One recent day, during a drive around the Presidio, I put on Sara Tavares' Balance. As the car threaded through the trees and fog, it suddenly seemed about 30 degrees warmer. I imagined exotic birds in the branches and an island bungalow, where I would sip a fruity drink at sunset while the ocean winds played on the curtains.
Unfortunately, the other listener in the car clearly hadn't accompanied me on this flight of fancy. "I don't know if I can take a lot more of this," he said. "There's only so much a guy can pretend to be sensitive."
OK, so Balance doesn't "rock." It's certainly not very "macho." Tavares, with her buoyant and at times girlish voice, can sound as if Natasha Bedingfield or Nelly Furtado went off and did a world music album. But even the most hardened set of ears should be able to withstand (or at least ignore) this album. Even the cheesy tag lines for her songs in the liner notes ("Let's celebrate love n' freedom! Step into the dance!") can't corrupt the breezy charm of Tavares' music.
A Cape Verdian from Portugal, Tavares wrote most of the songs on Balance and performs several instruments. The arrangements are beautifully laid-back sounding, mostly relying on vocal layering, multiple acoustic guitars and a grab-bag of various percussion types.
Many of the tracks here trade on Tavares' voice and the irresistibly pretty little melodies that make up her music, so that it really does feel like a musical vacation. On songs such as the opening title track, "One Love," and "Bom Feeling," Tavares is like an irrepressible balloon that keeps floating up, and the effect is alternately cheering and soothing.
But it's by no means a one-note album. On songs such as "Ess Amor," which features a ghostly accordion, and "Amoré," Tavares turns down the volume. The latter consists mostly of a seductive spoken-word delivery that evolves into free-form improvisational singing.
You'll notice both of those song titles have the word amor in the title. Amor is a word that pops up a lot on Balance, informing most of the songs as they veer from celebration to longing to playfulness. (This review is probably not doing much to dispel the notion that buying this album will put you at risk of being labeled a foofy cheeseball. But I can guarantee that if you put this on during a gathering, no one will notice all the amor. They will just find themselves feeling a little happier.)
Since most of the album is sung in Portuguese, you're going to have to ask someone else what Tavares is actually saying in her lyrics. But it's not hard to get the drift most of the time (you know what amor means, after all). What makes Tavares so effective and compelling to listen to is her ability to marshal everything -- languages, emotions, sounds and syllables -- to get her songs across. "I know you can understand me," Tavares breaks away to sing in English during "One Love." She's right.