Anyone who thinks Beck's or even the Beastie Boys' style of
cut-and-paste music is anything new, meet Tom Ze.
The 62-year-old Brazilian has been chopping beats and mixing found
sounds longer than those artists have been alive. Unlike true
cut-and-paste pioneers like German classical/avant-gardist Karlheinz
Stockhausen and Miles Davis producer Teo Macero, Ze's radical mixes have
also hit the charts. His latest album, Fabrication Defect, offers
remarkably lively music that shows off both his experimental edge and
his pop savvy.
A founding member of the Tropicalia movement in the '60s, Ze and cohorts
Caetano Velosa, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes helped turn
Brazilian music inside out by blending traditional music, popular
rhythms, avant-garde techniques, social commentary and psychedelia.
Rougher around the edges than his comrades, Ze's love of jerry-rigged
instruments and his scrapyard esthetic bring to mind Tom Waits, another
iconoclast who refuses to mellow with age.
Luaka Bop is misguidedly pushing Fabrication Defect as a sci-fi
"mis-concept album" about how our "defects" -- the desires that lead us
to love, dance, dream -- are our only hope against turning into
androids. In fact, each of the songs is named after a supposed "defect,
i.e. "Defect2: Curiosidade", "Defect3: Politicar" ...
This pitch was almost enough to turn me off the album without listening
to it. To make matters worse, Ze includes a manifesto about the
"esthetics of plagiarism" that explains why it's good to recycle sounds,
re-contextualize, reclaim, etc. I mean, is anyone really learning
anything new here?
All that said ... please try to forget about it. Because Ze's
theoretical bullshit isn't half as interesting as his music. Most of the
songs are built around acoustic guitar, bass and junkyard percussion
with rhythmic loops, fuzzed-out keyboards, strings and a host of
unclassifiable noises artfully woven throughout.
Despite the fragmented transitions and odd sounds, Ze never forgets the
beat and nothing is ever far from being on the "one." Fabrication
Defect swings from lilting and lovely to frenetically beat-driven,
sometimes in the same song. The traditional touches like accordion and
female choruses sound the only sour notes on the album, veering too
close to kitsch. Generally, the further Ze strays from convention the
Fabrication Defect's booklet boasts such irreverent cut-up
couplets as: "My youth's an incinerator, it's later/ If you are held in
esteem, I scream." But how would I know? My appreciation of the lyrics
is limited only by my total inability to understand a single word of
Portuguese. But that's not a problem.
Actually, it's a bonus because it keeps you from getting bogged down by
Ze's conceptual nonsense. Ze mostly raps his words and they come off to
my ears like just another found sound: a guy speaking in an unknown
He blends surprisingly well with rhythm tracks, in fact. When Ze sings
-- less effectively I might add -- it's pleasant enough, another melodic
color added to the palate. I may be missing all sorts of profound social
commentary and stellar wordplay, but I suspect I'm better for it.
For all his touted lyrics, the best song on the album has no words at
all. "Defect4: Emere" is built around a loop of
deep, heavy breathing that slowly adds delicately picked guitar, sighing
vocals and a wheezing, insistently scratchy violin. The track is almost
all air, and its rough-hewn stillness is shocking. At first it seems to
be barely playing, but the more you listen the more you hear. It's a
stunning example of creative restraint.
The key to any collage art is making all the far-flung pieces seem like
part of a whole, no matter how unlikely. Tom Ze doesn't just cut
together his collection of defective fragments, he makes them sing.