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This is a review of Tropical Brainstorm

Tropical Brainstorm : Reviews : The Guardian

The Guardian

Lessons in Latin (4 stars)

Kirsty MacColl's first album since 1994 sees her flirting with Latin rhythms and cliched tourist-brochure lyrics. But, says Caroline Sullivan, it's better than you'd think

There are few things less palatable than a white Briton getting the Latino funk, as TOTP2 occasionally reminds us by showing Modern Romance's 1981 Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey. The British temperament just doesn't lend itself to topless joie de vivre, and those who introduce parping trumpets into the mix end up looking as foolish as boy bands who believe that eyebrow rings make them hard. Kirsty MacColl is about as English as singer-songwriters come - her biggest solo hit was even Billy Bragg's A New England - and the last person you'd expect to be fooling with instruments made of gourds.

Yet Tropical Brainstorm not only carries off a whole album of Latin textures with minimal damage to her credibility, it suggests that Anglo-Hispanic may be a viable genre after all. Now separated from U2 producer Steve Lillywhite (who crops up as the subject of several lacerating songs), she's spent the years since her last studio LP in 1994 steeped in the music of Latin America. Using a light hand, she's applied what she learned to her literate pop, with happy results. The vivid colours of her new musical palette, with its up-front brass and percussion, provide the life her tunes hitherto lacked - even her deadpan voice has blossomed into expressiveness.

The cost of sidemen such as guitarist Luiz de Almeida and percussionist Bosco de Oliveira, who put the oomph into the grooves, was well worth it. She'll be accused of cashing in on the current Latino fad - and she hasn't done herself any favours by using a cover shot of herself surrounded by tropical cocktails. Then there's an opening track full of tourist-brochure cliche: "I know a land where they live for today cos tomorrow is too far away/ Maybe one day you will go there with me and we'll dance underneath the ceiba tree," creating the impression of a less sophisticated (yes, really) Geri Halliwell's Mi Chico Latino.

Bear with it, though, because there's an abrupt upturn in quality on the next song, and from there on it's captivating. MacColl's acerbic pen has produced some of the wittiest, truest observations on thirtysomething life you're likely to hear this month: "I didn't mention my kids, I thought I'd wait a bit/ But I am free and single and he's a lying git," she mourns on England 2 Colombia 0 as a lone trumpet sketches arcs in the background. And wounded pop-star feelings have rarely found a better outlet than "He's gone to the record store to buy a CD by some other girl, not me," on the carnival-samba Treachery.

Many women will relate to MacColl's decision to put comfort before romance on the single In These Shoes, where lazy percussion complements sentiments such as "He said, 'Let's make love on a mountaintop on a big hard rock'/ I said, 'In these shoes? I don't think so' ". But the real emotional weight is reserved for the album's simplest number, Wrong Again, in which voice and Spanish guitar are the main ingredients: "And now you tell me you love someone else..."

This isn't a Latin album as such - its conventional pop structures mean that it's hardly authentic Cuban, but rather a portrait of a determined woman - with Latin textures added as dramatic enhancement. As such, a winner.

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