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Thursday, April 13, 2006 01:50 am

Experiment with pleasure

Of all of Brazil's wonderfully weird cultural exports, Tom ZĂ© may be the weirdest

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Tom Zé Estudando O Pagode (Luaka Bop/V2)
They grow ’em weird in Brazil, and of all Brazil’s wonderfully weird cultural exports, Tom Zé may be the weirdest and most wonderful. Zé, who turns 70 this year, is one of the founders of Tropicalia, a musical, intellectual, and political movement that swept São Paolo by storm in the late ’60s and early ’70s with its delirious blend of Beatlesque psych-pop; deconstructed native genres such as bossa nova, samba, and forró; and Dada-inspired agitprop. An outsider among outsiders, Zé has never enjoyed the name recognition of peers such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes, but his career has flourished in recent years, thanks in part to Luaka Bop label head (and former Talking Head) David Byrne, who tracked him down in 1989, when he was about to start working at his nephew’s gas station. In subsequent years, the avant-pop enigma released three albums on Luaka Bop (a career retrospective in 1990 and two critically lauded full-lengths of new material, 1992’s The Hips of Tradition and 1998’s Fabrication Defect) and toured the United States with Chicago post-rockers Tortoise as his backing band. Zé’s describes his new album, Estudando O Pagode, as an “unfinished operetta” about the oppression of women throughout history; among the figures to whom the CD is dedicated is Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century English feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. If this all sounds a bit too heavy, a bit too Holly Near, remember that we’re talking about Tom Zé, the man known for “playing” bicycle pumps, chainsaws, vacuum cleaners, and metal grinders; the man who once released an album called Todos Os Olhos (All the Eyes), the cover of which featured a close-up photograph of a marble peeping out of an anus; the man who makes other musical pranksters look like dispassionate dilettantes. Although the prospect of 16 songs about the patriarchy might send even the most progressive listeners straight into the arms of the Three 6 Mafia, rest assured that this is about as far from Women’s Studies 101 as you can possibly get. (And if you aren’t fluent in Portuguese, you’re off the hook altogether.) The operetta contains many characters, several performed by Zé and others by guest vocalists, including Jair Oliveira, Suzana Salles, and Luciana Mello. Its story is much too convoluted to paraphrase — something about a mistreated black teenager who abuses his girlfriend, who later puts herself through college by working as a prostitute — and the setting shifts from the United Nations Security Council to the Garden of Eden, a courtroom, and a gay and lesbian pride parade outside the Vatican. Musically, Estudando is every bit as zany and chaotic as its plot: Along with giddy loops and synths and other electro-pop trappings, there are braying donkeys, sobbing men, climaxing women, and what sounds like a chorus of midgets on helium. Distorted guitars grapple with saws and children’s toys; curses turn into prayers, and come-ons escalate to threats. Zé also incorporates an instrument of his own invention, a kind of pipe fashioned from ficus leaves, and the cavaquinho, which resembles a ukelele. The songs are subverted variations on pagode, a type of minimalist dance music embraced by the underclass and notorious for its misogynistic lyrics (think São Paolo’s answer to crunk), but, really, you don’t need to know any of this background stuff to enjoy the songs, which range from the unequivocally lovely ballad “Duas Opiniões” to the saucy, slap-happy duet “Estúpido Rapaz” and the madcap pop masterpiece “Beatles A Granel.” Chez Zé, experimentation is always served with a generous side of pleasure.
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