I've been rather fearfully avoiding this double LP since I founded this blog a few months ago, in part because I sense that a good portion of my modest readership is only too familiar with it already, and in part because of its plain immensity. Clube da Esquina is, after all, something akin to a vast and mind-bogglingly varied terrain, a continent unto itself, even; you may journey into it equipped with all the knowledge you've ever gleaned from all the records you've previously heard, but there will still be something hopelessly strange--something fundamentally beguiling and bizarre--about this recording (especially if you're not Brazilian and hence haven't been weaned on Milton's music). It is one of the distinctive qualities of Clube da Esquina that its best tracks will retain much of that alien beauty even after you've heard them fifty times. Early and late, it arrests and hypnotizes.
Nearly everyone who undertakes to review this album seems to feel compelled to compare it to The Beatles, released three years before. The comparison is justified to a point: Clube da Esquina does consciously position itself in the rich tradition of venerable double LPs, and two or three of its songs do, undeniably, invoke Beatles songs (see, for example, "Nada Sera Como Antes," which echoes "Getting Better"). That there are such echoes, however faint, to be found here is hardly surprising, of course: Clube da Esquina (the Corner Club) originated as a group of young guys who met up at a bar in Belo Horizonte to drink beer, jam on their instruments, and talk about their mutual love for Lennon and McCartney. The nucleus of the group was a duo consisting, first, of Nascimento himself (pictured above, far left), freshly moved to Belo Horizonte from the smaller provincial city of Tres Pontas; and Lo Borges (far right, next to brother Marcio), who, though not yet twenty, was already possessed of a bracingly eccentric musical vision, along with the aplomb to trust in that vision and communicate it in highly wrought sonic structures. Of the two men, it was Nascimento who would achieve international stardom, teaming up with the likes of Wayne Shorter on albums such as Native Dancer (1974) in the years to come. Why it was Nascimento, and not Borges, whom the rest of the world ended up emphatically embracing, is a moot point. It may simply have been Borges's weirdness (heard, for example, in the whacked-out orchestral interlude halfway through "Um Girassol da Cor de Seu Cabelo"); or perhaps it was the fact that Nascimento was gifted with the most effortlessly seraphic voice of his generation--a voice that, on songs like "San Vicente," seems to call out to us from a place above the mire and the mess of this world, wafting us to it. It's a voice, in short, that would sound lovely in most any context, so musicians were quick to snatch him up as a collaborator.
Whatever you think about the respective oeuvres of both men--or of any of the many other people who contributed to Clube da Esquina--there can be little doubt that they were never better than they were here. This is a gem-studded collection, remarkable not merely for its richness but also for its stunning scope, for the almost jaw-dropping range of distinct sounds to be found on it. Yes, as stated above, a couple of the songs conjure up late Beatles, but honestly, would any right-minded listener who didn't know better hear Clube da Esquina and think of The White Album, or of Sgt. Pepper's? The parallel is overhyped, and it suggests, a little annoyingly, that this record even needs a point of reference in Anglo-American pop from which to derive its legitimacy. The real musical wellsprings of Clube da Esquina are pure South American: its miracle was to dig its tubers deep in the cultural soil of Minas Gerais--and occasionally of Chile and Paraguay (in the guitar and bass work of "San Vicente," for example)--and, drinking in the folk traditions of these places, transmute and update them into tracks that were wholly contemporary, fresh, forward-looking. Just beneath the surface of its best songs--"Clube da Esquina no. 2," "San Vicente," "Os Povos," and others--we can hear the faint roar of these folk traditions, epochs-old, which Nascimento and company harnessed the way engineers harness water-power. They bear these songs forward inexorably.
