Every one of Cristina Branco's previous five albums has been the kind of work that is so overwhelmingly rich it can only be taken in over repeated listenings: nuances, subtle humor, shades of meaning, risks taken but amply rewarded. In choice of material, composition, arrangement, preparation, performance and recording quality, she manages to continually astound. How can such a young singer simultaneously possess such an amazing crystalline voice and such sure artistic judgment?
For exactly this reason, I was leery about Ulisses. A longtime Joni Mitchell fan, I was sincerely afraid that witnessing Cristina Branco attempt A Case of You would be a head-on collision, and that the victim would be me. I need not have worried. Branco takes the song in such a different direction - unabashedly melancholy, jazzy and moody in a way that only a Portuguese sensibility could get away with - that it reveals startlingly fresh possibilities in Joni's longtime classic. Give it a chance: it's a whole new song.
There's another, hidden Joni Mitchell tribute in this album. It comes in Track 10, where Branco shows her obvious admiration by performing Cristal in a way Joni herself might have if she'd been reincarnated in Lisbon immediately after recording Song to a Seagull. Branco pulls it off with beauty and understatement, and with such control that it's obviously meant more as homage than unconscious imitation.
But this album is about much more, and after countless playings I feel I've only touched the surface. Throughout Ulisses, Cristina Branco is trying on other voices, other languages than her native Portuguese. The first track, for instance, is sung a capella with a sly but appropriate Brazilian (specifically Carioca) accent. The second track is in Spanish, Track 5 is in English, Track 9 in French. It sounds like a chaotic fruit salad, but it holds together seamlessly thanks to Branco's abiding love for her material.
I should note that Cristina Branco's roots are in the Portuguese fado, a tradition that is better reflected in her earlier albums than in Ulisses. She has mastered that slightly Baroque trill the fado has adopted for its own. However, it's evident that she possesses a gift whose sophistication reaches beyond the narrow boundaries of one form. it makes me happy to see her stepping more boldly onto the world stage to take her share of the broader audience she deserves.
This album is worth all five stars. The arrangements are tasteful and minimal. The instrumentation is all-acoustic as always, and the studio work is completely transparent. However, if you are looking for a first taste of Cristina Branco, I would recommend starting with Corpo Iluminado or Murmurios, in which she earned the credentials to put forth Ulisses.