The Lollipop of Science (O Pirulito da Ciência): A Defective Guide to Tom Zé (Um guia com defeito para Tom Zé)

A guide to the music of Tom Zé.  His professional musical career spanned half a century (and counting), though today many of his recordings are out of print — even in his native Brazil.  What is available in the United States tends to skew toward his later recordings, which has the unfortunate effect of placing some of his finest material out of reach.  His solo recordings are listed below divided into two time periods.  His collaborations are listed separately — some being mere guest appearances while other are more extensive.  Pursuant to the legend below, ratings are assigned to each, though Zé hardly has any bad releases so bear in mind these are just relative assessments.  Links to other resources, including books and films, are provided at the end.

This is still under construction.


Sung and Spoken Journalism (Imprensa cantada e falada): A Brief Introduction

 

Birth Name: Antonio José Santana Martins

Born: October 11, 1936, Irará, Bahia, Brazil

 

Antonio José Santana Martins, who adopted the stage name Tom Zé, was born in the dry interior region of the Brazilian state of Bahia.  He has described his hometown of Irará as “pre-Gutenbergian” (in reference to the inventor of the movable type printing press).  His father won the lottery, which allowed his family to live comfortably in an otherwise poor and arid rural region.  He moved to Salvador, the largest city in Bahia located along the Atlantic coast, to attend the University of Bahia.  He studied music.  He had an interest in composers like John Cage and Charles Ives.  Although Brazil had a troubled legacy as a former Portuguese colony (and briefly was the seat of the Portuguese capital), and was the last country in the western hemisphere to ban slavery, social democratic president João Goulart made some modest reforms and the Brazilian universities recruited professors from Europe to bolster their musical (and other) programs.  A military coup in 1964, supported by the United States, overthrew Goulart and installed a series of military “presidents” who ruled until 1985.  Zé relocated to São Paulo, was associated with a collection of leftist intellectuals in the 1960s, and became part of the tropicália (A/K/A tropicalismo) movement, the most prominent members (tropicalistas) of which were mostly Bahian too.  The (AI5) “coup within a coup” in 1968 brought harsher treatment of leftists and some of the tropicalistas.  While considered a key part of tropicália, he also seemed outside it at the same time, never contained by its key precepts despite his obvious sympathies and contributions.  His career faltered as the 1970s wore on.  By the 1990s he was considering working at a gas station when he was approached by the U.S. musician David Byrne (of Talking Heads), who had come across a Zé record and later sought him out (with the help of Brazilian-raised musician Arto Lindsay) to sign him to a new label.  Byrne was largely responsible for reviving Zé’s commercial career and introducing him to international audiences.  Though in many respects, Zé’s albums on Bryne’s Luaka Bop label are somewhat over-represented in English-speaking countries.

Caetano Veloso has described Zé’s tenaciously archaic yet inventive approach to music as “bizarrely elegant” and his attitude (reflected in his music too) as having an “ironic, distant sense of humor” that is “at once intimate and estranged[.]”  An incident on a plane that Veloso recounts is a fitting summary of a common effect of Zé’s music, when Zé made an absurd request for a particular drink (cachaça) on the plane, then, when it was not available, demanded the stewardess to stop the “caravel” (mid-flight) so he could leave, noting, “we were unnerved by the determination with which [the demand] was made, the sheer imposition of his will.”  Veloso was impressed with how “the sincerity of [Zé’s] defiance exposed the absurd pretense of refinement” around him.  This was in so many ways a fitting metanymn for the entire tropicália movement.  Recurring themes in Zé’s music involve tilting against colonial legacies (in the sense of Frantz Fanon) and making demands that emerge from leftist ideologies deemed impossible in his own time.  Zé considers himself a performer of limited means.  He has referred to at least some of what he does as sung and spoken journalism.  In the 1970s he experimented with what can be called a homemade sampler, and has long utilized homemade instruments (like Harry Partch, or Tom Waits in the mid-1980s and early 90s).

After his comeback in the early 1990s, the influence of animated Brazilian folk dance musics from northern regions, like the forró and coco of Luiz Gonzaga and especially Jackson do Pandeiro, were more apparent in his own recordings.  He continued working long after others would consider retirement.  There is a tenacious sense of experimentation that is constant throughout Tom Zé’s career.  He has toured internationally, though availability of his albums outside Brazil can be limited, even his most famous recordings.



Solo, Part I: Bahia to São Paulo


Tom Zé

Tom Zé (1968)


Release Notes: available on CD, vinyl and digitally as Grande Liquidação

Recorded:

Personnel:

Producer(s): João Araújo

Tier: ♻♻

Key Track(s): “São São Paulo”

Review:   Continue reading “The Lollipop of Science (O Pirulito da Ciência): A Defective Guide to Tom Zé (Um guia com defeito para Tom Zé)”

Judy Collins – A Maid of Constant Sorrow

A Maid of Constant Sorrow

Judy CollinsA Maid of Constant Sorrow Elektra EKL-209 (1961)


A nice debut from the sadly neglected Judy Collins.  At this time, she sang with a slightly husky tone as if honed performing belting her vocals at a near shout, without amplification, at some Greenwich Village coffee house.  Comparisons to folk stars of the previous decade like Pete Seeger are àpropos.  As Collins evolved, she incorporated elements of Broadway theatrics, with a lighter touch and more legato phrasing.  But those techniques lay in the future back in ’61.  Yet even from the beginning she clearly had quite a voice.  Enjoy.

