Arto Lindsay may have made his name in the downtown NYC scene (with bands such as DNA, the Lounge Lizards, and Golden Palominos), but the enormously compelling records he's been making over the last few years would best be described as Brazilian. That's "Brazilian" as in the late '60s Tropicalia movement, which basically viewed everything in the world, from John Cage to the Beatles, as a building block to be combined with native rhythms and political concerns. Lindsay is an American who spent his teenage years in Brazil during the brief Tropicalia epoch, and his solo discs from 1996 on have thoroughly embraced the melting pot approach he remembers from that time.
His new one, Invoke (Righteous Babe), starts with a one-two punch that makes it clear what he's up to. "Illuminated" is a lusciously lazy declaration of philosophical intent, with a soft, thick, thumping bass line gently cushioning the singer's cool-nerd tenor. No sooner has that faded out, though, than "Predigo" announces itself with a harsh, chunky guitar and squeals of noise. Lindsay chants rhythmic Portuguese lyrics that are cryptic but seem to contain a fatal premonition. Throughout, as with his previous work, the composer's gift is not his eclecticism so much as his ability to make it all seem like it belongs on the same record.
One of Lindsay's most important musical ancestors, Caetano Veloso, has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity here, setting the stage for his son Moreno to make his American debut. Moreno's Music Typewriter (Luaka Bop) has another connection to Lindsay's Invoke: Producer Andres Levin worked on both records. Far from rejecting his heritage, Moreno opens with a beautifully soaring acoustic track co-written with his dad. But this disc is more experimental than Caetano's current agenda, full of everything from straight samba to electronic grab-bag sound effects to the cool funk of "Arrivederci." He even does a sweetly non-ironic cover of Snow White's "I'm Wishing."
Veloso hasn't been with David Byrne's Luaka Bop long (this record is actually a reissue of one he made for the Hannibal label), but he's joining a roster full of genre benders. Among them, Susana Baca may look like a traditionalist; much of her repertoire is drawn from traditional Afro-Peruvian tunes, waltzes, and old poetry she adapts for herself. Though she uses musicians versed in out-there styles — such as guitarist Marc Ribot and Medeski Martin and Wood keyboardist John Medeski — she doesn't stray far from traditional-sounding arrangements. (Even when she's cutting a haunting version of Björk's "The Anchor Song.") Not that that's a bad thing. Baca's voice is one of the greats, and Espíritu Vivo (Luaka Bop) showcases it beautifully. Recorded in New York City around September 11, the album took on a more spiritual, contemplative mood than the seductive tracks on her earlier discs.
To my knowledge, Blur bandleader Damon Albarn, whose songs practically defined Britpop in the '90s, had no significant childhood exposure to non-Western musics. But lately he's proven to be quite the skilled collaborator, whether working with rappers and Buena Vista vets in the Gorillaz or composing soundtrack music with the Sugarcubes' Einer Orn Benediktsson. Somebody at the English charity Oxfam (committed to ending hunger and poverty in the "Third World") knew what they were doing when they asked Albarn to visit Mali.
There, Albarn jammed with and recorded every musician he could meet, from street entertainers to vets like Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Toure sideman Afel Bocoum (both of whom share credit for the recordings equally with Albarn). Returning to London with over 40 hours of tape, he remixed the material, laid down new tracks, and sent the product back for more input from his collaborators. The resulting Mali Music (Astralwerks) is a trippy travelogue that wanders between symphonic electronica and strictly traditional African styles. It's been available here as an import for a while, but makes its official retail debut next Tuesday. Even at import price, it's a lot cheaper than plane fare to Africa.