Omelete Man, the wide-ranging new album by Brazilian singer and multi-instrumentalist Carlinhos Brown, may surprise listeners whose image of Brazilian music is confined to the sophisticated bossa nova of Jo Gilberto or the intelligent international pop of Caetano Veloso. It shouldn't though, because over the years Brazil has nourished a grand tradition of eclecticism and freewheeling experimentation best typified by artists like Os Mutantes and Tom Ze, and it's to this tradition that Brown's new album belongs. Produced by Brazilian singer Marisa Monte, who contributes backing vocals on nearly every song, Omelete Man is proudly mainstream, with a handful of pop gems that, in a perfect world with no language barriers (Brown sings mostly in Portuguese with a few scattered verses in English), would be topping charts from here to Australia. But Brown also has an insatiable need to experiment, and as a result the album is delightfully all over the map. Sounding at times like the Beatles and P-Funk living happily ever after in Bahia, Omelete Man is awash with sonic surprises and unexpected textures. The heavily percussive samba beat of the title track and "Farao" both hide edgy, distorted guitar riffs, while strange synthesizer tones and lush string and horn sections thicken the mix everywhere. Brown is no stranger to going out on a limb; he's written songs for everyone from Sergio Mendes to Sepultura, and changed his name in the Seventies to signal his aesthetic debt to James Brown. And throughout Omelete Man his genre-hopping experience translates into the feeling that anything can happen and probably will. The experiments don't all work: The punk-metal outburst of "Cachorro Louco," though passable, is an unneeded nod toward musical diversity. But mostly the pastiche of styles is delicious, with the upbeat samba-reggae of "Vitamina Ser" giving way to the string-laden balladry of "Hawaii E You" and then the Revolver-era Beatles-tinged "Soul by Soul" and "Water My Girl." Brown's deep, distinctive voice is the string that ties everything together, at home waxing poetic on "Water My Girl" ("Water my girl/'Cos you are my planet water/And my forest song/Make me very strange"); rapping on "Tribal United Dance"; or dueting with Monte on the lushly romantic "Busy Man." In the liner notes, Monte describes "omelete people" as folks who communicate in broken English. But "Omelete Man" is a better tag for Brown himself, as a musical chef who has taken spices from every available shelf and cooked up something uncommonly tasty.
-- Ezra Gale
Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band All Night Flight, Volume 1
(Organ of Corti)
The unfortunate thing about reissues with bonus tracks, exhaustive box-set retrospectives, and collections of previously unheard numbers "from the vault," is that the material composing such efforts is often superfluous to an artist's oeuvre. Often the works are valid as efforts to remind the public of a musician's importance (it's hard to get press without new product), but more cynically, such releases are an easy way to cash in on a performer's fan base. The compact discs released thus far in the Terry Riley Archive Series on Malibu, California's Organ of Corti label are a rare happening: archival releases that not only introduce unheard work of genuine interest, but that present versions of older recordings even more vibrant than the classic releases on which they capitalize.
For those who don't know Riley's work, a brief introduction. Originally a ragtime pianist in northern California, Riley began performing in Europe in the early Sixties, using tape loops and repetition extensively. His now-seminal 1964 piece "In C," released on Columbia Records in 1968, established him as the first widely known minimalist composer, and the follow-up record, A Rainbow in Curved Air, garnered him a wider following among heads and hippies who could trip out on his omnidirectional, looped improvisations on sax and keyboards. His ideas and sounds were adopted by everyone from Philip Glass to Brian Eno. Riley's "time-lag accumulator" (essentially a tape machine with two play heads, a setup that created a lag effect) became not only the basis of Steve Reich's early phase music, but a touchstone of the psychedelic counterculture itself. Check Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and you see "lag" and other aural fuckery not only as musical practice, but as a conceptual point of departure for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and, through them, an entire generation.
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Since the late Sixties, however, Riley has maintained a lower profile than many of the folks he so heavily influenced, spending months at a time in India studying ragas and running workshops in the practice for devotees and freethinkers with available cash. He never fully exploited his early popularity and innovations, allowing Reich and Glass to become minimalism's public faces.
The two most recent recordings released on the Organ of Corti label provide ample evidence that historical landmarks need not sound like dreary relics. They possess, at once, the intuitive beauty that seems inherent to minimalism as well as an invigorating rawness. Although essentially cyclic and drone-based, Riley's compositions bristle in ways both subtle and surprising. In a sense the new issues actually improve on Riley's seminal recordings. They are live works that permit more of the extraneous roughness that must have made his music so appealing to rock fans, a roughness that his Columbia releases only hinted at. For variety Reed Streams offers a saxophone piece, a keyboard study, and a ramshackle big band (Montreal's L'Infonie) playing a psychedelic version of the classic "In C." The lurching "Olson III," recorded with a Swedish high school band, launches a whirling assault on the equilibrium with its extended choral and orchestral swells. As Crawdaddy critic Paul Williams wrote in the liner notes to the original issue of In C, "The movements are quiet and exhilarating; the sense of continued growth is too gentle and overwhelming to resist."
For a more cohesive picture of what Riley was ultimately aiming for as a musician, Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band All Night Flight, Volume 1 offers a 40-minute edit of a six-hour improvised performance on saxophone, organ, and time-lag accumulator from 1968. It is expansive, hypnotic, and ungraspable. This recording isn't much different from that found on A Rainbow in Curved Air, but it is longer and louder, factors that really count with Riley. Two additional archive releases are coming soon, the first of which, Music for the Gift, will include Riley's early collaborations with fellow minimalist master LaMonte Young and cool-jazz trumpet player Chet Baker.
-- Alec Hanley Bemis