Tom Zé’s debut album is a good one, but it can’t really hold a candle to his later stuff in my mind. I hear bits of ornate chamber pop of the kind Andrew Loog Oldham made with The Rolling Stones (Metamorphosis), a satirical take on commercial culture like The Who‘s The Who Sell Out, protest folk like Bob Dylan, bossa nova, Brazilian folk of many stripes, and avant-garde classical/jazz. I love all those bits and pieces, and the idea of throwing them all together. Yet this sounds a bit too precious. The record is also recorded rather poorly, with Zé’s vocals off in the distance and flat dynamics that crunch most of the instruments together, except for the organ. Admittedly, I might be unfairly critical because this music relies heavily on lyrics and I don’t speak Portuguese. So, anyway, a promising start, but dig deeper into the man’s catalog for bigger rewards, or at least stick a toe into deeper waters with Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé – Massive Hits.
Of the albums to emerge from the tropicália movement, Gilberto Gil’s first self-titled album (sometimes referred to by the first song “Frevo rasgado” to distinguish it from his other self-titled albums) is one of the most playfully upbeat. It is also one more clearly indebted to The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour) than most. Of course, arranger Rogério Duprat is on board and he deftly brings together all the disparate elements, from anachronistic afoxé/baião/folk musics of Bahia (Gil’s home state in northeastern Brazil) and cultured bossa nova to stately horns and refined strings to edgy psychedelic rock, gritty jovem guarda and energetic iê-iê-iê (Brazilian rock ‘n’ roll forms), in a way that totally sublimates the jarring discontinuities — epitomized on the iconic pastiche “Marginália II” (which goes as far as to quote military march music akin to “Marines’ Hymn”). There are jumps between styles within songs, and also across the many songs on the album. The rude and groovy psychedelic guitar riffs and rumbling samba drum beats of “Procissão” give way to “Luzia Luluza,” a delicately intricate baroque pop ballad with interspersed field recording/found sounds, lush and melancholic string arrangements, and alternately bright and fluttering wind instruments. The sheer breadth of this music is staggering. Yet it doesn’t exactly beat the listener down with heavy-handed pretensions. Much of this has a goofy irreverence that undercuts what might otherwise be dour seriousness with music this ambitious.
Christopher Dunn‘s excellent book Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (2001), citing Lídia Santos, describes the tropicália movement’s satirical use of kitsch:
“One of the central aesthetic operations of Tropicália was the irreverent citation and celebration of all that was cafona (denoting ‘bad taste’) or kitsch in Brazilian culture. The kitsch object bears the mark of a temporal disjuncture, often appearing as anachronistic, inauthentic, or crudely imitative. The tropicalists’ calculated use of kitsch material was highly ambiguous and multivalent. First, it served to contest the prevailing standards of ‘good taste’ and seriousness of mid-1960s MPB. In this sense, it was a gesture of aesthetic populism because it acknowledged that the general public consumed and found meaning in cultural products that many critics dismissed as dated, stereotypical, and even alienated. Second, the tropicalists incorporated kitsch material as a way to satirize the retrograde social and political values that returned with military rule.” (p. 124).
Dunn further stresses “the ambiguities of tropicalist song, in which the line between sincerity and sarcasm, complicity and critique, was often blurred.” (p. 153). He also refers to some of these same techniques as illustrative of the use of allegory. (p. 86). He traces the roots of the musical movement to things like the 1928 “Manifesto Antropófago [Cannibalist Manifesto]” of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade and French playwright/actor Antonin Artaud‘s Theater of Cruelty. (pp. 17, 78). There are many latter-day analogues, such as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. But there is a question of whether “cynicism” is the right term here. Ariel Pink’s music might be described as using what Peter Sloterdijk calls “kynicism” (or classical cynicism), which has been summarized as: exposing the self-interested egotism and claims to power behind official discourse by holding it up to banal ridicule. Miloš Forman‘s early films made behind the Iron Curtain did this too.
The tropicalists did all this within a somewhat specific context of the Third World Project and Non-aligned Movement (for that history, see Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007)) and colonial liberation movements in the spirit of Frantz Fanon et al. Those efforts were all about casting off the yoke of colonialism with both a materially independent (yet not isolationist) economic system and a psychological break from a colonized mindset. This was a musical project with similar aims.
