Bebel Gilberto, whose music hovers the blurred boundaries between bossa nova, salsa, and trance music, has come a long way from her first album. Tanto Tempo came out of nowhere to establish Gilberto as a fresh voice in the global musical culture, with its catchy blend of traditional Brazilian sounds and global dance music. The subsequent remix album positioned her within the electronica tradition alongside such vocal muses as Beth Orton.
Subsequent albums, though, have backed away from that dance focus somewhat. The second, self-titled album, was less cool and perhaps more approachable, with greater focus on songcraft and more memorable songs. The third album, Momento, continues to seek a different path. At the end it finds, not masterpiece territory, but a very pleasant place to relax for a while.
My perspective on Momento is summed up rather neatly by a positive Amazon review of the album, which begins, “I discovered Bebel’s music at the coffee shop…” For background mood music, the album is darn near perfect: impeccably produced, constantly keeping dynamics and tempi just under the liminal threshold. But if you’re looking for something world-changing, move along; this is no Radiohead album. Instead, it’s music for a pleasant afternoon. Which, frankly, there is not enough of in the world at present.
I find it difficult to disengage my critical faculties even when an album is so precisely targeted, though, so I must share the bad news: Bebel’s performance is not so much cool as sleepy. On her self-titled second album there were moments alternately playful (“Baby”) and dramatic (“Aganju”) that showcased the interpretive range of her vocal instrument. Only “Caçada” steps above an emotional mezzoforte, and that largely on the strength of the superb backing band. The other performances are pleasant enough, but curiously affectless.
Where an artist like Sadé might build a career out of flat vocals, it is frustrating coming from Bebel. Thanks to her superb first two albums, we know she can give more. Here’s hoping that she digs a little deeper next time around and gives us a release that is not just pleasant, but essential.
Also posted at BlogCritics.