Sunday, September 4, 2011

Caetano Veloso: Caetano Veloso (1968)

The year was 1968. Caetano Veloso, the self-fashioned enfant terrible of the Brazilian popular music scene, came bursting out of the blocks with this, his breathtakingly original--and still occasionally shocking--debut record.  The album was, in part, a middle finger to conservative listeners who insisted on insulating Brazilian music against incursions from the rock and psychedelia scenes that suddenly dominated America and Great Britain.  To that end, it succeeded marvelously: when he presented one of the album's crown jewels, "Alegria, Alegria," at the TV Festival in Rio de Janeiro, and later at the International Song Festival in São Paulo, he was booed so vigorously that he felt moved, in the latter performance, to deliver an impromptu (and now famous) speech scolding the audience for its intolerance.  And the newly-minted military dictatorship, nervous about what it perceived as Caetano Veloso's unrulinesss and flippancy, decided to imprison the young artist for four months in 1969--then exiled him for two years, a space he lived out in London, isolated and depressed.  Yet the album was also, equally as much, a love-letter to traditional Brazilian music; and this made its critics' complaints somewhat ironic.  Alongside the woozy, carnivalesque sounds inspired by the Beatles, Cream, and other contemporary acts, you can hear swathes of samba, afoxé, and, in the more delicate ballads (hell, in all Caetano's singing), echoes of João Gilberto.  Not for nothing does Caetano begin the first song, "Tropicalia," proclaiming, "Viva Bossa-sa-sa-sa!" amid chaotic, screeching violins, conga drums, and all manner of other raucousness.  The message was clear: he was wrenching Brazilian music into the present--into the future--even as he affirmed its most sacred and venerable origins.

A music, then, of brazen juxtapositions.  Caetano justifiably referred to his project as one of "musical cannibalism"--meaning, presumably, that he meant to devour most every kind of music he knew of, to filch whatever he could for his own ends.  Caetano Veloso comes off, accordingly, as a postmodern pastiche: the artist yanks various musical styles up by their roots and out of their native wild, planting them anew in a varied and exotic garden of his own making--one where the milky sounds of bossa nova could well exist side-by-side with sitar-music, organ, classical orchestra, snarling guitar.  In the rich and hospitable soil of Tropicalia (so this style came to be called, after the album's opening track, to Caetano's irritation), all was fair game.  The influence on Caetano Veloso of the Beatles, whose own albums had by this time come to sound like variety shows, practically goes without saying; and, indeed, the young artist, upstart crow that he was, conceived of his debut as a ploy to beat Sgt. Pepper's.  Whether he succeeded, you can of course decide for yourself.  What's certain, to this blogger anyway, is that Caetano was never as explosive, inspired, or arrestingly creative as here.  Though he would go on to build perhaps the most celebrated career in all of Brazilian music after the early 1960s, none of his succeeding albums--not Joia (exquisite but too safe), nor A Little More Blue, nor the overrated slice of self-indulgence that is Transa--matched this one in originality or sustained quality.  This was an extraordinary vision gifted to a young, iconoclastic badass, and it burned brightly and intensely enough to trigger a full-fledged music movement, Tropicalia, that lasted several years and left us with some of the most imaginative and daring records of the past fifty years.

Most everything that makes Caetano such a heavyweight is on display here: the knack for crafting melodies of such beauty and shorn purity you could almost gasp (and they often steal upon you suddenly, as in the lovely cascade at 0:48 of "Alegria, Alegria"); the delight at inhabiting border-regions (between genres, moods, even genders in some instances); and the ability to write lyrics that could almost stand alone as poetry, a talent that's earned him the epithet "the South American Bob Dylan."  (The similarities end with the lyrics.  Caetano routinely gets up to a level of harmonic sophistication that I don't think Dylan could even have dreamed of.)  For all the political hullabaloo that this record caused, its lyrics are surprisingly empty of commentary about the government; the dictatorship seems to have simply taken exception to the music's generally rebellious mood.  Rather, the poetry contained here is an exercise in surrealism, as in "Tropicalia" ("The monument has no door / The entry of an ancient street, narrow and crooked / And a smiling child in the knee, ugly and dead / Stretch out your hand"), and "Clarice," about a young boy's eerie confrontation with a mysterious, virginal figure ("I was afraid / Of the cold fear of ghosts / A body that did not show / Made of divination / The buttons always closed").  But when the songs succeed, as they usually do, they do so most of all on the strength of those otherworldly melodies; these are what carry tracks like "Clarice," "No dia em que vim-me embora," "Alegria, Alegria," and "Ave Maria" into your brain--into your body.  Only very occasionally does the album fail--"Superbacana" is an instance; so is the maddeningly repetitious "Soy loco por ti America"--and in such moments, thankfully rare, the songs come perilously close to sounding like throwaways from the soundtrack to Loveboat.

