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)”

Robert Wyatt – Comicopera

Comicopera

Robert WyattComicopera Domino WIGCD202 (2007)


This is really one of my most-listened-to albums.  Wyatt is really at his best here, from his vocals, to his songwriting and song selection, to the instrumentation and arrangements.  The album opens with a rendition of Anja Garbarek‘s “Stay Tuned,” which makes an appropriately diffuse and abstract introduction.  “Just as You Are” is my absolute favorite Wyatt track.  It is a very succinct statement of Wyatt’s politics, which I happen to entirely agree with.  I guess some might hear it as a love song though.  It works either way.  On the song “A Beautiful Peace” Wyatt recounts a walk around town — though Wyatt is partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.  While the lyrics note such things as garbage passed by on the street, Wyatt has a way of making that endearing!  Later on the song is counterposed with the charmingly ironic “A Beautiful War.”  The selection of material written by others in the last part of the album, “Act Three: Away With the Fairies,” speaks volumes.  “Del Mondo” is a cover of a song by Consorzio Suonatori Indipendenti (translation: Consortium of Independent Players), a spin-off of the band CCCP Fedeli alla linea (translation: CCCP [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] Faithful to the Line).  “Cancion de Julieta” is an adaptation of poetry by Federico García Lorca, who was murdered by fascists during the Spanish Revolution.  «¡Hasta siempre, Comandante!» (translation: “Until Always, Commander”) is cover of a song about the Cuban Revolution, written by Carlos Puebla as a tribute to Che Guevara.  There is a lot of political content in this album.  Yet in the best possible way it is scarcely noticeable (unlike the more starkly severe Mid-Eighties).  Much of the political left has given up the fight, but certainly not Wyatt.  He even opens the album with a song featuring the lyrics, “stay tuned / there is more to come”!

The sonic fabric of the album is very much in the same vein as Cuckooland but more developed and effective.  Wyatt plays trumpet, cornet, keyboards, and other assorted instruments in a way that is dissonant and “jazzy” yet always within a definite song structure.  Occasionally people talk about jazz musicians playing “inside” and “outside” at the same time, and Wyatt seems to do just that in a pop context.  It was great that when curating the 2009 Meltdown Festival Ornette Coleman selected Wyatt to perform, along with The Plastic Ono Band, Patti Smith and others.  Both men has a knack for making totally unique yet inviting music.

There really is no other musician alive who sounds quite like Robert Wyatt.  It is not just that his voice is distinctive.  Though it is.  It is really his entire approach to music.  There is an old debate among leftists about the role of culture, like music.  Some hold that proletarians should be the heirs of bourgeois culture, which really places things like Euro-classical music above things like folk or popular music but says that the lower classes will seize control of those cultural forms for the benefit of all.  Others hold that proletarian folk/popular art should displace elitist art, and that “high” culture should be abolished.  Wyatt represents a kind of hybrid of these views.  He works with jazz and pop music elements, but with a sophistication that rivals any highbrow Euro-classical music.

I do think I will continue to listen to this a lot.  It hardly seems possible to tire of music this richly varied yet casually welcoming, this deeply heartfelt yet carefully executed.

Carpenters – A Kind of Hush

A Kind of Hush

CarpentersA Kind of Hush A&M SP 4581 (1976)


A Kind of Hush was a bit of a lesser album from The Carpenters after a string of impressive ones in the early 1970s.  Of course, Karen still sings beautifully, and there are some good songs here (“Can’t Smile Without You,” “I Need to Be in Love”).  But the brother-sister duo seems to struggle to find enough suitable songs to fill the album, and Richard as the producer / arranger drifts into rigid formula, not living up to his best work.  He later admitted that this was a disappointing album, noting the poor song selection, and blamed it on his addition to sleeping pills at the time.  Celebrity was definitely beginning to take its toll.  For their next album, they tried to seek a different producer but had difficulty finding someone “major” willing, at which point Richard produced but made an effort to move out of his comfort zone.  Anyway, with all seriousness, the producer (or co-producer) that the duo should have used was Tiny Tim — think about it, this makes perfect sense when The Carpenters were recording pop songs from bygone eras like “Goofus” but also in that Tiny Tim would have added a sense of modern irony that would have reinvigorated The Carpenters’ sound at a time when their old approach maybe seemed less relevant.

