Tag Archives: Pop

Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon

Honeymoon

Lana Del ReyHoneymoon Interscope B0023750-02 (2015)


Calling Honeymoon “bubblegum nihilism” hits pretty close to the mark.  It calls up a dark, dispirited mood — not far off from old, melodramatic movies like Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? or twisted latter-day recreations from the likes of David Lynch — set against sparse electronic beats dressed with occasional strings and chamber pop instrumentation.  Del Rey’s vocal tone, timbre and range are not especially memorable, and the lyrics are so often raw.  But those qualities actually suit the music.  The tempos are all slow, much slower than the songs seem to call for.  The backing as a whole drifts off, a kind of indistinct mass of the vaguely familiar.  Her vocals pierce through the music, but in a disinterested way.  She conveys a kind of apathetic disgust with everything around her, especially when her surroundings are at their most glamorous.  The quality of stepping back from it all is perhaps the most admirable one she advances.  There is also hedonism and a kind of electronic new ageism lurking behind much of this.  Yet aside from that there is also a clear admiration for certain refined strands of bohemian culture.

“Freak” is one of the best songs.  A slow recurring guitar riff recalls a film noir rather than goth/rockabilly version of The Birthday Party‘s “Say a Spell” (from Mutiny!).  Playing a guitar chord that way turns the harmonic elements into melodic ones as each note stands almost alone.

“The Blackest Day” is another good one.  It characterizes the lyrical approach of the album, with emphasis on cataloging surrounding artifacts and discrete, quantifiable experiences to allow Del Rey to convey melodramatic feeling in her vocals.  Thematically, this and other songs still fit what one critic called Del Rey’s penchant for “exploring the internal worlds of numbed female characters posing as arm candy[.]”  Though on Honeymoon that is toned down a bit, and more generalized.

The single “High on the Beach” probably epitomizes the entire album’s sound the best.  There is a deadpan melancholy that just seeks to withdraw.  It practically suggests going catatonic, in a trendy and visible way.  Del Rey sings with a breathiness that seems slightly disaffected — a comparison to “Cat Power-does-Chris Isaak” is fair (as is calling herself a “gangster” Nancy Sinatra, for that matter).  She seems to do that not to appear as a stereotypical weak and submissive woman but rather more like the way punk singers sang off key on purpose.  The lyrics refer to independence and self-sufficiency, though without much in the way of specifics.  Her vocal phrasing is informed by what is old and classy, but her vocals are juxtaposed against what is current and disreputable.  This conveys a sense of power to handle, in whatever limited way, those disparate, incongruous elements, against the odds.  It is an approach employed in similar ways in photographer Robert Mapplethorpe‘s works that mashed up art deco with gay subculture.

In terms of purely musical technique, she seems to draw some obvious inspiration from singers before her.  The closer, a cover of Nina Simone‘s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” positions itself somewhere in the realm of Simone’s occasional forays into twisted, orchestrated rock like the title track from I Put a Spell on You.  It also orients the listener, placing Del Rey in her desired continuum of pop music history.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in the backing instrumentals.  All the songs adhere to the structure of conventional pop songs.  Even the specifics seem familiar.  Take “Religion,” a poppier echo of The Raveonettes‘ hazy, beat-heavy retro rock.

But, frankly, the gloomy noir elements elsewhere, like on the title track, vaguely recall a (much) more mainstream/commercially palatable “Hollywood sadcore” take on the style of Lydia Lunch‘s Queen of Siam (“Gloomy Sunday,” “Spooky,” “Knives in the Drain,” “Lady Scarface,” “A Cruise to the Moon,” etc.), with electronic dance/hip-hop beats and filmic orchestration in place of no-wave punk rock and cabaret jazz.  And Del Rey has that bubblegum aspect that Lydia Lunch has, well, none of, just as Del Rey has none of Lunch’s menacing sarcasm.  Honeymoon‘s dark electronics with dramatic singing is also close to, say, Carla Bozulich without the pretension and more emphasis on camp, or even a more dejected and straightforward version of some of David Sylvian‘s (ex-Japan) art pop.

So is Del Rey just appropriating and co-opting elements of creative and independent music of prior decades, like a cultural pirate, or is she turning mainstream culture against itself, like a “culture jammer”?  Is it even possible to introduce elements of underground music into mainstream commercial culture without betraying those building blocks?  Is she a feminist or just an individualist?  Is her sincerity merely being sensationalized by the media industry for mass consumption, or is is her public image entirely just a fake persona?  Is she really just a full-bore part of the establishment media, and not really a critic of it at all?  These are central questions an album like Honeymoon presents.

