December 20, 2012

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Jorge Ben

Jorge: The Definitive Collection

(Wrasse)

The legendary Brazilian musician, singer and songwriter Jorge Ben just doesn’t get the respect he so richly deserves in the Western world. This writer was surprised to hear a rendition of his most popular track, “Mas, Que Nada!,” as part of a parade at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida last year. It was downright painful to hear Goofy singing it, imploring people to join him, in a cringeworthy hillbilly-esque voice. The Black Eyed Peas’ hip-hop rendition of that track from a few years ago is equally awkward. Heck, Rod Stewart unintentionally plagiarized Ben’s “Taj Mahal” for his disco hit “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Come on, people—respect.

Thankfully, the Wrasse label has stepped up with the release of the generous two-CD, 40-track Jorge: The Definitive Collection. It’s a perfect introduction to Ben’s brilliance, created with the point of view that his 60’s and 70’s output was his towering creative plateau. The compilation covers eleven of his albums, starting with his 1963 debut album, continuing up to 1976 with Africa Brasil, and ending with its sole contemporary cut, “Mexe Mexe” from 2004. It begins, appropriately, with “Mas, Que Nada!,” which demonstrates from the very beginning that Ben had an effortless charm and a warm, distinctive voice—controlled, yet infused with energy. His arrangements are practically spotless and immediately likeable, with samba-rooted numbers enhanced by strings and horns.

Ample time is spent with three of his masterpieces, 1969’s Jorge Ben, the alchemy-and-mysticism-themed A Tábua de Esmeralda, and the deep, funk rhythms of Africa Brasil, which features the greatest song ever made about soccer, “Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma).” There’s no “A Minha Menina,” and the lengthy, repetitive “Filhos De Gandhi,” a collaboration with Gilberto Gil, interrupts the collection’s momentum, but those quibbles aside, Jorge: The Definitive Collection, short of a complete anthology of his 60’s and 70’s work, lives up to its title.

Stick Insect

Circular Scratch

(TeenBeat)

The indie label Teenbeat Records was formed in the Washington D.C. area by high-school student Mark Robinson and classmates, starting out with punk-influenced material and home-recording silliness, with nods to the British label Factory Records and the ’70s art-rock band Henry Cow.

As offbeat and eclectic as it was, TeenBeat was eventually known most prominently for Robinson’s own groups, including the acclaimed Unrest, Air Miami and Flin Flon, along with a sort of twee indie-pop/rock attitude.  

Nearly a decade in the making, the debut album Circular Scratch from Stick Insect, the one-woman project of Jeannine Durfee, seems to be a sort of meta-TeenBeat record, combining a breezy cuteness with a kind of Flin-Flon-inspired post-post-punk, using single-note sonic paths.

Durfee was previously in the quirky pop band The Sisterhood of Convoluted Thinkers with multi-instrumentalist Rob Christiansen (of TeenBeat groups Eggs and Grenadine), and Christiansen contributes percussion and drums on about half of the album, plus guitar and trombone. Otherwise, Durfee uses a drum machine to set the pace, typically setting up a structure with a bass line, adding flute and glockenspiel flourishes, and singing with a reserved manner approaching a whisper.  

However, on the opening “Stick” (reprised identically as the closing track “Insect”) Durfee interjects “Stick insect!” followed by manic beatbox breakdowns and disoriented notes. Out of the blue, there’s even a bossa nova section adding to the confusion.  “Mites” contrasts Durfee’s serene voice and flute with electronics-heavy outbursts, and “Magicicada” is an odd muddle, with a max-speed drum machine and banjo notes.  

Perhaps the album’s finest moment is the upbeat “Sexob,” an acceptance of being out-of-step and backwards. Upon second listen, Stick Insect is less about the tight rigor of Flin Flon or being precious, but instead it’s about projecting Durfee’s off-kilter musical personality, both gentle and weird.

December 20, 2012

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