Friday, July 30, 2004

Turn, Turn, Turn [Fernanda Porto]

I've officially become a cog in the machine.

Not that I wasn't one already, but I just spent an embarrassing amount of time meticulously entering track names, composers, and all that stuff for Fernanda Porto's self-titled debut album in my iTunes and then reported it all to the master CD database at Gracenote. This is probably the first time I've ever possessed an officially released album (other than self-produced demos, CDRs and such) that wasn't already in this super-duper database, and I've been holding on to my copy for weeks hoping that some more ambitious soul would do all that work instead of me. (I guess the fact that it's still only an import has something to do with the omission.) Tonight I could wait no longer.

Actually I kind of like the idea of contributing to this hive-mind reservoir of info, updated (sometimes erroneously) by anyone with the energy to do so: another manifestation of the open-source spirit like the Internet Movie Database and so many other products of the digital age.

But enough about technology. How's the music? Well, there's actually quite a bit of technology on display on the album itself; it's one of the most interesting drum 'n' bass -rooted projects I've heard in a while. Plenty of d&b producers around the world have sampled bossa nova/samba beats and vocalists over the last decade, but when Porto does it, it doesn't feel like mere exoticism. Likewise, there are endless examples of pretty female voices used in electronic dance music, but far fewer cases where the singer herself is the writer, musician, and producer. Porto's bio on her official website reveals that she comes to the genre from a background in experimental music composition-- Xenakis, Stockhausen, and other noisemeisters.

The combo of machine-generated rhythms and more organic melodies on her album works really well, particularly on a track called "Baque Virado," my immediate fave. Porto wrote most of the songs herself, sometimes with collaborators, though there's one Jobim cover: "Só Tinha de Ser Com Você." One particularly interesting cut near the end of the album, "Tempo Pra Tudo," is her setting of a passage from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. You know the one: "To everything, there is a season..." But this sounds absolutely nothing like the Byrds or Pete Seeger; instead, the song starts with the album's most abrasive synth lines, almost industrial. Porto sings the Bible verses in an insistent, almost angry voice, tempered now and then with a gentler tone. Midway through, a choir enters the mix, and it keeps shifting gears just as the words suggest. "Turn, Turn, Turn," this ain't.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Salt 'n' Pepa

Happened upon a nice little interview with Arto Lindsay on the BBC radio show "The World" earlier this week. Snippets of his new album Salt, tantalizing description of his Carnival collaboration with Matthew Barney, and this very interesting bit from the reporter regarding Lindsay's cultural split between Downtown Manhattan and Brazil:

Some people like to say, "Kiss me I'm Irish." Others might sing, "I'm proud to be an American." But being a citizen of any one country is less important to ... Arto Lindsay.

Arto Lindsay has a hard time with the concept of nationhood. He believes countries that have powerful and iconic identities, the United States, France and Japan for example, spend too much energy, time and money maintaining those identities...

Interesting lens for understanding the political dimension of his music, the lyrics of which never overtly address "political" issues.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Link Alert: Brazilian Film, Tom Zé

If you're one of the, oh, 16 people who have visited this blog in the past, you'll note the new list of links to your right; I'm transferring relevant bookmarks I've accumulated over the last several years. More to come.

In the course of that process, I've rediscovered some interesting odds and ends:
•A page of notes about the history of Brazilian film which appear to be compiled by a sociology professor working on a book and/or course sometime in the late 1990s, as this site directory reveals. Haven't found a home page yet--and, to be blunt, the writing on these pages looks more like that of a student than an instructor, and I don't trust the looks of some of the info. But maybe it's just notes never intended for public viewing--and the film page is packed with interesting tidbits.

•A 1998 review of Tom Zé's Fabrication Defect album packed with biographical info.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Give the drummer some!

Buncha interconected links to pass along:
*Here is a recent broadcast of the WFMU show "Give the Drummer Some" with one set devoted to candomblé and other religious Brazilian folk music; another to songs by Olodum, Joyce, Baden Powell/Vinicius de Moraes and a group I'd never heard of called Farofa Carioca, which then moves into Senegalese hiphop and from there, inexplicably but beautifully, into a suicide ballad by the young Dolly Parton. My kind of radio! (You can listen to the whole thing or individual sets.)

