Caetano Veloso means nothing to most Americans, but in Brazil he is a mythical figure known simply as Caetano, the biggest pop star of the 20th century’s final decades. At 60, his voice still sounds striking in both its modesty and its perfect pitch. The singer is very important to Celso Fonseca, who uses his international debut album Natural, his fifth solo album, to directly emulate the bossa nova of Veloso and his predecessors, Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Six Degrees had a left-field hit two years ago with Bebel (daughter of Joao) Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo, where electronic touches from Brazilian deejays Suba and Amon Tobin updated the classic Jobim sound for modern day space-age bachelor pads. Hundreds of chill-out compilations later, Six Degrees looks toward the same uber-hip audience for Fonseca’s exotica, but these tunes run by without present-day electronics to cover the slick folk sound.
The bossa nova is a delicate creature, existing in a careful state of balance between the smooth and the sophisticated, the mysteriously lazy groove and the easy listening. It’s also a very conservative, predictable music in some circles, and Fonseca is a traditionalist through and through. Natural opens with three beautiful originals and a perfectly smooth American standard before dissolving gradually into overly saccharine pap and uninteresting instrumentals. The first six tracks are almost too perfect, from opening major key piano strikes of “Bom Sinal” to the easy sax accompaniment of “Febre.” Most songs feature tastefully restrained acoustic percussion to complement the nylon guitar strums and ivory tinkling, and the quiet subtlety Fonseca displays during his take on the standard torch song “The Night We Called it a Day” puts most slinky lounge voices to shame (even if it does closely resemble Veloso’s soulful version of Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town”).
After the surprisingly bland guitar jam of “Consolacao” and a subpar English-language rendering of Jobim’s classic “Ela e Carioca,” Fonseca drops the album’s last worthy track, “Teu Sorriso.” A veteran who has performed with Gilberto Gil, Veloso, and other pop heroes, he knows well the limits of his own voice and presents it in a warm and intimate style well suited to the quiet balladry of this song and the album’s other high points, “Sem Resposta” and “The Night We Called it a Day.” But Fonseca seems intent on dispelling his own credibility with “Slow Motion Bossa Nova,” an embarrassing slice of heavy sentimental sludge supporting regrettable lines like “The solution to my dilemma/ You’re my girl from Ipanema” and “I hope to give you back the piece of mind that you give to me/ And it feels like bossa nova by Jobim.” Uh, yeah, whatever, man. I feel it.
Some impressionable listeners unfamiliar with the genre may find these lines to be attractive in a very precious sort of way, but Fonseca should know better. Even worse, this track also appeared on his previous import-only album, Juventud/Slow Motion Bossa Nova. So he can sing well in English, but such obvious attempts to streamline the traditional bossa nova for northern ears fall far short of the album’s more promising first half. His people must think those gullible Americans will buy anything in a shiny package, especially if it’s from another country, but this unintelligent approach does not slip by unnoticed. On the whole, Fonseca’s romantic ruminations feel a bit like the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon: antique and legitimate but ultimately distant and unsatisfying, neglecting contemporary experimentation and emotional conviction for lessons in World Music for Dummies.