The record's greatest single offering will always be "Clarice," a song that distills, as if in capsule form, the zeitgeist of the late sixties.  In its wistful, cryptic, emotionally vulnerable mood--and, even more, its stunningly intricate construction--it really only has one peer from the same time period, and this is Brian Wilson's "Surf's Up," with which it's always twinned in my mind.  The song is a six-part suite resembling, in its careful architecture, a temple of some mystery religion, through whose several shadowy rooms we pass en route to its central chamber--at which point, on arriving, we become initiates, possessors of its obscure and hard-won knowledge.  Of what this knowledge consists, exactly, is likely irreducible to any verbal translation.  The best that can be said is that it moves and pleases us beyond articulation--and this pleasure, however incommunicable, may turn out to be the highest kind of knowledge.

Caetano Veloso (1968)

1. Tropicalia (3:40)
2. Clarice (5:30)
3. No dia em que vim-me embora (2:28)
4. Alegria, alegria (2:51)
5. Onde andaras (1:58)
6. Anunciação (2:02)
7. Superbacana (1:28)
8. Paisagem (2:39)
9. Clara (1:49)
10. Soy loco por ti America (3:46)
11. Ave Maria (2:22)
12. Eles (4:41)

Monday, August 22, 2011

João Gilberto: The Early Records (1957-1961)

To say that all roads of modern Brazilian music lead back to João Gilberto would be a stretch; Tom Jobim, who wrote many of the songs João famously interpreted, merits at least as much of a claim as progenitor as João does; and, well, there's that whole century-old tradition of samba out of which both men sprang, which they internalized and then brilliantly reconceived.  But it wouldn't be a huge stretch.  Listen to Caetano Veloso (who refers to João as "mi maestro") sing a song like "O Leaozhino" off Bicho (1977); to the seductive marriage of guitar and voice, the perfect garnishing of nonsense syllables, on the title track from Novos Baianos' Acabou Chorare (1972); to the nasally-sensual singing style of Chico Buarque on most any cut, but especially softly swooning ones like "No Fala de Maria" from the fourth Chico Buarque de Hollanda record (1971): these artists are all João's issue (more than Jobim's, more than anyone's), and all of them are quite outspoken about this fact; while they made albums that sold in far greater quantities than those of the old master, all are more or less made in João's image, and their musical visions pick up where João's leaves off.  What this means is that at the very center of the Brazilian music pantheon is one of the most enigmatic, eccentric creatures in all of twentieth-century pop culture--one who, though he has triggered more scrutiny, speculation, and spilled ink than just about any other figure in MPB, will always remain essentially a puzzle.  Other music traditions from the last century were inaugurated by loud, flamboyant showmen--Elvis Presley writhing his loins on the Milton Berle show, Louis Armstrong pandering to white audiences' fetish for black minstrelsy, Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival.  As the almost single-handed creator of bossa nova, though, João--reclusive, nocturnal, notoriously uncooperative--seems as unlikely a candidate for celebrity as a person can be.  Yet armed with a new kind of music--a languid, sparse music marked by autumnal rustlings--he staged a sudden, decisive coup through sly, subversive whispers.  He was a shy, awkward prophet preaching a gospel of silence, of hushed intimacy; and, on the strength of a couple of singles ("Chega de Saudade" and "Desafinado"), he turned the whole of Rio de Janeiro on its head, cleansing it of the excesses of 1950s samba and ushering in a new dispensation.  It's a dispensation that Brazilian musicians have never really left.