*Checking out the show's DJ Doug Schulkind's site, I came across an essay of his about his obsessive interest in soundtrack music which mirrors some of my own patterns of listenership. Plus, he winds up with a first-person account of the power of the score for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, one of my all-time faves and one of the most original approaches to film music ever.

*Schulkind's supercool links page also led me to this content-packed, gorgeous-looking site paying tribute to the mad genius of dub, Lee "Scratch" Perry. Annotated discography, interviews, song lyrics and soundbites aplenty.

*Another Schulkind-inspired find I haven't actually been able to investigate very fully yet: Paul Sherratt's internet radio show, Global Jukebox. His latest playlist includes Transglobal Underground, Dean Martin, Bob Marley, Slim Whitman, Jim White, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and music from Bahia, Argentina, Scotland, and Japan, among many, many other tasty items. I repeat: My kind of radio!

Monday, July 19, 2004

We are the champions, my friend

A Google search led me to this list of "The Best Artists of the 20th Century"--a deliriously eclectic collection of 466 musicians. A few usual suspects, but mostly some totally off-the-wall choices (random examples of both: Outkast @ 466, Cream @ 420, Squarepusher @374, Slayer @379, Bruce Springsteen @ 311, Roy Acuff @ 221, Fats Waller @ 117, Mongo Santamaria @ 90, Hoagy Carmichael @ 43, Lee "Scratch" Perry @ 7), all presented as if these judgements were handed down from on high. Any slice of the list reveals a crazed poetry of chance juxtaposition:

30. Curtis Mayfield
31. Can
32. Toots & the Maytals
33. Billie Holiday
34. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
35. The Fall
36. Sonny Rollins
37. Ella Fitzgerald
38. Bob Wils & His Texas Playboys

The compiler notes that his--excuse me, THE-- top ten (peaking with Sun Ra, Coltrane, Fela, Tito Puente, and Duke Ellington) consists entirely of men of color, then chastises the ladies for not rising to the occasion during the last hundred years. ("Let's hope that the 21st century will be a different story." And how!) A tip of the hat to Aretha (#25)--better luck next time.

For those tuning in for my main theme here, the Brazilians I've spotted are Tom Ze @ 58, Caetano @ 66 (damn you, Van Morrisson, for being just a hair better!), Vinicius Cantuaria @ 386 (eat dust, Son House and Cat Power). No luck for anyone with "Gilberto" as a first or last name, and no room for Gal C, Milton N, or Tom Jobim. (Beach Boys? Sorry, but a group I've never heard of called Run Westy Run @ 463 is evidently a little more important than you guys. The only Wilsons on this list are Jackie @ 265 and Pickett @ 199.)

If you think I'm gonna make some crack about the compiler having too much time on his hands, guess again. After all, I just spent half an hour checking this out, and another 15 minutes telling yo about it. The ball's in your court now. Surf ... if you dare.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

'Scuse me while I kiss this guy [Hendrix; THE AMBIENT CENTURY]

Finally watched an A&E "Biography" episode on Jimi Hendrix I taped a while back. The most noteworthy aspect of the show was the narration, which was so deliberately curt that it bordered on avant-garde poetry--basically a series of simple declarative sentences strung together and delivered by the narrator in this weirdly detached tone. Not sure I learned much, but there was some footage I hadn't seen before.

I've never been a huge Hendrix fan, but in retrospect this seems to have something to do with a guy I went to high school with who emulated Jimi and was really obnoxious during a school talent show. It's taken me 25 years to get that image out of my head, and maybe now I can start to appreciate the real guy's actual accomplishments, which are pretty remarkable.

