EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re about two weeks late on getting this up, as the album dropped earlier this month, but life has been a whirlwind.
Okay, we’ll admit it, we’re a bit fond of world music. Something about the feel of a song being sung in a foreign language that transports us away from our office cubicle and into something far more enticing. Enter Benji & Rita, the debut album from the married duo of New York-based composer Benji Kaplan and Brazilian singer/songwriter Rita Figuerido.
The album opens with “Sao Francisco E Brasileiro,” a feathery and whimsical jaunt down a Brazilian river that features flute, violins, and a strong vocal from Figuerido. The entire thing feels cinematic and practically culled from a different era. Similarly, “Piocera” is sprite and buoyant and arguably the most colorful of the album’s earlier half. A sonorous trumpet opens the mournful and somber “Memorial Day,” while the jittery “Valsa De Metropole” draws on the fingerstyle guitarwork of Kaplan and plaintive vocals from Figuerido. The entire song is both tropical and lush, but the song is composed in such a way it is downright mournful. Therein lies the beauty of Benji & Rita. Complexities at every turn. The album’s first half concludes with the triumvirate “Zenite a Nadir,” “Santa Efigenia” and “Impetuosa Atracao.”
The former is lively and effervescent and features a cornucopia of sounds that sounds akin to a Brazilian street parade. The entire thing is fun, lively and light and the song itself is energetic, frenzied and flushed. “Santa Efigenia” is arguably the second strongest song of the first half as Kaplan and Figuerido share in an inspired duet that inserts a much needed personal stake in the project. Truth be told, more duets like this and Benji & Rita might be an AOTY contender. The album’s first half concludes with “Imeptuosa Atracao” and the entire song feels like a Disney film. Lovelorn, doe-eyed and open-hearted, it is both cinematic and timeless. Not a bad way to close out Side 1.
The disc’s second half opens with “Swing Do Jazz” another duet that probably should have been featured higher on the album. As a standalone track it’s worth repeated listens but buried down at #7 the song feels a bit too much like the rest. The duo tries to duet yet again with “Cajubim” another haggard effort that feels a lot like “Swing Do Jazz” but a bit less cinematic.
The tropical and breezy “Nao Armo No Moco” might be labeled a filler track to some, but set apart it’s the kind of thing that would get one jonesing for a cold drink in the hot sun. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Who knows? Arguably the strongest effort of the album’s back half is “Passatempo,” a gorgeous and nocturnal song that is equal parts resplendent, indelible and ageless. This song is the very proof that Benji & Rita are a band to be reckoned with.
Kaplan takes to the microphone on “Bryant Park” a frenzied cut with rousing violin and a vibe that is both Broadway and vaudevillian. One can see Kaplan’s composition skills but truth be told the song feels kind of misplaced here. “Lundo Dos Orixas” sounds like a playful attempt at bossa nova and it is both sedate, languid and hazy. Like a lazy Sunday stroll, “Lundu Dos Orixas” is a fitting penultimate effort. Benji & Rita concludes with “A Moura Do Maracaxa” a gorgeous effort featuring Figuerido on vocals and a delicate and decadent bed of strings.
Debut albums can often be a difficult endeavor to navigate. But Kaplan is the right man for the job. More duets with Rita and a bit less filler and this band is ready to make some noise on the world music stage. Benji & Rita might not be perfect, but damn if it isn’t fun.