Caetano Veloso
Caetano Veloso
(PolyGram 838 561)

"One day I had to leave my country …"

So begins Caetano Veloso's 1971 (mainly) English-language album, with characteristic understatement and subtle beauty. It's a tremendously great album, quiet but intense, a work written in exile and in a foreign tongue and demonstrating all the conflict those things imply. Caetano's playful mastery of English is, like Nabokov's, better than most native speakers', and so this album is an ideal place to start out for people who have heard about his genius but are scared of the intricate burbling of his Portuguese recordings. In either language, Veloso is an amazing lyricist and truly one of the greatest songwriters you'll find.

The music on Caetano Veloso is a bit folky and quite groovin', quite in step with the great pop that was pouring out of 1971 London. Caetano was living there with Gilberto Gil after fleeing the military dictatorship in Brazil that was doing everything it could to shut them (and other radical musicians) down. As much as Americans revere people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, they really pale in comparison to the scope of life experience and musical development of people like Veloso and Gil. Dylan remains an icon of rebelliousness, though truth be told his music never landed him in jail.

Caetano is wonderful because the music is so pure and full of integrity – in retrospect, it's hard to see why anyone wanted him to stop making it. Listening nowadays, this album has a quaintness to it that almost hides its deep sadness and great art. It's mellow in a way no one makes albums anymore, and similarly personal.

Clocking in at the typical 35-or-so-minutes of your given Brazilian pop album, the disc wastes no time and offers up seven stunning tracks that you might miss if you don't listen attentively. The subtlety is real subtle, and the melodies are the kind that haunt you until you realize, two months later, that you absolutely love every track on the CD. Three of Veloso's best songs open the disc: the song of exile "A Little More Blue"; "London, London," later covered by Gal Costa in a brighter and more exciting version; and the amazing "Maria Bethânia," which is (kind of) about the great singer who is also Caetano's sister.

I could listen to these songs forever. Great lyrics abound: "The day Carmen Miranda died, they put a photograph in the magazine/Her dead mouth with red lipstick smiled and people cried/I was about ten" or: "One day I saw a Mexican film/These twin brothers tried to kill each other" (both from "A Little More Blue"). "London, London" is one of the greatest songs ever, and I love Gal's version, but Caetano's version is completely different and really good as well. "Maria Bethânia" features some apocalyptic lyrics about the Devil and the great chorus "Maria Bethânia/Please send me a letter/To let me know things are getting better", with "better" repeated and played off of "Bethania." Caetano's fascination with wordplay is infectious, if somewhat echolaic.

"If You Hold a Stone" is a Cat Stevens-like rocker (that is a very mellow sort of rock), kind of like if Cat had written a "Hey Jude." Very cool. "Shoot Me Dead" is the token "album track" here, but it's a solid track I usually forget and then rediscover. This one's got like a Gil Scott-Heron-meets-Traffic kind of vibe. "In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day" (co-written with Gil) is by far the saddest Christmas song ever (lines like "Machine gun/They killed someone else," "They are chasing me," and "Everybody's blind" aren't your usual Rudolph type stuff), and the most wrenching melody on the disc.

The album ends with "Asa Branca," a seven-and-a-half minute acoustic tune (the only cover on the album) that features perhaps a bit too much of Caetano's wordless verbal twerping (he makes sounds that sound sort of like a synthesizer – depending on my mood, I love it or find it irritating).

Caetano Veloso is a great piece of music art. My brain can't always handle that twerping at this stage, otherwise I'd throw this album an Orbach Head for sure. Caetano fans who follow his Beatles fixation will also be amused and pleased by the very cool McCartney-influenced cover featuring Caetano wrapped in a sheepskin coat, staring gravely forward.

Try Dusty Groove to snap it up, chumly.

Review by Tama Gopad