Fresh off his scene stealing performance The Life Aquatic, Seu Jorge's solo album provides more clues to his mystery.
Just the facts. Cru. Seu Jorge. A rebirth of cool. Brazilian street kid turned musician turned actor turns away from the clichés of world music. After rising up from the teenage homelessness thanks to his passion for samba and performance, Jorge lent his charisma to the films City of God and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Yeah, Knockout Ned is the same guy who rescued Wes Anderson's artifice with an injection of genuine humanity. Seu Jorge's reinterpreted David Bowie songs impressed even more than Bill Murray's gunfight with Filipino pirates. Not an easy accomplishment. Making it all the more difficult for Jorge to eclipse that performance on his first internationally available solo album.
The strengths of this album are the same that made Jorge such an arresting enigma in Life Aquatic. His raspy vocals hover in the ether, transmuting foreign words onto native feelings. Not understanding a word of Portuguese hardly matters when those words are delivered with such gritty nuance. Whether Jorge is singing about romance or poverty or a bristleless broom, it hits straight in your gut. His production team knows it too. Gringo Da Parada places the vocals front and center on every song of the album. Every word shines in spite of their anonymity. Even when the instrumentation weakens, Jorge's voice can still arouse empathy. It's the sound of the street. That people sound, lacking system or sheen. Like Tom Waits or Tricky, it sounds like a real person, a real person with terrible talent of course.
What this album does not sound like is exotic. As it's name suggests this is raw. This is not a fetishistic distillation of one musical culture, sating the curiosity of another. Cru is Seu Jorge's album. It is not the world's album. This is personal more than cultural. That said, Seu Jorge was born and raised of a place very different than New York or Paris. He'll sing of his shantytown allegiances on a song such as "I Am Favela", but his origins don't change the universal appeal of his talent. When the White Stripes play to maniacal crowds in Rio, it's doubtful that the audience understands Jack White's tales of twisted virtue, but nonetheless it connects. And funnily enough they don't call it world music.
The world music genre distinction says a lot more about North America's xenophobic cultural capitalism than it does about the music it allegedly describes. It's silly to suggest that continental and sonic divides can be bridged merely by their non-Westernness. And just as his recapture of the Bowie canon did, Seu Jorge turns these Orientalist notions on their head with Cru. He doesn't do it with revolutionary defiance; instead he erases the novelty factor with cavalier aplomb. He covers songs Elvis Presley and Serge Gainsbourg made famous but they don't stand out of place on an album defined by its raw individualism. Jorge owns this shit.
It doesn't matter who wrote it or where, Seu Jorge brings his own style to all the songs he performs. It's refreshing to see a musician who is not intimidated by performing other people's songs and that's a credit to his talent. Ultimately, Jorge is still very much a beginner. That amaturity provides a layer of excitement to his work but it cannot overcome this album's shortcomings. While his voice could carry an advertising jingle, the lack of captivating instrumentation or memorable songwriting is a blatant sign of this artist's infancy. With its sparse arrangements and plodding tones this may be a weak album, but Jorge is anything but. His is an audacious talent that we will see and hear much more of.