South America Shines: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean reviews the latest from the Meridian Brothers, Tom Zé, and more.
March 4, 2016, 3:21pm

Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.

The Meridian Brothers: Devoción (Works 2005-2011) (Staubold) My only context for this obscure best-of, the "band"'s first non-Colombian release, is Tom Zé, like mastermind Eblis Álvarez an adept of the deconstructed Latin groove and arguably its inventor. The "Brothers" were a concept 2005-2011—Danish-trained electronics whiz Álvarez plays and sings every sound on every strange, sprightly track here. His treated voice is more boyish than Zé's ever was, and I wish I understood the lyrics, because I get the feeling every one is waggish or at least smart. Post-2011, however, he assembled a real band so he could play out and hence turn to salsa and tropicalia, where he's less of a find. That's why only this collection grabs me when I dip into his catalogue on The best-of—so cool when done right. A MINUS

Tom Zé: Tropicália Lixo Lógico (self-released) 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 "Não Tenha Ódio no Verão" 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 MINUS

Tom Zé: Vira Lata na Via Láctea (self-released) 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 the Suburbs," 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 MINUS

The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cumbia (World Music Network) That's psychedelic as in organ and wah-wah and Arthur Lee, also as in recorded in the late '60s or whatever that time back there was they're too stoned to Google it, like for instance, well, surf music. The brief notes offer clues—although Colombia was cumbia's base, it was really in Peru and to a lesser extent Mexico that a genuine surf-rock influence weirded up kids' dance music. What the notes don't mention is that cumbia was never as rhythmically complex as Puerto Rican salsa and Peruvian chicha was never as rhythmically complex as Colombian cumbia, rendering the Ventures' automotive vroom-vroom‑-chart run, well, 1960-1964, plus "Hawaii 5-0" in 1969—a better fit. Just to round things out, some half a dozen modern cumbia outfits toss their sound effects into the bong. Chicha Libre's Arthur Lee cover is definitely a highlight. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network) Sidestepping cumbia's sameyness and sideswiping its groove by showcasing its adaptability—folklorico and big horns, salsa and chicha, New York and Buenos Aires (Los Caporales del Magdalena, "Fiesta En Corraleja"; Medardo Padilla y Sus Conjunto, "La Guacharaca") ***

Vintage Latino (Putumayo) Does actually enable one to reaccess "the tropical nightclubs of Latin America in the 1950s," usually via revivalists—a Cuban engineering student long resettled in Mexico, a femme trio from vibrantly multicultural Brooklyn, like that (Trio Melodicos, "Perfidia"; Néstor Torres, "Tierra Colorá") ***


The Rough Guide to Caribbean Cafe (World Music Network) Nor corn nor horns nor even schlock can quell its storm-sheltered intricacy (Un Solo Pueblo, "Woman Del Callao"; Ska Cubano, "Cumbia Del Monte") ***

Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 (Strut) How useful you find these 28 exhaustively curated dance tracks depends on just how excited you get about the terms "big band" and "mini jazz" (Les Loups Noirs, "Pile Ou Face"; Raoul Guillaume et Son Groupe, "Mal Élevé") **

Sidestepper: Supernatural Love (RealWorld) Finesses the distinction between Latin lovely and Latin schlock, only not when the guy in charge takes the lead ("Fuego Que Te Llama," "Come See Us Play") *

Anibal Velasquez y Su Conjunto: Mambo Loco (Analog Africa) Drum-driven guaracha created a sensation in early-'60s Colombia, signifies as minor accordion variant today ("Carruseles," "Mambo Loco") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.