Of course, it is obligatory to mention the highly stylized persona that Del Rey has used to put across her music.  This persona — part femme fatale ingénue, part stoner washout, part vulnerable introvert, part insecure hipster, part deluded mallrat, and part ambitious artiste — is an odd thing.  She broke into international recognition largely through an online music video that she directed, edited and partly filmed herself.  Whatever one thinks about her persona, good or bad (or some of both), it is one she largely crafted herself.  It is wrong to castigate her for creating a persona in the first place.  Even the painter Georgia O’Keefe can be said to have done the same in becoming an artistic celebrity.  Every personality, public or private, is to a degree a mask over the void of being.  Such masks allow for and mediate a social conception of the self.  To the extent that Del Rey puts forward a musical vision in which every person is worthy of consideration, even one as flawed as her persona, maybe that is a good thing.  There also is a curious aspect of this persona that suggests ordinary people can follow suit in order to take charge of their own lives in some way, at least by taking responsibility for establishing their own desires and giving no ground to acting in conformity with those desires.  In this way it might even be said she is merely trying “to be just extreme enough to be an ‘effective extremist.'”  In any event it is a far cry from the stance of “mogul” pop.

This album is not entirely successful.  The cynicism of Honeymoon ties it to precisely that which it claims to break away from.  Is her position against and outside those things — like Céline Dion’s music but for younger, hipper audiences — just a coping mechanism under late capitalism, and therefore a reinforcement of it?  And yet, the pleas to be a “freak like me” and Del Rey’s rejection of some typical major label promotional activities (combined with a continuation of others) do suggest an ambiguous relationship with mainstream success.  It is an old dilemma.  While she has already stepped back, musically, from the element of “having it both ways” (as a victimized yet manipulative femme fatale) evident in her breakthrough hit “Video Games,” Del Rey will have to go further to really be a countercultural force that undermines — or at least minimally overcomes — the media industry from the inside (what the somewhat similarly mall/Hollywood-inspired filmmaker Michel Gondry has largely failed to do since his early music videos gained him notoriety).  That especially goes for her music videos.  But Honeymoon shows that she might well have both the inclination and talent to do so.  This certainly stands above what she has done before at album length.  The best songs are the best generally because they introduce a larger stylistic gap between the vocals and the backing, forging ahead in spite of that gap, while the lesser songs tend to come across more like straight genre exercises.  There are not any obvious missteps — though the T.S. Eliot recitation “Burnt Norton (Interlude)” is jarring, and some of this just treads water (“24”).  And there is much less reliance on guilty pleasure trash pop than on her breakthrough Born to Die.  The best songs (“High on the Beach,” “Freak,” “Honeymoon,” “The Blackest Day,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) are really quite good, maybe even great.  But the album could have used a few more great songs to be a great album as such.  As it stands, Honeymoon still suffers somewhat from the problem of being a really good EP padded out to album length.  Still, even just looking at the singles from the album, it is certainly an achievement to place music this depressing into the pop charts at all, which hasn’t happened much since the “grunge rock” era.  On the whole, this might just be a personal turning point when the price of fame has sunk in enough for Del Rey to feel the sting, but also while she still holds enough widespread appeal to become a sort of anti-hero for a disaffected age.  Or not.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Born to Die

Lana Del ReyBorn to Die Interscope B0016425-02 (2012)


Upon her breakthrough to international audiences, Del Rey elicited a polarizing reaction.  After hearing buzz about her, my first exposure to her music was her terrible appearance on the TV show “Saturday Night Live.”  I wrote her off as another pop music bimbo.  Born to Die, her breaththrough album, is really in the classic pop tradition of having one or so great singles and a lot of filler.

