Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kassin+2 Review

In 1928, the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade penned an influential statement of purpose for the modernist movement in his country, a work that appeared under the unusual title “Manifesto Antropófago” (Cannibal Manifesto). His thesis was both radical and banal: Brazil’s greatest cultural aptitude lay in “cannibalization,” tearing juicy ideas from the still-warm flesh of other cultures and digesting them into the Brazilian body. It was this artistic concept that informed the Tropicalia movement forty years later – vanguard musicians like Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa drew from bossa nova, psychedelic rock, American R&B, avant-garde composition, the blues, and every other living, organic musical style to create a totally new, distinctively Brazilian sound. The theory of artistic cannibalism, then, has always been at the heart of modern Brazilian popular music.

The recent collaborative album by the Rio-based “+ 2” trio – a project consisting of Moreno Veloso, Domenico Lancelotti, and Alexandre Kassin – is the perfect embodiment of the “cannibalismo” ethos. In a unique format, each trio member has taken turns headlining their albums: we’ve already been treated to “Moreno + 2” and “Dominico + 2,” and this Kassin volume, entitled “Futurismo,” completes the triptych. (The album title is an homage to both cannibalismo and to tropicalismo, and it is clear from the first track that Kassin’s beautiful songwriting owes a debt to these earlier movements.)

There is much of this album that is identifiably Brazilian: Kassin and his collaborators freely mix gentle yet complex melodies, breezy bossa guitars, and much of the other musical sweetnesses that conjure beaches, swaying palms, and other stereotypes from the vast South American country. Yet this is not your mother’s idea of Brazilian music. Embedding into the recognizably cool and effortless milieu are cutting-edge programming and electronics, frantic indie rock grooves, and a whole panoply of cannibalized sounds. Paradoxically, perhaps it is this quality of synthesis that makes “Futurismo” such a quintessentially Brazilian album.

Take the song “Samba Machine,” for instance. Here, we have a punchy guitar groove and a plodding samba bass line accompanied by a retro drum machine and vocal harmonies sung through a vocoder. Half way through the song is a distorted blues guitar solo. It is a mish-mash of competing musical signs, from the traditional (samba and blues) to the contemporary (electronic flourishes). In “Namorados,” your ear is initially greeted with a Björk-like electronic soundscape, with synthesizer sweeps and blips and bleeps; but then a bossa nova guitar line enters along with Kassin’s relaxed, wet voice. On “Pra Lembrar,” an orchestral introduction reminiscent of The Beatles and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys gives way to a lilting, highly chromatic melody with Rhodes piano punctuations and a sunny, tropical disposition. Every song on the record plays out in a similar fashion: stylistic surprises abound.

Behind all the experimentation and deliciously cannibalistic gestures, however, is a set of gemlike songs, all masterfully crafted. Ultimately, analytical categories aside, this is where Kassin’s “Futurismo” truly shines.

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