By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Tom Zé's peculiar contribution to the Tropicalistas' still-thrilling 1968 collaborative album Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circencis was the satiric antidevelopment anthem "Parque Industrial," which sang of a Penny Lane industrial park where laughing children became mindless consumers, and taunted listeners with a Brazilianized repetition of the English refrain "made in Brazil." Thirty years on, Zé is once again employing stolen goods to castigate industrialization in its ickier manifestations. Not only does Fabrication Defect's cover resemble a Pedro Bell painting, but the album's conceit is a post(George) Clintonian denunciation of First World placebo purveyors who perceive the Third World masses as subhuman androids. Only what's emphasized here, thankfully, are the disenfranchised's imperfections: charming defects that include religious hypocrisy, curiosity, stupidity, raging youthful hormones, and, predictably, a love of dance.
You can consider Zé's cultural cannibalism to be appropriation, sampling, pillage, copyright infringement, fair use, or just good old Tropicalism. Zé himself renames it the "esthetics of plagiarism," and also arrastão, a term he uses for the sources he annotates below specific songs, and which translates as " 'wilding' with a purpose, i.e. robbery." According to Zé, we're into a new, postcomposer "plagi-combinator era," in which virtually everything can be integrated into pop music.
So what else is new? Well, for one thing Zé doesn't simply cut and paste digital bits together into a martial disco beat, preferring unlikely material displacements of musique concrète, such as the floor sander heard on "O Olho do Lago" (The Eye Lake), quotes from Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Veloso, and subverted religious tropes from the Bible and Saint Augustine. Moreover, having returned to his Irara hometown in the northeast of Brazil, Zé once again occupies a peculiar middle ground between luscious Bahia, to the east, and the mountainous desert region to the west, where Portuguese settlers intermarried with the Indian population during the 16th century. According to Zé, the area still maintains a real Middle Ages vibe along with a rural oral tradition of both magical and unmediated song improvisation, signs of which are found all over Fabrication. I'm guessing a certain scholarly knowledge of Brazilian folk tropes would come in handy in decoding the lovely medievalism of "Politicar"--but you don't have to be Charles Perrone to get the gist of lyrics like "Screw your usury/In the multinational/Shove it up your Virgin/You son of a cross." And so on.
The Tom Zé most Americans have access to is a curated Zé different from the singer known--or forgotten, for the most part--in Brazil. The brilliant tunes David Byrne chose for 1990's The Best of Tom Zéare a far cry from the more mainstream strings-and-horns "sonatas" heard, for example, on 20 Preferidas Tom Zé (RGE import), a '70s-dominated collection that shares only one track with Byrne's pick of the litter. Like Captain Beefheart's misbegotten Unconditionally Guaranteed, many of these "hits" find a truly idiosyncratic artist looking toward the charts, only in Zé's case with far better tunes. In 1998, on the other hand, credibility arrives through the electronic remix factory. Which is why Zé connoisseurs like Tortoise, Stereolab, the High Llamas, and Sean Lennon are all contributing to an upcoming album of Fabrication remixes. (None of the ones I've heard, however, holds a candle to the consummate Northeast accordion techno of Fabrication's "Xiquexique," whose lyrics contain a nod to the late, great Chico Science.)
Fabrication--itself pitched significantly less lovelorn than 1992's The Hips of Tradition--contains a handful of absolutely perfect songs, the sort of exquisitely tuneful, glisteningly produced, faultlessly performed Brazilian gems that lodge in your head and heart with timeless precision. "Esteticar" (To Estheticize), with its chirpy chorus and chittering percussion, sounds at first like a thousand other great Brazilian sambas; you'd hardly expect it to harbor Zé's vituperative "inter-semiotic" mission statement. Another perfectly arranged vocal chorus heard in "Juventude Javali" croons, "The wine of open legs/soaks the offerings on the altar/Screams, sperm and hand-cuffs/The fury of pure lavender," and it's all so pretty and seemingly effortless you could just cry.
Tom Zé often reminds me of another cult populist and thoughtful plunderer of the vernacular: Van Dyke Parks. (Listen to Zés "Valsar" [To Waltz] for an obvious link.) Both composers love popular culture; only the popular culture they love happens not to be all that popular anymore. Nevertheless, they continue to dive into the trash bin of history, dragging back their objets and rearranging them into highly personalized songs of taste and ideology. Sly, resilient, and utterly original, artists like Parks and Zé appear to finally be entering pop consciousness through the back door. Just another defect to celebrate.