“Video Games” is indeed a pathbreaking pop song — amazing in that it has no syncopated beat and a glacial tempo.  It is great precisely because of the sympathy it elicits for for the song’s protagonist, who debases herself in desperate and self-defeating attempts to achieve her ends against and within seemingly hopeless structural social constraints only to (eventually) realize the power to claim her own identity.  Contrary to a literal, “Stand By Your Man” reading of the lyrics, which should be discarded, it is an identity of numb isolation and doubt, but it is her own, and a product of her own free will.  When she sings, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” the listener should think of the scene in the horror film The Omen in which the nanny, under the influence of demonic forces, climbs on a ledge of a mansion during a gala party and declares, “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you,” then jumps off the ledge and publicly hangs herself.  The song deftly implies a whole lifetime spent absorbing a gender role and the learned helplessness that goes with it.  The protagonist’s assigned role requires external validation because “they say that the world was built for two / only worth living if somebody is loving you.”  Every soaring crescendo of the orchestral backing is an anti-climax.  It ironically presents a kind of sorrowful self-realization that breaks free of the imposition of meaning enough to look back in from outside, from another perspective.  By the end of the song, reflecting on how others say it is “only worth living if somebody — is loving you,” Del Rey sings, “Baby now you do — now you do.”  The repetition of “now you do” is flat.  There is no joy in Del Rey’s vocals.  She hums a line, but sounds puzzled and almost baffled.  The strings disappear.  There is a background vocal of “now, now you do / now you do,” which plays the role of society reinforcing the “proper” perspective.  She sings “now you do” again in a flat way.  A harp plays a glissando and a piano plays a brief repeating melody as her voice has dropped away.  Del Rey is absent as the song concludes.  The conditions imposed by society have been satisfied, but the song subverts that supposed achievement.  Instead, the protagonist, in her socially imposed role, effectively commits suicide like the Omen nanny, opening herself to new possibilities.  That realization points toward a neutralization of those structural constrains.  She can now find her own meaning.  She can be miserable if she wants.  No longer does she have to feel pressured to enjoy debasing herself to please someone else.  This reading comes through listening to the song itself, because the ironic and sarcastic tone of the vocals contradict the literal text of the lyrics.  Del Rey did make a music video for the song herself.  It features webcam recordings of her leaning against a wall doing some come-hither posturing interspersed with various clips of guys doing tricks on skateboards and paparazzi footage of a drunken celebrity falling down.  Just like the skateboarders do tricks for attention and celebrities make a spectacle of themselves, this emphasizes the performative role the song’s protagonist plays.  And if she dons her persona just to take power however she can, then maybe she is just adding a twist on what Madonna did decades before (the so-called “Madonna question”), in a time when sexual provocativeness no longer has much effect or shock value.

Some of the songs have Del Rey singing with husky vocal histrionics in the mold of Amy Winehouse.  Lots of the filler has her peddling guilty pleasure trash only marginally more sophisticated than what Britney Spears built her career on.  “National Anthem” and “Diet Mountain Dew” are the kind of ghetto fabulous novelty pop that fueled Gwen Stefani‘s “Hollaback Girl.”  The songs are produced in a way that is mostly predictable and uncomplicated.  There is an emphasis on accessible hooks for an era in which hip-hop dominates pop sensibilities.

Born to Die skews towards fun, throwaway pop, while, in spite of that, the album is carried by the success of a couple/few songs — “Video Games,” “Born to Die” — that are something else (more) entirely.  The entire second half of the album is instantly forgettable.  Amazingly, Del Rey would shift the emphasis to the deeper aspects of this album in her later work.  The bimbo act may really have been a means to other ends after all, even if there are many reasons to question that on this particular album.

Rihanna – ANTI

ANTI

RihannaANTI Westbury Road B0022993-02 (2016)


The Limits of Pop Music

Rihanna’s ANTI makes an interesting case study for the limits of pop music.  That is to say the album highlights both the opportunities for what is possible under the auspices of unabashedly commercial, mainstream music and the barriers, constraints and contradictions that go along with commercial, mainstream music.

