It's sad but true that the American pop world has no equivalent to Caetano Veloso, who is something like the Brazilian version of the Beatles (having basically invented Brazilian pop music in the late '60s with a handful of others), Stevie Wonder (having written enormously popular and sophisticated songs ever since), and Bob Dylan (having been hailed as one of his country's most important poets of this century) rolled into one.
But the difference between Veloso and his counterparts is that while they're all 20 (and perhaps 30) years removed from their best work, Veloso continues to make astounding, intelligent music that stands with the best of his long career. The latest, Livro -- "book" in Portuguese -- marries the entrancing street rhythms of samba to the lush, harmonically sophisticated orchestration that marked Miles Davis and Gil Evans' collaborations. It's an otherworldly mix right from the opening "Os Passistas" ("Carnaval Dancers"), where a samba drum choir is overlaid with a full woodwind section. Veloso's musical vocabulary on Livro extends even further, though, encompassing everything from distorted Afro-pop guitars ("How Beautiful Could a Being Be") to atonal 12-tone lines ("Doideca") and organic techno beats ("Alexandre"). Perhaps the most striking element of Livro is that these varied textures end up sounding anything but experimental or avant-garde. Instead, everything is deeply sensual and appealing; a few of the tracks, like "Nao Enche" ("Piss Off") and "How Beautiful," are pop gems so perfect and universal they could be topping charts from here to Mozambique.
Veloso's lyrics do justice to his reputation. "Manhata" compares the island of Manhattan to a canoe that "cuts through the morning from north to south," while the title track sings of books that "are transcendental things/ But we can love them with our hands/ The way we touch a pack of cigarettes." Perhaps the most moving moment comes in the album's closer, "Pra Ninghuem" ("For Nobody"), an answer to Brazilian songwriter Chico Barque's "Paratodos" ("For All"), where Veloso lovingly runs through a list of his Brazilian peers from Gilberto Gil to Marisa Monte and then pays homage to the great bossa nova pioneer Joao Gilberto with the lines "Better than this there's only silence/ And better than silence only Joao." Already revered in Brazilian music circles, Livro is such a transporting gem that it stands to introduce Veloso to the rest of the world as well.
Caetano Veloso performs Thursday, July 1, at 8 p.m. at the Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California (at Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $25-45; call 776-4917.
-- Ezra Gale