Another shot I’ve been holding off in my Brazilian month reviews is Tom Ze. Once, the most forgotten of Brazil’s first wave of Tropicalismo artists suddenly became one of the most exposed, or overexposed, due to David Byrne’s promotion of Tom’s work like Estudando o Samba and in various Tropicalia compilations. What you get from this portrayal is a man who is obviously a bit of an oddball, but who also much like Tom Waits, dicks about with sound in many ways that are both flagrant and exhilarating (sometimes both at once). Tom’s body of work at times does portray him a bit as a cartoon character, but what is sometimes forgotten are the genuine works of unpretentious brilliance. Correio a Estação do Brás released in 1978, was dedicated to the sound of his Italian-influenced borough where he was born and raised in Sao Paulo. For once, he found a way to smooth out a lot of his rough edges and deliver a genuinely touching album that married his experimental side with the accessible side equally all the way through.
There were always hints of this ability, check out albums like Grande Liquidacao or Todos o Olhos for his very artful takes on pop with hints of abstraction. It wasn’t until his experiments with samba, using more musical musique concrete techniques like performing on found objects and using dadaist lyrics/phrasing in Estudando o Samba that he had more of an a-ha moment. Correio a Estação do Brás is the perfect distillation of all of those sounds. Standout tracks can be found in the first side, check out the opening track “Menina Jesus”. This track which starts with bloopy synths and an acoustic guitar, starts to project louder and more supplicating, as his voice gets a powerful orchestral backing. The following track is the caressing “Morena” a samba influenced track, has hints of the best work of Os Novos Baianos. “Correio de Estacao” uses a tricky drum machine pattern coupled with what sounds like a funk bass to propel a mantraic-like vocal delivery which verges on becoming capoeira no-wave funk.
“Carta” is my personal fave (check out his performance of it which I’ll link via Youtube, simply fascinating!)… because it’s truly something uniquely Brazilian, yet totally forward thinking. Here, Tom Ze takes a slow forro guitar rhythm and vocal take, then slowly integrates an increase in musical tempo treating the whole track like a ramp that threatens to explode until he brings it back down with a somber vocal breath and synth parachute. Something about his breath work here reminds of Robert Wyatt’s work with breath sounds in “Rock Bottom”.
Tracks like “Pecado Original” through “Pecado, Rifa e Revista” blend a bit together but they’re more concise versions of the songs he was structuring in Estudando o Samba. “Amor de Estrada” of course is a cover but a sweet cover nonetheless of a Spanish-language romance song, but he pulls it off expertly as well (capturing the loving/folksy spirit of the original). “Lá vem cuíca” is a brilliant track, bossanova with what sounds like turntable scratches (of course this is a Brazilian instrument and not a turntable) but interesting instrumentation abounds here. “Na praia do sucesso” is a Cartola-like track which is always good in my book since Cartola himself is an unknown great outside of Brazil. My review is a bit all over the place, because Tom himself is a tough artist to pin down. However, if ever there was a case that Tom had stuff to strike directly at the heart its this album.
– 1968: Grande Liquidação
– 1970: Tom Zé
– 1972: Se o Caso É Chorar
– 1973: Todos os Olhos
– 1976: Estudando o Samba
– 1978: Correio da Estação do Brás
– 1984: Nave Maria
– 1998: Com Defeito de Fabricação