Of course, the style didn't come to him ready-made.  It seems, instead, to have materialized rather the way a pearl does--the slow-building, exquisite product of a sustained turbulence.  He was a guy who first arrived in Rio around 1954, an early twenty-something from a small town in Bahia hunting after musical fame.  But he hadn't found it: few, if any, of the club-owners in Copacabana seemed particularly eager for his services, and even when did score gigs, audiences humiliated him by chattering during his performances and tipping him afterward (he considered this patronizing).  He quickly ran out of funds (he refused to supplement his income with non-musical jobs), and his family, annoyed with his choice of a music career, cut off all financial help; he was fast heading for a crack-up. And then there was the interior violence: his self-loathing, his growing feeling that he was wasting his life.  I imagine he was gripped by the same inner sickness that plagues millions of people in their early twenties: that desperate feeling that he was getting older and had done nothing of merit yet, the keen awareness that he was dying a tiny bit with each passing heartbeat, the constant stabs of lust, the horror of missed opportunities.  He kept up a low profile, wandering the dank, ancient streets of the Lapa neighborhood at night, hunting after reefers he might spend his last money on.  He got high when he could; he slunk.  Those who remember him during those days recall a young weirdo with scraggly hair down to his shoulders, wrinkly clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks, and a habit of ambling down the avenues of Copacabana with his head lowered, muttering to himself.

At last, Luis Telles, a former bandmate and one of his last remaining friends, perceived he was in danger and, taking pity on him, spirited him away to Porto Alegre (at left), the lovely coastal city in Rio Grande do Sul.  Telles, who must have been reasonably well to-do, put João up in a luxury hotel and immediately began circulating him about town, introducing him to influential friends.  See, João was one of those people who, though shy and strange, had an ineffable magnetism about him, a charisma that came out not just when he played music but during everyday interaction.  He went about doing ridiculous, spot-on impressions of people; he quoted Rilke; he talked to cats, and they listened, or appeared to.  So friends were apt to bend over backwards for him because they wanted him around, wanted his conversation and aura.  The kitchen staff at the hotel carried his meals up to him daily, free of charge, because he went downstairs and played music for them now and then.  And slowly but surely, he began to exercise his peculiar grip over the men and women who filled the nightclubs where Telles was taking him--particularly the Clube da Chave (Key Club), his favorite haunt, which became the new hotspot in Porto Alegre.  He had found an audience: at any particular time of night, Joãozhino (as he was called) might walk into the Clube da Chave, guitar in hand, and, provided no one else was performing, play old Brazilian standards for hours, often till sunrise.  Or, sometimes, he wouldn't play at all, but only talk, telling intimate little anecdotes, rattling off half-coherent bits of poetry or mysticism.  And people listened, charmed.  Some, accustomed to going to bed early, adjusted their schedules and became night-owls so that they might absorb João's music and presence.  Together the club's patrons pooled their funds and bought him a new guitar, and when he refused it because he disliked the sound, they simply returned it, unfazed, and bought him a different one according to his whims.  Many starting imitating him, adopting his Bahian accent, his dreamy, dandiacal mannerisms, his ragged dress code.  And, with the help of a few young women who'd taken to him (including at least one who was married), he finally broke in his loins.  Things were looking up.
Yet his old scourge, depression, crept up on him again, like a quicksand that kept threatening to swallow him; the more he struggled, the deeper in he got.  He had started acting especially strangely.  The hotel maid noticed that each morning, as if by a ritual, he strewed tangerine peels beneath his bed--and when she asked him why, he calmly explained that he was trying to attract ants "to keep [him] company."  Telles, worried again for João's mental health, ponied up some more money and persuaded him to use it to buy a bus ticket to Diamantina (at left), the baroque mining town in rural Minas Gerais where João's sister, Dadainha, and her husband lived.  To Telles's surprise he agreed, departing Porto Alegre in the pre-dawn hours one day and arriving, the following day, at his sister's doorstep.  He'd given her no warning of his impending visit, so she was astonished to see him when she opened the door.  Hugging him tight, she released and scrutinized him from top to bottom, immediately perceiving he was in a dark place: he was haggard, gaunt, looked older than his years.  Dadainha let him inside and watched, disturbed, as he walked about in an almost sleep-like state.  Having no idea how to deal with depression, she simply gave him everything she could offer: the spare room upstairs, daily meals, and company whenever he wanted it (which was seldom).  He kept entirely to himself, remaining in his room for days at a time, and--when he discovered it formed a natural echo-chamber with acoustics that pleased him--locking himself in the upstairs bathroom with his guitar.  On certain afternoons, he would sit beside the crib of his sister's newborn baby and play for the child while it slept.  One day late in February, the sun was particularly relentless, and, seeking shelter from the heat, he snatched up his guitar, went into the bathroom, shut the door, and sat down on the edge of the bathtub.

