Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tom Zé

  • Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1990] A+
  • Brazil Classics 5: The Return of Tom Zé [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992] A
  • Fabrication Defect/Com Defeito de Fabricação [Luaka Bop, 1998] A-
  • Jogos de Armar [Trama, 2001] A
  • Estudando O Pagode [Luaka Bop, 2006] A-
  • Danc-Eh-Sa [Irara, 2006] A-
  • Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza [Luaka Bop, 2010] A
  • Tropicália Lixo Lógico [self-released, 2012] A-
  • Vira Lata na Via Láctea [self-released, 2014] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1990]
These '73-75 songs catch a poor Brazilian (albeit a Brazilian who says his dad won the lottery) on his way from pop tropicália to leftist jingles and instruments constructed from household appliances, only unlike his buddy Caetano Veloso, he puts the rebellion and satire out there in the music for benighted English speakers to hear. Zé delivers his portion of lulling lyricism, but it's his jarring rhythm-guitar hooks that you've never heard before--and will notice so fast you'll make sure you get to notice them again. The overtly pop-avant moves would have garnered desperate if imprecise Beefheart comparisons in their time, and the Arto Lindsay translations have the makings of international legend. Paul Simon should be so smart. Not to mention postmodern. A+

Brazil Classics 5: The Return of Tom Zé [Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992]
Zé is the kind of artist you think could be your leader if only he worked in English--your Dylan, your Weill, your David Byrne, some failed or dead hero like that. But if he'd been brought up Anglophone his lyrics would reach for the sky and never get out of the library, and his atonal songcraft wouldn't be so staccato yet grooveful, so acrid yet sweet--in just the right proportions for us, but maybe not for Brazil, where it took none other than David Byrne to rescue him from avant-obscurity. I couldn't swear that the fractured synthesis of sentiment and sarcasm these mementos of his down time convey in translation is any more viable, here or there, than the triumphant fusions of his U.S. debut. But they radiate hope and hilarity nevertheless. A

Fabrication Defect/Com Defeito de Fabricação [Luaka Bop, 1998]
With a little practice, I heard so far past Zé's experimentalism that his two collections ended up among my most played records of the '90s. On Puerto Rican vacations they provided just the Latin-flavored reality principle I needed while speeding bedward from Boqueron or navigating the crammed strip malls and barrios of Ponce. So it's a tribute to Zé's avant-garde principles that it took me forever to access this album-as-album. Although the songs are no less tuneful/grooveful for their latest batch of odd rhythms and found harmonies, I was distracted by the amelodic spareness of three or four, all of which I now savor, especially the one with the (is that?) forro accordion. In a world where the poor are rationalized into "civilized trash," "androids" reduced to their economic functions and dysfunctions, Zé insists on the vitality of the technological. Among the defects he celebrates in so many words are politics, curiosity, genes, and the waltz. A-

Jogos de Armar [Trama, 2001]
Too bad Luaka Bop passed on this 2000 album--the French BMG version includes translations, and an English trot would have been nice. Nevertheless, the music speaks so clearly in Zé's out-front avant-pop language that words would be trimmings, as they aren't on Luaka Bop's 1998 Zé push, Fabrication Defect. Zé is my favorite Brazilian because insofar as he's subtle--in the harmonies mostly--he's obvious about it, and usually he's anything but. You can hear those herky-jerk beats on found and fabricated instruments, those sudden stops and starts, those jingle-jungle tunes, the energy if not groove that propels everything forward regardless. On this record he has a lot of fun with choruses, predominantly female, which carry the crucial tunes, often in humorous timbres and combinations. A bonus CD includes many of the tracks from which he constructed these songs, supposedly so you can create others just as valid. I appreciate the impulse, but I doubt you'll get there. A