“So what makes tropicalismo so unique? Is it the Bahia folk influence, the focus on emotional expression rather than rock ‘n roll grooves? Those too, but I think the most important difference is the songwriting & the arrangements. Brazilian songwriters never seem ashamed to use extravagant horn & string sections on their albums, or restrain from including folk & tribal parts in the songs. Avantgarde, African & ‘alternative’ music all melt together to form multi-dimensional music that you can’t pigeonhole, which is I guess why mostly nondescript names such as tropicalismo and ‘musica popular brasileira’ get thrown around.”
The tropicalists adopt all sorts of things, without guilt about doing it. This is what made them so radical.
Dunn’s book puzzles over the censorship and arrests of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, claiming that such government action was “arbitrary and misinformed” (p. 147) in view of the more obvious protest music that was not treated as harshly. But, I think, this is a wrongheaded approach. Caetano Veloso, in his memoir Tropical Truth, takes a contrary position when he recounts an episode as he and Gil were about to be released from imprisonment by the military, about being called to the office of a captain who had underwent special anti-guerrilla training in the United States, “He said he understood clearly that what Gil and I were doing was much more dangerous than the work of artists who were engaged in explicit protests and political activity.” Dunn overlooks a possibility here, one that is explained by Slavoj Žižek, whose In Defense of Lost Causes (2008) discusses the curious difference between composers Sergei Prokofiev [Сергей Сергеевич Прокофьев] and Dmitri Shostakovitch [Дми́трий Дми́триевич Шостако́вич] in the Soviet Union:
“what if what makes Shostakovich’s music ‘Stalinist,’ a part of the Soviet universe, is his very distance towards it? What if distance towards the official ideological universe, far from undermining it, was a key constituent of its functioning? *** If there is a lesson to be learned from the functioning of Stalinist ideology, it is that (public) appearances matter, which is why one should reserve the category ‘dissidence’ exclusively for the public discourse: ‘dissidents’ were only those who disturbed the smooth functioning of the public discourse, announcing publicly — in one way or another — what, privately, everybody already knew. *** What if the Stalinist rejection of both Prokofiev’s propagandistic and intimate works was right on its own terms? What if they wanted from him was precisely the coexistence of two levels, propagandistic and intimate, while he was offering them either the first or the second? *** Nonetheless, the subjective position of Prokofiev is here radically different from that of Shostakovich: one can propose the thesis that, in contrast to Shostakovich, Prokofiev was effectively not a ‘Soviet composer,’ even if he wrote more than Shotakovich’s share of official cantatas celebrating Stalin and his regime. Prokofiev adopted a kind of proto-psychotic position of internal exclusion towards Stalinism: he was not internally affected or bothered by it, that is, he treated it as just an external nuisance. There was effectively something childish in Prokofiev, like the refusal of a spoilt child to accept one’s place in the social order of things . . . . What if . . . Shostakovich’s popularity is the sign of a non-event, a moment of the vast cultural counter-revolution whose political mark is the withdrawal from radical emancipatory politics, and the refocusing on human rights and the prevention of suffering?” (pp. 236-246).
The parallels aren’t exact here, but Gilberto Gil’s music on his first self-titled album — like much other music of tropicália — puts an emancipatory agenda on the table by drawing no high/low cultural distinctions between music of the poor in Brazil, officially sanctioned music, and popular music of the core economies of the global West. He simply refuses to internally accept any boundaries of that sort. Yet the Brazilian junta depended upon a distinction between core and peripheral economies. As the Brazilian political economist Ruy Mauro Marini noted just a few years before Gil’s album was released, the Brazilian military state engaged in a kind of collaborationist “sub-imperialism” that involved collaborating actively with (core economy) imperialist expansion, assuming in that expansion the position of a key nation. RM Marini, “Brazilian Interdependence and Imperialist Integration,” Monthly Review, Vol. 17, No. 7, p. 22 (Dec. 1965). Gil’s music may present a “public” discourse that is ambiguously involved with parts of the traditions of Brazil and its colonial past, but its “internal” stance stands apart from the ideology that sustained the authoritarian, conservative, “sub-imperialist” junta. So, contrary to Dunn (though later in his book he briefly acknowledges a view of Gil’s “symbolic” interventions), I think the censors in Brazil were actually quite astute in their persecutions of Gil and Veloso, who presented a much deeper problem for the military regime than did the protest signers of the time, who like “beautiful souls” accepted an outsider position that paradoxically helped sustain the regime.