But even in here it was hot.  Condensation hung heavy on the tessellated walls.  Out of the stillness, through the window, he became suddenly aware of a throng of laundresses on their way back from the river, balancing crates of clothing on their heads.  He watched them, mahogany in the sun, their massive hips swinging from side to side as they strode along the cobble; let himself feel the pendulous heft of their bodies while they swayed, iambic almost, in the cruel February heat.  Bim, bom: a sure rhythmic sweep.  His gaze drifted upward, across the hundred whitewashed houses with their russet roofs and, beyond them, the mountains gravid with diamonds.  The day had passed its peak and so would summer, soon.  Already the fruits on the trees, little pequi and jaboticabas, had swollen to the point of bursting, and the branches sagged beneath their collective weight.  If he focused hard enough, he could feel his own flesh, just beyond ripe now, rotting one pulse at a time.  He felt suddenly faint--and, to counter this, began to inhale and exhale slowly, deeply; bracing himself on the rim of the tub, he used yoga breathing techniques he'd lately learned in books.  The regularity of this, its mind-erasing power, steadied him; and for an elusive moment he felt a synchrony with the created world: the expansion and contraction of his lungs corresponded, now, with the punctual growth and decline of everything around him as it teemed with new vigor and then hastened downward to death.  A rhythm and a breath.

And he started to play.  In the super-resonant space of the bathroom, with its tiles saturated by years of steam and humidity, he found that sung melodies and plucked chords rang out with a peculiar richness and intensity.  He discovered that with his guitar alone he could achieve the fullness of a small orchestra--and that by singing in a soft, nasal style he was able to speed up and slow down his vocals at will; he could flirt with the tempo, dallying behind or hurrying ahead of it as he saw fit.  And he devised a new strumming pattern, an evenly-spaced shuffle in which the main stress lay solidly on the first beat.  The thumb simulated a bass, striking the fifth or sixth string on the first and third beat of each measure, while the fingers busied themselves about the neck and body forming diminished seventh, ninth, and thirteenth chords--wistful, mysterious chords redolent of jazz, except that this music didn't swing.  (Check out this video for more details.)  Suddenly the guitar alone was doing everything, keeping the rhythm, making harmonies, supplying its own bass-lines--performing what had traditionally been the roles of loud, boisterous percussion sections and full-fledged bands.  All that remained was the melody, and this João provided in the form of gentle, cooing vocal lines soft enough to sedate a baby.  In this radically stripped-down scion of samba, the emphasis was almost entirely on the singing and the (nylon) acoustic guitar-playing--on the precision-cut, lapidary vocals with their clean enunciation (João was inspired by Frank Sinatra), and the expert finger-work.  The result was a music that, at its addictive best, smacks of pure maple syrup: a concentrated, viscous music, slow-travelling and patient, that clings to you almost insidiously.  Within a couple of years bossa nova ("the new way"), as it came to be called, would become the prime musical craze of Europe and the Americas, a position it held until the Beatles ushered in the British Invasion around 1964.  Few know it was essentially dreamt up in a bathroom.

His time in Diamantina had drawn to a close.  Dadainha, concerned like most everyone else for his sanity, pressured João to return to his father's house in Bahia, which he consented to do.  But he was already well on his way to shaking free of his melancholy, though only he knew this; he had in his possession something wholly new and strange, a kind of grenade waiting to be loosed on the musical world--and the excitement of this sustained him.  Arriving, then, at his childhood home, he tried playing a couple of songs for his (stern, impatient) father in the style he'd just devised.  "That's not even music," his father snarled, "that's just nhenhenhém."  Concluding his son was out of his mind, he sent him to a sanatorium shortly thereafter, where he was subjected to a battery of psychiatric tests.  In the course of one interview with a doctor, he simply ignored the questions the man asked him and, gazing out the window absently, remarked, "Look at the wind frisking the hair of the trees."  "But trees have no hair," the doctor said, to which João responded: "And there are some who have no poetry in their souls."  He was released after a week.

