Music Reviews: Two From Poland, One From Brazil

By Ernest Barteldes

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As I have written here before, Warsaw-based Monika Brodka has had an interesting trajectory over her career.  A winner of Poland’s version of Idol back in 2004, she started out her recording career with two very mainstream albums early on that got her a lot of radio play (the songs from those releases are still featured on pop radio to this day), but then she took a whole different direction: she went through a four-year hiatus and reemerged with Granda (2010, Sony Music), which took her music to a more alternative direction, and followed that up with the English-language EP Lax (Kayax,  2012) and more recently Clashes (Kayax, 2016), which took her music to even more experimental territory.

The last three releases are the focus of MTV Unplugged (Kayax, 2019), her first release captured live in the southeastern city of Lublin in 2018 in reimagined versions that depart dramatically from the studio versions of the same tunes, starting with “Can’t Wait for War,” which features what at first I thought was a Theremin but turned out to be a saw played with a bow – something that I have only heard before on the New York City subway. Her take on “Varsovie,” an ode to her adopted city is also surprising, with mostly acoustic elements replacing the mostly electronic feel of the studio recording.

Although it’s an “unplugged” album, there are several non-acoustic instruments on the record – Brodka plays a semi-acoustic guitar, and so does her lead guitarist. While her bass player performs with a ukulele bass for most of the set, an electric bass (probably a Fender P-bass) can be heard on some tracks.

Notable tracks include “Syberia,”which brings l guest Krszystof Zalewski on guitar and vocals – it’s quite an intimate setting, with Brodka playing a six-string banjo (tuned as a guitar).  The tune is not that different from the studio recording, which was also played on acoustic guitar, but the two-part harmonies and the banjo bring an extra texture to the song, which is mostly a filler on Granda, and also “Santa Muerte,” an English-language tune from Clashes that features fellow Idol alum Dawid Podsiało. The arrangement that is incredibly close to American bluegrass thanks to Brodka’s banjo, the strings and the wandering saw, which adds an eerie feel to the tune.

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Anna Maria Jopek has a history of collaborating with many respected musicians including Brazil’s Ivan Lins, France’s Mino Cinelu and others, but Ulotne (“Elusive,” Universal Music Polska, 2018) is only her third album done as a full collaboration with another artist (the others being Upojenie, her 2002 collaboration with Pat Metheny and Minione, her 2017 album with Gonzalo Rubalcaba), in this case being legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis, with whom she recorded a couple of tracks with on 2008’s live Jo & Co (Universal Music Polska).

Featuring mostly original material penned by Jopek and her husband and main collaborator Marcin Kidryński, the album flows beautifully track by track – the musicians (rounded out by Cinelu, Maria Pomianowska, Robert Kubiszyn, Pedro Nazaruk, Marcin Wasilewski, and Atom String Quartet) have all worked together before either on a live format or in the studio, and the chemistry can immediately be felt throughout. Marsalis is featured on every track, while the supporting band gives a solid backup without getting in the way. As in most Jopek album, there are a plenty of multi-tracked vocals, but they are subtler than in earlier releases – the direction here seems to be make everything as organic as possible.

The deluxe version of the album features four extra tracks, one being Pożegnanie z Marią, a song beautifully recorded as a tribute to recently deceased trumpeter Tomaz Stanko, who wrote the tune.

 

Carnaval in Brazil is fast approaching, and given the election of extreme right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, who was voted in with promises of restoring “traditional values” to the country, it is expected that some will not be too happy about it. One of the first songs to reflect this is “Proibido o Carnaval,” a single by openly gay singer Daniela Mercury and legendary singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso.

The song, which translates as “Forbidden Carnaval” wax against censorship and the anti-LGBT attitude of Bolsonaro and his cabinet, turning his own words against him and vowing not to allow the right spoil the party for those who don’t want to become stereotypes.

I am not sure how the tune has been received in Brazil, but after several plays on my phone I can say that some will frown upon the words – but it’s not like anyone who agrees with Veloso and Mercury will care.

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Monika Brodka: My 2017 Polish Music Discovery

By Ernest Barteldes

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Brodka (publicity)

Shortly before my last trip to Poland last September (where I attended a wedding and spent a few days exploring Chelm, I had a chat with one of my students and told her how much I admired the work of singers like Anna Maria Jopek and Ania Dąbrowska, and she recommended I check out Monika Brodka, who she described as “really innovative.”

I looked her up and learned that like Dąbrowska, she was an alumna of the popular “Idol” franchise, having won the competition during the 2004 season. She was quickly signed by Sony/BMG and made two very pop-friendly  discs (Album and Moje Piosenki, released in 2004 and 2006) under the production of Bogdan Kondracki (who also produced Dąbrowska’s first three albums).

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“Album” and “Moje Piosenki”

I found both albums at Chelm’s Empik in a two-in-one package labeled “Made in Poland,” apparently part of a series meant to promote the country’s pop-rock artists. Among my favorite tracks from those are a mellow cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Let Me Make It through the Night” (from “Album) and “Glock” (from “Moje Piosenki”), which showcase her vocal potential and also her ability to make a song her own.

Although very enjoyable, neither album stands out – possibly because of Kondracki’s very mainstream sounding production that made them sound almost undistinguishable from Dąbrowska’s first two discs or anything else he touched during that era. Brodka’s albums were nevertheless well received and are still on regular rotation on Polish radio stations like RMF and Eska.

Brodka took a considerable break from making studio recordings and re-emerged in 2010 with Granda, (“Brawl”), an 11-song masterpiece which is incredibly different from anything she’d done before, with nods to electronica and jazz without losing touch with a more pop-rock feel. It is quite adventurous and goes into various directions. The title track is a punk-ish rocker with a pounding bass and some extraneous background sounds, while “Saute” seems to revisit the psychedelic era without sounding dated.

In between albums she released the EP LAX” (which is simply a reference to Los Angeles, where the tracks were recorded), which contained “Varsovie,” a haunting English-language ode to her adopted hometown.

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Clashes

2016’s “Clashes” took things to an even more experimental direction – since she is now signed to an independent label, she has more freedom to do what she wants without having to compromise to whatever the suits might want her to do.  I believe that she is aware of the shock value of the music and of course her looks – like performing with a shaved head.

“Clashes” is not easy listening – there are clear influences from Bjὄrk, the post-punk sounds of Patti Smith and others I have not been able to identify – it’s a disc that has to grow on you after repeated hearings.

Check out “Clashes” here