Rita Braga – Illegal Planet: Album Review

Quirky Rita is back – and she’s as challenging and entertaining as ever.

Release Date:  8th September 2023

Label: Comets Coming (an imprint of Groovie Records)

Formats: Vinyl / Digital

When we last came across Rita Braga, back in November 2020, we described the Portuguese chanteuse’s music as “Highly quirky, marvellously varied and ominously dystopian… [with] traces of Balkan folk, post-punk electronica and significant servings of 20s/30s jazz.”  We also described her as being “Challenging and highly entertaining in almost equal measures.”  Those comments were all made in relation to Rita’s then-current album, Time Warp Blues and I’m truly happy to be able to report that nothing – at least in terms of quirkiness, jazziness, dystopia, challenge or entertainment has changed since then – at least if her new album, Illegal Planet, is anything to go by.

In case you’d forgotten, Rita Braga is a Porto-based multi-lingual multi-instrumentalist – amongst other instruments she plays her vintage keyboard, ukulele and banjolele and programmes drum rhythms.  Her songs are written and delivered in whatever language takes her fancy – Time Warp Blues included songs in English, Portuguese, Finnish and Japanese; this time around, we’ve got lyrics in English, Portuguese and French.  Rita has been busy since she last crossed our radar; in addition to writing, recording and releasing Illegal Planet, she’s participated in collaborations with a host of musical figures including German composer and sound artist Felix Kubin, Ana da Silva of post-punk outfit, The Raincoats and Ian Svenonius of Washington DC band Nation of Ulysses. 

This lady is unique.  It’s possible to detect influences in her music – particularly from the likes of Kate Bush and Björk if you look hard enough, but the blend of early jazz and 80s electronica (not so much the Eastern European folk influences, this time) that helped to make Time Warp Blues such a joy is Rita’s alone and, on Illegal Planet, it’s here in abundance, along with a huge dose of that unpredictable quirkiness that never fails to shock, surprise and delight the earnest listener.

Time Warp Blues was – almost, but not quite – a solo effort, but, this time around, Rita has engaged the services of plethora of talented guests, including saxophonist Nik Phelps who has previously added his distinctive tones to the work of artists such as Tom Waits and Frank Zappa, synth wizard Phil MFU (Man From Uranus, known to his mother as Philip Baerwalde) and such pillars of Porto’s experimental music scene such as Gustavo Costa (drums), Henrique Fernandes (bass) and Luis Bittencourt (vibes, marimba and a surprising range of other stuff).  And it all adds up to something very special, as I’ll try my very best to explain…

It all starts off in a surprisingly conventional and innocuous fashion.  The album’s title track, which opens proceedings, is a delightful slice of – almost – traditional jazz.  Luis’s plodding double bass and a soft percussion rhythm provide the backing to a rich, stirring, shimmering vocal from Rita, but don’t be lulled – experimentation is just around the corner…

And that experimentation arrives in the form of Spooky Mambo – a title that describes the music to a ‘T.’  Luis provides the mambo element to the tune with traditional instruments such as the rói-rói and e-bow guitar, whilst the spooky parts come from Rita’s eerie organ lines, a squelchy percussion rhythm and sundry squeaks and squeals from the synth department.  And that theme, combining traditional dance rhythms with spacy electronica is continued for Astro Rumba.  MFU provides the synth flourishes but, amazingly, it’s Rita’s organ that adds the other-worldly feel to the tune, a feel that is compounded by Rita’s dreamy, out-of-body vocals.

As I guessed – and I’m sure that you would, too – the title, Flores Indegestas translates as Indigestible Flowers.  Not that there’s any clue in this title to the nature of the music…  Luis plays marimba (plus cuica and tamborin) whilst Rita adds ukelele and more of that lush organ to achieve a tropical flavour on a tune that manages to sound both traditional and futuristic at the same time.

The dystopic mundanities of modern life, such as the tyranny of smartphone apps, provide the subject matter for the stunning Rádio Pardal, one of the album’s real highlights.  Rita’s bluesy, sleazy, organ licks are the perfect accompaniment to Nik’s songbird sax lines and the result is a showtime tune from outer space.  And that rich run of form is continued with the hot, sticky Nothing Came From Nowhere.  Nik’s bassline is restrained and his sax licks are sultry, whilst Rita’s voice is warm – yet not lacking a hint of unspecified danger – in a tune that reminds me, as much as it does anything, of the New Orleans voodoo magic of Gris-Gris.

There’s time for synth and organ to work together to deliver a short burst of samba with O Sorriso do Papagaio (The Parrot’s Smile) before we move on to Ikea Snow, yet another of the album’s jewels.  Through a haze of synths, sax and traditional percussion instruments, collected from around the world, Rita’s vocal alternates between comfortable 20s jazz and futuristic dread as she sings her lyrics that address the ever-more-likely occurrence of global climate collapse.  And what better way to follow a message of such stark dystopia than with a melodic, enjoyable ditty about a talking dog that evolves into a creature of the night?  Nik’s sax lies atop a gritty, heavy, bluesy synth riff, whilst Rita’s reverts to her early jazz persona.  It shouldn’t really work, but it does and Chien Mystérieux is refreshingly hilarious.

Penultimate track Pony starts life as a light, breezy organ tune.  But, this is a Rita Braga album, and nothing is as it first seems.  Rita half sings and half speaks the lyrics and, as the song progresses, it reminds me more and more – in both structure and delivery – of Kate Bush’s early work. This excellent, unique album is brought to its close by Unclassified, a short message of farewell that Rita sings to a backing of chimes that I’d guess come from a glockenspiel.  The farewell message is followed by an expression of surprise that we’re still listening, before, in the great YouTube tradition, Rita reminds us to hit the “Subscribe” button.  And then she’s gone – the delightful quirkiness over until next time.  And that next time won’t be far away; Illegal Planet is an album that I’m going to want to hear again, real soon.

Watch the official video to Flores Indigestas – a track from the album – here:

Rita Braga: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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