Tom Zé has always had a knack for mixing rural, back-porch compositions with whatever technology was available to him -- giving his music a distinctive spice of the avant-garde. His tunes may be centered around the strumming of his battered acoustic guitar, but his production and mixing techniques often take his songs into a weirder world. A self-described "musical journalist," Zé isn't concerned with making you boogie as much as he is concerned with telling you what the deal is. "Socially conscious performance artist" might be a more accurate (if slightly demeaning) description of Zé's trajectory, but there's even more to it than that. He's whip smart and puckish, literate and reverent, wry and wily, tender and motherly, and utterly without boundaries -- either musical or artistic. Zé embraces the regimented hierarchy of classical mythology with the same gusto he affords the irreverent deconstructions of Marcel Duchamp -- placing himself somewhere between Wagner and Captain Beefheart, but showing an allegiance to neither. In keeping with that (seemingly) disparate artistic view, Zé's latest offering, Estudando o Pagode, juggles the stodgy constraints of the operatic form, the barroom machismo and lively improvisation of samba-pagode, a healthy dose of feminist empowerment, and a smattering of Greek, Catholic, and Shakespearian tragedy. The operetta unfolds in three acts and time travels, wildly, throughout history -- giving glimpses of men's desires, fears, and misconceptions regarding women through a series of leapfrogging scenes. As a Zé project goes, Estudando o Pagode isn't atypical. There are more personnel on board here than usual, but his singular vision remains undiluted. High moral ideals mix with low-tech instrumentation (his use of ficus leaves as primitive reeds, for example), and complex ideology mixes with economical arrangements to yield a work that is greater than the sum of its parts, without being the least bit overblown -- over the top at times, but never grandiose simply for the sake of ornamentation. To Zé's credit, the concept never overshadows the songs, which, at their heart, are pop songs. They exist, both within the context of the operetta and as their own entities. This is not the kind of heady, impenetrable concept schlock that plagued the heyday of progressive rock, with that genre's predilection for instrumental wankery and pomp at the expense of sincerity and clarity. No, Zé's always been too cool for that, and too keen on making sure the listener knows exactly where he's coming from -- and where he's going.
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AllMusic Review by J. Scott McClintock
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