He decided instinctively he was ready to move back to Rio.  There he resumed the semi-itinerant lifestyle he'd had two years before, and for which he would become famous: he became anew the bizarre, unkempt nightwalker filching meals and beds off friends and acquaintances, half-compensating them with conversation that was three parts bullshit and one part existential truth, and with some of the most original music they had ever heard.  Little by little, among the bohemian sub-culture that flocked about Copacabana, word began to diffuse about this cryptic hipster who'd invented a new style of guitar-playing and who didn't sing so much as whispered.  All sorts of stories have accumulated about João during this time; the most fun--and exemplary--is probably that which tells of his random appearance one night on the doorstep of future musician-legend Roberto Menescal, a friend of a friend who was hosting an anniversary party at his downtown apartment.  "I'm João Gilberto," he said simply.  "Edinho gave me your address."  Menescal, who'd heard of him, let him inside reluctantly, and the two of them cut through the dozens of guests to an empty back room where, at João's behest, Menescal handed him a guitar.  He played "Ho-ba-la-la," an original composition he'd recently perfected, and Menescal listened in wonder, then asked him to play it ten more times; and when he'd done that he took him by the arm and led him back past the guests, out the door, and to friend Ronaldo Boscoli's flat, where he repeated the miracle in front of ten other people.  This group, in turn, escorted João to one flat after another in a pilgrimage that lasted until around 10am two mornings later.  This, in a sense, epitomizes the heydey of bossa: groups of twenty-something hipster cariocas, riding a wave of decadence and optimism that came with Brazil's newfound economic and political stability (the military dictatorship was still eight years away), smoking hashish, sipping cachaça, and showing up on each other's doorsteps at 2am, guitars in hand, saying, "Dude, check out this new riff!"  Freshly rolled joints, guitars, and ideas changed hands freely.  It was a fun, feckless, and ultra-cool subculture, and in João they'd found an apostle and a spokesperson; in his works they'd found their sonic scriptures.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that he would secure a record contract before long.  This came through his friendship with Tom Jobim, whom he met in 1957 and who recognized, immediately on hearing "Bim Bom" and "Ho-ba-la-la," the potential that inhered in this new style.  He saw how, by relegating the percussion and horns to the back burner, it opened up space for the nuanced, understated vocals, as well as for the sophisticated jazz harmonies with which he'd been experimenting.  Jobim wasted little time, therefore, in arranging for João to cut a 78rpm single containing the aforementioned "Chega de Saudade" and "Desafinado," which he'd co-written with Vinicius de Moraes.  These songs were already a couple of years old--in fact, Elizete Caroso had released her own version of "Chega"--but it wasn't until they came to be filtered through João's imagination, his sleek new musical apparatus, that they found their fullest embodiment.  The record was a sleeper: after two months of waiting around, the listening public finally awoke to its entrancing grip, its uncanny power.  Sales shot up, and he was commissioned to record a succession of three full-length LP's--Chega de Saudade (1959), O Amor, O Sorriso e a Flor (1960), and João Gilberto (1961)--that became the bedrock of bossa nova and made him a global sensation.

This is where the story ends.  Or rather, it's where João's bildungsroman ends and the other, decidedly different story of his new life as a reluctant celebrity begins.  That story, and a commentary on the records he made during his long years as an expat in the U.S. and Mexico, will be taken up in the sequel to this post.  For now, I simply want to clarify that I'm featuring the three albums just mentioned under the guise of the collection The Legendary João Gilberto (O Mito in its Brazilian iteration), an anthology that EMI released in 1990.  The compilation isn't perfect: it messes with the original order of the songs, jumbling together tracks from all three records; and the producers at RCA added a very slight reverb effect, though this is barely noticeable unless you're an aficionado.  The latter quality caused João himself, famously OCD about minute acoustic details, to file a lawsuit against EMI, his lawyer stating that the remastered tracks “did not pertain to the original recordings, banalizing the work of a great artist"--and as a result the disc was removed from the shelves shortly after its release.  The lawsuit has been deadlocked for about two decades now, and though it's supposed to get settled this year, this seems unlikely.  But to my (untutored) ears, anyway, these remasters are pretty pristine, at least in comparison with the original LP pressings released in Brazil fifty years ago, which--with the exception of O Amor, mysteriously superior in sound to the other two--are murky indeed.  For better or for worse, the remasters are the versions of these songs I carry around with me; they're the best we can hope for until further notice.

