One of the few real alternatives and a definite highlight amid the corporate blandness of Lollapalooza 2008, New York City's Brazilian Girls took the stage early on Sunday afternoon last August and woke a sleepy crowd with its joyous mix of jazz, bossa nova, reggae and other exotic rhythms, sensuous melodies and absurdist humor.
Wearing a puffy white dress that made her look like a floating cloud, vocalist Sabina Sciubba shimmied, sashayed, seduced and cooed her way through the set as a multicultural, modern-day electronic version of the girl from Ipanema, building to a climax by prompting the crowd to join her in a life-is-good chant celebrating, um, the female sex organ and Cannabis sativa.
"A lot of people really think we're singing about p---y and marijuana, but obviously it's a metaphor," Sciubba says, breaking into a hearty laugh as the words leave her mouth. "That sounds like a joke, but the song is really an irreverent provocation.
"For me, live performance is about making people feel really together, regardless of their age, race, faith or anything. That remains for me a good concert, when people are really all singing together in the end, and there's a community feeling and a collective joy."
Since Sciubba, keyboardist Didi Gutman and drummer Aaron Johnston first came together on the Lower East Side in 2003, they've released three strong albums of such gleefully provocative fare, including "New York City," issued a few days after the band's gig at Lollapalooza. When I note that I love the disc and consider it the group's strongest yet, Sciubba laughs once again.
"With that I agree--with all the humility of the great geniuses of our time! But, seriously, I do think that the record is more mature. We had always followed the working philosophy that if something--if it is a real effort--it is not good. Not that I completely disagree with that now, but I know that there have been a couple of songs, like 'St. Petersburg,' where there were moments we wanted to give up, because we hadn't found a nice middle section, for example. Our friend and producer Hector Castillo insisted: 'Come on, give it one more try,' and it ended up being one of my favorite songs on the record. Sometimes pain is gain."
The roots of Sciubba's philosophical bent and her wicked sense of humor both can be found in her remarkable upbringing. The daughter of Italian and German parents, she was born in Rome, grew up in Munich and lived in Nice for a time before immigrating to the U.S. and starting her career with two jazz albums. With the Brazilian Girls, her lyrics are an intoxicating mix of German, Spanish, French, Italian and English.
"On these different stations of my life, I made friends, and so I speak very different languages between my friends," the singer says. "It's nothing that I want to be pretentious about, or a show-off; it's really just natural to me, and I don't think I'm the only one. Every language is very characteristic. English is a great language for pop music; it's monosyllabic: 'I love you/You love me/Let's be friends forever.' Whereas French immediately draws you to something that has an older feel to it."
Of course, Sciubba could croon about a sewage plant in French and it would still sound irresistible. She laughs once more.
"I must agree with that! French is really one of my favorite languages; it's very beautiful. But if you live in France, you also discern that there can be an ugliness, depending on who speaks it. There's a type of French person that can be unbearable. But it's the same with English--it can be so different, depending on the slang or who is speaking." For example, Sciubba says, nothing sounds good coming out of the mouth of President Bush.
As lulling and seductive as the band's music can be--and despite the protestations that "We just want to have a good time" in another tune on the new album--there is a serious core to these sweet sounds, and another of the most striking new tracks is "Nouveau Americain," an homage to Presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"This song came up during the recording sessions of our first record"--a self-titled release in 2005--"and it was an outtake when we were just jamming. Didi and Aaron were playing this really fast, punk rhythm, and I was singing very incoherent lyrics, half in German, half in Italian, half in French, with the refrains 'Nouveau Americain.' When we first came up with the idea, we were in the thick of the darkest period of our collective life in America, but I already had this hope of a new identity coming out of this terrible crisis." When the group revisited it during the recent recording, the song became a celebration of Obama's message of hope and change.
"I'm not a nationalist, and I think that people should never identify themselves with a country or a religion or with anything external, really," Sciubba says. "But I do think that Americans are very curious people: They combine this great openness and naiveté and readiness for change and willingness to do good things, but they can also have this monstrous stubbornness, as we have observed. I do think this other side, the positive aspects, could really help during these next couple of years through extreme hardship and economic crises."
The current tour will be the Brazilian Girls' last for some time--Sciubba is five months pregnant--but she believes the band has several more exciting records in its future, including a radical new project with an orchestra. Meanwhile, she's especially looking forward to coming back to the Windy City.
"For a European, I find Chicago to be a very strange city to come to, because it's very American. It's just my perception, but I think it is the capital of America. It is so different from New York or Washington or Los Angeles or any other city. This is the best of America."
7 p.m. Friday
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
(312) 923-2000; www.hob.com