Much of what pop stardom is about is image and spectacle.  Substantive content is at best a distant second behind the cultural symbolism of the persona represented by the music, and how the audience desires to attain the same persona or just consume it to bolster a different yet coupled persona.  In fact, this has become an accepted way to analyze and review an album like ANTI.  Under this rubric, the ability of a pop star to succeed is all about crafting and manipulating the persona through music to be something other than just a direct manifestation of whatever hedonistic, saccharine, materialistic nugget forms the core of the relevant pop sub-genre.  But there are only certain ways that doing so is possible within the structural constraints of “pop” music as such, before a line is crossed and the music (good, bad or otherwise) is simply no longer “pop”.  One approach is to deploy much of the trappings of commercial pop, especially using ornate and complex production techniques, but to thread through and embed melancholy and subversive messages that reveal a contrary perspective — a classic example being The Carpenters, but The The‘s Soul Mining fits too as does early Scott Walker.  Another is to engage in ironic, cynical distance.  This is epitomized by the highly constructed “bad girl”/”bad boy” image of the likes of Madonna, P!nk, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, etc., which pretends to a kind of rebellion while actually being totally compliant with the demands of a big-business music industry that constructs its own “criticism” so as to be powerless and effectively moot.  There is a degree of sensationalism here, and mostly this approach is self-defeating (or was simply a front all along).  There is also the highbrow intellectual approach, which usually seeks to apply a “respectable” standard from outside of the pop realm to pop music — be it opera, jazz, etc.  Examples abound from Josh Groban to Margo Guryan.  This approach treads a line that often threatens to undermine the notion of being pop music, by subordinating its own standards to an external one and using musical techniques that are less easily identified with “pop” music.  Yet another approach is the “wizard behind the curtain” one, which tries to lift the veil of pop artifice to show the machinations that “really” drive the music.  In this category would be stuff like later Beyoncé.  Lastly, there is a kynicist approach, which take a multivalent reverent/irreverent approach to pop music — artists who reside here are Ariel Pink, The Red Krayola, any of the tropicalists from Brazil, and even early Beck.  Of course, there are other approaches too, but these tend to be some of the most common.

Rihanna’s ANTI cuts across many of these categories.  There is some of the cynical “bad girl” approach, and some of the subversive, contrary messaging.  The former fails in the same way it always does.  That is to say that the music tries to overcome the contradictions of commercial pop music that are at its foundations — like decaffeinated coffee, this is an attempt to have the good without the bad in a way that defeats the premise.  Why even be a commercial “pop” artist at all?  Would a real “bad girl” not be completely outside the corporate media world?  These problems hamper the first part of the album.  There are too many synths and the songs are clunky because they gloss over these issues.  The opener “Consideration” is a throwaway because it dwells in the most mediocre aspects of Rihanna’s past work.  But the latter part of the album shifts towards something that (yes!) is a bit closer to The Carpenters.  This kind of swing between approaches is frankly a bit like Kanye West, who does the Carpenters thing (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and then changes up and does the maniacal version of the “wizard behind the curtain” approach (Yeezus), but he does this kind of thing almost in slow motion.  And for that matter, while the diversion to retro sounds (“Love on the Brain”) has been done a lot (Bruno Mars), it is worth keeping in mind that it was a staple of the Carpenters too (“Please Mister Postman,” etc.).  It allows the music to disconnect from any strict adherence to current fashions and fads. It also suggests there is something — in history — that matters and can be found and taken up again, breaking the tyranny of the present.

The opportunities of pop music are also on display here.  For one, the sense of commonality that underlies pop music grant it the widest possible platform.  Anybody, in theory, can grasp what this music is about.  And there are all sorts of pleasurable musical effect in use.  While “Consideration” tries too hard to use reggae singing, “Work” is much better because Rihanna’s talent for that vocal style is more understated and natural.  “Desperado” is where the album really takes off.  It conveys a sense of hitting bottom but still going on.

ANTI is indeed an album that is better and deeper than it first lets on.  Sure, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is brilliant, and immediately, unmistakably so.  But across the entire album, this reveals itself slowly to be fundamentally aiming for something more than just Freud‘s “pleasure principle” of a past satisfaction repeated, and instead focuses on what Freud called the “reality principle,” the mature reasonableness of the ego that postpones and defers immediate gratification in search of something more contingent. The simple pleasure accrue along the way, just for what they are and no more.  It would be wrong to say ANTI has colossal ambitions, but it has them and they are what the album is really about.

Yoko Ono – Yes, I’m a Witch

Yes, I'm a Witch

Yoko OnoYes, I’m a Witch Astralwerks ASW 79287 (2007)


Sure, these guest-driven remix albums are always uneven.  Yes, I’m a Witch is no exception.  But Yoko kind of deserved a record like this.  Anyway, the best of what is here — with input from the likes of Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, The Brother Brothers, and Shitake Monkey — is really good.  Outside of Yoko, Tom Zé, and Scott Walker, there are frankly few artists over 70 years old (!) who so convincingly deliver pop/rock music this relevant and up-to-date.  Yoko offered a few more of these remix albums, plus a new version of the Plastic Ono band released some surprisingly good new recordings in the years that followed.

