Céu could have taken the easy path. She has a classically intimate Brazilian voice that lures you into listening to her every syllable, one that is easily marketed to folks who crave those soft summer sambas. But that’s not what artists do, and Céu is, above all else, an artist.
The São Paulo-born singer and composer shares a restless curiosity and drive with fellow Paulistas like Curumin, Luisa Maita and Cibelle. If you compare New York City to Los Angeles, then you have some idea of the difference between São Paulo and Rio. Compelling music certainly emerges from both places. In São Paulo, though, it has a bit more edge.
Céu’s fourth studio album Tropix, like its three predecessors, is a departure from the one that came before it. Whereas her 2012 release Caravana Sereia Bloom employed an almost alternative rock-like backing band to explore Brazilian music, Tropix is built almost entirely on electronics, using an arpeggiator to sequence beats and rhythms. Despite this, it retains the warmth and intimacy of an acoustic session.
The word ‘tropix’ is Céu’s amalgam of ‘tropical’ and ‘pixel’. She has described the pixel as the inspiration for this music: “A pixel is a small part of a big thing—defragmentation as a concept.” This idea is built into the lead off track and video, Perfume do Invisível. A synth pattern bubbles under a close up black & white shot of a rather sultry and elegant Céu singing of intoxicating, invisible perfume. Soon, though, the image flickers, splits and distorts like a digital transmission on a stormy night. After sixteen lines of verse, the beat kicks in along with funk guitar worthy of Nile Rodgers and the imagery switches to Céu disco dancing in in glittery clubwear. Funk break over, the verse returns but this time the singer is unadorned, no makeup, wearing what looks like a science fiction take on a monastic tunic. In the outro, the funk is back along with the dancing, but this time from what appears to be inside a strobe-lit cage.
Visually, it’s an avant-garde gem. Musically, it has the same adventurous spirit of Caetano Veloso’s work in the 80s and 90s, smartly balancing satiny smoothness with a grittier edge.
The remaining eleven songs on the album stay in this warm, highly listenable space. You could put this album on while cooking dinner and it would sound great. At the same time, a closer listen will reward you highly. The lyrics continue their exploration of a fragmented world, but viewed intimately, not from afar. I probably don’t have to translate Amor Pixelado for you, but I will tell you that it is as beautiful and honest a love song as I’ve ever heard.
Only a few of the songs sound ‘Brazilian’ on first listen. The ones that do, Minhas Bics and especially Sangria, are gorgeous. Still, even a propulsive anthem like Chico Buarque Song or a dance workout like Etílica/Interlúdio are clear descendants of the Brazilian Tropicália movement. When acoustic sounds (guitar, bass, drums, a string arrangement) intrude on the electronic soundscape, the effect is beguiling.
And, of course, there’s that voice. Along with the overall strength of her songwriting, it is the constant that powers all four of her albums. Caetano Veloso once sang “Some may like a soft Brazilian singer. But I’ve given up all attempts at perfection.” Veloso, of course, has one of Brazil’s all time most marvelous voices. Céu possesses an instrument that is similarly captivating, but like Veloso, she, too, is not content to get by on charm.
Céu is in concert at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St, Chicago on Friday, June 24. Tickets at citywinery.com.