Of course, the tropicalist movement evaporated in only a matter of years, as Gil and Veloso were jailed and then exiled. Gil in particular is often accused of giving up on the emancipatory project after his return from exile in favor of a tepid acceptance of the center-liberal “refocusing on human rights and the prevention of suffering” and wholesale adoption of typical “Western” (core economy) musical values. But, none of that had happened yet with Gilberto Gil, and that album still sounds daring nearly a half-century later.
Monk was always something of a delightful mess of contradictions. His works were always too odd to fit neatly within the bop school, or any other, yet he always looked back toward an idiosyncratic version of traditionalism, sticking with the same basic style for his whole career and never chasing fads. His seemingly willfully unorthodox (some would say poor) technique was belied in that he chose to play that way, known to rehearse in a more conventional manner.
On Columbia Records, Monk established a pattern of mostly re-recording old favorites and tossing in a select few new compositions. From one perspective, that’s a disappointment. On a re-recording, Monk was never going to match the magnificent, startling, timeless splendor of his early Blue Note recordings, or even the often crudely performed and recorded but no-less-charmingly-weird-for-it efforts of his brief Prestige tenure. But, let’s take this from another point of view. If you could write a song like “Monk’s Dream” or “Bye-Ya,” shit, wouldn’t YOU play it (and record it) all the time? Monk knew what he had on his hands. And he made good use of it. He also adapted perfectly to his growing commercial success pretty comfortably. He may have mellowed a bit, but he never gave up on his offbeat innovations and mannerisms.
Charlie Rouse was the most effective saxophonist who ever played with Monk. His woody, slightly gritty tone sat well alongside Monk’s percussive piano playing, particularly in the 1960s when Monk had buffed his music down to something well-worn but still with a glint of sparkle. Rouse is pretty energetic here, somewhat in contrast to Monk, and is ready to jump out with a solo just as twisted as any of Monk’s melodies. Having Rouse on his game, with the rhythm section rising to the occasion, and thanks to the kind of wonderful production values the switch to Columbia provided, this is a thoroughly pleasant and engaging set. If this strikes your fancy, check out Live at the It Club: Complete.
Possibly Monk’s second best live recording, after Live at the It Club: Complete (though Thelonious in Action might be another contender). Monk went way out west to record with Shelly Manne, but when that meeting didn’t work out, Monk’s regular quartet recorded this live date instead with two guests. The results speak for themselves, with solid playing from the quartet and just enough variety added by the new players to make this something other than yet another set of readings of familiar Monk tunes.
Billy Higgins (d) was no slouch when it came to the avant-garde, but his playing was always rooted in bop. In short, that made him a player a lot like Monk. John Ore (b) was a dependable member of the quartet. He doesn’t ever capture the spot light. But he also never screws the pooch either. Then there is Charlie Rouse (ts). Monk and Rouse went together like peas and carrots, milk and cookies, bread and butter…hell, name your analogy. Rouse brought an energy and an almost telepathic understanding of Monk’s songwriting and playing so that he’s usually the group’s biggest asset, and this disc is no exception.
The guests, Joe Gordon (t) and Harold Land (ts), play things particularly straight. Gordon sticks to pretty standard hard bop stylings. That’s perfectly fine. Monk rarely included trumpet in his recordings as a leader, so having one present is unusual enough in itself. Land comes across as something of a lesser version of Coltrane (much lesser actually), who had been in Monk’s working group a few years previous. The contrast between Land and Rouse is quite stark, and makes for a funny indicator of how Rouse just “got” Monk’s music better than anyone else.
Likely because of the two guests, who had only minimal prep time to integrate themselves with the quartet, Monk and Rouse really step up in their playing to carry the day. The guests add some new flavors, but fortunately they take secondary roles and are content to just pop in for occasional solos. So, you still get to hear the great Monk/Rouse team in action. The sound on this may disappoint some — patrons of the Blackhawk club can distinctly be heard talking away during the recording (at least on the CD reissue with some bonus tracks). But forget that. This is a pretty good Monk recording, well worth the time.
