Here’s my Christmas present, to you, right off the bat, no foolin’ around like usual, because this is IMPORTANT: Marisa Monte, “Infinito Particular” (EMI); buy this album right away. Especially if you like Brazilian music, and extra-especially if you like both Brazilian music and the Beatles, because that’s how melodic and lilting and perfectly crafted this stuff is -so good, it makes you resort to using the B-word. Or, perhaps more accurately, the C-word, as in Caetano, Caetano Veloso, for many years the cornerstone of MPB, which stands for “Musica Populiera Brasileira”, i.e. modern Brazilian popular music.
Both Marisa and Caetano draw from the well of Joao and Astrud Gilberto, who first popularized Brazilian samba music in 1964 with the latter’s famous recording of “The Girl From Ipanema” with Stan Getz, which established a template that’s still very much in evidence in modern Brazilian pop: samba rhythms, sophisticated chord voicings (very frequently on acoustic guitars), and an aversion to breaking a sweat. Astrud Gilberto never sounded like she was working -she sounded like someone humming idly and carelessly while swinging in a hammock in a hillside breeze.
One difference is that while Marisa Monte’s singing is equally effortless, it’s a good deal more polished. A friend of mine who saw Gilberto sing confirmed that she that it was part of her style to sing just a little flat, as if singing in tune might’ve been a little too much trouble (in fact, he said she sang the one note in “One Note Samba” flat enough that it wasn’t much fun.) Monte’s pitch, on the other hand, is flawless, yet it sounds so easy that you imagine she couldn’t sing a bad note if she tried. She never pushes, never betrays any sign of exertion, like singing was breathing, and the effect is remarkable.
She’s been around for about 15 years or so, and she’s a superstar at home; and her latest releases “Infinito Particular” and “Universo Ao Meu Redor” (both of which she released simultaneously this year on EMI) are all I know about her (except for a cut on David Byrne’s Cole Porter compilation a few years ago, and a smattering of her work with New York producer Arto Lindsay, both of which they easily surpass; among her other fans are Laurie Anderson and Ryuichi Sakamoto). “Infinito Particular” is especially wonderful, an album that’s just gorgeous all the way through -there isn’t a bad song on it.
Care for a test drive? Go to marisamonte.com, and check out her video of a song called “Ate Parece.” Now, I could be wrong about this, but I’m fairly certain I’ve never recommended a video in this column – I probably watch about three of them a year. However, this one is as stunning as it is simple and unassuming: just a single close-up of Monte singing the song directly to the camera, which occasionally starts to absent-mindedly drift off to the side as if it were slightly distracted -at which point the singer the singer gently bats the lens back toward her face. Again, hypnotic, effortless, perfect -you’ve just got to check this out.
A good American companion piece would be the BMG re-issue of Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” album, which completely surprised me. For one thing, I thought I’d heard pretty much all of his best stuff already, and that much of it was over-produced and over-commercialized, needlessly gussied up with strings and ultra-white sounding background choruses, and a portion of his catalog does lean that way. Not “Night Beat”, though, which is sparse, atmospheric, and economical throughout, like a soulful version of Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours Of the Evening”, with the same late-night vibe, and nary a string or a background vocal anywhere!
Other faves of ’06: “The Essential Yo Yo Ma” (Legacy/Sony Classical); “The Harry Smith Project”, Hal Wilner’s fascinating box set of live, modern performances of obscure folk material by Elvis Costello, Wilco, Beck, Garth Hudson, the McGarrigle Sisters, and many others, which features a coupler of wild, hilarious David Thomas (Pere Ubu) performances, one to an arrangement by Van Dyke Parks (an unlikely but delightful match); Paul Simon’s “Surprise”, which features some swell sonic landscaping courtesy of Brian Eno; the Beatles by way of Sir George Martin (and his son’s) re-workings for Cirque Du Soleil, which is sometimes heinous but frequently pretty swell if you can get over some ill-advised mash-it-ups; Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s enjoyable “The River In Reverse”; Los Lobos’s “The Town and the City”; and an ancient album of the 12-string Portuguese guitar called “Guitarra Portuguesa” by Carlos Paredes that I saw Costello had recommended on Amazon that -sure enough- blew me away.
I was also grateful for Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” show; for “Deadwood” and James Spader and William Shatner’s hilarious turns on “Boston Legal”; and even for “Dancing With the Stars” for some reason I totally can’t explain (yo, Emmitt!)
Not to mention an old book by former chef Anthony Bourdain called “Kitchen Confidential” that I can’t seem to buy enough copies of (there’s always been one friend or another who I think needs it desperately); or the movies “Hustle and Flow”, “Millions”, “Prime”, “Winter Passing”, “Northfork”, and “The Best of Youth”; and the deep-fried turkey and oyster dressing dinner they serve at the Coast in Orleans. Go forth and purchase, and Merry Christmas!