Jethro Tull – Aqualung

Aqualung

Jethro TullAqualung Island ILPS 9145 (1971)


Jethro Tull alternated between folk/folk-rock and prog rock.  They generally come across to these ears as at best a second-tier offering on both fronts.  For folk/folk-rock, they make me wish I was listening to The Pentangle (or Bert Jansch solo), and for prog rock I’ll take Traffic.  Frankly, though, Aqualung leans more heavily on the prog side of things and the heavier electric guitar proves effective.  The band was known for the gimmick of having a flute, but the flute and the vocals are mostly a distraction.  This is still a very adequate album.

One question that jumped out when listening to this album is whether all prog rock is inherently misogynist.  As a genre, it tends to appeal — in a painfully obvious way — to sexually frustrated men.  It seems to lack any kind of feminine qualities.

Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line

I Walk the Line

Johnny CashI Walk the Line Columbia S-30397 (1970)


As a somewhat forgotten soundtrack to a somewhat forgotten movie, I Walk the Line (not to be confused with Johnny Cash’s earlier album of the same name) is actually a fairly decent album that fits perfects into Cash’s aesthetic of the early 1970s.  After big success in the late 1960s with a more “rock” sound courtesy of Carl Perkins on guitar, and getting a national television program in mid-1969, he turned back to a more “folk” sound.  This sound was established with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970).  With Cash at the absolute peak of his popularity, choosing him to record the soundtrack to I Walk the Line made sense.  The movie was kind of a bust, as director John Frankenheimer has said that the studio insisted on Gregory Peck for the lead but that Peck was cast against type and not the right choice.

As for the soundtrack itself, it opens with the magnificent “Flesh and Blood,” which would be Cash’s last #1 country hit single — the only time he ever came close to topping the pop singles charts was with “A Boy Named Sue” at #2 in 1969.  The song is grounded in a gentle acoustic guitar part set against a very mellow walking electric guitar rhythm part, with a romantic lyric and sweet, almost saccharine, string accompaniment typical of what was regularly featured on his TV show.   Next there is a new recording of his hit “I Walk the Line.”  It’s a fine version, perhaps unnecessary, but it’s hard to argue with having another performance of one of the man’s best compositions.  The rest of the album is made up of mostly spare acoustic numbers, a few being instrumental versions of songs also presented with vocals.  “Hungry,” “‘Cause I Love You,” “The World’s Gonna Fall on You” and “Face of Despair” are just Cash with an acoustic guitar, reminiscent of the urban folk on Orange Blossom Special (1965) and looking toward the bulk of Man in Black (1971) but also re-establishing the basic format used on Cash’s American Recordings comeback in the early 1990s.  But it concludes with the medley “Standing on the Promise / Amazing Grace” sung by The Carter Family.  The closing song stands in contrast to everything else on the album (much like “Amen” on Orange Blossom Special), but it’s also quite endearing in its homespun, country church stylings.  On balance, this album doesn’t deliver much in the way of songwriting, save for “Flesh and Blood.”  Yet Cash’s performances are steady, assured and impassioned.  If you like any of Cash’s material of the early 1970s, this is one to seek out at some point.

Johnny Cash – Blood, Sweat and Tears

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Johnny CashBlood, Sweat and Tears Columbia CS 8730 (1963)


Blood, Sweat & Tears is a prime example of the great possibilities and nagging limitations of Johnny Cash’s string of concept albums of the 1960s.  First off, the album is a bit unwieldy and uneven.  That would be an almost universal characteristic of these concept albums organized around a particular theme.  Many of the songs, the opener “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” especially, mix actual singing with what amount to skits.  Cash is often doing theatrical interludes, which are woven throughout the song in a way that prevents skipping over them entirely on subsequent listens.  So as much as his singing sounds great, it always seems like that enjoyment is broken up by a switch to narration and other theatrical radio-drama segments.  It’s not that these transitions are poorly executed as much as the premise behind them gets a bit tedious quickly and doesn’t bear out repeated listening well, especially when it drags on a bit too long as with the more than eight-minute opener.  Yet, on the plus side, the thematic premise of the album makes the whole something greater than just the sum of its parts.  It would be hard to call any songs here classics of the Cash cannon on their own, but they fit together well.  Lastly, it’s pretty apparent that this collection of work songs, railroad songs and folk standards was designed to appeal less to country fans than to listeners interested in the still-burgeoning urban folk movement, whose well-known names included Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, and others.  It makes the enterprise seem a bit forced at times.  So, honestly, Cash has done better concept albums, though this one is still decent.

Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’ Columbia CS 8905 (1964)


Easily my favorite Dylan record.  I can respect lots of his albums, but I have to be in just the right mood to ever want to listen to Blonde on Blonde, and even Highway 61 Revisited, great though it may be, isn’t something I listen to much all the way through.  But I always come back to this one.  It’s got some of Dylan’s best songs, including some that are unfairly neglected in his catalog (I can overlook the fact that “Boots of Spanish Leather” recycles “Girl from the North Country”).  He plays and sings with a kind of dedication that you might say is lacking on other albums, and his performances are much more effective than on his sometimes sloppy other early albums.  I know some people accuse Dylan of being too serious or militant on this disc, but I have a hard time respecting anything less than that.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again

I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again

Buffy Sainte-MarieI’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again Vanguard VSD-79280 (1968)


Lots of musicians “went country” in the late 1960s — think about country-rock outfits like Rising Sons and Bob Dylan going to record in Nashville.  Buffy Sainte-Marie was at the front end of that curve with her 1968 album I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (released shortly before Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Joan Baez‘s incursions into country). While other artists sometimes created hybrid music, Sainte-Marie for the most part made an authentic Nashville album, complete with A-list Nashville session players (Grady Martin, The Jordanaires, Floyd Cramer, etc.).  This compares favorably to any late 1960s Loretta Lynn album, for example.  Sainte-Marie tried all sorts of different things on her late 1960s and early 70s albums.  She was remarkably versatile, and willing to venture outside folk music.  Other other hand, while side one of the album is great, side two suffers from having a few songs (“Tall Trees in Georgia” and a re-recording of “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”) that return to the folk sounds of her early career.  Sticking with the Nashville sound throughout would have been more effective.  Still, that is a small issue on an otherwise great album — the folk songs are fine, just out of place.  For what it’s worth, it is kind of great that Sainte-Marie’s foray into country music is immune to criticisms of cultural appropriation.  Would anyone really accuse a musician with native Cree heritage of that?

The album was a flop.  There are numerous explanations.  But among the more unusual ones was that President Lyndon Johnson sent letters to radio stations on White House stationary to convince them to blacklist her in response to her anti-war song “Universal Soldier” becoming a hit (for Donovan).  Despite its lack of success at the time, this is an album worthy of reappraisal.  For that matter, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s entire career deserves more attention.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – Illuminations

Illuminations

Buffy Sainte-MarieIlluminations Vanguard VSD-79300 (1969)


Here is a forward-thinking recording that combines three semi-disparate styles.  There is protest folk, akin to Joan Baez.  There is also psychedelic rock, like Jefferson Airplane.  Lastly, and most unusually, there are experimental electronics, comparable to The United States of America, some efforts by The Grateful Dead, or maybe even Silver Apples.  The songwriting talents are undeniable — Sainte-Marie’s versatility is demonstrated by how she later co-wrote the mega-hit “Up Where We Belong” for the film An Officer and a Gentleman.  The musicianship here is a bit raw much of the time.  But this music places more emphasis on innovation than finesse.  Buffy goes so far as to modulate her voice with electronic equipment.  Not surprisingly, this was a commercial flop upon release, but it has nonetheless held on to a doggedly devoted cult following.  It is unmistakably an album of the late-1960s, and perhaps one representative of the fundamentally new possibilities opened up in that era, even if only at the fringes.  Worthwhile for adventurers in modern music.

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green

Primrose Green

Ryley WalkerPrimrose Green Dead Oceans DOC 101CD (2015)


The influences are apparent: John Martyn, The Pentagle (Jansch and Renbourn especially), Tim Buckley, Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, even The Grateful Dead and The Incredible String Band.  This is definitely music made “in the tradition” (to adopt Anthony Braxton‘s restrucuralists/stylists/traditionalists taxonomy).  But this is quite impressive in that it takes so many different elements from the late 1960s/early 1970s folk-rock milieu and deploys them all so convincingly.  Really likable and surprisingly durable.

John Fahey – The Yellow Princess

The Yellow Princess

John FaheyThe Yellow Princess Vanguard VSD-79293 (1968)


There may not be any simple way to characterize all of John Fahey’s recordings, given the vast amount of territory they cover.  But even as it feels more modern than his earliest records (read: his first three albums), The Yellow Princess still falls toward the more conservative, straightforward end of the spectrum.  That fact leads to a few rather obvious characterizations.  The material is rather accessible, and focuses on technical mastery of the steel-string acoustic guitar in a relatively traditional folk song setting more than on improvised stylistic explorations.  That is to say that unlike his early attempts to play folk and blues tunes like symphonies solo on a steel stringed acoustic guitar, full of noisy artifacts, or experimental sound collages, he is now playing more conventionally pretty and technically impressive folk music.  Prime examples of this are the title track and “Lion”.  Even though he does include some sound collages, there aren’t the inevitable missteps of experimental music that characterize some other Fahey albums, giving The Yellow Princess a more even feel.  A durable and enjoyable album, but also probably not the most impressive in the Fahey catalog — for which I would probably lean toward things like the more enigmatic and mystical Volume 6: Days Have Gone By.  Nonetheless, this is a versatile album well suited for listening in mixed company.

Worth recommending is a CD reissue that adds three lengthy bonus tracks, the best of which is “The John Fahey Sampler, Themes and Variations”.