Mitski – Puberty 2

Puberty 2

MitskiPuberty 2 Dead Oceans DOC123 (2016)


A really good pop album.  Mitski’s Puberty 2 takes a bit of introspective singer/songwriter electronic pop (reminiscent of The The‘s Soul Mining) and some noisy, punky retro-pop sensibilities (like The Raveonettes) and puts them forward with a voice that recalls ubiquitous recorded announcements from automatic call centers and elevators (“Doors opening at the third floor.”).  What carries the album, though, is the songwriting.  There are lots of great melodies.  This is thankfully a short album.  Anything more probably would have been filler anyway.

Carpenters – Horizon

Horizon

CarpentersHorizon A&M SP-4530 (1975)


By the mid-1970s, extensive touring and television appearances had taken a toll on The Carpenters.  But in 1975 they bounced back with the excellent album Horizon.  This has much of the same lush “soft rock” sound with dark undercurrents that made the brother and sister duo famous.  Now, though, there were more and more recording studio tricks being deployed, making the music sound a bit more like a continuous sonic fabric.  Some great songs here, like “Happy” and “Desperado.”  Side two is practically flawless.  This might not be A Song for You, but it is still one of The Carpenters’ best.

Fabrizio De André – La buona novella

La buona novella

Fabrizio De AndréLa buona novella Produttori Associati PA/LPS 34 (1970)


La buona novella (translation: “The Good News” or “The Good Book”) is a concept album about Jesus.  It draws from both the canonical New Testament and the Biblical Apocrypha.  On “Laudate hominem,” the closing song, De André sings, “I don’t want to think of you as son of God, but son of man, even brother of mine.”  He had this to say about the album in 1998:

“When I wrote La buona novella it was 1969. At the time we were in the very middle of the students’ protests, and less attentive people, which are always the majority among us — comrades, friends, people of the same age as me — regarded that record as anachronistic. They told me: ‘What’s this? We go fighting inside universities and outside universities against abuses, and you instead tell us the story, which moreover we already know, of Jesus Christ’s preachings?’ And they did not realize that the Good News was meant to be an allegory, it was an allegory that consisted in a comparison between the better and more sensible instances of the revolt of ’68, and some instances, certainly higher from a spiritual point of view, but similar from an ethical-social point of view, raised by a gentleman, 1969 years before, against the abuses of power, against the abuses of authority, in the name of egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. That man was called Jesus of Nazareth. And I think he was, and remains, the greatest revolutionary of all time. When I wrote the album I didn’t want to venture into roads or paths that would be difficult for me to travel on, such as metaphysics or even theology, first of all because I don’t understand anything about those, secondly because I always thought that if God did not exist we should invent Him, which is exactly what Man has done ever since he set foot on Earth.”

When put this way, it is clear that he was looking at christianity in a similar way as film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who wrote the screenplay St. Paul around this time but was unable to find funding to film it.  (Pasolini also made the trite Gospel According to Matthew).  They both were interested in the radical underpinnings of christianity, viewed from an atheistic point of view.  It is a perspective that has gained some traction in academic philosophy in more recent years (Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism; The Fragile Absolute — or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?).  Actually, musicians and others have for some time argued that Jesus was a communist.  For that matter, Ernst Bloch‘s Atheism in Christianity touched on this approach back in 1968, as did Thomas J. J. Altizer‘s earlier “death of god” theory.  At bottom all these are attempts to link the foundations of (purely atheistic, materialist) egalitarianism to the revolutionary content of early christianity, separate from the way the christian church has evolved (especially since the Roman Empire).  La buona novella can also be seen as something of the polar opposite of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which debuted on Broadway the following year and dwelt on the melodrama of being a messiah — in the superficial trappings of hippie garb.

The melodies here are memorable.  De André applies his wonderfully smooth, resonant voice to treatments that might be called folk-rock mixed with christian chorale music.  These recordings can be appreciated even by listeners who do not speak Italian.  Yet De André is renowned as a lyricist.  Reading translations of his lyrics by themselves is worthwhile.  (There are translations available online.)