Watching the A&E show made me pick up one of the books I found in a bargain bin in San Francisco--Mark Prendergast's The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance—The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age--and look up what the author had to say about Hendrix. (Sadly, there was nothing on the guy from my high school.) Prendergast's premise is pretty clear from its title and subtitle; over the course of 482 pages he constructs a dictionary-style musical history of the 20th century which looks at avant-garde classical, jazz, rock, and dance music more or less equally, paying attention less to song composition than to production technique and overall sound. Some of the individual entries about people you've heard of are a little basic, but it's packed with all these folks who are completely new to me (Jorg Mager, father of German electronic music and inventor of the Partiturophon, anyone?), as well as intriguing juxtapositions of artists. (Where else would you find Donna Summer, Leopold Stokowski, Morton Subotnick, Yma Sumac, Surrealism, and Sun Ra sharing a column of the index?) I don't know anybody else who has attempted such a thing before, and I have a feeling I'll be logging many an hour reading this thing.

Characteristically, Prendergast's section on Hendrix talks more about his work with engineers Eddie Kramer and Gary Kellgren than about his fellow bandmates. Here's a snippet on the album Are You Experienced: "Hendrix seized on tape manipulation as a way forward in sound--a backing track would be reversed and a lead guitar solo inserted so that when the track was played in the normal direction the guitar would have a much more impactful entry, with rapid decay." And so on.

What I find fascinating about this general approach is that it provides a way to think about music--regardless of genre or social standing--as organized sound. And one of the common threads running through my various interests of the last several years--Brazilian pop, electronic/ambient stuff, and the Beach Boys, to name the most obvious ones--is the huge role that production plays in each of them. (Sadly, while there's plenty on the latter two subjects in the book, there's barely anything on Brazil here beyond a brief mention of Arto Lindsay's albums.)

I know very little about the technology of record production, but I've always been intrigued by it; I remember starting to notice Richard Perry's name on several of the albums I liked in the 1970s (most of which I'd probably find unlistenable or at least unremarkable today). Very few producers are household names: Phil Spector for sure, then who? Mutt Lange, but probably because of his famous wife. For years I've predicted that sooner or later somebody will advance the premise that the producers, not the recording artists, are the true auteurs of pop music-- just as film afficianadoes privilege directors over movie stars. Hasn't happened yet, but mark my words, son: The day will come.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Real Good for Free

Many thanks to my friend Ed for pointing out that Suba collaborator Cibelle will be playing Harbourfront in Toronto on Friday, July 30. With a little more investigation, I've learned that it just gets better and better:the show appears to be free, there's another free one by Daude (whom I only know from a track on the "Brasil2Mil" compilation) on Sunday, Aug. 1, AND it's all part of Harbourfront's Hot & Spicy Food Festival , along with the Brazilian-themed movie "Woman on Top" (also on the 1st), and a ton of other stuff from other Latin American cultures.

Too bad we already have two other Toronto trips planned in the next month. I'm gonna try to check out some of this, but it seems unlikely. If anyone goes, please let me know how it turns out.

BTW, I was planning to provide links for both artists above, but the Six Degrees label site seems to be down, and ever since the All-Music Guide relaunched itself with a visually spiffy new design, it doesn't seem to work very well--which I pray is only a temporary glitch. So you're on your own if you want to learn more about either.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

A Day in the Life of Gilberto Gil

Ah, the internet: From this article in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle I saw that Gilberto Gil had been named one of Brazil's official Hans Christian Andersen Goodwill Ambassadors. If you click here, you can watch a somewhat embarrassed Gil accept this highly specific honor, then deliver a brief speech to several delighted Danes in which he recites the English lyrics to his song "Nightingale," which evidently scored him his Ambassadorship.

Exciting, no?

Friday, July 09, 2004

Stray Cat Strut

I'm trying hard to stay on topic here, folks. But when I stumble across the likes of Sheriff Jinky's Police Log Blog, an online journal maintained by a cat, I feel obliged to bring it to your attention whether or not it has anything to do with music of any kind. I promise this will not become a trend, but some things are just too important to pass up.