As for the music itself: to the extent that I haven't already described it, early João is about as close to perfect as music gets: sweet, melancholy, weightless music that--like a lot of great art--conceals the interior violence and obsessive workmanship that fueled it beneath a veneer of effortlessness.  You'll have your own favorites; for my money, the best tracks are the Jobim-Moraes compositions, especially the slow ballads--"O Amor em Paz," "Insensatez," "Meditaçao"--which are shot through with a hushed romanticism that's unlike most anything else in music ("Every João song is a fuck-me song," my roommate is fond of noting.  He's probably right.)  These songs are object lessons in concision, two-minute operas that unfold like drive-by shootings, delivering their exquisite emotional blow and then vanishing again into silence.  There are unabashedly joyous songs ("So Em Tus Braços," "O Barquinho"), inconsolably sad songs ("Manha de Carnaval"), and songs like João's own "Ho-ba-la-la" that possess the sublime simplicity of zen riddles.  If the music sounds a little antiquated to you at first, keep listening--in time it will work its peculiar magic on you, and virtually all other music will seem overstated and heavy-handed by comparison.  Soon you will need to hear it every day--which is to say, of course, that you'll be under its spell.  You certainly won't be the first.

1. Chega de Saudade (2:01)
2. Desafinado (1:58)
3. Samba de Uma Nota So (1:38)
4. O Pato (2:01)
5. Bolinha de Papel (1:19)
6. O Amor em Paz (2:23)
7. Trevo de Folhas (1:24)
8. O Barquinho (2:31)
9. Lobo Bobo (1:20)
10. Bim Bom (1:16)
11. Ho-Ba-La-La (2:16)
12. A Los Pes Da Cruz (1:34)
13. E Luxo So (1:58)
14. Outra Vez (1:51)
15. Coisa Mais Linda (2:52)
16. Este Seu Olhar (2:14)
17. Trenzinho (1:51)
18. Brigas, Nunca Mais (2:05)
19. Saudade Fez Um Samba (1:47)
20. Amor Certinho (1:52)
21. Insensatez (2:26)
22. Rosa Morena (2:05)
23. Morena Boca de Ouro (1:59)
24. Maria Ninguem (2:22)
25. A Primeira Vez (1:52)
26. Presente de Natal (1:53)
27. Samba da Minha Terra (2:21)
28. Saudade da Bahia (2:16)
29. Corcovado (1:58)
30. So Em Teus Bracos (1:47)
31. Meditacao (1:46)
32. Voce Eu (2:31)
33. Doralice (1:27)
34. Discussao (1:50)
35. Se e Tarde Me Perdoa (1:47)
36. Um Abraco No Bonfa (1:37)
37. Manha de Carnaval (2:35)
38. O Nossa Amor, A Felicidade (3:06)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Shirley Collins & Davy Graham: Folk Roots, New Routes (1964)

Of all the strange, celebrated, hypnotically good musicians who emerged during the English folk revival of the 1960s, probably none was more astonishing--and, among listeners this side of the Atlantic, as puzzlingly neglected--as Shirley Collins.  Collins is an artist whose eerie, disembodied voice seems to call out to us from a world far removed from our own--an agrarian England something akin to Thomas Hardy's Wessex, where great houses dominated swathes of unspoiled green acreage; sweaty peasants, faces ablaze with warm stout, whirled round the May-Pole on Whitsun; and tender young dairymen like Angel Clare, suicidal with desire, pined after flaxen-haired girls like Tess Durbeyfield.  It's a world Collins resurrected with the diligent care of an archaeologist, undertaking, in her youth, a disciplined study of the English folk tradition going back to the Middle Ages, which yielded fruit on her first four to five records especially.  Nor was her curiosity limited to England: in the summer and fall of 1959, Collins traveled through the rural American south with folklorist and then-lover Alan Lomax, gleaning songs from visits to churches, prisons, chain-gang outings, and all manner of communal gatherings (she captured the experience in a remarkable book, America Over the Water, in 2004).  Most of Collins's songs are shot through with a concentration of bare feeling that I'm seldom quite ready for; about the best ones, one can say what Robert Frost said of really good poems: you know, the moment they strike you, that you've taken an immortal wound.  They cut deep, and you never entirely recover.

