Various Artists: Tropicalia
Various Artists: Tropicalia
Two new releases on Soul Jazz give insight into two very different scenes that each resonated across decades. Tropicalia gets its name from the Brazilian pop movement that saw its high-profile names jailed under the military juntas of the late ’60s. The second volume of New York Noise features more of the sometimes upbeat, sometimes dissonant music of downtown Manhattan circa 1980.
Following the rise of the Beatles, groups such as Os Mutantes and artists such as Caetano Veloso—who coined the term tropicalia—channeled both the folk traditions of Brazil and the experiments of the avant-garde into ’60s pop music. But, while superficially sunny, the threat of government-sanctioned rape, murder, and exile loomed in their minds. In the liner notes, which include a fat booklet of Brazilian and tropicalia history, you get a glimpse at the contradictory emotions that made tropicalia so expressive.
Os Mutantes’ “Ave Genghis Khan” incorporates bossa nova, dissonant reversed vocals, and cascading organ tones into a sardonic tribute to the marauding 13th-century Mongol raider. Against the backdrop of repression, the message resonates only through the three repeated words of the title. The band’s “Panis et Circences” hearkens back to the Roman emperors’ diversions for a disaffected populace—bread and circuses.
On English-language track “Lost in the Paradise,” Veloso tries to find the voice of his generation: “Don’t help me, my love/ My brother, my girl/ Just tell my name/ Just let me say who am I . . . South America’s my name.” But, even discounting the agitprop, tropicalia’s main virtue—and main legacy—remains the lush, gorgeous arrangements Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and the other tropicalistas effortlessly excelled at.
New York Noise 2 is not as politically evocative as Tropicalia, but the then-economically and morally bankrupt New York was a similar incubator for creativity, spawning hip-hop, disco, punk, and pot-banging experiments such as these. Sonic Youth makes an appearance, as does disco don Arthur Russell in one of many proto-house music numbers here. Peppy bells and bongos tangle with drum machines on Clandestine’s “Radio Rhythm,” while Static’s “My Relationship” sounds like a ’luded Bad Brains. A stentorian voice tells you what to do and then cackles at your misfortune on Vortex Original Soundtrack’s “Black Box Disco.”
One standout quality of this period is the use of vocals as noise. These mangled lyrics sound like Iggy Pop with a built-in whammy bar, as the high-hats and guitars clash behind. Current dance-rock mavens like Franz Ferdinand and the DFA production team, whose roots lie in this music, miss the frenetic howls. The New York Noise series should serve as a reminder that chaos is just as important as a disco beat.