In the belly of our story [Betacorpo, Sexopuro]

One of my beefs about this whole blogging business is that everybody is so busy writing their own that no one has time to read anyone else's. To counter that impulse, I just tracked down a couple of interesting-looking/sounding blogs via the EatonWeb portal:>>, an American photographer and teacher's record of his travels through Brazil in search of music. Beautifully laid out, with lots o' photos and lush design, but unfortunately the latest entry proclaims that the author has retired the site. (Two years' worth of articulate, informative, politicized, link-heavy writing in the archives, though.)

Sexopuro, which is in Portuguese, is a promotional site (I discovered after some poking around in the English version) for an up-and-coming singer/songwriter named Suely Mesquita. (Given the name of her album, translated as "Pure Sex," and the overall theme of the site, I mistook this for a porn site at first.) The "Sexopuro radio" feature lets you hear several interesting songs of hers, one of which is co-written by Celso Fonseca. If the radio doesn't pop up and start playing when you go to the homepage, try this. Her lyrics, at least in their English translation, are pretty out there, in a good way. (Random sample: "Malicious memory / Hit the bull's eye / In the belly of our story...") For once, pop-up music on a site that isn't deeply annoying: hooray!

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

We're s-h-o-pp-i-ng... [SF report #2: consume-o-rama]

I can't imagine a visit to San Francisco without at least one trip to Amoeba Music or Rasputin Records. Don, whose shopping drug of choice is Home Depot rather than used and indie book and record stores, already knows what to expect on these adventures and patiently heads to the nearest coffeeshop after about 20 minutes in one of these joints. At that point, I'm just getting started. Two hours per store is cutting it short. And between the Berkeley and Haight locations of Amoeba—plus the Berkeley Rasputin and several Telegraph Ave. bookstores—we're talking major immersion, the kind you need strength training to endure.

Now, I'm not talking your average walk-in/walk-out shop here. According to a gushing 1998 profile in Rolling Stone, Amoeba stocks over 100,000 new and used CDs and LPs, which doesn't count other media—and in recent years they've added DVDs, just to push people like me over the edge. Factor in in-store concerts, live DJs, and rows and rows of cut-outs, and we're looking at major sensory overload.

Everyone I know who shops at either store employs a strategy similar to mine: pick a single category or genre or artist, pace yourself, and don't try to cover the entire store in one day. (It would be physically impossible, I think.) This time, no surprise, the target areas were the Brazilian and electronic sections, focusing almost exclusively on used stuff, with plenty of time in DVDland as well. Even so, I left each store feeling exhausted, depleted, and hungry for a walk outdoors. (Fortunately, between Golden Gate Park and the UC Berkeley campus, both locations offer ideal opportunities to recharge with sunshine and something resembling fresh air.)

About an hour and a half into my Haight Amoeba experience, I overheard a fellow shopper ask the employee in the World section (each section of the store has its own panel of experts) something about Brazilian music, so naturally I pricked up my ears and eavesdropped. Turns out that in addition to his record store job he "spins" (sorry, I've never been able to employ that term without the quotation marks) Latin sounds of various vintages, including samba, batucada, and "bossa beats," every Saturday at the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd St @ Mission) as DJ Vanka.

Listening in to their conversation didn't really lead me to any hot tips, so later I talked to him myself. Too fried to think of asking for useful buying suggestions, I mainly learned that he shared my mixed feelings about the father of samba soul, Tim Maia (i.e., a few nice tunes and a whole lot of appalling cheese, at least on the compilation I picked up used & cheap before the trip). From that somewhat limited vantage point, I asked for his opinions on three finds from the Used Brazilian section (yes, there really was such a thing, and it was larger than the new Brazilian holdings at most chain stores in Buffalo):

•Vinicius Cantuária, TUCUMÃ (Verve)--he knew the artist, but not that particular disc. [Now that I've heard it several times, I'd recommend it to anybody who wants a taste of recent singer/songwriters in the Veloso mold. The guest appearances by Laurie Anderson, Bill Frisell, Sean Lennon, and Arto Lindsay are an obvious bid to attract hipster Americanos, and the strategy works just fine as far as I'm concerned.]

