Gilberto Gil (1971) – Gilberto Gil
I had dinner this week with a friend of mine who recently took a job teaching music at a local university. Being May, he was lamenting the state of the final papers his students submitted, from Wikipedia-aided plagiarism to crappy original writing. "I hate when they use the word ‘sound’ to describe something," he groused. "Or ‘vibe.’ There are always more precise words to describe music.’
While he’s right, there’s not much musicological value in saying a recording has "a good sound" or "a nice vibe," those are exactly the first thoughts one might have when listening to Gilberto Gil’s recently reissued self-titled album from 1971: a good sound, nice vibe.
The 29-year old Brazilian firebrand’s first English-language album, recorded during his British exile, Gilberto Gil is a combination of new versions of older Gil tunes, a few new compositions, and some contemporary covers. It was also his third consecutive eponymous release, an early suggestion there was no true Gil. He was just as much the tropicalia experimenter of the 1968 model as the silky smooth singer-songwriter of 1971. (And if the former tendencies somewhat disappeared over the years in Gil’s music, then it has certainly re-emerged during his current tenure as Brazil’s Minister of Culture.)
Here, though, Gil is at his pleasant best — his soft, assured voice matched elegantly with his smart acoustic guitar phrasings. Though he is aided by percussion and even a distorted electric guitar on the album-opening "Nega (Photograph Blues)", his bossa nova informed groove remains the song’s heart, providing a bed for Gil’s generous and open voice. "Nega, you spent so blissfully the past few days with me," he bellows, the slightly awkward Portuguese-to-English translation making his delivery extra charming.
There’s plenty of periodness to the album, of course, but more in attitude than production. "The first mushroom makes room for my mind," he sings on "The Three Mushrooms," "to get inside the magic room of Dionysius’s house," over a jazz melody that is perhaps delivered more subtly than any other overt paean to psychedelics. On "Volkswagen Blues," he delivers a tune that sounds like it must’ve been written for some early 21st century soul-jamming throwback marketing campaign. (Perhaps the Volkswagen ad folks should get on that.)
Coming from a pop culture where musicians regularly passed songs from artist to artist, it’s no surprise to hear Gil covering his contemporaries on the album, as well as a trio of live cuts. Gil transforms the Beatles’ "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" into an eight-minute solo guitar excursion, repurposing the vibe (yes, Matt, the vibe) and adding trumpet-mimicking mouth jams. On Jimi Hendrix’s "Up From the Skies," Gil does for the guitar god what Seu Jorge did for David Bowie in Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic, stripping the song down to a bare, totally pleasing rhythm guitar.
Ultimately, though, I agree with my buddy: vibe and sound could stand to be used less often (and I’ll do my best). But sometime it’s just necessary.