03/27/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

(Almost) Samba-free Albums From Brazil

I guess it could happen. Some Brazilian music fan had such a Mad Wednesday of a Mardi Gras Tuesday that he or she felt the compulsion to give up something big for Lent -- samba. Fortune, however, would have been helping this Brazilnut since two of Brazil's top stars have released great, almost-samba-free new albums.

Marisa Monte, she of the sweetest of pop voices, has released her first album in six years, O Que Voce Quer Saber de Verdade. Always a bit exploratory, Monte creates a singular mix of textures and sounds. This new album echoes back to her 1991 album, Mais, with a borderless approach to gentle, sophisticated pop.

Monte's dad was deeply entrenched in the venerable Portela samba school that marches in the annual carnival competition in Rio, but her own musical education eventually took a different route when she moved to Italy to study bel canto opera. Abroad, she realized that she wanted to explore Brazilian heritage and has done so ever since in her own idiosyncratic way. In a country of vivacious and even bodacious stars, she is something different: an introspective pop star. Instead of knocking you back on your heels, she draws you in to listen. Even in her upbeat tunes, there is always a demure bit of blue in her delivery.

She again teams for songwriting with her buddies that produced the hit album Tribalistas: the mad genius of percussion, Carlinhos Brown, and the deadpan jokester of the rock group Titas, Arnaldo Antunes.

With the always-innovative Brown, Monte creates the dreamy "Aquela Velha Canção" (That Old Song). On it, Monte's rich, lithe voice nails the playful off-rhythms of the verse's melody, then billows away into the ether for the song's tongue-twisty, playfully alliterative chorus: "Alo, A Lua, Alo, Amor, Alo, A Lua, Amor (Hello, Moon, Hello, Love)."

Monte does one delicious light and frothy pop-samba, penned with Antunes, the ukulele-fueled "Seja Feliz (Be Happy)."

At least part of her six-year absence from the studio seems to have been spent meticulously crafting this great addition to her eclectic repertoire. On O Que Voce Quer Saber de Verdade, Monte shows that she is a master of surrounding her gorgeous voice with gorgeous music.

From the always-experimenting Brazilian veteran star Caetano Veloso comes a new release that, somewhat puzzlingly, comes eight years after a wonderful one-off project for Carnegie Hall, a live acoustic performance with David Byrne. Live at Carnegie Hall certainly proves the saying better later than never.

Veloso turns out to be wonderful compare-and-contrast foil to Byrne. Though Veloso is much more of a sentimentalist -- even if he has a penchant for salting his sweetness with unexpected twists -- he is an entertaining experimentalist like Byrne. Both men here are stripped to the barest of accompaniments and show off the strength of their songs and innate musicality.

Veloso has been a star in Brazil since the 1970s -- rising with the progressive tropicalism movement -- and continues to be a vital spirit in Brazilian music. His consistent ride at the top of Brazilian music has been on the strength of his ability to create lush, memorable music -- and doing so with a variety of styles that makes him without any good parallel in English-language popular music.

The songs for the concert come from throughout his career, and on a few he is accompanied by his sometimes collaborator, the cellist Jacques Morelenbaum. Among other things, the two perform Veloso's "Manhatta" (from his wonderful album Livro), which playfully juxtaposes the name of the borough Manhattan and the Indian woman who gave it her name. He also stretches back to his first album for the hushed bossa nova romanticism of "Coração Vagabundo (Vagabond Heart)."

Byrne introduced Veloso to U.S. audiences through his Luaka Bop label. So when Veloso was asked to guest-curate a series at Carnegie Hall, he invited up-and-coming Brazilian artists, but then asked Byrne to co-star for his own concert.

For Byrne, it was an opportunity to strip down several of his own songs and some oldies from his heady Talking Heads days. For Byrne fans, the good news is that his songs -- often produced with a dense sound -- hold up well.

"And She Was" gets some swinging strumming and a sprinkling of percussion for a rendition that surprisingly rocks as it maintains its sweet naiveté. "Life During Wartime" gets a new life: a spare treatment that suits its disquieting dystopian portrait.

"God's Child," a product from his unlikely collaboration with the Mexican pop siren Selena loses none of its hypnotic rhythmic power in this stark acoustic setting. That song then tumbles into the unrelenting locomotion of "Road to Nowhere."

The binational duo then trade vocals on a few tunes, bringing to a close what at first glance seems an unlikely alliance, but on repeated listening seems a fortuitous partnership.

An older video of a solo Caetano Veloso