•Rica Amabis, SAMBADELIC (YBrazil?)--he didn't know the album but recognized a few of the artists; it's unclear whether it's intended as a solo album or a compilation. [Turns out to be a pretty diverse collection of sampled beats, vintage samba soul, and found sounds with electronic dance music and a little hiphop; I really enjoy most of it.]

•BossaCucaNova, REVISITED CLASSICS (Six Degrees)--said he knew and didn't care for this one, which is basically the Slipcue take, too. "But," he added, "for five bucks, you can't go wrong." So I bought it anyway, and didn't go wrong at all. Normally I'm opposed to this sort of thing--take some old bossa nova tunes (or any raw material, for that matter) and spruce it up with some currently trendy electronic beats. (As Slipcue points out, it completely defeats the sublime subtlety of bossa to force a really obvious dance beat on top of it.) But I still enjoy it, partly because the source material is by some 50s vocalists (the Four-Freshmen-style Os Cariocas, for instance) I'd read about in Castro's book but never actually heard. At the end of the disc there are two tracks in their unembellished state so you can compare the originals to the remixes, and six minutes worth of "DJ beats" for your own sampling enjoyment. Plus, in the right mood, the dance mixes are perfectly enjoyable.

One final note from the trip: one of the few actual restaurants anywhere near our hotel happened to be Cafe do Brasil, which, thanks to its $7.95 lunch buffet, seemed a perfect place to sample the cuisine of the country whose culture I've been consuming so voraciously lately. (FYI, in searching for the restaurant's URL to post, I came across this somewhat skimpy list of Brazilian restaurants in SF, LA, Boston, NYC, and Miami, in case you're interested.)

Since we had no ground of comparison for the CDB, it's hard to say whether this was "good" Brazilian food or not, but frankly, neither of us was particularly impressed. (The coffee was excellent, but it's not a good sign when that's your favorite part of a meal.) Here's a thread from the Brazzil site on the search for Brazilian cuisine outside Brazil (and the political implications thereof) in which one writer describes CDB's food as "horrible." I wouldn't go that far by any means, but I also don't think I'd hurry back.

If nothing else, I learned one crucial culinary lesson: seeing a white-ish grain in a container the same size as that of the other entrees and sides, I took a decent sized helping, only to discover it had the texture and flavor of teeny tiny uncooked grits. My introduction to farofa, which (I learned from a restaurant review posted near the door on my way out) Brazilians evidently use as a garnish the way some people sprinke wheat germ on everything. Yum! Just the taste sensation I needed to fuel another long day in the CD bins...

Monday, July 05, 2004

Obstinate Memory

1. Does a ritual count as an obsession? There are certain songs I try to play every year on certain days: John and Yoko's "Listen, the Snow is Falling" (b-side to "Happy Xmas") on the day of the first snowfall, Patti Smith's "Easter" on that particular Sunday, etc. July 4 comes packed with many a song: the Blasters' "Fourth of July" (later covered by X), not one but two by Ani DiFranco (one from early in her career called "4th of July," the other called "Independence Day"), and finally (finally in my little ceremony, at least) the Beach Boys' "Fourth of July." This last one is the only one I managed to play last night, and it's the newest in my personal playlist--I first heard it maybe four years ago as part of the GOOD VIBRATIONS box, and it was unreleased before that came out. It's a wonderful Dennis Wilson song, which means it will come as a total surprise to the many casual listeners who associate the B Boys exclusively with surfboards and fun, fun, fun. I've never quite been able to follow the lyrics all the way through, but the music is slow, mournful, nearly tragic, as if it's a dirge for the nation. (Since it dates from the early 70s, that's shouldn't be a shock. Sure, Mike Love has managed to shape the remaining scraps of band into a Republican supergroup, but their actual history is far more complex than that--in fact, I'd argue that part of their mission from SMILE through the early 80s was constructing an alternative history of America, sunshine, clouds, and all.) Come to think of it, all four of the songs I've listed have their grim side. (Ani's earlier tune is pretty bouncy, but its subject is the one person in the state of Iowa who will talk to her.) Seems fitting, I guess, to mark such the nation's birthday on a somber note along with the fireworks. After all, the older we get, the harder it gets to celebrate our own lives, right? And the more there is to celebrate, too.