“In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’ ***

“we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”  Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! pp. 1-2.

At their best, The Carpenters were able to articulate the claustrophobic unfreedom of the (white) “American Dream” in the post-WWI “Golden Age”, presenting songs in “red” ink” or pointing out a lack of “red ink”. There is only a trace of that ability on A Kind of Hush.  At a time when punk was making overt attacks on society, disco was celebrating individual hedonism and even hip-hop was rising from the underground, The Carpenters seemed somewhat out of touch, merely responding to conditions that many people already relegated to the past.  Oh, and the album cover is indeed one of the strangest and creepiest on a major commercial release at the time.  The duo’s next album Passage would be a small improvement, flirting with disco and showtunes a bit, though still prone to a few (easily avoidable) missteps.

Bob Dylan – Triplicate

Triplicate

Bob DylanTriplicate Columbia 88985 41349 2 (2017)


How did you feel about Christmas in the Heart?  If you loved it, then you are in luck!  Here is a triple album of secular songs using a similar approach.  If you hated it, well, sorry, but here is a triple album in a similar style.  Although nominally a “triple” album, the content could have fit very comfortably on two discs.  Anyway, this is just as self-indulgent as Patti Smith‘s Twelve and Dylan’s pal Johnny Cash‘s The Gospel Road.  But I like to image that Dylan commissioned an academic study to determine what music best suits his ravages rasp of a voice these days.  He then read the graph upside down and went with the music least suited to his present vocal abilities.  Seriously, there are like good singers who have recorded this kind of music before, and those recordings are still available.  This music would have been better as instrumentals, frankly.

Madonna – Ray of Light

Ray of Light

MadonnaRay of Light Maverick/Warner Bros. 9 46847-2 (1998)


Madonna has had an interesting career.  Her self-titled debut album is a classic of early 1980s dance floor electro-pop.  After that, though, she focused on the sensational aspects of her public persona.  This often meant a hyper-sexualized one.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it often seemed to pander, or at least resort to pandering and filler at album length — she could still knock out great singles.  But by the mid-1990s it seemed almost like she was stuck churning out slightly eroticized pop ballads, and she had taken that about as far as she could.  So Ray of Light was a somewhat daring turn toward electronica, pairing her with producer William Orbit.  The album draws a bit from the down-tempo trip hop scene, but retains a kind of mainstreamed rave dance floor appeal.  This turns out to be one of her best album-length statements.  Nearly twenty years after release, it still sounds good.  Madonna comes to terms with middle age here, in a way.  Maybe it avoids some of the exuberance and daring of her early hits, with more brooding and introspective qualities in their place. But to a certain degree Neil Hamburger had a point with his joke: “What do you call senior citizens who rub feces on their genitals?  Madonna!”  Countless musicians have tried to make a mid-career update, to seem more “with it” and adept with current fads.  The thing is, Madonna pulls off that feat better than just about anybody here.  Nothing about Ray of Light seems like faddish pandering.  And she sings as good as ever here — her vocals are much stronger and extend to a much wider array of techniques than back on her debut.  Too bad all pop albums aren’t this good!

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

Ultraviolence

Lana Del ReyUltraviolence Interscope B0020950-02 (2014)


Del Rey’s second full-length album made strides over her debut Born to Die (and the Paradise EP) in terms of being a bit more consistent, especially from a production standpoint.  This is more rock-oriented than her debut.  However, the songwriting sometimes falters, or just comes up short, which still makes this seem like a good EP padded out to album length.  The best songs are “West Coast” and “Brooklyn Baby.”  Lou Reed was supposed to provide guest vocals on the latter, but he passed away before he could record them.  A year earlier, she released the song “Young and Beautiful” on the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, which is more in line with the style of most of her best songs.

