Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Gilberto Gil

  • Um Banda Um [WEA Latina, 1982] A-
  • Human Race/Raça Humana [WEA International, 1985] B+
  • Soy Loco Por Ti America [Braziloid, 1988] A-
  • Parabolic [Tropical Storm, 1991] *
  • Expresso 2222 [Universal, 1993] B+
  • O Sol De Oslo [Blue Jackel, 1998] Choice Cuts
  • Gilberto Gil [Universal, 1998] A-
  • The Early Years [Wrasse, 2004] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Um Banda Um [WEA Latina, 1982]
I'm not naive--I know importers love stupid haircuts and Japanese vinyl. But it still disturbs me that no one has worked this Brazilian item in the U.S. Already a dozen albums to the good, Gil converted me utterly at a recent Beacon concert with tunes I'd never heard before yet will know by heart when he brings them back, and most of these are the same way. Usually I play side one, the perfect upful morning groove, but when I turned it over to make sure I hadn't been kidding myself, old friends sashayed out of the speaker and shook my hand. We'll meet again. A-

Human Race/Raça Humana [WEA International, 1985]
How readily songs breach the language barrier varies inversely with how verbal they are. As engaging as Gil's vocabulary of trills, growls, whoops, keens, and discretionary phonemes may be, he's also a careful wordsmith, and listeners who don't know Portuguese feel an absence unallayed by universalist title or Jamaican rhythm section (though a printed translation might help). Which makes the relative legibility of Um Banda Um all the more miraculous--though it's worth noting that that title sounds like discretionary phonemes to this English speaker. B+

Soy Loco Por Ti America [Braziloid, 1988]
Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso are aesthetes like, to be kind, Joni Mitchell; Gil is a pop adept like Stevie Wonder, which I'd probably think was kind to Stevie if I understood Gil's lyrics. A warm-voiced natural melodist at home with Afro-American rhythms of every latitude, he's tried to break here with tours and Anglophone flops and reggae albums. Only Brazil fans have taken much notice--Nascimento and Veloso get much snazzier institutional support--and this effortlessly funky tour de force, the finest Gil album I know, probably won't do the trick either, but go for it. I find most Brazilian music genteel myself. Gil ain't, and this definitely ain't. A-

Parabolic [Tropical Storm, 1991]
translations or no translations, you'll wish you knew Portugese ("Where the Baiao Comes From") *

Expresso 2222 [Universal, 1993]
Gil's first post-exile album included just nine songs in 1973, was picked up by three seamlessly upbeat bonus tracks in 1993, and kept them in its 2008 U.S. edition. Dimmed by three years of firsthand London fog, his Anglophile popcraft immerses in carioca beats and funky acoustic guitar worthy of Brazil's future minister of culture, often too much so--the grooveful six-minute "Oriente" is downright dull. Fortunately, most of the tracks chew banana-flavored Chiclets and take their samba with bebop on the side. B+

O Sol De Oslo [Blue Jackel, 1998]
"Tatá Engenho Novo" Choice Cuts

Gilberto Gil [Universal, 1998]
This isn't Gil's only self-titled album, at least not in Brazil, and thus has gathered confusing nomenclature--my Brazilian re-release says "1968" on the spine, while the 2008 edition on the San Francisco-based reissue label Water is subtitled "Frevo Rasgado" by Amazon and B&N. But the cover's tropical take on Sgt. Pepper costumery never changes, and it's a tipoff. Aided by his young pals Os Mutantes, the 25-year-old harmonic sophisticate is charmed and inspired by the archly playful arrangements of pop psychedelica. But though it must have been hard to hear in the hippie years, Gil's post-sambas resemble show tunes more than they do "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "See Emily Play." He took the Beatles' abandonment of the straight groove as an excuse to emulate any kind of Anglo-American pop he wanted, with tropical rhythms for decoration. The tunes are so striking that I keep thinking I know the first few from tropicalia comps that actually favor others. The four bonus tracks drop off slightly if at all. And then there are the lyrics, available via cyber-translation that commits its quota of howlers and head-scratchers but also indicates that this Third Worlder saw the world more fully and clearly than his British exemplars and was probably a better poet too. A-

The Early Years [Wrasse, 2004]
I've tried to find translations, really I have ("Chuckberry Fields Forever," "Volk, Volkswagen Blues"). ***