Link to an interview with Michael Hudson:
“Classical economics was a doctrine of how to industrialize and become more competitive – and at the same time, more fair – by bringing prices in line with actual, socially necessary costs of production. The resulting doctrine (with Marx and Thorstein Veblen being the last great classical economists) was largely a guide to what to avoid: special privilege, unearned income, unproductive overhead.
“The aim was to create a circular flow model of national income distinguishing real wealth from mere overhead. The idea was to strip away what was unnecessary – what Marx called the ‘excrescences’ of post-feudal society that remained embedded in the industrial economies of his day. When the great classical economists spoke of a ‘free market,’ they meant a market free from rentier classes, free from monopolies and above all free from predatory bank credit.
“Of course, we know now that Marx was too optimistic. He described the destiny of industrial capitalism as being to liberate economies from the rentiers. But World War I changed the momentum of Western civilization. The rentiers fought back – the Austrian School, von Mises and Hayek, fascism and the University of Chicago’s ideologues redefined ‘free markets’ to mean markets free for rentiers, free from government taxation of land and natural resources, free from public price regulation and oversight. The Reform Era was called ‘the road to serfdom’ – and in its place, the post-classical neoliberals promoted today’s road to debt peonage.
“Today’s Cold War may be viewed in its intellectual aspects as an attempt to prevent countries outside of the United States from realizing that (contra Thatcher) there is an alternative, and acting on it. The struggle is for the economy’s brain and understanding on the part of governments. Only a strong government has the power to achieve the reforms at which 19th century reformers failed to achieve.
“The alternative is what happened as Rome collapsed into serfdom and feudalism.”
With Eureka Jim O’Rourke started to look like one of the most significant pop/rock artists of his time. While some of the American Primitivisms of his previous album Bad Timing are still present here, O’Rourke had now became noticeably more eclectic. You can trace influences of Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Burt Bacharach, Robert Wyatt beyond those of John Fahey. O’Rourke employs a kind of allegorical approach here. Whether you adopt the classical Greek formulation (something that “speaks otherwise”) or the more modern one formulated by Walter Benjamin (“Allegories are, in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things.”), there are fragments of (recent, popular) musical history employed in a way that takes on other meaning. The fragments he appropriates are used reverentially — you can tell O’Rourke deeply appreciates it all — though at the same time there is a tacit acceptance that it all is of the past and can’t be reproduced in its original context or with its original meaning.
I really loved this when it came out, and it was probably the first O’Rourke solo album I remember hearing. If looking back this seems less than it did at first it’s only because O’Rourke outdid himself on Halfway to a Threeway and Insignificance in the coming years. And perhaps also the magnificence of the first six tracks here greatly outstrip the rather weak last two. Still, I have to say something like Eureka, and contemporaneous efforts like his contribution to Illuminati, seemed a big influence on the mild resurgence of orchestrated pop that led to things like Joanna Newsom‘s Ys a few years down the line. I guess I’ll have to wait and see if he ever releases an album titled “Castaway” to continue the trend of naming stuff after Nicolas Roeg movies — Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance…
Sonic Youth’s debut (at about 24 minutes in length, straddling the line between an EP and LP) might shock listeners who came to the band much later. It is pretty firmly rooted in New York City No-wave punk, reminiscent of DNA and Glenn Branca — especially his The Ascension. Noisy yet anthemic guitar riffs are nowhere to be found here. Instead, the record is dominated by wide-ranging drums and ironically monotonous bass. There is a sparseness here that the band would pretty much never return to. Elements of this sound hung around for some of their early recordings like Confusion Is Sex, but (not coincidentally) disappeared by the time the band broke to a national audience with EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation. They reappeared only for brief changes of pace and coloring on much later (and, not coincidentally, somewhat unpopular) albums like NYC Ghosts & Flowers. All that historical stuff aside, this record holds up pretty well decades later. It might not be the most original of no-wave albums, but anyone with an inkling of interest in the sub-genre should get a kick out of it.