Tuca – Drácula I Love You

Drácula I Love You

TucaDrácula I Love You Som Livre 403.6046 (1974)


The Brazilian musician Tuca (born Valeniza Zagni da Silva) was an enigmatic figure, these days relatively unknown.  If at all, she is recognized for her collaborative work writing songs for and playing guitar on Françoise Hardy‘s La question and playing guitar on Nara Leão‘s Dez anos depois (both from 1971). There is little biographical information about her readily available in English.  However, Françoise Hardy’s memoir Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles recalls how Tuca lived in France in the early 1970s, then, after returning to Brazil, died at age 34 due to complications from an aggressive weight-loss program.  Hardy also noted that Tuca (a lesbian) was infatuated with the Italian actress Lea Massari, who was heterosexual and not interested.  Tuca also had some type of physical ailment that caused body odor (trimethylaminuria? fistula? diabetes? an overactive thyroid?), leading to self-consciousness.  These currents of personal ambition, hope, self-doubt and disappointment contextualize what Tuca’s music was about on Drácula I Love You, her third and final full-length album.

The album was recorded outside Paris at the iconic Château d’Hérouville studio, where a host of well-known Western pop/rock artists made recordings in the early 1970s.  The music is pop, in a way.  Yet it does not fit neatly into any genre categories though.  It draws from the mainstream to more skewed avante-garde rock, melding aspects of Brazilian music — Erasmo CarlosCarlos, Erasmo… and Rita Lee‘s Build Up make somewhat decent reference points — to French chanson and prog rock.  The album’s personnel included co-producer Mario de Castro, plus François Cahen (of Magma) on horn arrangements and Christian Chevallier on string arrangements.  It oddly relies on a lot of acoustic guitar, with sequencing that shifts between spare acoustic passages and elaborately orchestrated ones.  There are occasional electronic effects.  Tuca’s vocals are very androgynous.  She often sings in a lower register than most female singers.

The tone of the album is often despairing and melancholic — recalling La question and Dez anos depois.  But, equally, this has glitzy horns like much Brazilian pop music of the the time.  This is also weird personal stuff, the sort of thing found on lo-fi “bedroom” recordings.  And there are some strange parallels to The Rocky Horror Show (which was on stage in London the prior year) too, especially the way the album cover shows Tuca in what one review described as “Hammer horror-movie glam[.]”  Dracula was apparently “in” for 1974.  Even Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr were exploring that theme in music and film that year too.

The strange, incongruous juxtapositions of elements and styles hint at what this album really captures so well — the struggle to balance the public and the private, the introverted and the extroverted.  The album’s personality emerges in the way it can’t find any direct expression to capture what it wants to say.  So, instead, there is an oscillation between coordinates that kind of surround its center, its core.  Also, much like Jim O’Rourke‘s “pop” albums from decades later (Simple Songs, The Visitor, etc.), there is a kind of catharsis in the way the music comes together in spite of a conflicted, ambivalent attitude toward conventional commercial success.  Tuca sings and plays guitar with a kind of punky edge, never completely at ease with the grand orchestrations that rise up again and again, persistently returning to raw, truncated guitar strumming and warbled, dispirited vocals.  There are up-tempo songs with celebratory rhythms.  Tuca seems unable to enjoy them.  So she creates her own twisted, downer take on them.  Not speaking Portuguese, the lyrics are a mystery, but the music alone conveys a lot.

A strange album that still sounds ahead of its time.

Belle & Sebastian – The Boy With the Arab Strap

The Boy With the Arab Strap

Belle & SebastianThe Boy With the Arab Strap Matador OLE 311-2 (1998)


While expanding upon the palette of the first two albums, and adding slightly more propulsive rhythms, this still retains the essential prettiness.  Many die-hard Belle and Sebastian fans insist this is better than If You’re Feeling Sinister.  I’ve long felt that it lacks the poignancy and context of its predecessor, replacing the layered production with punctuation by odd instrumentation of that prior album with a more organically woven sonic fabric.  Rotating vocals among band members is sort of ineffective.  Still a good one.