One of the best songs here, “Il testamento di Tito” (“Tito’s Will”), includes the lyrics:

“honor the father, honor the mother
and honor also their rod
kiss the hand that broke your nose
because you asked for a morsel

“when my father’s heart stopped
I felt no sorrow
when my father’s heart stopped
I felt no sorrow”

This is more than a bit reminiscent of Luke 14:26:

“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

The story draws from the Syriac Infancy Gospel and is narrated by Tito/Titus, the so-called “good thief” or “penitent thief” (also called Dismas).  Tito describes himself violating nine of the ten commandments, unrepentant, with “though shalt not kill” violated by those crucifying him.  The last lines of the song are Tito saying,

“I, in seeing this man who is dying
Mother, I feel sorrow
in the piety that doesn’t yield to resentment
Mother, I learned love.”

This is the essence of christian universalism, by taking the criminal (of a low social strata) and making his acceptance of the duty of christian love — agape, love as charity or “political love” by choosing to act like the Holy Spirit — an example of gaining direct, personal access to the universal, depicted in a positive light (rather than as a usurpation or transgression).  There is still no transcendence.  The thief dies, and so does Jesus.

De André is known for his sardonic criticisms of the catholic church, a major institution in his native Italy.  His popularity there arguably maintained or increased after his death.  A bit like Camarón de la Isla in Spain, he is a people’s musician, an iconic champion for the marginalized (even as De André came from a well-off family).

João Gilberto – João Gilberto en México

João Gilberto en México

João GilbertoJoão Gilberto en México Orfeón TCI 10.012 (1970)


João Gilberto seemed to always take unexpected paths.  Following his rise to international fame into the mid-1960s, he did not release any studio recordings for five years.  He moved to the United States, then to Mexico for a couple years, then back to the United States.  During those few years in Mexico he recorded the sometimes overlooked João Gilberto en México.  The music is transitional, and while there are some simple performances rooted in his past work, with a focus on just Gilberto singing with his guitar, this was an album that notably embraced lush American pop in a new way.  That new turn is epitomized by a version of “Trolley Song,” made famous by Judy Garland‘s rendition for Meet Me in St. Louis.  The album features orchestration, but it seems like that of a minuscule budget, deployed sparingly.  Gilberto would remove all traces of orchestration on his next album, arguably his best.  But orchestration came back even more prominently on the highly successful Amoroso, which has little of the spark and vitality of João Gilberto en México, and the use of an American pop standard carried over to the artistically rewarding collaborative effort Brasil.  This is an interesting set of music, revealing Gilberto’s willingness to rethink his music in fairly fundamental ways.  Much of the newer (if still retro) ideas he introduced initially here would only come to complete fruition over two decades later on João.

João Gilberto – João

João

João GilbertoJoão Polydor 848-507 (1991)


More than thirty years into his recording career, João Gilberto released 1991’s João.  The master sounds as cool and relaxed as ever, but here he is backed by orchestration.  It is somewhat hard to understand why Amoroso (1977), with its treacly, Sinatra-aping, cookie-cutter arrangements, gets praised as one of Gilberto’s best while this stunning, superior effort is somewhat overlooked.  While he often was at his best in minimalist settings, with little else but his voice and acoustic guitar (João Gilberto, Chega de saudade), João might be the consummate realization of his music in a more elaborate and ornate setting.  The orchestration (by Clare Fischer) features strings plus wind instruments, sounding mostly like woodwinds.  The recording is detailed enough that the woodiness of the oboes comes through, and the flutes are smoothed over to eliminate sharp angles.  And the arrangements are superb — voicings move independent of one another and add melodic detail, always perfectly complementary to the overall mood (reminiscent, perhaps, of Richard Carpenter in his prime).  The orchestration is not so much underneath Gilberto’s playing as interspersed and traded back and forth against his singing, sometimes augmenting it with crescendo-ed washes of strings.  This is not a return to a style of his earlier career as much as a new facet that retains a connection to all of his strengths while also standing somewhat distinctly apart form other trends and undercurrents of his past career.

From the beginning, everything about Gilberto’s craft was suited to last into his autumn years.  He is singing here at such a slow tempo, maybe that is a sign of age, but it also encapsulates the reclusive, deliberate, insouciant, persevering, and, above all, incorruptible qualities that make his music so appealing.  This was one of the first of his albums in a very long stretch to feature new songs.  Released decades after the bossa nova fad had passed, this is, surprisingly, yet another Gilberto album that is among the best the entire genre has to offer.  Pure class.  Superb.