Rio de Janeiro-born singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante’s second solo LP, Drama, opens with a brief, instrumental, eponymous track. Sounds of canned laughter, artificial applause, and raindrops hitting a tin roof crackle through stereo speakers, offering a variegated preface to the 11-track record. It’s easy to get lost in the sounds of hazy summer heat that Amarante conjures on Drama, but really, the drama is in the details of this Polyvinyl debut.
Amarante, well-known in his native Brazil, played in the hugely popular Rio rock band Los Hermanos as well as the samba-inspired big band Orquestra Imperial. After moving to Los Angeles in 2008, he formed the indie rock trio Little Joy. His first solo album, Cavalo, was a more acoustic affair released in Brazil in 2013 (and worldwide in 2014) and highlighted his skills as an acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter. While that album resonated with some discerning American indie folk fans, he gained more notoriety Stateside for writing the theme song used for the 2015 Netflix show Narcos and 2018 companion series Narcos: Mexico.
Drama is not so much a boisterous spectacle as a subtle, yet multifaceted production. Arriving eight years after Amarante’s last solo LP, the new record sounds like a natural progression incorporating so many elements of his past musical experiences. Most reductively considered acoustic guitar-based folk music, Drama showcases clear connections to Brazilian samba and música popular brasileira (an extension of bossa nova combined with elements of contemporary jazz rock that emerged in Brazil in the late 1960s). It’s especially evident in the polyrhythms unfurling out of the guitar picking and whistling of “Maré” or the horns (saxophone, fluegelhorn, and trombone) on “Tanto” and “Eu Com Você.”
Many of the songs were written as long ago as 2018, but Amarante finished others during the lockdown, mixing tracks with Noah Georgeson across email. In fact, Amarante plays 10 different instruments throughout the album, including drums, bass, harpsichord, tenor saxophone, organ, ukulele, and more.
But while Amarante’s music manages to exude a cool detachment — the epitome of the internet aphorism, “no thoughts just vibes” — many of the songs’ lyrics convey a sense of narrative drama. He explores spirituality, singing in Portuguese on “Tao,” and muses on impermanence and purpose in the strings-heavy “Sky Beneath.” He sings of sexuality on “Tara” and a deeper love on “I Can’t Wait.” In the latter, Amarante’s English lyrics float together, as difficult to decipher as the New York skylines after the smoke from Western fires blew East. His voice is clearer, though, when he demurs, “I don’t believe in fate / I respect the fire and dreams,” before backing vocalist and synth player Cornelia Murr comes in to accentuate “our hearts beat as one / that old dream of ours / that to be free is to belong.”
Those themes continue into the album closer “The End.” As the piano chords strike in quarter-notes, Amarante’s voice soars. The strings and percussion merge in at unexpected moments and a chorus of “ahhs” helps elevate the epilogue to peak dramatic effect. Still the record as a whole sounds like a calming mix of cross-cultural bliss.