Marisa Monte: Universo Ao Meu Redor

Marisa Monte
Universo Ao Meu Redor
Metro Blue

This album, and its twin sister Infinito Particular, have already both gone platinum in Brazil, so it’s clear that Marisa Monte is still one of the biggest acts in that huge country. (My review of Infinito Particular can be found here.) Of the two records, this one is the more conceptually interesting one — a revisiting of samba, combining obscure classics as well as adding new jams of her own. This album has been universally acknowledged as “the better one” of the two; it is also the one more likely to be “ooh”-ed and “aah”-ed over by U.S. hipsters and critics, thanks to guest appearances by David Byrne and arrangements by Philip Glass and cult hero Eumir Deodato, as well as overall production by former Beastie Boys collaborator Mario Caldato, Jr.

But here are a couple of caveats right from the beginning. First, I have no idea which tracks here are arranged by Glass, because Blue Note and their corporate masters, EMI, sent out the disc with no liner notes. (I’m guessing that the overly fussy “Vai Saber” might be by Glass, but it’s not like he’s the only dude in the world who can do overly fussy string arrangements.) This also makes it kind of hard to know what she is singing about here, because I don’t really speak much Portuguese. So, for all I know, these songs are all about falling in love, or the importance of voting for Lula, or stabbing a hobo. I don’t know. EMI really has to get over this paranoia, or all the reviewers will end up pulling the same thing out of their Stock Phrase pile. (Plus, as anyone who knows anything about Monte already knows, she and Glass have been collaborating for more than 10 years, and she and Byrne go way back too.)

The second warning I have is this: the fact that there might be famous people on this record means nothing. Most samba schools consist of many, many people without famous names, all of them joining in and singing and chanting and banging on stuff and generally being fun and happy even when they’re singing about sad things. So it really doesn’t matter who’s on this record, ultimately. (And, I guess, it really doesn’t matter that I don’t have any liner notes.)

Monte obviously loves and honors the tradition of samba music; after all, her father was one of the directors of Velha Guarda da Portela, one of the big samba schools. All the tracks here are extremely respectful of this slippery/smooth genre, while still managing to add cool modern touches. The title track, leading off this lineup, softens the traditional samba beat down into bossa nova, but adds a soft whistling solo and some weird ambient muttering just for fun. “A Alma e a Matéria” starts off like it’s going the same way, but pulls a fast one by bringing in more traditional samba-school elements like tubas and chiming guitars at the end.

And Monte is a skilled enough songwriter that it’s hard to tell where the old stuff starts and the new stuff begins. I have learned (with a lot of digging) that “Quatro Paredes” is one of the songs she has written for this project, but it sounds pretty authentic to me, despite the post-modernist Farfisa noodling. Trying to distinguish between the older songs and the new ones might make for a fun trainspotting holiday, if you actually have liner notes in front of you. (Okay, I’ll stop bitching now.)

I am in awe of all the respect and love that Monte gives to her nation’s greatest musical form; everything is precision, class, beauty, and these are good things. But there is one thing missing, and it’s kind of a big thing: joy. It all seems pretty academic, more of a tribute than a real feeling for the music, and the listener rarely senses that Monte understands that samba music can be a hell of a lot of fun. I have a couple of compilations containing Vehla Guarda da Portela tracks, and it sounds like every single person involved has a smile on his or her face. You don’t hear that in tracks like “Cantinho Escondido” or “Pétalas Esquecidas”, not at all, and only a bit more in the livelier “Meu Canário”, which also does the tuba + electronica thing. It sounds like work. That’s not a compliment here.

I’m not asking for a full-on whoop-de-do orgy of recklessness here — after all, we are talking about Marisa Monte, and she’s all about the moody mood. But could we have just a little sign that Marisa Monte is having a good time making her music? Please?

RATING 7 / 10