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Kassin Tempers Bossa Nova Vibe with Darker Themes on 'Relax'

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Multi-instrumentalist/producer Kassin's latest album is a missive from a place of post-divorce reflection.

Relax
Kassin

Luaka Bop

11 May 2018

In the 1950s when Brazil's bossa nova hipsters began to rise in prominence, one of the criticisms leveled at the self-consciously sophisticated and artistic music was that the singers, such as Astrud Gilberto, were "out of tune". As a playful rebuttal, bossa godfather Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Newton Mendoça wrote the hit "Desfinado" or "Out of Tune", turning the phrase into a story about a lover rejected by a judgmental aficionado. Since that time, there has often been an undertow within the flow of Brazilian popular music: a pinch of salt to offset the balmy tropical sounds; a discordant note amid the sweet harmonies; a sudden offbeat to play off the otherwise-insistent rhythms.

Producer-songwriter Alexandre Kassin plays with those Brazilian/anti-Brazilian elements throughout his new album. The intricate arrangements demonstrate Kassin's mastery of modern music production and manipulation: it's a sort of Quentin Tarantino-like knowingness that makes the art both of - and separate from - the pop music it resembles. Kassin is a successful producer and musician and is best known as one of the +2 trio, which includes Moreno Veloso, son of Brazilian icon Caetano Veloso. The trio has released several records where each member takes a turn being the front person and created the retro big band samba group, Orquestra Imperial.

The album was reportedly recorded in a period of Kassin's life when he was recovering from a bad divorce, and certainly, both the darkness and willed attempt to get to brighter territory seem to be there throughout. Relax often sounds like a contemporary take on bossa nova, with a gentle but ineluctable swing and understated vocals. Kassin's take, at times, goes extra-quirky with sharp, angular counter-rhythms and accents of playful electronics. The overall sound can be – such as on the title cut - reminiscent of a more polyrhythmic Steely Dan - a smooth, cool ambiance of electronic keyboards and sophisticated, jazzy arrangements that simmer but never get roiling.

"Relax" is a mid-tempo song with a sweet chorus, chunks of funk guitar and a punchy brass section that cruises along easily even when the arrangement gets pretty busy. "Estricnina," skitters along on a rapid-fire high-hat and cymbals, but the trebly staccato organ (which at times to be playing frenetically in the studio next door) hints at the darker theme of the narrator singing of taking the poison strychnine. The song juggles its bleak themes on top of the chattering percussion, undercutting its haunting feel with a competing quirkiness.

One of his breakup songs is "A Paisagem Morta", with a muted insistent beat overlaid by a somber atmosphere, a song about hitting bottom and trying to move forward after a romantic breakup. It ends with a hopeful swelling of instruments and chorus. "As Coisa Que Nos Nao Fizemo" is also about divorce and has a methodical, reflective groove. Kassin bounces back with "Momento de Clareza," a frothy tune powered with a waka-waka rhythm guitar and some melodic woodwinds.

The lead-off song is "Comprimidos Demais" about a couple that uses mood-controlling drugs. The song starts with a mechanistic, off-kilter drum arrangement, then melts into a dreamy groove with squishy organ and deadpan vocals. "Sua Sugestao" is the poppiest tune on the album, the rushing rhythms and overlapping musical elements are kept in check with Kassin's deadpan vocal delivery.

Overall, Relax is not a depressing and heavy "break-up album", but feels its way along some mottled territory while employing some sophisticated arrangements and quirky sounds. While a gifted producer, Kassin has a limited voice, which may be a turn-off to some listeners even as he builds interesting arrangements around it. Kassin seems to be busying himself with the infinite decisions inherent in a thoughtful, creative music-making process; introspective and fascinated by life; making music that is richly textured, but rarely breaking into pop sunniness.

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