A blogger, faced with the task of picking one record to feature from Collins's discography, is spoiled for choice: there's Anthems in Eden (1969), which, equipped with a "natural orchestra" of crude rustic instruments, chronicles the downfall of traditional England during World War I; the watershed No Roses (1971--that magic year for British music!), when Collins went electric for the first time; and then there are the stripped-down early albums, which strike me as her best.  The finest of these last, for my money, is her 1964 collaboration with virtuoso guitarist Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes.  What makes it special is, in part, its intimacy--its sixteen songs feature only Collins's austere singing underpinned by Graham's guitar--and in part, of course, its plain repleteness with great tunes, with gorgeous, fresh-hewn melodies like those of "Hori Horo" and "Reynardine."  But most, what sets it apart is its eclecticism: this is a record that places traditional songs of regions like Sussex and Northumberland alongside those of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta; makes homages to contemporary jazz ("Blue Monk"); and, most hauntingly, suffuses the lot of these with Middle Eastern and Indian sounds.  Its signature track might be "Pretty Saro," about a man who immigrates to the States to flee his debts and leaves his lady-love behind ("I came to this country in eighteen forty-nine / I saw many true-loves but never saw mine").  The song has a rich history.  Dorothy Scarborough, who conducted an investigation of Appalachian folk music in the 1930s--and fleshed out her findings in the book A Song-Catcher in Southern Mountains (1937)--encountered it while passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in 1930.  She describes the experience in Song-Catcher:

"Mrs Stikeleather sang it into my dictaphone and contributed it to this collection. She told me that while the date ‘eighteen forty-nine’ is used in some of the versions of the song, ‘seventeen forty-nine’ is more probably correct, as that year witnessed considerable immigration to North Carolina from Ireland, and Scotland, and this old English song was no doubt adapted to its new setting at that time."
Fascinating stuff.  Whether Collins discovered the song through Scarborough's transcription is something we probably can't know; more interesting, I think, is the way she and Graham reinterpret it.  In their hands it assumes an almost ghostly call-and-response form, with Collins pouring out the vocals and Graham replying with weird, sitar-like inventions on guitar.  It's the perfect meshing of traditional Anglo-American poetry and melody with the eastern influences that Graham became famous for incorporating throughout his career.  We never question this strange marriage; rather, we assent, instinctively, to its naked, pre-rational power.  We greet it as the beautifully chilling expression of loneliness, of eviscerating nostalgia, that it is.  Every bit as noteworthy is the next song, "Rif Mountain," a jaw-dropping showpiece for Graham that will make you want to take up the acoustic guitar if you don't play it already.  It's a blistering slice of eastern trance-music in which Graham (pictured above) succeeds--even more than on "Pretty Saro"--in making his guitar ape a sitar.  Devotees of Zeppelin's will quickly hear echoes of any number of acoustic folk songs that appeared on that group's records, particularly the eastern-inflected "Black Mountain Side" from Led Zeppelin (though that song comes even more directly from Bert Jansch's version of the traditional Irish piece "Black Waterside").  Jimmy Page was an assiduous student of the English folk guitarists whose ascendancy preceded his own by a decade or so, particularly Graham and Jansch; that he heard Folk Roots, New Routes seems beyond question.  He clearly learned his lessons well.  While this review has focused primarily on Collins, I ought to point out that this album is as much Graham's as it is Collins's.  No mere accompanist, Graham proved a wildly imaginative partner for Collins, one whose contributions here (to say nothing of his solo albums, especially The Guitar Player) laid the foundation for a whole generation of guys who took his lead.  He himself, it should be noted, was deeply indebted to the slide guitar work of Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom Collins discovered on that influential journey she took through the deep south in her twenties.  McDowell's ghost hovers over much of this album.

Anyway, that's all for now.  Enjoy!

1. Nottamun Town (3:40)
2. Proud Maisrie (4:03)
3. The Cherry Tree Carol (3:20)
4. Blue Monk (3:06)
5. Hares on the Mountain (3:00)
6. Reynardine (2:31)
7. Pretty Saro (4:18)
8. Rif Mountain (2:26)
9. Jane, Jane (2:42)
10. Love is a Pleasin' (2:34)
11. Boll Weevil, Holler (3:01)
12. Hori Horo (2:15)
13. Bad Girl (2:44)
14. Lord Greggory (3:37)
15. Grooveyard (3:03)
16. Dearest Dear (3:05)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jorge Ben: Ben (1972)

