Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Art That Changed My Life: Brazzaville

Ah, Brazzaville. I have been listening to little else these last few months. Each record reveals something new and exciting to these here ears, though I suspect I am merely going through a period where RAWK! and/or roll is doing less and less for me. Maybe not. I still love the rock, the hip-hip, punk, jazz, and all the things Brazzaville is not (not quite) but it’s nice to mix it up from time to time even if that means slowing down and taking it easy for a fucking change. So to those less initiated but perhaps interested, here’s my loose review of the first four records (I’ve yet to pick up the last 2 released or David Brown’s solo effort). Also, here’s a link to the band’s website where you can read all about the band, their manifesto, the progress they are making to secure a massive floating studio space/artist’s retreat, and all else relevant:

Brazzaville (aka: 2002)

Debuts are tough. One assumes that an artist would pack it full of all they got and make the best impression possible, right? Damn straight. Zappa did it. Zeppelin did it. Ween did it. Brazzaville did it. The start to Brown’s career was as a saxophonist for Beck and the influence is noticeable here. While I don’t listen to much Beck, I can discern how he had a direct impact on Brazzaville, but I don’t give a monkey’s whatever. This is a goddamn great record, start to finish packed with gems and not a moment of filler. It’s lush, baby, lush and only occasionally delves into the “Rock” label that my desktop media player applied. Aside from some screaming guitar parts on “Sewers of Bangkok” there are more horns and keys and faux-tropical elements and so forth to be found (and enjoyed). Lazy keyboards and infectious melodies galore, the gem of the record is “Voce” with its chorus in Portuguese and air of ultra hip, laidback cool. Another bonus, Joe Frank, one of my ten favorite Americans, contributes a monologue to the song “Oceans,” which fits in with Brazzaville’s aesthetic perfectly.

One of the most striking things here is how different this is compared to the records that followed. Oh, the essential qualities are in order and would be recycled to great effect on subsequent releases, but this record is a kitchen sink and all production where every instrument seems to be in competition with the others for attention, whereas later albums feature steady melodies accented by the occasional trombone or electric piano solo. The effect is somewhat chaotic for a Brazzaville record, though that is like saying that the 5th Symphony is chaotic for Beethoven. This is a busy record, very busy, but not overwhelming. Still, listen to this record back to back with, say, Hastings Street and it feels pretty damn intricate. I suspect Brown has mellowed a bit and realized that one does not need to put all their tricks into the mix, so to speak, to make a great record. Evidence of this is found on the follow up…


On the website, Brown states that he felt at one point that every moment of this record was worthless, which is probably what most artists feel about a lot of their work. When I read that I laughed, as, to me, this is a near perfect record that is definitely the best one to hear first. Aside from containing some great songs, it runs the gamut of what the band is capable of. “Air Mail” is an impossibly cool and catchy song about a hobo who just threw it all away (and doesn’t everyone get tempted to do that?); “Foreign Disaster Days” feels simple and direct but I get tripped up on lines like “Memories of her face drag me down like heroin” and “There’s nothing like a car bomb. Window shopping at 3:00.” Shortly after this run through the fake reggae and tropicali sound comes “Boeing” a straight up rocker with a fantastic chorus: “Boeing, carry me away. Help me press erase on all of my stupid mistakes.” Again, who can’t relate?

All of these tunes seem pretty flawlessly composed and produced, save for “Casa Batllo” which I often skip. Not a bad song, it’s just the only one that feels a touch forced. Buy hey, this is still a great record that never fails to take me to a wonderful place. I feel oddly uplifted when I hear this, as opposed to…

Rouge on Pockmarked Cheeks

The first time I heard this CD I was disappointed. I was hoping for another Somnabulista. It is not. It’s far gloomier, mellower, stranger. It is now my favorite of all the Brazzaville records. This is largely due to me listening to it while driving in the rain, at night, stuck in traffic and trying to figure out a better route from the north of Chicago to Cicero. In such a frustrating situation I normally go mad, scream, want to hit things, but Brazzaville soothed me.

Apparently, Brown was not in a good place when he made this one—depressed, he sings of loneliness, dissatisfaction, failure, drugs, many of the usual Brazzaville themes, but here put to full effect. Whereas songs like “Air Mail” and “Shams” celebrate vagabond life (to an extent), or at least deal somewhat with the negative aspects of such a life, the tracks here do not shy away or romanticize the downtrodden existence. “Motel Room” sounds like just that: a dirty, sad, motel room where one can mediate on the angst and defeat of weary travel; “1980” delivers this feeling via some haunting arrangement and instrumentation. “High Life”—I song I used to hate—is a direct confrontation of, well, the high life. “N. Koreatown” is an ode to Brown’s youth when he lived homeless in that area of L.A. doing drugs and panhandling, like one of the many annoying homeless white kids that populate big cities. It seems Brown would have fit in well on Hasting Street, which is probably why he wrote a song about that junkie laden area of Vancouver (more on that in a bit).

The real highlights of this record: “Samurai” which is six minutes of slow working darkness adorned with muted horns and a ceaseless nylon string guitar working under gorgeous vocals (Brown’s not nearly as much as his female co-singer); “Rainy Night”—maybe my favorite Brazzaville song—is the only real up tempo number here, though even this one is fairly restrained; “Genoa” is a steady, slow, haunting number with out of control electric piano working out over a repetitive beat and single note guitar picking. The lyrics of the song conjure up riots and destruction (“Anarchists tearing up the beltway. Molotovs as if they knew the right way”) incongruent with the quiet, controlled music. Gotta love that! And then we have what is maybe my least favorite song on the record musically and favorite lyrically: “Xanax and Three Hours of TV” a “post 9/11 song” that focuses on the ennui of our American lives where there is no E. E. Cummings, Mark Twain, or Martin Luther King to be found, only pointless distraction, self-medicating, “online porn and SUVs.”

Suspecting that Brown might have ridden this train all the way to crazytown, I was somewhat anxious to hear the follow up, which, based on the direction Brown went here, not to mention the title and cover photo of the next record, promised to be bleak. What a surprise…

Hastings Street

The cover art depicts what I assume is a typical junkie from the Eastside Downtown area of Vancouver (represent!). And yeah, there are moments that feel dire and sad, but overall the mood of this record is pretty upbeat. Mostly there are love songs to be found on this one, some good (“Old Folks”) some not so much (“Dark Eyes”) but fear not: “Hastings Street” is indeed a downer. Ditto “Single Apartment.” Other tunes are still a mystery (I admit I’ve only had this record a short time and am still warming up to it). “Love is the Answer” seems like a love long but the lyrics betray a deeper sense of desperation. Really, the crux of the record is “Night Train to Moscow” which is kind of a sad number that probably seems that way to me because of that goddamn accordion. When I hear the chorus I get all sad and shit, but I think that has a lot to do with my listening to the song right before dropping off my dog for a week with his babysitter before jetting off to Vancouver and feeling like I was abandoning the little pooch. Yeah, I’m a big sap for the little dog, but the song stayed in my head as I walked him that night and I was oddly very fucking blue.

Anyway, aside from making me blubber in such a manner, Hastings Streets contains the tune “Asteroid Field” which may be the most beautiful song Brown will ever write. It pretty much carries side two and leaves the listener in a good place near the exit. Really, this is kind of a mixed bag of good, okay, and occasionally great moments, more than a lot of artists can boast. And, like I said, I am still digesting the record so who knows—it may turn out to be my favorite someday.

So that’s it, my quick review and half-assed attempt at describing the work of David Brown, man behind the band Brazzaville. Back to reality now.