In the waning years of the '70s, Arto Lindsay "sang" and "played guitar" for DNA, and his musicianship deserved the quotes. Emerging in the wide-open aftermath of punk rock, DNA was part of what was dubbed the New York "No Wave," a movement of bands whose music was belligerently chaotic and that was canonized on No New York, 1978's Brian Eno-produced compilation of four of that scene's groups. Fronting DNA, Lindsay was a militantly unskilled player among a group of musicians who were merely militantly noisy. His singing was as scattershot, catharsis-rich, and unintelligible as a dying lion's roar; his guitar playing was an aggregation of purely impressionistic shards. (Even today he is quite happy to report that he can neither type, drive a car, nor play guitar, in the traditional sense.)
Noise for noise's sake gets old quick, however, and throughout the '80s many No Wavers moved on to less aggressive sounds -- Lindsay in the Lounge Lizards and then as part of the major-label-affiliated Ambitious Lovers. In the latter group, he began to find his true voice, a cool purr diametrically opposed to his earlier screech in its concentration on timbre as the key to vocal art. The new tunefulness also reflected Lindsay's longstanding interest in the music of Brazil, where he spent much of his childhood and where he began to spend even more time as an adult. He immersed himself in bossa nova and samba sounds, producing records by Brazilian superstars such as Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte, and otherwise acting as a behind-the-scenes advocate for the stateside revival of Brazil's short-lived tropicália movement. One of the few non-Ani DiFranco recordings on her Righteous Babe Records (already an indie powerhouse), Lindsay's Prize synthesizes his dual identity as a Brazilian-style crooner and an orthodox (the revolution's over!) avant-gardist. It is simultaneously a harder, noisier record and a smoother, more listenable one. The cool melodies are fleshed out by bits of uncategorizable sound that counterbalance the softness without attempting to derail it; the arrangements are ornate without being clotted up. Prize is especially multilayered in its use of percussion, as rhythms beat out on traditional Brazilian percussion instruments are heavily augmented and tweaked by all manner of contemporary electronic beats. What unites everything is the record's memorable songwriting moments. By comparison Lindsay's previous '90s solo albums were mere studies: 1996's The Subtle Body was a tentative and self-consciously soft first stab at bossa nova, while last year's Noon Chill introduced an increasingly spiky undercurrent of artificial hip-hop and drum and bass beats. And though both works sounded seductive, the songs were slippery beasts. The records were tuneful, but you'd be hard-pressed to recall the tunes.
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While Lindsay continues to celebrate timbre ("Tone says it all," he sings on one song), Prize is notable in that it offers choruses and melodies as catchy as they are sensual, especially around its midpoint with "Resemblances," "Interior Life," and "O Nome Dela." (About half the songs are sung in Portuguese.) Like most of Lindsay's songs, the lyrics to "Interior Life" offer his take on aestheticized, cerebral lust, but they could also explain his peculiar evolution into the musician he is today: "Stay calm/Keep calm/Let the room outgrow the walls."