Just as every country has its own cuisine, its own set of festive occasions, maybe even its own versions of the Dewey Decimal System, nowadays each nation has its own version of the Power Ballad. Or at least they work to create one. You know the type — when an acoustic guitar or a piano ballad suddenly transforms mid-song into a wall of electric guitars without any change in the slothful tempo or the sappy love lyric. The singer (male or female) follows suit, and the effect on your ears is as if a letter expressing a plain, touching sentiment was suddenly transformed into a huge neon sign flashing off and on right in your eyes. We probably stole the whole concept from Eurovision contests. But did we ever stop to consider the effect this lousy export option might have on Brazilian music?
Take as an example this generally likeable collection of Brazilian classics, from two of Brazil’s most respected singers. It’s all perfectly pretty, nicely paced music. Yet the appeal of the songs from the samba, bossa nova, and big band eras rises and falls in direct proportion to the arrangements. “Sebastian” makes a grand entrance, from the strings right up to the oversung finale. But when Teco Cardosa’s violins get too thick, the simpler melodies fade. You may recognize overarrangement by this effect — the orchestrations compete with the song itself, so that only the climax really stands clear. Take an example I’m already familiar with: “Dora”, from Arto Lindsay’s Ambitious Lovers 1987 debut, Envy. Lindsay’s electric piano and marimba gently tucked the tune into the folds of my brain. The version found on Gil & Milton is so strung up that I didn’t recognize it until the bridge. “Maria” ends with neither the tune nor the beat clearly stated. It takes several spins to suss out what is really a direct, pretty song. I still can’t determine who’s to blame: under Gil’s musical direction, the arrangers include Gil Jardin, Marco Lomiranda, Nascimento himself, Teco Cardosa, and the usually inventive Wagner Tiso.
Nascimento has long been considered a “savior” of Brazilian music, a singer who’s fronted many inventive arrangements and exalted many a Portuguese lyric. On the down side, he’s been called “the Peter Gabriel of Brazilian music” by Robert Christgau of the Village Voice and judging from the three albums I own (out of the many, many Nascimento albums in existence), I can understand where that comment comes from. A strong singer with a lot of range, Nascimento also commands the heavy tone you’d expect to find in a father figure - in someone who sings as if he’s setting an example. He has warmth when he relaxes, with “Yo Vengo a Ofrecer Mi Corazon” (I Have Come to Give You My Heart) a particularly openhearted example. Nascimento’s rustic falsetto and staid tenor grounds arrangements that are both lyrical and touched in the head, and the albums I have contain a few of those. But on regular samba and bossa nova, he’s boring. Gil & Milton is mostly samba and bossa nova.
The songs feel better where Gil takes the lead. He’s the musical director here, so he gets the blame for the sappier arrangements. But as the only singer I’m aware of whose past includes both jail time for his political lyrics and a prosperous career writing advertising jingles, Gil is impressive because he’s cultivated a welcome impishness. This quality undermines his music when the lyrics themselves are largely impish (see 1979’s “Nightingale”), but Gil’s lightness lets the politics and philosophizing on 1989’s O Eterno Deus Mu Dança zip right by even in translation. Still, Gil’s approach to English has become more convincing since he covered Stevie Wonder’s “Secret Life of Plants” on his live Acoustic album several years ago. That, or else his cheerfulness fooled me into thinking that his rendition of George Harrison’s “Something” makes for a downright bonny reggae beat. The most lovable thing about his version is that the guitar solo is recreated note-for-note from the original, but is so off-the-beat it sounds fresh.
There are only four songs by Nascimento and Gil, two each. Nascimento composed “Canção Do Sal” and every second of the 45 second “Ponta de Areia”, while Gil wrote “Xica da Silva” and his own 45 second slice, “Palco”. But when Gil pretends to stay out of the way, songs like “Lar Hospitalar” step sharply, and Gil’s accordion on “Baiao Da Garoa” is a snazzy touch. Nascimento himself might’ve created the go-figure rhythms of “Trovoada”: the percussion sounds as if it’s based on a skipping CD, yet the singers sound normal. It’s the rare oddball touch on a creditable album that needed more.