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Pop Music | Record Rack

All-samba here, alternative there

September 17, 2006|Josh Kun | Special to The Times

Marisa Monte

"Universo Ao Meu Redor" (Blue Note)

* * *

"Infinito Particular" (Blue Note)

* * * 1/2

IN the video for "O Bonde do Dom," a breezy samba from one of the two just-released albums by Brazilian alterna-pop singer Marisa Monte, there are languid aerial shots of breaking waves and birds flapping across sun-beamed skies. She's on a sailboat down below but we barely see her, save for a few quick cuts to her wind-blown face looking calmly out across the sea.

Monte doesn't need videos -- she makes visual music capable of conjuring landscapes that far outstrip what the eye can see. But this one gets it just about right. She's alone in a natural world glistening with beauty and emotion, a small but alert part of something majestic and bold. Or to crib from one of the album titles, "Universo Ao Meu Redor," we see her with "the universe all around her."

"Universo" is an all-samba affair from a singer not typically affiliated with Brazil's most recognizable national style. Though she's the daughter of a leading samba teacher who grew up playing drums, Monte (who performs at UCLA's Royce Hall on Nov. 8) made her mark elsewhere, training to be an opera singer and then crafting her vocal chops in jazz clubs.

Her 1989 debut flirted with pop and R&B, and she ended it with an eclectic quartet of English-language material that made a clear statement about how she responds to cultural expectation: Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's "Speak Low," George and Ira Gershwin's "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and, most cleverly, "South American Way," the Al Dubin-Jimmy McHugh groaner made famous by Hollywood's favorite Brazilian import, Carmen Miranda.

On her 1994 U.S. breakthrough "Rose and Charcoal," where Monte all but reinvented the Brazilian torch song as avant-garde pop, she brought along both Laurie Anderson and Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil.

Likewise, David Byrne shows up for a micro-duet on "Universo's" "Statue of Liberty," but it feels more like a quirky tangent than a plotted aesthetic move. "Universo" mostly keeps a staid and even keel in its mix of sambas old and new, with most of the latter coming from Monte's collaborations with Brazilian poet-growler Arnaldo Antunes and percussionist-producer Carlinhos Brown (the three recorded a landmark 2003 album together as Tribalistas).

In their science-fiction samba "A Alma e a Materia," Monte looks for atoms and rhythms and "choreographs the grass on the ground." Yet she's in her top form on Jayme Silva's 1950 "Meu Canario," which at first sounds like a perky children's lullaby for a pet canary, but is actually a dark lament for an absent friend's lost song.

As lovely as "Universo" can be, Monte's talents as an innovator are better showcased on "Infinito Particular," where her voice wraps around conceptual lyrics on electro-tinged songs that don't begin and end as much as settle and linger like a glossy dew.

She plays some ukulele and xylophone, Eumir Deodato and Philip Glass drop in for string arrangements, and once in a while there's a ghostly flugelhorn tracing her surprising melodic turns (on the slinky title track she seems to think her voice is a clarinet).

The songs on "Infinito" may be Monte's leftovers from the last 15 years, but they seamlessly flow together to create a "private infinity" of jasmine petals, sobbing winds and moaning coconut palms. "My destination is now," she sings on "Aquela," "wherever my voice takes me I will go."

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