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Album Reviews

Blast From the Past: Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

In 1966, the U.S. was transformed by many significant events. Beatlemania, Vietnam protests, the influential Miranda case, and the birth of both Adam Sandler and Mike Tyson all came in this year. So too came an album which has profoundly impacted me. Herb Alpert Presents: Sergio Mendes and Brazil ‘66 was born in this year, and with it ten fun, harmonious, and energetic tracks created an infectious cultural bridge between the United States and Brazil.

Perhaps these two nations had more in common than people would imagine. In 1966, both countries were in deep political water, and popular music was becoming more experimental as subject matter was shifting. Both nations were reckoning with a brutal history of slavery and oppression, where the Black Movement in Brazil had strong parallels to the American Civil Rights movement (though there were also stark differences). There was a mood of angst and uncertainty, and a growing music industry in both nations was poised to take on a new role in popular culture.

Herb Alpert was an American musician and record producer with a keen ear for Latin-beat. Sergio Mendes was a former Brazilian Big-Band star who created showtunes in the late 50’s and early 60’s that are universally recognized today. The sound that he was building in with ‘66 was fun and new, and Alpert recognized this. He signed Mendes to A&M, and a great partnership was born, as well as an important cultural exchange.

Mendes plays everything from Brazilian standards to fresh takes on Beatles songs and Little Anthony tunes on this album, and skillfully blends them all into an upbeat, tightly knit, and distinctly Brazilian style. Backup harmonies, warm piano strokes, and the smooth vocals of lead singer Gracinha Leporace (Mendes’s wife) created a sound unlike any other gracing the ears of Americans.

I am blessed to know all four of my grandparents, who were avid music fans in the 60’s. They all fondly remember Sergio Mendes and his music, because it was such a stark departure from other records that were popular at the time.

Although the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beatles all had beautiful harmonies that were populating the airwaves in 1966, the creative use of percussion through four musicians on this album separated Sergio Mendes from the rest.

This record was part of a larger cultural phenomena at the time, the so-called ‘Samba Craze’, which put “The Girl From Ipanema” on the charts and brought artists like Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Lalo Schefin, and even Quincy Jones popularity with their Brazilian sounds.

The music sounded like a summer breeze and ocean waves, and it was a fantastic distraction from the turmoil that was overtaking the nation.

The cultural exchange was mutual. American artists topped Brazilian charts, and a wider American audience for artists like Joao Gilberto meant more financial stability and well deserved respect for their music.

Yet, this was not to last forever.

As artists like Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones became mainstays in American culture, the happy-go-lucky sounds of super Samba were out of fashion, and the craze was over.

Brazil saw its own revolution as Tropicala was born and artists like Os Mutantes became the spokespeople for an increasingly tumultuous nation.

Yet Sergio Mendes continued creating records, covering Beatles tunes, and making the magic happen with his incredible harmonies and tight percussive arrangements.

In the decades that followed this disconnect, Americans would come to rediscover the unparalleled greatness of Brazillian artists like Tim Maia, Joao Donato, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor, Marcos Valle, and Seu Jorge.

A dedicated sector of the American populace has remained loyal to the Brazilian music industry long since Sergio Mendes’s epic self-titled album, but it is never a bad time to dive into this record and celebrate its infectious optimism.

Standout tracks:

“One Note Samba”

“O Pato”

“Day Tripper”

“Berimbau”

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Arcade Fire: Everything Now

Hannah Morrison

By Luke Hunter James-Erickson

The new Arcade Fire record has a lingering bad taste to it.  Your mileage may vary, and at this point any hesitancy to approach a new Arcade Fire album could easily feel warranted, but their effect on the music landscape, both popular and independent, is undeniable.  Come with me as I make sweeping generalizations about their body of work in an attempt to understand how we ended up with an album like Everything Now (2007).

Arcade Fire has always been a band that made records with a certain directionality about them, a looking back, a looking around, or a looking forward, and a critique of what they saw.  Funeral (2004) looked longingly back at childhood, examining and reexamining situations remembered fondly, finding faults and fissures in their framework, but ultimately holding these memories up, reverentially, as formative and necessary to the development of modern young adults.  This is explored through lyrical conflations of fantasy and reality, swimming in winding compositions filled with traditional and classical instrumentation.  It’s a record, whose motifs were explored in the preceding Arcade Fire (2003) EP, that turns inward on the self, and tends to the roots buried in the soil of years.

Neon Bible (2007) turns this lens around, pointing these newfound tools of examination towards the world at large.  Expanding their instrumentalization 3 fold (if not more) in some songs, they came at the 2nd-term-G.W.Bush America and pulled back their field of vision to ask where we were at, how had we gotten there, and where were we going.  The album’s thesis statement, “Intervention,” embodies the hopelessness felt by many when GWB got his second term.  I mean, it doesn’t get much more bleak than the lyric “every spark of friendship and love will die without a home”.  But the album isn’t a dirge, it’s, as one might have already surmised, an intervention.  It was intended to be a (black) mirror at society, asking of their listeners the same introspection the band explored in Funeral (and possibly they asked this of the world at large?  Is rock and roll big enough to do that anymore?  I submit that it’s not, but good on them for giving it a shot).

Yes, 2010’s The Suburbs is a rehash of Funeral’s motifs but with fewer accordions and more synths.  That said, even though it has few stand out, actually-memorable songs, it’s still an album that points at something and attempts, with their Neon Bible level naivety (bless em), to examine it, and say something about it.  I wish I could say there’s a trajectory with the record, but the whole of the album’s lyrics can be summed up with the last few lines of “Sprawl I (Flatland)”, “Well, where do you kids live?” Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth”.  This is a real, visceral, cutting examination of growing up in middle class America in the 80’s/90’s. Other than the call to look forward and imagine possibilities in what is still probably the best track of the decade, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, a track that acts is the hopeful ray of sunshine in this otherwise bleak rehash, The Suburbs sort of puts the car in neutral and keeps it running, never going anywhere.  Nevertheless, The Suburbs is an attempt at examination (you may be seeing a pattern here), and is still a pretty fine album to listen to while you’re listening to it. 

Reflektor (2013) looks to the future.  I say this not just because of the James Murphy-assisted production, the abundance of synthesizers and dancy tracks, and the fact that the track “Supersymmetry” was used in the movie Her (2013), but because of how the lyrics examine life and its inevitable end.  Not to get too much into it and delay the actual review portion of this review much further, the lyrics look forward in a refreshing way, be it the in songs that are (still) about growing up in the suburbs like “Awful Sound”, or the songs that are explicitly about the future (read: death) like “Afterlife”.  The songs on Relflektor don’t just end where the previous Arcade Fire songs did, with a statement of bleak reality and no hope for change, but instead exult in the city lights over the mountains, making good on the promise of the ending banger on The Suburbs.

And this brings us to Everything Now.  We can see in each album how the purpose of the songs and their respective albums is propped up by the instrumentalization.  The songs and albums focused on examining the past featured more piano, violin, accordion, and banjo.  Those focused on future used more synthesizers.  Clearly Arcade Fire used all the tools in their bag to get their message across.  Which leaves me with one burning question with Everything Now: what in god’s name happened?

First and foremost, most the songs on EN are just plain boring.  I can recall two songs off the top of my head after having just finished listening to it for maybe the fifteenth time.  The title track is one part well crafted pop song, one part guilt trip, one part childish complaint, and one part unintentionally ironic pretentious snobbery.  The last bit comes in with their sample of Francis Bebey’s “the Coffee Cola Song”, which I only recognized because some deep digging record collector blog put together a mix tape that I stumbled upon years back (email me if you want details, it’s a great blog).  This sample is the ultimate rebuttal to their own thesis of how having access to everything now is in some way bad, because without the internet and interconnectivity there is such a small chance they themselves would have stumbled upon such a sample.  The juxtaposition of their message and this super deep cut sample honestly makes me queasy.

The remaining songs are equally as brainless and naïve. A sample:

Some boys hate themselves

Spend their lives resenting their fathers

Some girls hate their bodies

Stand in the mirror and wait for the feedback

What are we even doing here any more people?

The real problem with the album is it doesn’t feel like a critique.  It feels like a complaint. And an unwarranted one at that.  Arguably Arcade Fire wouldn’t exist, or wouldn’t have the status they’ve got now without the internet.  So for them to call into question, in a boring, played out fashion, the merits of such a system feels pompous. To some degree it makes them into the old guard rock and rollers complaining about how the kids today don’t act right, they don’t make music and live the way Arcade Fire did when most people only had dial up and liked it!

There is a bleaker read of this album however.  And it’s that, with this record, Arcade Fire moved from discussing memories, nostalgia, hope, hopelessness, and social systems, to discussing actual, living, breathing people.  Not individual persons, but people as they are removed from systems.  Not social systems, but those trapped by them.  And this feels cruel.  I am of the opinion that someone can be dissatisfied with the way that they themselves are using the internet.  Fair enough.  But it’s an opt-in experience.  You don’t like how you yourself spend too much time on Instagram or Facebook.  Word.  Do what you need to do to change how you use them.  Arcade Fire, it’s not only inappropriate to tell other people how to live, it’s something that you yourself struggled with, growing up in The Sprawl.

So this is my review of Arcade Fire’s 2017 LP Everything Now: A nauseating, cruel, pompous complaint about how everyone is living wrong set to repetitive, largely boring hooks which rarely resolve before the next track fades in.  Oh, I guess “Put Your Money on Me” is a nice ABBA-esque track.  Check out that one maybe.  Maybe even “We Don’t Deserve Love”.  It’s got some pretty good lyrics.  Past those two, pass this one up.