We’re halfway through the oughties, Seinfeld has been released on DVD and the Nirvana box set is sitting on shelves. Apparently sufficient time has passed that backward glances at the ’90s are gradually coming into focus, which means nostalgia-fueled debates about “what it all meant” are inevitable. The broad swath of music that fell under the “trip-hop” banner provided one of the many soundtracks to those lighter times. At its laziest, trip-hop seemed a functional commodity existing outside notions of good and bad; it either “worked” (effectively set a mood) or it didn’t. It was easy to like, hard to fall in love with.
At first blush, the debut of New York’s Brazilian Girls seems intent on resurrecting downtempo chill for the full-band format. Out front is European Union postergirl Sabina Sciubba, who comfortably and sexily sings in five different languages (she was raised in Nice and Munich). The three other members ably craft head-bobbing beats, incorporating samples of swirling strings nicked from some abandoned space-age bachelor pad. Didn’t we cover this ground somewhere between the Swingers soundtrack and Thievery Corporation’s sophomore effort, you ask?
Yes, but there’s more than exotic mood music happening here. First, Brazilian Girls has written a handful of excellent pop songs that deal in insistent tunefulness rather than atmosphere. The title hook on the lush, inviting house track “Don’t Stop” instantly embeds itself in your mind, possessing a catchy pop structure but enough meat to be stretched into a well-earned extended dance mix. “Lazy Lover” has already received the 12-inch remix treatment by noted house producer Matthew Herbert, and in light of how this band occasionally sounds like his collaborations with vocalist Dani Siciliano, his association with Brazilian Girls makes perfect sense.
Brazilian Girls’ secret weapon, however, is rhythmic versatility. The appealing beats of “Me Gustas Cuando Callas” set a Pablo Neruda poem to a mid-tempo Latin shuffle, and it succeeds on its variety, transcending even the gimmicky language shifting. Alongside nods to clubby house are tracks like “Pussy,” which adds groovy djembe hits to a woozy, circular calypso lilt reminiscent of Blondie’s version of “The Tide is High,” and “The Corner Store” with booming horns that give the flavor of a stein-hoisting German drinking tune.
The album’s standout tracks are strong enough to help us forget how close it comes to wallpaper banality. “Long,” “All We Have” and “Ships in the Night” are either Portishead retreads without the drama or auditions for a future James Bond soundtrack. The Brazilian Girls are off to a promising start but they stand at a Frostian divergence. The road less traveled carries them down a more experimental, freewheeling path exemplified by the band’s unusual live show (Sciubba typically performs behind a mask), while the other leads to numbingly familiar “mood scores” that’ll have an audience as long as JC Pennys have sound systems. May they choose wisely.