Saturday, September 29, 2007

Review: Brazzaville - East L.A. Breeze

Label: Vendlus Records

Released: 2006

Brazzaville is the project of David Brown, saxophonist for and longtime friend of Beck. The band is known for layering lyrics about the world's forgotten souls -- the lost and lonely, the whores and addicts, the killers and the soon-to-be dead -- in sultry musical canvases that conjure images of South American beaches and salty, sun-warmed skin. They are arguably the greatest unknown band of the past decade, and every serious music lover should check them out.

With that said, East L.A. Breeze is Brazzaville's worst album. This is a shame, because they've changed and, in some ways, grown for the better.

East L.A. Breeze starts out incredibly strong. Brady Lynch's string bass and Josep Terrecabras' percussion set up a quiet rhythm on "Peach Tree" that hints at something both sensual and dark; Naomi Webman's violin rolls in like a lazy, late afternoon storm; and Brown's plain but compelling voice slides into gentle observations about mortality, loss, and lifetimes of loneliness.

But it goes down from there. The second song, a reworking of Russian rock band KINO's "Star Called Sun," is dragged down by clichéd soft-rock beats, cheesy keyboard swells, and a syncopated guitar that lacks any emotion whatsoever. It's frustrating, because it's so easy to hear what could have been... the lyrics and the vocal melody are wonderful, the simple chord progression lends itself to the kind of haunting arrangements that Brazzaville does so well, and the band is talented and emotional. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is dominated by generic rock performances, dull drum machines, and lackluster arrangements. There are a few gems scattered throughout, but even some of those -- like the forlorn ode to past mistakes, "Madalena" -- are a bit flat and lifeless compared to the music Brown is capable of creating.

The lyrics on East L.A. Breeze are among the best that Brown has ever written. Brown understands desperation and loneliness, and he has a sense of his own mortality; not that death has ever been far away from Brazzaville's music, but it feels more inevitable this time around. The desolate victims of globalization aren't here this time, but the muted character studies abound. As always, Brown does a wonderful job of not only portraying the untouchable members of society, but respecting them and even loving them.

Brown's intentions to push his musical boundaries are noble, but the road to mediocrity is paved with good intentions. East L.A. Breeze is a good enough album that any Brazzaville fan should own it. If you want to hear Brown's vision at its finest, however, you're better off with Rouge on Pockmarked Cheeks.

(For what it's worth, it hurts me to write a less-than-glowing review about Brazzaville, because I've been a fan for years. David Brown has been an influence on my writing about Baltimore, and I strive to learn from his ability to see the beauty in what most people find hideous.)

Rating: 6/10



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