The musical world was dealt an awful blow a couple of years ago when Suba died in an apartment fire in São Paulo. Although not Brazilian by birth or background, he had a really good line on how to translate MPB into electronic music: dreamy, floaty, indirect, but always with bubbling percussion and a sly sexiness that crept into every song.
Cibelle, a young actress who’d been in TV shows and MTV Brasil spots, was a perfect vocal foil for Suba on tracks from his first and only album, São Paulo Confessions; her voice was at the same time fresh-scrubbed pretty and straightforward intelligent, and the songs with her on them were the highlights of that record for me. So of course I was interested in her first solo album, albeit warily so — how could she maintain her whole cool Cibelle thing with no Suba to back her up?
Well, it turns out that that part’s easy, especially when Apollo 9 is in the house. This young producer is flat-out amazing, as he’s proven on a bunch of records I love: Trio Mocotó’s Samba Rock, Andrea Marquee’s Zumbi. And now, teamed with a smart clear-headed young songwriter with a voice of crystal like Cibelle, he reaches his finest moment: constructing the sexiest record of the year 2003. This record should be the music that you hear the next time you get down with that special someone; if you don’t have a special someone right now, Cibelle should be motivation enough to go out and find one just so you can get busy with him or her or them.
Brazilians are just better at sexy than anyone else. They know that smart is sexy, that subtle is sexy, that sly is sexy, and that humor enhances these things rather than hampering them. So when this record begins, with an industrial-sounding non-chord, and a little beat slowly arises, and then a funky bass line, and then a clarinet-like synth line, you are charmed and interested, like when you first see someone at a party and they are that weird kind of cute that obsessions are made of, and you want to know what’s going to happen next. Then, when Cibelle’s voice arrives, it’s like that someone sidling up to you and asking you “Don’t you hate parties like this?” with the clear indication that you two should be somewhere else, doing something else, and you both know what that something else is, and you see a torrid affair and possibly a life-changing experience coming up, and you’re powerless to stop it, so you give in and wave goodbye to your friends and mouth “don’t wait up for me” to them, because you might never come home.
That’s “Deixa,” the first track on this record. It is slow, like fate, and insinuates itself into your consciousness: here a string swoop, there a vibraphone line, suddenly a chugging samba percussion line that vanishes into the air, and all over a beat that only gradually reveals itself to be a reggae thang. As Cibelle sings about a goddess, we are drawn to her and to Apollo 9’s seductive futurist old-school-ism. But unlike a lot of techno these days, “Deixa” and the rest of the songs here are actually songs rather than tracks. There are verses and choruses and bridges and all that old-fashioned stuff on these songs — not required for good music, certainly, but more charming for it.
This is definitely some Brazilian-sounding music, even when sung in English (five or six songs have at least some words that I can understand in them), and it’s not just that there is samba (Vinicius de Moraes’s “Só Sei Viver No Samba”) and bossa nova (“Luisas”, the old Jobim chestnut “Inútil Paisagem”) sprinkled in among the downtempo and electropop that make up the majority of the record. Even on jazzy 6/8 torch shuffles like “Waiting” and power ballads like “Um Só Segundo”, there’s a certain vibe that just yells out “Ordem É Progreso” and makes you love it.
This is the power of this record: Nothing is rushed, there is a place for every beat and every word, and it all matters, but it’s all also a joke, a raised eyebrow, a silly laugh that turns into a kiss. “Pequenos Olhos”, the slow burner that closes the record, is intense, but not so intense that Cibelle can’t smile through her tears in a spoken-word monologue showcasing that sad peculiar Brazilian happy-in-my-loneliness called saudade. And when it’s over, it’s not over — let a couple minutes go by and you can hear the real closing track, a silly barrelhouse romp with the singer perfectly imitating both a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo and a Billie Holiday vocal, and cracking herself up in the process.
Don’t get me wrong, though: this isn’t a comedy disc at all. Some songs are filled with tension and drama. “No Prego” is a space-junk classic, worthy of early Gilberto Gil, with some kind of weird soap opera strings clashing against mob chants and portentous horns and samba beats, while Cibelle works a melody that sounds like that song where the dude is putting, for whatever reason, the lime in the coconut and drinking it all up. This is so 1969 that it’s jarring in a great way when the scratching and the guest rap by Xis come in. It’s the entire history of Brazilian music, all in three and a half minutes.
But it’s also more of an out-lier on a record that trades more popularly in camouflaged weirdness, in songs that sound normal but really aren’t very normal at all. “I’ll Be” sounds like it could be Si-Sé or Portishead or any number of downtempo funkateers, with a beat slower than walking and some dreamy vocal work: “I’ll be your dream / I’ll be your best scene / I’ll be your night, your sun / I’ll be your sign”. (The one-second pause before she hits the word “scene”, knowing and hesitant at the same time, is worth the price of the disc all by itself.) And it’s all slow and hott, and maybe you won’t notice that the words get more intense and stranger; soon she’s predicting that she’ll be your whole world and begging you, “Let me give you a daughter / To lie through my schemes”. From sexy friend to obsessive multi-generational conwoman in about 90 seconds has got to be some kind of record, no? Especially with creamy multitracking that showcases a “cool” vocal with a “desperate” one and an “abandoned” one too. Mmmmmmm: ambiguity!
This freakiness is delicious. I’m feeling “Hate”, in which the narratrix can’t really decide how she feels about her partner: “I love you so much when you’re near / Yet I hate you so bad when you make love at me / I hate you so bad when you’re near / ‘Cause I know you wanna say things but you never do / I love you so much when you’re inside me / Yet I hate you so bad when your eyes I can’t see”. (That might be “beside me” instead of “inside me”, but whatever, same thing.) And this is the way love goes sometimes, and it’s sad but true, and it sounds better to hear it to a semi-Bo Diddley samba beat with cuicas whooping in the background and scratchy acoustic and electric guitars making it sound like the JBs gone Brazilian. This is my song of the summer, y’all, and it’ll be yours too if you give it a chance.
Apollo 9 is the canniest techno/dance/pop producer I can think of in the world today, and Cibelle is the most interesting singer/songwriter I can think of in the world today, and here they are both young and fresh and at the height of their creativity. Nothing could be sexier, nothing rocks my world more right now, than this record.