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 Caetano Veloso, A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch)
by: Steve Horowitz

Caetano Veloso has just released his first all English language album of American popular music. While Brazilian audiences have considered the Portuguese singer songwriter a musical genius of the highest caliber for more than four decades, he's still largely unknown in the United States. Veloso's new album should change that. This is no Great American Songbook ala Rod Stewart or even Ella Fitzgerald. Veloso's new release is as idiosyncratic and unconventional as the man himself and not only reveals his eclectic tastes, but also his vast gifts. The 22 tunes on A Foreign Sound range from Nirvana's unsettling punk rock ramble "Come As You Are" to the schmaltzy, lounge pop of "Feelings" and contains just about anything else that could come between those two extremes. .

The Brazilian sings English with a light, intimate touch, which draws the listener in close. He's accompanied by a 28-piece orchestra led by his long-time arranger, cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, who keeps the production sparse and slightly off-kilter. For example, the Nat King Cole classic "Nature Boy" contains in the foreground what sounds like the strings inside of a piano being gently scraped while someone works the pedals to stretch and unstretch the cables. The general ethereal effect emphasizes, "that magic day/he passed my way" so that when the kicker comes in at the end ("The greatest thing/you'll ever learn/Is just to love/and be loved/in return), it sounds like mystical wisdom. Veloso turns the ironic Talking Heads "(Nothing But) Flowers," which concerns a topsy-turvy world where what used to be shopping malls and factories have become flowers and fields, into a heartfelt lament through understating the narrator's concerns while keeping the ache in his voice. The ping-pong bongo percussion and sweetly strummed guitars only add to the idea of a lost paradise, a commercial civilization ("I miss the honky tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-11s") now turned into a natural wasteland ("It's only fields and trees/where is the town/now it's nothing but flowers").

Veloso also covers Elvis Presely's "Love Me Tender" to music box accompaniment, performs an electronic cover of Irving Berlin's classic "Blue Skies" over blips and beeps, and croons Stevie Wonder's tender "If it's Magic" to what sounds like a tape loop played backwards in an echo chamber. Veloso always sounds cool and composed, even when the musical accompaniment around him tends to purposely break down into a barely controlled chaos. He jazzes up Paul Anka's teenage plea "Diana" ("I'm so young/and your so old") into an inappropriately sophisticated torch song. And when he sings on cuts whose lyrics seem far removed from the singer's Brazilian background, like the Rodgers and Hart show tune "Manhattan," or George and Ira Gershwin's "Man I Love" and "Summertime," the sonic distance created by Veloso's accent functions as a Brechtian device to make the songs more honest by exposing their very falsity.

The CD takes its title from the lyrics to Bob Dylan's apocalyptic "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." Veloso captures the narrator's paranoia and attempt to stay calm "So don't fear/if you hear/a foreign sound to your ear") over steady drummed Caribbean tempos and weird noises crawling out from the center of the music, like a rattlesnake emerging from its nest. There are quick snatches and stabs of sounds that seem to disappear into thin air as one listens. Veloso's version may be less heavy than Dylan's doomful dirge, but somehow more menacing. Dylan's plea to his mother always seemed rhetorical. Veloso sounds like he really needs his mama. In this time of war and uncertainty, Veloso's version sounds more human and authentic.