Estudando O Pagode [Luaka Bop, 2006]
This exploration of a sexism fueled by the more blatant injustices of class and race doesn't cohere, but what "rock opera" does? Anyway, Zé prefers the term "operetta," and with his avant-garde credentials is free to embrace episodic method. Much of the songs' philosophical punch is lost in the superb translations, a shortfall that probably reflects Zé's special interest in the male chauvinist samba subgenre "pagode," the emotional resonances of which can't impact those who haven't lived with them. But no other Brazilian composer defies cultural boundaries so eloquently. Whether or not I absorb these songs' meaning when I read along, at any level of attention I feel the way they straddle pop and avant-garde, natural and mechanical, Brazil and the rest of the world. Those not-quite-metallic scraping noises you keep hearing? They come from one of Zé's inventions, an instrument crafted from the leaf of the ficus trees that grow all over Săo Paolo. You blow into it. A-

Danc-Eh-Sa [Irara, 2006]
Showing a purity of purpose generally lacking in operettas, here are seven tracks lasting barely half an hour, every one insanely and sometimes gratingly catchy, with choruses femme and otherwise singing, whistling, moaning, jeering, barking and meowing the tunes--as well as embellishing rhythms dominated by electronic whatsits of every description except techno. Since it's beats and sonics that draw non-Lusophones to Zé's oddball tropicalia, world-music honchos will soon be speed-dialing his cellie. Psych. A-

Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza [Luaka Bop, 2010]
One reason Anglophone rockers dig Zé is that he resists the Portuguese-style nostalgia epitomized by saudade. But though he never comes near morbidity, here he's definitely an old man looking back fondly and a little sadly at the lost grace and sometimes companionship of his twenties, when it's just possible he didn't appreciate everything he had--particularly the melodicism of a quiet pop insurgency he was resistant enough to realize was also an assertion of cosmopolitan privilege. So he compensates with the most unabashedly beautiful album in his tuneful book--undercut, true enough, by his 74-year-old mumbles and croaks and even groans, but also lifted toward Sugarloaf Mountain by 11 different young or younger women whose mothers and grandmothers he might well have jerked off to in the Brigitte Bardot era. Nor is he about to lose his sense of humor. Because those groans are actually pretty funny, therefore also are they uncommonly beautiful. A

Tropicália Lixo Lógico [self-released, 2012]
I've never heard a bad Tom Zé album, which doesn't mean I just ordered the two repackages from his youth (I think) now perched atop his page (although maybe I should--consumer guidance welcome). This 2012 item, a free or cheap download an advisor sent my way in late 2014, has its peculiarities, such as tracks cutting off a few seconds before they should. But given that it's free or cheap, it might serve as an introduction almost as efficient as Luaka Bop's you betcha classic Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé, not least because it lightens up on the female choruses Zé isn't the only aging songpoet to lean on. Try the lyrical "Capitais E Tais" or the grunted "Năo Tenha Ódio no Verăo" or the string quartet and soprano mercies and "motocar" phoneme of "O Motobói e Maria Clara." Or "NYC Subway Poetry Department," a joke in English--set up, I'm guessing, by "Aviso Aos Passageiros." A-

Vira Lata na Via Láctea [self-released, 2014]
So in 2014, the 78-year-old Zé--he turns 80 October 11--dropped this 50-minute collection even further beneath the radar than Tropicália Lixo Lógico, which at least got a few reviews in English. Coverage has been paltry in substance, spirit, and length as well as entirely in Portuguese; as with the Meridian Brothers only more so, translated lyrics would be such a boon. I did ask my Lusophone nephew to provide an English track listing for an album he renders as A Dog in the Milky Way, an image that adds salt and substance to the assonant V's, L's, and T's of the sounded-out Portuguese. Enticing titles include "Newsstand," "Left, Money and Right," "The Little Woman From theSuburbs," and my favorite, "Pope Pardons Tom Zé." This is the artist's first album in many years to collect songs rather than explore a concept, a good idea on nonverbal evidence that includes the warmth of the vocals, the stickiness of the tunes, and poignant, unpredictable arrangements featuring Sao Paolo rock and circus riffs and Nascimento Veloso and the Philip Glassy background break that starts at 1:43 of "Salva a Humanidade." Zé seems to have rehabbed his vocal chops, and if the pope has his way, there'll be more self-releases. But I can't help suspecting that were I ever to glom the lyrics of this particular sonic construction, it would rise close to the top of one of the most remarkable bodies of work in all of semipop. A-

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