We’ve barely had a summer here in the northeast United States. It’s more like a spring, extended through July for one year only. While this may not be such a bad thing on the surface—really, who could complain about 72-degree days and enough rain to keep the grass green—those of us who are accustomed to a constant string of mid-80 and 90-degree days are kind of missing the heat. With the heat comes the beach, comes the ice cream truck, comes the pleasant layer of sweat that appears when you just lay in it and do nothing. We wouldn’t want the hot weather all the time, but it’s nice when it appears.
And yet, even in these abnormally cool temperatures, I swear I can feel that sweat when CéU’s Vagarosa arrives on the stereo. Her voice just oozes heat, her songs evoke the bending of the light above a freshly paved road on a mid-August afternoon.
She begins simply with a song called “Sobre o Amor e Seu Trabalho Silencioso”, just her voice, Rodrigo Campos’ spritely cavaquinho, and the faint sound of record hiss and pops. The sound is a happy one, the sound of an artist content with her life and her music, a promise to hold true to the leisurely pace promised by the album title. It’s the song that follows, however, that truly begins to bring the heat of Vagarosa to the forefront. Equally informed by Portishead and Bob Marley, “Cangote” (released earlier this year on an EP that shared its name) ambles and stumbles along with a record scratch here and an organ hit there, with CéU’s flawless vocal line peering over the top of all of it, tying it all together in a way that sounds both immediately familiar and utterly Brazilian.
What’s it all about, you ask? Damned if I know—a cool two lines on the entire album are in English and my Portugese is, uh, a little rusty. The truth is, you don’t need to know. It hardly matters what it’s about. You can read somewhere that “Cangote” is a love song, and “Sonâmbulo” is about a sleepwalker, but even knowing these things is hardly enough to alter your perception of the songs; quite simply, they’re lovely, sleepy little pieces that mostly float by so gently that you’ll hardly notice them unless you make a point of listening.
Despite all the fawning in the above few paragraphs, there is a criticism that can be levelled at CéU: Listening to her for too long starts to make her sound like the Brazilian Norah Jones. Perhaps that’s hardly a criticism, given the amount of crossover success that Ms. Jones has had in both the smooth jazz and country arenas, and the amount of respect she seems to be able to maintain even in the wake of that success. The problem is that CéU is clearly a talented vocalist, and yet for the whole of Vagarosa, she only deigns to offer a fraction of that to her listeners. She spends 90% of the album singing in breathy, hushed tones, and while that segment of her vocal skills is nearly unparalleled, 12 or 13 songs in, you sort of wish she’d start belting for a second, or sing angry, or even go outside the two octaves she sticks with for so much of the album.
Of course, to do so would contradict the very title of the album, killing the very mood she spends so much time creating. Perhaps she’s sticking to that old adage of “leave them wanting more,” offering mere hints at her full potential that she can go ahead and explore on future releases. It’s possible that she just wanted to see what she could do on an album that’s not backed by Starbucks as her self-titled debut was. Or, just maybe, she simply wanted to make some music that she could listen to with her infant child in the privacy of her own home.
Whatever the motivation, Vagarosa is a peaceful bit of summer that transcends the “world music” label it will inevitably be tagged with. “Cangote”, the vaguely Middle Eastern “Bubuia”, the almost propulsive (but still gentle) cover of Jorge Ben’s “Rosa Menina Rosa”...these are songs that go beyond the idea of genre, embracing multiple styles as effortlessly as stepping across a crack in the sidewalk. CéU may never let it all out on Vagarosa, but what she does let us see is pure beauty.