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers caters to a very specific audience as it began a planned trilogy in tribute to New York City and all it represents. Opinions differ greatly on the album’s merits — to some this is the band’s single worst album, to others this is a return to underground authenticity. Though this remains one of my favorites. There are a few slow moments and it’s certainly not a watershed Sister or Daydream Nation, but this is the Sonic Youth at their most experimental. It isn’t experimentation for its own sake either. The inventive spirit overpowers the nostalgia (and the name-checking references to the past). Maybe I’m a sucker for underground culture. But anything that so insightfully captures shadings of people like William S. Burroughs (the album cover is an image he created), Hubert Selby Jr. and Jean-Michel Basquiat and of the ongoing revolution of the universal consciousness is okay by me. This album is kind of like a research project, going back to explore the pre-history of the punk movement that is typically associated with Sonic Youth and its fan base and exploring how that legacy is still relevant. That especially means looking to the 1950s Beat Generation bohemianism and the 1960s hippie/Yippie counterculture, but also perhaps the free jazz and experimental music scenes of those eras. The lyrics are as good here as anything Sonic Youth had conjured up before. The sneering snottiness is held in check and instead they present thoughtful long-form concepts, adapting the vocal mannerism of the past to reference a kind of evolution of different modes of artistic discourse. The song structures are also more open-ended, and they find ways to transition between spoken monologues, white noise set pieces, guitar riffs, and guitar solos that seemed lacking though much of their mid/late 90s albums. I suspect that Sonic Youth looking back before the 1970s put off many listeners, who only wanted the band to have loud, crunchy guitar solos appear with predictable regularity — there isn’t much of that here. That, and there are markedly different rhythms in play here, which are frequently static and cerebral while being insistent and present as a force equal to or great than the vocals, melodies or noise effects. But in displacing of all the familiar devices with new techniques, the band (and co-producer Jim O’Rourke) deliver a recording that is as refined and well-recorded as anything they ever released, even as it revels in dissonance and artistic devices that alienate the audience to make certain points (usually by transitioning from or contrasting with the aspects with a distancing effect). If you don’t want a rock album to challenge you, then of course you won’t like this album. If you do, however, you might get something out of this one.
The Sonic Youth at their best master the simplest points of music. They arrived at songs with insight and momentum, just from unique angles. While the follow-up Daydream Nation may be canonized as the band’s finest album, Sister has a stomping, (intentionally) irritating attitude with a wonderful balance of noise and tangible rhythm and melody. This is the more immanently listenable.
The Youth did have some of the most inventive rock instrumentalists in the game, but there was no need to dazzle listeners with gratuities. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore excel at shading distortion with their improvisational attack. The raw technical aspects seem simple, but chalk that up to these stylistic wonder-kids making the impossible seem effortless. Hardly since The Velvet Underground‘s White Light/White Heat had a band pushed guitars past their breaking point like this.
In their early noise band days Sonic Youth were exciting and original but an exceedingly challenging listen. With EVOL, Sister, and Daydream Nation the Youth continually increased the complexity and but also the rewards. EVOL came close, but Sister was truly the record that put them on the map.
Noisy as they were, the Sonic Youth put together some great anthemic tunes. The opener “Schizophrenia” tells of haunting thoughts: “My future’s static/ It’s already had it.” The Youth grew out of no-wave. Every step they took added to that movement. There was some distance between them and no-wave but it was assuredly the result of forward movement.
You gotta hear the album from start to finish since every track burns its own kind of fuel. “Pipeline/Kill Time” moves into a passage near the end where Steve Shelley’s drums beat out a slowing pattern, enough to slow your existence with the rhythm. The guitars dish out a reminder they are electric. “Tuff Gnarl” is the very essence of the Sonic Youth. It’s loud, non-linear, and has plenty of R&B riffs to keep you dodging the jabs. Pretty soon something sticks. The relentless advance will knock you down, and out. Kim Gordon has her nasty bass action in effect on “(I Got A) Catholic Block.” The rendition of Johnny Strike of Crime‘s “Hot Wire My Heart” has the most abrasive guitar work on the disc. It doesn’t grind away at you. It polishes rock ‘n’ roll. The result isn’t a shine, but more one that glints to eyes opened just right to look outside. “Master-Dik” is a reminder that Alice Cooper and Madonna influenced them as much as the Velvet Underground.
The Sonic Youth were key figures of the post-punk explosion who achieved success without compromising. They had the drive and the blood-rush rock ‘n’ roll attitude that was already in decline around them. Somehow they held on to it.
Link to an article by Paul Street: