October 14th, 2005


Araça Azul

From time to time you become fascinated with an album, play it again and again. An album becomes a door to somewhere you need to go, a dizzying view of freedoms, techniques, possibilities. An album—and it might be an old one, disowned even by its creator—is suddenly just right for just now, the answer to a debate, a quandry, a search. When all other albums seem like repetitions and dead-ends, suddenly an album is an open door with a starry sky behind it. You step through, into its weirdness, into its familiarity.

Right now, I feel this way about an album whose sleeve shows a man in underpants and what looks like an afro wig, gazing at himself in a mirror. It's Araça Azul, the 1973 album from Caetano Veloso. "Conspicuously non-commercial" is how Japan Times describes the record, "a mix of psychedelic rock, tribal drumming, pregnant silences and experimental vocals". To my ears it's just very daring, very experimental. There's a fascinating mix of warm textures and playful techniques with miking, pitching, texture, stereo placement. Vocal notes are sounded, held, varied by microtones, joined by single guitar notes. A song comes along, but it's just fragments of a song, with Dada-assonant nursery-rhyme lyrics. There are African-sounding tribal chants, over-the-top brass epics which give way to field-recordings of traffic jams, a wigged-out rock number, bits that sound like Bell lab tape cut-up music, whistling, stuff that sounds like concrete poetry or (very) underground theatre. I can hear Cornelius loud and clear here—this was surely a huge influence on his "Point" album (known in my house as "Disappoint" and "Vanishing Point", but still...)—and the playful post-Fluxus experiments of Tomomi Adachi and his Royal Chorus.

Veloso himself seems now to think that Araça Azul is pants. He's since turned his back on what he calls its "insolent experimentalism", calling the record "a failure" and "the last stand". His audience at the time seemed to agree: many took the record back to the shop, demanding a refund. But when he heard that Cornelius had made a cover of "Giberto Misterioso" for the tribute record "Caetano Lovers", Veloso seemed rather touched:

"'Gilberto Misterioso,' that's great."

Is he pleased with that?

"Yeah, well, the others are well-chosen, but they are also well-known and this one's not that well-known."

That was Cornelius' pick.

"It was him that chose that one? Oh, that's nice," he says with real warmth." (Japan Times)

Caetano made Araça Azul in 1972, on his return to Brazil after three years of political exile in London. And it's not hard to hear a two-finger salute to Brazil's military dictatorship in the record's defiant freedom from convention, its license. "I'm an artist, and artists can do what they like," the man whose head had once been shaved by the regime's thugs seems to be saying.

To explain why the record is important to me personally just now, I'd have to send you back—again!—to writings like Cute Formalism and The Electro-Acoustics of Humanism. I'd have, in other words, to repeat the story of where I was in the 90s, and where I am now. I suspect my reasons for being fascinated with the record are quite similar to Cornelius's. In the 90s we were both doing this easy-breezy loungecore thing, although Cornelius tended a bit more to the noisy cut-and-paste side of things and I tended more to some kind of uneasy compromise between the disturbing and the relaxing. But we both espoused tick-tocky rhythms (the bossa-like electronic Maestro rhythms you can hear on "Star Fruits Surf Rider" and all over my 1998 and 1999 albums) and "pop baroque" structures, with lots of sampling and genre-hopping. This fitted into "the loungecore revival", and "Shibuya-kei", and some of the stuff American artists like Beck and the Beastie Boys were up to.

But by the end of the 90s Shibuya-kei was dead. Most of the artists involved started to get more experimental, to distinguish themselves, perhaps, from the hordes of copyists and parodists appearing on labels like Escalator and Bungalow. Programs like Max/MSP came along to granulate and filter sound in new ways, and with it new possibilities for the Cute Formalists to make Sound Dust. Where once she was making hit singles and TV commercials, Kahimi Karie is now recording with Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Ensemble. If that particular career path is modelled, perhaps, on figures like Bjork and Brigitte Fontaine, Cornelius's swing towards ambient sound, acoustic guitars and Tropicalia pointillisme is undoubtedly modelled on Caetano's 1972 record; an index of possibilities, a marriage of the warm and the freaky.

I remember once visiting Arto Lindsay in his apartment in Chelsea. He had stacks of books and CDs everywhere. I started flipping through them all. I wanted to know if there had been any Brazilian artists who made electronic bossa, something like a Brazilian Bruce Haack. Arto seemed stumped. There was nobody quite like that, but had I heard Caetano's Araça Azul? Tom Zé? All I'd heard from Caetano was his first record, Domingo. And I'd got it—don't laugh—because the editor of Relax magazine had nominated it the ultimate "Sunday People" record. The ideal record to listen to in your Kamakura summer house, sipping macciato, wearing deck shoes. The ultimate gooey, melting, sophisticated easy listening record, a record for affluent slow lifers and Japanese yuppies. That's why I bought it, and how I used it.

Arto is, of course, a good friend of Caetano's, and produced some of his 90s albums. I haven't heard those yet. I'll get round to them, I'm sure. But for now, it's Araça Azul that fascinates me. For its mixture of warmth and experimentalism, songs and pure sound. For the fact that it's the very opposite of generic or reassuring. For the fact that you're never going to hear it playing in the background in a Tokyo cafe. For its impish, zany, willful perversity. For its huge sense of freedom and self-license. For just how great and interesting and exotic it sounds, playing from my system, into my apartment, filling the space with invisible parrots, radical politics, unexplored possibilities. And for the fact that, in the way it marries the easy-breezy and the sing-songy with a formal interest in acoustics and how sound can determine structure, it's addressing the key questions of the place—the historical and formal place—I now find myself in. Post-something and pre-something else, no doubt. Wearing pants and an afro wig, probably.

Araça Azul sampler file (4.2 MB, 4mins 35secs)