yourself that that’s what I was talking about. That would have been much more effective, right? Adrien Brody over Michael Moore, no?
Well, no, not always. But sometimes. Like now, with this most subtle and deceptively gentle record by three of Brazil’s most fascinating musicians, who have ganged up together into a supergroup to make the least supergroup-y record you’ll ever hear.
Rio de Janiero’s Marisa Monte is the best-known of the three, both overseas and in her native country. She has a beautiful soft voice and a canny songwriting touch, but she has never been content to just be a pop idol — for every tradition she’s honored, she’s tried to break one. (When she went for broke with the studio/live album A Great Noise, she picked impossibly hard songs and made them pretty, and then festooned the CD art with drawings by Brazilian porn-dog Carlos Zéfiro.) She seems equally influenced by George Harrison and Daniela Mercury, Tropicalia and samba-school formality. We have no one like this except perhaps Björk, who doesn’t swing as hard.
Carlinhos Brown is the greatest drummer in the world, and a man who has built his entire career trying to deal with that fact. He grew up in Salvador, Bahia, that center of wonderful Afro-Brazilianism, and worked as a studio engineer while practicing percussion on everything that could be hit; he changed his name to Brown to honor the Godfather of Soul; he wrote hits for and gigged with everyone in Bahia; he founded his group, Timbalada, as a social project that featured more than 120 members, many of whom were poor street kids. But he has always sought to be a complete songwriter, using African and Latin rhythms as elements of his music rather than their whole reason for being. We have no one like this . . . maybe ?uestlove, from the Roots, if he could also sing.
Arnaldo Antunes is a Sâo Paulo-based performance artist with a well-deep ugly froggy voice and a long history of weirdo masterpieces. He headed up the group Titas for a while, he’s had a bunch of solo albums, he collaborated with Suba on Sâo Paulo Confessions he might be the Tom Waits of Brazil, except that he seems to have skipped the whole Bukowski thing and went directly to the creepy avant-garde deal.
So you’d expect their collaboration to be messy and overstuffed, a ménage a trois between Brazil’s three musical centers and three major strains of music (pop, African-style, and experimental). You’d expect, maybe, that this record — written and recorded in three weeks in between the artists’ various projects — would sound like Blazow! and BoomBoomBoom! and HeyLookAtUsAin’tWeWacky!
But you (unfortunate straw person of my second-person example) would be wrong. This is an incredibly subtle record, one that works 1000 times better at home than in the car, and another 1000 times better on headphones. The 13 songs here (12 of which are original, with one adaptation of a children’s song) use “Quiet Is the New Loud” as their guiding principle. And then, once you’re sucked in, you realize how subtly radical some of the tunes are.
The opener, “Carnavália,” is a pop song with hooks and verses and a chorus and melody and harmony and everything — and it can be appreciated on that level. The acoustic guitars chime away and provide a nice fluffy bed for the three-way vocals, as well as some lovely two-line solo breaks for Monte to sing by herself; Brown’s percussion is spare and supportive; Antunes’ voice flies lower than low, serving almost as a basso continuo for the circular structure; really lovely stuff. But when you listen more closely, it’s also a very strange sort of thing. Monte’s production is sneaky, with tiny echoey touches and scary soft keyboard flourishes abound when you least expect it. Brown is credited with playing 11 different percussion instruments, all of which you can hear if you pay attention. And why didn’t I hear the soulful vocal toss-offs before?
This is the basic template here: Make things beautifully weird, weirdly beautiful, but so subtly that they only fully reveal themselves after many listens. “Passe em Casa”, with its sexy vocal cameo appearance from Margareth Menezes, has a samba-worthy melodic line and an easy-listening harmonica supporting line . . . but then you notice that there is something like a motorbike flowing in and out of the song, and that Antunes is muttering something in one of the speakers for about ten seconds and then he never returns, and that the beat is way more hip-hop than anything else. And dig the way the harmonica frays electronically at the end of the long notes! By the time the song’s over, even Brown’s dancehall “bo! bo! bo!” seems to fit perfectly.
It’s not just the strange instrumentation here, or the conflicting/coordinated musical sensibilities of the three — there’s something else at work. Antunes’ voice, which shouldn’t really go along with anything in the world, sounds lovely growling along with Monte’s crystal perfection and Brown’s charismatic tenor on “O Amor É Feio” (“Love Is Ugly”); how does that happen? How does it work out that the sexiest song here, “Carnalismo”, has no percussion on it whatsoever, but just guitars and piano and Dadi Carvalho’s accordion and the sound of rain? (Probably because they’re singing about muscles and skin and hair and “segredos de liquidificador”.) How does “Lâ de Longe” sound like the most complicated song in the world with only two and a half chords? (I love Monte for always including the guitar chords with her lyrics. What a populist.)
It’s beyond me, really, how three big huge superstars with such varied musical legacies can work so well and perfectly together to create such a timeless-sounding work of art — especially considering they did it in about three weeks total. If this was, say, Björk and Tom Waits and (let’s say) ?uestlove (and I would kill to hear that, actually), it would take months and months and cost millions of dollars, and then fall flat as a pancake as everyone fought over how to inject his or her own personal vision into the mix. But this record sounds both casual and meticulous at the same time, like it sprang fully-grown from the sea and walked right onto the beach to be embraced by hot Brazilians wearing sexy bathing suits. This is why I love the music of that strange lovely messed-up country.
And this is why this will be one of this year’s best albums.