By way of commentary on the songs themselves, I'll say this: the tracks I love most from Clube da Esquina are, in many cases, the ones that seldom get cited as the "hits," and a couple of the hits I actually find rather forgettable. For all its acclaim, I've always found "O Trem Azul" a numbingly boring song, but you might disagree. For me the album's apex has always been its middle third. There are, to begin with, "Dos Cruces"--the only song sung in Spanish--and "Um Girassol" right after it, a couple of melancholy, even wrenching pieces with the power to tear out your innards. "Dos Cruces," the less talked-about of the two, is in some ways the more intriguing, with its strangely shifting chord progressions that refuse to settle in either the major or the minor mode, its full-throated culmination, and galloping outtro. The quiet torment of both songs then gives way to the more joyous, and much less earthly, "San Vicente," which those familiar with David Byrne's well-known (and entirely worthwhile) anthology Brazil Classics vol. 1 will quickly recognize. The song dies down, eclipsed almost imperceptibly by a peal of church bells--a delightful little conceit--and, after these in turn vanish, we come to a half-minute, Borges-sung interlude called "Estrelas," ineffably gorgeous in its own way, however fleeting. But this turns out to be merely the prelude to the geographical--and spiritual--heart of the record, "Clube da Esquina no. 2." I've listened to this song upwards of a hundred times, but am still at a loss to explain its peculiar power. It's essentially two melodic themes--the first hummed by Nascimento in perfect unison with an acoustic guitar (you almost don't even notice him), the second played by a string section--that alternate atop a scaffolding of guitar, upright bass, light drumming, and violins. No amount of analysis can account for its mysteriously serene mood, though: it's as if it's saturated with the wisdom of several lifetimes, and is entirely at peace with what it knows. This is light, almost weightless music, but it's also wonderfully profound, music bronzed in the forge of experience. It's a talisman, inexplicably healing, and we're drawn back to it again and again for its renewing force.
But these songs, like the entirety of Clube da Esquina, more properly speak for themselves. And though plenty of the tracks will probably grab you immediately, this is a recording that will take a good deal of time to unfurl itself fully. Just keep listening, and know that its wages, while bountiful, are meted out gradually over time. I will say, in closing, that the music gained an added level of meaning when I visited Minas Gerais, the region where Clube da Esquina was recorded--and where most of the group's members are from--this past summer. It's a mostly rustic, mountainous state, not at all the beachy paradise one thinks of when one imagines Brazil. Farmland abounds, goats graze on vast greeny pastures, mineral spas dominate the south, and little waterfalls, which the locals call cascadinhas, are always coming upon you suddenly in unexpected places. (The New York Times did a cool feature on Minas about a year ago, titled "The Other Brazil: Minas Gerais." Check it out.) But it's also an intensely spiritual place--deeply Catholic, of course, a fact that shows itself in the stunning colonial Portuguese churches scattered about the region (as in Ouro Preto, the whitewashed town pictured above), and in the general piety of the people; and also, less obviously, in mystical hippie havens like São Thomé das Letras (the rural landscape pictured above), places that have an ambiguous religious magnetism that can't be ascribed to any one creed, but whose pull you feel unmistakably when you visit them. (You can hear this reflected, perhaps, in the mood of melancholy spiritual yearning that above all defines Milton's music.) I remember passing long hours on buses traveling through Minas, listening to Clube da Esquina and other Milton albums on my iPod, gazing out the window at the undulating, sheep-flecked landscape, and somehow feeling as if the music made a great deal more sense against its rightful backdrop.
This post is for Leide, who will probably never read it.
1. Tudo que voce podia ser (2:56)
2. Cais (2:45)
3. O Trem Azul (4:05)
4. Saidas e bandeiras no. 1 (0:45)
5. Nuvem cigana (2:59)
6. Cravo e canela (2:31)
7. Dos Cruces (5:22)
8. Um girassol da cor de seu cabelo (4:12)
9. San Vicente (2:46)
10. Estrelas (0:28)
11. Clube da esquina no. 2 (3:38)
12. Paisagem da janela (2:55)
13. Me deixa em paz (3:01)
14. Os Povos (4:27)
15. Saidas e bandeiras no. 2 (1:27)
16. Um gosto de sol (4:17)
17. Pelo amor de deus (2:02)
18. Lilia (2:30)
19. Trem de doido (3:56)
20. Nada sera como antes (3:20)
21. Ao que vai nascer (3:20)