Maybe Brazilians are just musically superior to the rest of us. It's food for thought not only because the leading lights of Brazilian popular music -- artists such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who defined the genre in the late Sixties -- are still releasing groundbreaking albums (like Veloso's Livro and Gil's O Sol de Oslo, both from this past year), while their counterparts in the Western pop world (Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney) are at least twenty (or thirty) years removed from their best work. This contrast is also startling because Brazil still churns out breathtaking musical talent at the same rate it does world-class soccer players.
The latest of these talents is Vinicius Cantuaria, whose new album, Tucum, is post-bossa nova that is in touch with the roots of the style but unafraid to poke around beyond it. The album starts traditionally enough, with the opening "Amor Brasileiro" and "Maravilhar" showing the multi-instrumentalist and singer's strong debt to bossa nova pioneer Joo Gilberto in his vocals and guitar style. But the allure of Tucum lies in the added spices that come next, from Cantuaria's adventurous use of samples and percussion as well as from his gifted special guests, who include guitarists Bill Frisell and Arto Lindsay, bassist Sean Lennon, Laurie Anderson, and drummer Joey Baron. The arrangements get more and more creative as the album plays on. "Aviso Ao Navegante" boasts unusual horn backgrounds and "Pra Gil" (dedicated to Gilberto Gil, with whom Cantuaria has collaborated in the past) a gorgeous lilting cello. The effect is such that by the time the title cut rolls around, with Cantuaria singing whimsical lyrics with lines that translate from the Portuguese as "And the Arinin flour/looks more like pure gold/and deep inside the warehouse/the Amazon of the future" over a lush backdrop of strings, even the most seemingly far-fetched elements fit perfectly. Also in the tradition of the best Brazilian music, Tucum's smart arrangements and thoughtful songs aren't overly intellectual. When Cantuaria suddenly drops an Indian wood flute melody over "Aracaju"'s gentle samba beat, the effect is surprising but also deeply sensual.
Cantuaria's audaciousness, coupled with his reverence for bossa nova and traditional Brazilian pop, makes Tucum daring yet familiar enough to be instantly inviting. If only more American pop albums could be the same.
-- Ezra Gale
Medeski, Martin & Wood
Combustication Remix EP
Sometime after the release of MMW's 1996 album Shackman, the groove-driven, instrumental trio released a five-song EP with little fanfare. But that recording, simply titled Bubblehouse, held clues to the musical futures of drummer Billy Martin, bassist Chris Wood, and aggressive keyboardist John Medeski. On three of the songs included, New York DJs We and Logic tried their hand at retooling the band's master tapes to shed new light on the group's already hypnotic and danceable tunes. The idea was relatively bold. The result, however, wasn't especially memorable. Remixed versions of tunes such as "Dracula," "Spy Kiss," and "Bubblehouse" lost the live energy of the originals without adding quite enough fresh ornamentation. But then MMW was still just feeling out the possibilities of electronic-music production.
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On 1998's Combustication, the band's most recent full-length release, the players slipped elements of the turntable culture into their music a little more naturally, with DJ Logic lending a vinyl-scratching hand on a few songs. And though the album wasn't quite as cohesive as earlier works like Friday Afternoon in the Universe (1995) and Notes from the Underground (1992), MMW's tour in support of Combustication found the group moving forward. Logic joined the band onstage, and the band's improvisational forays took some delicious turns with his live DJ acrobatics woven into the mix.
Which brings us to the hazy but shimmery six-song Combustication Remix EP, a mixed-up affair that actually works well. The altered versions of "Start-Stop," "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho," "Nocturne," and the ten-minute-plus "Satan's Church of Hypnotized Logic" bring new life to these songs with added rhythmic elements, samples, and drum breaks. "Sugar Craft," remixed and practically re-recorded by Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, Sean Lennon, and Miho Hatori, sounds like almost a completely new song. And the Steve Cannon spoken-word tirade "Whatever Happened to Gus" is transformed into a low-key hip-hop groove with understated rapping by Gang Starr's Guru.
In some ways the EP plays out with more force and direction than the album it supplements. Maybe the props should be headed the way of the remixers. But MMW still supplied the raw material in the form of some delectable grooves, and with this EP release, the group continues to prove its unspoken commitment to experimentation. Maybe the fuse has just been lit.
-- Mark Watt