WITH THE SAMPLER injecting more weird noises and lite kitsch into pop than ever before, it's not much of a leap for the average American rock fan to embrace an oddity like Tom Zé, or the unique Brazilian musical milieu he helped invent. A leader of the late-'60s tropicalia movement, Zé joined visionaries like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to mix bossa nova, acid-tweaked English psychedelia, and cut 'n' paste proto-sampling to create a sonically whimsical, politically subversive post-rock that has influenced everyone from David Byrne to Neutral Milk Hotel.
No artist of the era found more possibilities in those extremes than Tom Zé, whose music manages to sound simultaneously pretty, natty, and a bit deranged. Zé has never stopped experimenting. And indeed, his melodic messes can be disorienting. Take "Dancar," from the new Fabrication Defect. The song opens with melodic piano, then breaks down by pairing close-harmony singing with dissonant bells and a guitar that sounds like a dying car engine. Then it switches gears halfway through and transforms itself into a Fifth Dimension-style call-and-response pop tune.
This might sound self-indulgent. But Zé always takes pains to make sure that his wildly varied ingredients come together in a delectable ear candy. In that tradition, Fabrication Defect is a veritable confectionery shop of strange, inviting sonic goodies--hell, even the most willfully multipartite structures start sounding natural after a few listens. "Politicar" sounds like a '70s game-show theme. "Emere" sounds like a field recording complete with creaking barn-door noises. And "Xiquexique" features Zé playing what the liner notes list as "rubber balloon on tooth" and singing with baritone power over a quasi-Cajon rhythm layered with accordion and violin.
Such wizardry has received little exposure, let alone commercial success, in the States, but Zé does have a following among ethno-pop cognoscenti that has helped him make inroads, however small, in the American market. He has collaborated with no-waver turned avant-bossa-nova song-poet Arto Lindsay, and David Byrne has released two Zé compilations: 1990's Brazil Classics Volume 4: The Best of Tom Zé, and 1992's Brazil 5: The Return of Tom Zé; the Hips of Tradition. So it makes sense that Zé should appear on Beleza 2, Luaka Bop's 10th anniversary sequel to their essential art-pop compilation Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical.
While the shared aesthetic among these tropicalia-influenced players is characteristically weird, there's plenty of pure pop here. Gilberto Gil, Margareth Menezes, and Carlos Carequa each perform gorgeous, romantic art-pop tunes. Yet even if it's hardly a found-sound extravaganza on the order of Zé's album, there are plenty of odd angles jutting out of this compilation. Marisa Monte's cool vocals glide over talking percussion and growling wah-wah guitar on "Balanca Pema," while Caetano Veloso plays the unflappable aesthete on the Arto Lindsay-produced noise-nugget "O Estrangerio," which positions a simple piano and vocal beside metallic squeaks, guitar squalls, and occasional out-of-nowhere screams. And Amaldo Antunes's "O Seu Olhar" lays down a folksy acoustic guitar and male/female vocal duet, and throws in an assortment of springs, wind gusts, frog noises, and cartoon gunfire. Sadly, the kitchen sink does not make an appearance.
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