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Monday, July 05, 2004

Soy Loco Por Ti, Caetano …
… but your new album sucks.

I yield to no one in my love for Caetano Veloso. A genius songwriter; a gorgeous voice; a commitment to experimentation and change; a revolutionary, no less—but, man, A Foreign Sound reeks!

When I first heard about the album, I was intrigued—he sings “Feelings”? “Come as You Are”? “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”? I figured there’d be radical reinterpretations—or at least irony-laced reworkings. And then I heard it. And I was horrified, so I figured I wasn’t hearing it right. Or that I had a bad attitude. Or that a god has released a crap album. I hope the problem is that I’m not getting it, because “Soy Loco Por Ti, Caetano,” but …

OK, first the good things. Thanks to those years in exile, Caetano’s English is great, so while I’d argue there’s very little musical interpretation on the CD, his lyrical interpretation is lovely at times. On “Manhattan,” for example (also one of the few tracks with an interesting accompaniment), he does a great job with the scheme that rhymes “Greenwich” and “manage,” “Brighton” and “frighten,” “spoil” and “goil,” “onyx” and “Bron(i)x,” and he brings a real playfulness to some of the lines (“gliding by” is very nicely done). In “The Man I Love,” he doesn’t feel the need to change the gender of the song (though this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with his work, Caetano has a long history of singing—and writing—songs in the character of people very different from himself).

The big problem is that his versions of these standards are bog standard. I don’t mind how stripped down the songs are—with material this familiar, you need to do something a little different to get listeners’ attention, or sing more beautifully than the rest, but on this album he does neither. The bulk of these songs have been recorded many times by the great American singers—Ella Fitzgerald and her (almost) peers—and they did it much better. If Caetano wanted to wash Ella and Billie and Frank and Mel and Anita and Blossom and Chris out of our memories, he went about it the wrong way.

Caetano’s voice is more beautiful than most of those we’ve heard singing these songs over the decades, but you’d never know it from this album. For a lot of the time, he’s stuck in his lower register, which can be expressive, but not here. It’s as if he’s chosen to sing the songs very plainly. That’s fine as an act of musical politics, but it isn’t particularly pleasant to listen to. I could go down to my local karaoke night to hear better versions of these standards—and that’s not saying a lot about the quality of Seattle karaoke.

So, track by track:

“The Carioca”: OK, this is one of the successes of the album. On most of the tracks, I had the feeling the musicians were in a different country from the singer during the recording process; here at least it feels like they’re all working together. The rhythm is interesting; the listener can imagine a big smile on Caetano’s face as he reworks a classic bit of SouthAmericasploitation. And how many other versions of this can most listeners remember? Maybe just Fred Astaire's, and if you can’t out-sing Fred Astaire, you’re in trouble.

“So in Love”: It starts with great potential—a nice bit of strings—and goes downhill from there. Whacha doing down there, Caetano? The word that comes to mind is “cliché.”

“Always”: Never. He sounds like he needs to clear his throat.

“Come as You Are”: Compared to the rest of the album, a work of genius, but I bet someone hearing this with no explanation would think it was someone’s dad jamming with his mates. Anyone who’s heard Dani Sciliano’s version will not be impressed by this.

“Feelings”: I heard about 15 better interpretations on Opportunity Knocks. And I mean that most sincerely.

“Love for Sale”: Who will buy? Not me, bro.

“The Man I Love”: Points for not changing the words, and a nice bit of cello (Jaques Morelenbaum certainly did his bit to keep this album out of the “utter and total crap” category), but the emotional impact of the song is zero. Compare to the miraculous Ella Fitzgerald version on her Gershwin Songbook and weep.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”: Bad karaoke. Unlistenable.

“Cry Me a River”: One of the rare occasions where the phrasing is just wack. Another song with no emotional impact. Julie London was hardly a voice for the ages, but her legacy as the foremost interpreter of this song is definitely not threatened by Caetano.

“Jamaica Farewell”: See ya.

“Nature Boy”: I’m a huge fan of this song—Abbey Lincoln’s version on A Turtle’s Dream has stopped me in my tracks many times—but this is absolutely awful. You can’t hear the words over the feedback—and perhaps that’s a good thing.

“(Nothing but) Flowers”: The first track in a while that doesn’t offend my sensibilities. I’m not familiar with the David Byrne original, which no doubt helps (I seem to enjoy tracks the least when I already have beloved versions of the songs in mind). Although he strangulates the lyrics a little, at least it’s in the most interesting part of Caetano’s range.

“Manhattan”: Two decent tracks in a row. We’re on a roll.

“Diana”: To call this crap is an insult to excrement.

“Summertime”: Not horrible, unless you’ve never heard Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version. Fortunately for them, most people have.

“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”: I’m no Dylan-ologist—it’s possible I’ve never even heard this song before—so I have no point of comparison, which, as we’ve established before, tends to be a good thing. His delivery here reminds me of the awesome bit of patter/rap in the version of “Lingua” on Live in Bahia—but if you listen to the two tracks side by side, you’re reminded that speaking English isn’t the same as feeling in English.

“Love Me Tender”: Sounds like this was surreptitiously recorded when Caetano was singing along with a music box.

“Body and Soul”: Your heart is sad and lonely? For Billie I sigh.

“If It’s Magic”: Sorry, Stevie.

“Detached”: This isn’t karaoke music; this is what I was hoping the album would sound like—not necessarily so dissonant, but interesting at least. He does sound like he’s doing a bad impression of John Lydon, though.

“Something Good”: But not this.

“Blue Skies”: I don’t like it much, but at least it shows a bit of creativity.

Weirdly enough, toward the end of her career, when her voice had pretty much gone and she had to rely on interpretation, Ella Fitzgerald turned to Brazil for material, recording a bunch of bland Jobim albums. It’s as though Caetano is returning the compliment, only in reverse—he sings almost everything entirely straight. I can’t believe he’s doing it for the money (world music artists often do try a usually lame English-language album to attempt a big breakthrough, but surely he’s beyond that, and besides, the material on this album isn't going to appeal to the crossover audience they're usually fishing for), so I’m willing to take his word that it’s an homage. Homage received and accepted. Now get back to your own stuff.