Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review: Bebel Gilberto - Bebel Gilberto

Bebel Gilberto’s debut album proper ‘Tanto Tempo’ (her eponymous actual first release more than a decade earlier was an EP) arrived like a welcome cool summer breeze. Mixing acoustic bossa nova with the subtle electronics, lush soundscapes and drum loops of producer Suba, it was a huge hit that sold millions and launched Gilberto as an iconic figure on the club scene. Since then, having been rather ungainly dubbed ‘electro-bossa’, numerous remixes appeared and then flooded the music world, with fans desperate for a follow-up to repeat the successful formula.

Her self-titled follow-up however is not ‘Tanto Tempo 2’. Following producer Suba’s tragic death just before the release of both Gilberto’s and his own debut, a direct sequel could never really be made, the album being as much a part of Suba’s input as hers. In place of his great talent, Gilberto enlists the in-vogue currently man of the moment Marius De Vries - known more popularly for his work with Bjork and Madonna among many others. His approach is much different to that of Suba, opting for a more ‘organic’ and acoustic feel, stripping out most of the obvious electronics and putting in more strings and woodwinds.

Here English-language songs sit alongside the Portuguese, with lead track Caetano Veloso’s ‘Baby’ sung in English and nestling up there solidly with Gal Costa’s famous definitive version. ‘Simplesmente’ that follows inhabits the same atmosphere, with ‘Aganju’ picking up the pace, but the pace here overall never really gets above mid-level, and the sound itself never feels as ‘alive’ or vital as it should.

Dance fans therefore who enjoyed the more generous layering of electronica on the previous album will more than likely express displeasure at the distinctly back-to-basics feel of this recording, whereas more traditional bossa fans may perhaps find the style more their cup of tea.

There are though a few problems with this approach taken on ‘Bebel Gilberto’. Suba very much liked his subtle drum loops and washes, and De Vries equally likes his strings. His wall of strings sound works well too in places, adding a nice seductive edge to proceedings - but on too many of the numbers here, what could have been light, fresh and understated becomes overproduced and too slick, drowning the songs in a ‘sonic sludge’. Think Claus Ogerman on one of his Diana Krall production bad days.

Too many of the songs too have the same pace and tempo, which creates a monotony of sorts with the sameness on offer. The choice of also having an excess of breathy vocal efforts seems to be a deliberate attempt to echo Astrud Gilberto, which is both something that Bebel should definitely avoid and helps create that same feeling of sameness. Add that to the not so appealing choice of songs, and we have some very odd choices and poor judgement decisions made.

Gilberto’s ability to captivate with her sensual and deeply expressive voice remains, but at times it comes over as unnatural, processed as it is along with the processed strings. So oddly, despite the more acoustic recording, it feels less real and less emotive. Not that it’s all bad. ‘All Around’ and ‘River Song’ are strong tunes sung wonderfully that both sit alongside the best of ‘Tanto Tempo’ showing what Gilberto can really deliver. And ‘Jabuticaba’ is a sheer delight, with its innocent and almost endearing quality.

Unfortunately the core problem is that Bebel Gilberto, although a terrifically good singer, and a great songwriter, really needs a good co-pilot to fully hone and shape her promise. She and friend Suba understood what the other wanted and the album they made together was almost perfection. Marius De Vries on the other hand is a much more mainstream producer and by the sound of the record has attempted to pull his employer into the more commercial world. And the reality is, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Ultimately its Gilberto’s mistake, her choice of songs lacking some good quality control, especially the bigger proportion of English-language numbers which suffer badly under the weight of some horrendously vapid lyrics.

This is in truth an album of some very good moments, but ‘Bebel Gilberto’ unfortunately oscilliates mostly between not-that-good and quite-good, occupying a largely bland middle-ground. It will certainly appeal to the dinner party crowd and those of us who want chilled background music when you can’t find the latest Café-Del-Mal set, but rather than impressive, the best you can say about ‘Bebel Gilberto’ is that it’s pleasant enough.


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