2. Inspired by everything I've learned lately about the various military coups in Brazil in the 1960s--which played such a critical role in the careers of Caetano and Gilberto Gil--to say nothing of everyday Brazilians-- I watched CHILE, LA MEMORIA OBSTINADA [CHILE, THE OBSTINATE MEMORY] (1997) not too long ago. I know, I know: different country, different history, but the threads seem clear to me. The documentary doesn't really talk much about the U.S. involvement in the events of September 11 (1973), when Allende was ousted and Pinochet was installed. I had only the vaguest understanding of the story, and was moved by director Patricio Guzman's meditation on national and personal memory. It's really a meta-doc, I guess; his earlier film on the coup d'etat, THE BATTLE OF CHILE, had never been screened in the country, and after a long official chill, few people were willing to talk about what had happened in '73 (and, of course, many current-day high school and college students were born long after the events in the first film, so they were ancient history). Although I haven't seen BATTLE, I could follow the basic thread of the followup pretty easily. I found its straightforwardness sort of refreshing in the wake of zippier docs like SUPERSIZE ME and other school-of-Michael-Moore movies. And the film brought home to me something of the impact of living through a military regime--something which has seemed less and less of a fantasy here in the States for the last couple of years. At the same time, there's the reminder that no regime lasts forever.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

A foreign sound in your ear [RootsWorld, Christgau]

Quick note to point out a short interview with Caetano Veloso on his A FOREIGN SOUND album. But my main intention here is to call your attention to another portion of the site where I found it, namely the Brazilian section of RootsWorld, which as the name suggests is an online roots-music resource. The writing doesn't seem as lively as my imaginary friend Joe Sixpack's over at Slipcue, but it looks informed and informative, and it's nice to be able to get a second opinion on various albums and artists that I haven't seen too many other English-language critics covering. (Added bonus: some reviews come with MP3 samples.)

Truth be told, I'm almost as addicted to intelligent writing about music as I am to the sounds themselves. That may have started with a collection of Robert Christgau's reviews and essays I picked up at a used bookstore sometime in high school when I had no idea who he was, long before his verbal tics kinda started getting on my nerves. Ever since then, I've been able to kill embarrassing numbers of hours reading reviews of albums I'll probably never hear.

Speaking of Christgau, his website is an amazing, fully searchable resource. (Search for keyword "Brazil" and you'll find 50 entries, including plenty about Tom Zé, Caetano, and David Byrne's various Luaka Bop compilations.)

Friday, July 02, 2004

On my radio ["Neo-FM"]

Listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED the other day, I came acrossthis story on a new programming format called "Neo FM". Evidently various stations out west have gotten it into their heads that radio could consist of playing lots of songs, and that the DJs could actually talk about music in an informed way. Radical!

I wish the Neo-FM folks luck. I wish my area had such a station. (Actually, the talk of Buffalo these days is the new format at 107.7--now dubbed "The Lake"--which is heavy on the deep cuts and light on the inane patter. Alas, when I listen for any length of time I suspect they're really shooting for the rock version of easy listening... though it's still more appealing than most of what's on commercial radio around here.)

For the record, I also wish the day would come when stations quit calling themselves things like "The Mountain," "The Lake," "The River," and so on. (If they're going for pastoral, they could at least move on to "The Babbling Brook," "The Forest Primeval," "The Dark Night of the Soul," that sort of thing.)

And since radio is my subject du jour, allow me a shout-out to a nice internet station I discovered a few years ago via iTunes: They take the notion of freeform to its wackiest extreme while still remaining listenable; a random glance at its endlessly refreshing (in both senses of the word) playlist reveals a string quartet, a bit of Don Cherry, an underplayed New Order track, and a little Tiny Tim.

What appeals to me about both and the Neo-FM format is that they make radio a source of adventure and discovery (and, dare I say it, education) rather than audio comfort food.

Got some favorite examples of your own? Why not share them here, in the Comments section?