August 23, 2009


Sach O something-something-something Muhammad Ali.

Lyrics. In this dance about architecture, lyrics are the proverbial Tango on a Gehry. For every genre with an expressly coded form of lyricism (say, Hip-Hop) you get two where it’s impossible make an objective statement. Is Jim Morison’s poetry art or the ramblings of an overblown 60’s acidhead? Depends on who you ask. And the plot just gets thicker when you throw in a foreign language: how can a reviewer accurately assess a song when he can’t even understand the words? With this in mind, I approached Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso’s Bicho (Beast) humbly and with but a few tools: a longstanding appreciation for the man’s recordings, an Allmusic profile describing him as “The Bob Dylan of Brazil”, Babelfish and the absolute certainty that you don’t need to understand a word of Portuguese to appreciate the grooves on display.

Best known as a singer-songwriter in Brazil’s late 60’s Tropicalia movement, Veloso is one of those artists that everyone’s heard of and yet few grasp. It’s understandable, considering his intimidating discography spans five decades and over thirty albums. Genres covered include acoustic balladry, psychedelia, straight-forward rock and experimental, to name just a few. Recorded after an eye-opening trip to Lagos for that year’s Art and Culture festival, 1977’s Bicho stands as one of the most interesting and approachable points in Veloso’s oeuvre-boasting a great song collection, an inspired backing band, and clean, occasionally orchestral production that never goes overboard.

Though undoubtedly influenced by the rhythmic revolution he experienced in Nigeria, Caetano’s Bicho, unlike compatriot Jorge Ben’s equally essential Africa-Brazil, is no Afrobeat album. Opener “Odara’s” funky groove probably owes more to Parliament and Philly Soul than anything going on in Africa, and things only get more Pan-American from there. Lagos’ impact is best felt in comparison to Veloso’s previous release Joia, an album almost completely lacking in percussion. The trip abroad may have inspired him to reconnect with his own homeland’s rhythmic traditions and experiment with funkier bass lines, but its ultimate effect was to push Veloso in a more accessible, less confrontationally experimental direction. The results are fantastic: highlights “Gente,” “Olha o Menino” and Um Indio” merge Veloso’s incredible gift of melody to beats that stretch range from dance floor ready to classic rock, rocking–the band stretches out the but never sacrifices on hooks. “Tigressa” even features a bluesy guitar line and rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Paul McCartney’s (better) solo songs. The streamlined approach: good song-writing, smart production and tight rhythms is notable, considering that Veloso was then known for releasing uncommercial head scratchers which confounded even die-hard fans in Brazil. Bicho was proof that the man could rule even in a purely pop-context.

As for those lyrics? Well, sorry to disappoint but I’ve got nothing. Topics include the power of music, Africa, street youth, Native-Americans, women of color and in one song, a list of revolutionaries including Ghandi, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and what initially sounds like Perry Como (but isn’t). Far be it from me to take on the man’s poetry. Plus, who knows how many hippie classics would stand the test of time better if we DIDN’T understand what the singers were talking about? What’s more important is that Caetano Veloso’s Bicho is endlessly replayable and stands as a brilliant example of Brazilian, African and African-American traditions coming together to make a fantastic record. You may have heard his historically “important” work from the late 60’s, but give this latter day classic a chance: you won’t regret it.

MP3: Caetano Veloso-“Odara”
MP3: Caetano Veloso-“Um Indio”

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