To take a beloved classic and update it is always a risky endeavor. Bossacucanova has made a career out of it.
To take a beloved classic and update it, one way or another, is always a risky endeavor, one bound to offend purists and raise some eyebrows. Laughing in the face of danger, Bossacucanova has made a career out of this kind of thing, lighting up bossa nova standards with all manner of smooth, slinky electronics. As genre fusions go, it's one that makes sense in theory, layering the chillout music of one era with the chillout music of another.
In practice, though, it isn't so easy. Without a certain sincerity to ground it, bossa nova can turn into a boneless, chintzy mess. Bossacucanova's music often falls into that very trap, slathering generic samba rhythms with slippery lounge beats in a way that smothers any authenticity. The end result: a serviceable soundtrack for a hotel lobby with very plush cushions, but definitely not one for any self-respecting dance floor.
The Best of Bossacucanova, contrary to its title, includes quite a few tracks with the aforementioned issues. Chico Buarque's emotional "Bye Bye Brasil" becomes repetitive, instrumental schlock that replaces voice with electric guitars that try too hard to impress. "É Preciso Perdoar" has the soulful vocals, but turns João Gilberto's melancholy masterpiece into one long come-hither look with thin disco violins. Perhaps most disappointing is Bossacucanova's version of arguably the biggest international bossa hit of all, "Águas de Março". Here, it's slow, breathy, and peppered with unnecessary and wholly anticlimactic samples. Ordinarily a song swirling with the unstoppable forces of nature, life, and death, it withers on the vine.
As cringe-inducing as some of the tracks are, others work well, keeping both the emotion and the smoldering heat of the original songs. In most cases, these are ones in which the electronic touches are kept to a minimum, so that they can enhance rather than detract from the beauty of acoustic instruments and passionate voices. That doesn't always mean sticking to traditional arrangements; Bossacucanova's choral version of "Berimbau", featuring the vocals of pop group Os Cariocas, is a far cry from Astrud Gilberto's wistful original, but it ascends with audacious harmonies that carry just as much feeling.
Trip-hop beats are another trick up Bossacucanova's sleeve, and they work surprisingly well, full of vintage coolness and moody, midtempo sensuality. These don't leave much room for classic samba rhythms, but in this case, that works, transforming the songs instead of watering them down. "Consolação" demonstrates this beautifully, with solid, bluesy piano running from beginning to end, paying tribute to Baden Powell's original guitar work without making a carbon copy. Wanda Sá's voice drifts like sweet smoke through the beginning of Bossacucanova's rendition of Jobim's "Meditação", and ends it like a howling wind. The hard edges of trip-hop beats give Bossacucanova's music a complexity nowhere to be found in the lounge numbers, one sorely needed for any effective jazz.
Where Bossacucanova shines the brightest, though, is when they get to have fun. Sunny, brassy "Balança" is a no-holds-barred party track, and Carnival standard "Indio Quer Apito" finally, finally, finally finds the sweet spot where bare horns, electric guitars, and drum machines all fit in a way that makes sense. Neither track really makes magic, but managing to put everything together without some element sticking out at the wrong angle like a broken bone feels like an accomplishment.
It can be interesting to listen to all the things Bossacucanova has tried over the years in a scientific way. The Best of Bossacucanova shows off just as many failed experiments as it does successes, and doesn't feel like it could possibly represent the best of such a long-lived band. Bossacucanova deserves better.