Sweet Jesus!  I had no intention of featuring this record so soon, but was hustling down the street this morning to "Fio Maravilha" on my iPod and became swept up in the song's operatic grandeur, in the seismic power of its chorus.  What could prepare one, conceivably, for the ecstatic 45-second chant with which it ends--for the sweet rush of its vocal layerings, its ridiculous whoops and howls?  Nothing like it anywhere.  (Of course, the amusing irony about "Fio Maravilha" is that it essentially amounts to a play-by-play commentary on a soccer play that Jorge witnessed--but don't let this ruin its sublimity for you.)  I was tramping through the snow-cloaked roads of Madison, blasting this song for what must have been the billionth time, when it suddenly occurred to me that I was long past due for a Worlds of Wanwood post.  And, well, Ben (1972), though it is certainly not one of the very best Jorge albums, is still gifted with four or five of the artist's most blissful acoustic sambas, and on the strength of these alone it easily merits its place as the fourth installment of my special Jorge feature.  What's more, until the relatively recent advent of file-sharing, it was exceedingly hard to obtain: a "holy grail" of sorts for Jorge aficionados and for Brazilian music enthusiasts generally, for years it remained all but impossible to find and prohibitively expensive.  I myself came across it while stalking some vinyl crates at an outdoor sale in the Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro last August, but by that time I'd already found it on any number of blogs, downloaded and played the hell out of it.  You should do the same.

To the extent that Ben sold when it initially came out, its main selling-points were "Fio Maravilha," the fluffy, summery-lovely "Caramba!...Galileu da Galileia," and a stripped-down version of "Taj Mahal," the earliest iteration of a chart that would reappear in the form of a massive bacchic chant on Gil & Jorge (1975), and the following year on Africa Brasil.  Yet Ben has more to recommend it than these three tracks: there's the fun, propulsive "Morre o burro" that opens the record; "Domingo 23," a hypnotically repetitive song showcasing Jorge's typical interest in heraldry; and "Moça," the album's emotional crux.  "Moça" is a song to become obsessed with, an anguished five-minute plea for a girl's love that features some of the most starkly beautiful acoustic guitar work--and desperate, dolorous singing--you are ever likely to hear.  Lyrically it's nothing terribly original, but musically the song is laced with such naked affective force, such forthright sadness, as to render it all but unbearable to listen to.  The ending, in which Jorge frenziedly repeats, "Eu conquistaria voce, moça!" ("I would win you, girl") while a shrill synthesized violin rises relentlessly in the background, has an eviscerating power that remains mostly unblunted after countless listens.  If there's a parallel elsewhere in pop music, it might be the final minutes of Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"--but this is considerably rawer and creepier.

The album isn't without its weak points, of course--on the whole Ben's strength seems concentrated on its first side, though "O circo chegou" and "Paz e arroz" always sound flat to my ears.  Like most Jorge records, it's a bold experiment in fusing samba with North American elements of soul and blues, only it makes fewer concessions to the listener in the way of catchy hooks and riffs than his better-known records.  If it falls flat some of the time, then when it does succeed it does so pretty unforgettably.  Of particular note--in addition to Jorge's blistering dexterity on acoustic guitar and keening vocals--is the bass-work, which on Ben's best songs is little short of astonishing. Whoever contributed this--his or her name doesn't appear anywhere on the album info--provided a remarkably agile foundation to the music on this challenging, wholly worthwhile record.

I'm including a video here of a live version of "Domingas" (off the self-titled 1969 album) that Ben performed, seemingly as part of a television special in 1970, backed by Trio Mocoto (which supplied the accompaniment on Força Bruta).  I don't think it quite lives up to the original studio cut, but it's still arrestingly good and worth checking out.  It's also too funny how the perv camera-man keeps focusing on attractive young women in the audience who are apparently entranced by the performance (like the one clawing her seat at 3:28), at the exclusion of anyone else.  Anyway, enjoy all this material--album and video both.  I plan to feature more videos here at Wanwood in posts to come.  Until next time, adieu and godspeed!


1. Morre o burro, foca o homem (2:06)
2. O circo chegou (2:44)
3. Paz e arroz (2:04)
4. Moça (4:59)
5. Domingo 23 (3:49)
6. Fio Maravilha (2:11)
7. Quem cochicha o rabo espicha (3:28)
8. Caramba!...Galileu da Galileia (2:29)
9. Que nega e essa (3:33)
10. As rosas eram todas amarelas (3:52)
11. Taj mahal (5:29)