by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Oddly enough, though he’s widely acknowledged for having popularized the bossa-nova sound beyond Latin America in the ‘60s and his music remains a fixture in television and film (indeed, anyone familiar with the first Austin Powers movie would immediately recognize the opening bars of “Mas Que Nada”), it’s a little surprising that Sergio Mendes’ name is never mentioned in any discussion of the best albums to come out of the ‘60s.
While never quite as deliberate and experimental of an albums artist in the same way that, say, the Beatles or Stones or Beach Boys were in the latter half of the ‘60s, Mendes nonetheless crafted some of the most sophisticated pop albums of his time through his inventive and vibrant arrangements and his ability to spot great material (like Sinatra, Mendes’ best work is a winning blend of cool and class and can double as an ideal soundtrack for an elegant dinner or cocktail party). You truly can’t quite get the full Brasil ’66 experience from a hits compilation, since the band’s personality shines through the most on the more heavily-Brazilian-flavored or non-English excursions that would comprise the bulk of the non-singles on any given studio album from the combo.
Ironically, in spite of being signed to such high-profile labels as Atlantic and Capitol, Mendes languished in relative obscurity for the early part of the ‘60s, a respected artist who graced the likes of Carnegie Hall and “The Ed Sullivan Show” but eluded any significant radio play. The turning point was signing to the young independent label A&M, whose only high-profile artists at the time were label-owner Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and lesser hit makers We Five (“You Were on My Mind”) and Chris Montez (“Call Me,” “The More I See You”). Upon signing with A&M, Mendes revamped the lineup of his band, rechristening it Brasil ’66 and wisely bringing aboard two female singers (one of whom, Lani Hall, would later marry Alpert and become a solo star in her own right in Latin America) who could sing in both Portuguese and English.
“Mas Que Nada,” from their first release on A&M, would stop short of reaching the Top 40 but significantly grew Mendes’ following and would become one of his most enduring classics. A fine second release, Equinox, featuring a clever, self-styled rearrangement of the pop standard “Night and Day,” followed but would similarly elude much chart success. It would finally be their third album on A&M, 1968’s Look Around, that would be both their commercial breakthrough and their most ambitious artistic undertaking yet.
Look Around begins on a particularly bold and brave note, daring to take the second song from the Beatles’ most recent album (“With a Little Help from My Friends”) and rework it entirely as a bossa-nova song (the group would go on later in the year to score a major Top Ten hit with an even better reinvention of a Beatles song with its gloriously buoyant cover of “The Fool on the Hill”). While the group’s prior two albums for A&M were heavy on Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes for its non-English moments, Mendes here avoids Jobim material entirely and wisely showcases some less obvious covers, beginning here with Gilberto Gil’s “Roda.”
“Like a Lover,” an English version of Dori Caymmi’s “O Cantador,” might be the album’s high point, a devastatingly pretty, strings-laden gentle bossa nova sung to perfection by Lani Hall. (It should be noted here that Mendes avoided strings entirely on previous Brasil ’66 albums. While their presence could have potentially been fatal to such a beautiful song, Dick Hazzard’s arrangement manages to provide the track with a very fitting and lilting instrumental break that proves to be more chilling than schmaltzty.)
While the band mysteriously didn’t issue the song as a single, it nonetheless became enough of a pop standard to be covered by several prominent jazz singers in later years, including the likes of Jane Monheit, Dianne Reeves, Sarah Vaughan, and Al Jarreau. The vaguely haunting “The Frog,” from the pen of Joao Donato, follows, before the first side ends in playful, carnivalesque fashion with Harold Lobo’s jubilant “Tristeza (Goodbye Sadness),” a track which really showcases Brasil ’66 at their most transcendent.
Side Two opens with the band’s biggest hit (a Top Five smash, at that), their reworking of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David-penned Dusty Springfield ballad “The Look of Love” (which had appeared in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale). While Springfield’s version was undeniably sultry and sexy, it also was arguably a bit too slow for its own good, and the song’s chorus consequently suffered for it, drifting by without ever really distinguishing itself. In contrast, the Brasil ’66 arrangement—done by a young and then-little-known Dave Grusin—sped up the tempo considerably, making it just fast enough to allow Mendes and company to put their own distinctive stamp on the song, which goes a long way towards giving the chorus the excitement it needs to enhance the lyric, and the song’s rousing, brass-laden fade-out helps to end the track on an emotional high. The next track, the lovely ballad “Pradizer Adeus (To Say Goodbye),” a bilingual adaptation (with new English lyrics added by Lani Hall) of an Edu Lobo tune, is significant for being the first tune in the Brasil ’66 canon to boast a writing credit from a band member.
“Batucada (The Beat),” from the pens of brothers Marcos and Paulo Valle, kicks the tempo back up again for a final rousing Brazilian number before the album closes with two knockout English-language tracks, both joint collaborations between Mendes (the first time he’d ever included one of his own compositions on a Brasil ’66 album) and the legendary lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman (responsible for co-writing such pop standards as “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “The Way We Were,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” and the Tootsie theme “It Might Be You,” among others). The emotionally stirring ballad “So Many Stars,” like “Like a Lover” before it, would later see its own fair share of cover versions from the likes of Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, and Natalie Cole, to name just a few, while the album-closing “Look Around” is equally breathtaking, a lilting meditation on the simple joys of life that just keeps building energy throughout until it peaks with a rousing, handclap-filled vamp-out that starts fading much too early. Why Sergio waited until the band’s third album to include any of his own compositions is a mystery, but the songcraft is truly first-rate and goes a long way towards making this album perhaps the most impressive of all his A&M releases and one of the more criminally overlooked albums of the late ‘60s.