1974: Jorge Ben Jor - A Tábua de Esmeralda
I find it really awesome that Jorg Ben Jor successfully sued Rod Stewart for stealing the melody of his song “Taj Mahal” for the “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” chorus. (He also allegedly changed his surname from Ben to “Ben Jor” after American smooth R&B king George Benson started receiving the Brazilian singer’s royalty checks.) Ben Jor is one of Brazil’s most prolific musical legends, having released over 30 albums in the last 50 years, many of which are out of print. Aside from being a musician with an immensely talented sense for melodies and soul-infused grooves, Jorge Ben Jor fascinates me because he doesn’t fit the mold of the Tropicália musicians that have been recently exported so seamlessly into the arms of American independent culture.
Ben Jor predated the psychedelic modus operandi of Tropicália by a few years, gaining more exposure because he was actually allowed to play concerts. His less overtly political lyrics didn’t warrant as much censorship from the dictatorship at the time. In the 1970, when Brazil’s musical palate expanded, he distanced himself from bands within the youth-based Joven Guarda genre because they often dismissed the Brazilian aspect of their music (samba/bossa nova roots) in favor of borrowing too much from Western rock ‘n’ roll. He became a figurehead in MPB (musica popularra de Brasil), but by the mid 70s, he headed further and further from traditional samba into the territory of African soul/funk samba fusion.
The 1974 masterpiece A Tábua de Esméralda (translated as “The Emerald Tablet”) showcases Jorge Ben Jor’s lifelong love for theosophy, mysticism, and, above all, alchemy. He frequently lists Aquinas (one of Christianity’s most famed alchemists) as an influence. The cover of the LP borrows drawings from Nicholas Flamel, a manuscript seller who was historically immortalized as a great alchemist for his work on the philosopher’s stone. “O Homem da Gravata Florida” is indebted to Swedish renaissance botanist/occultist/alchemist Paracelsus. The hit single from the album was “Os Alquimistas Estão Chegando” (The Alchemists are Coming) and was even featured in a 1980 Brazilian movie during a memorable drug-induced scene.
Part of what I find really charming about Jorge Ben Jor is that he seems comfortable existing inside and outside genre, expectation, and philosophy. While he writes songs influenced by dense mystical texts, he’s perfectly okay writing songs about soccer teams. From A Tábua de Esméralda, he doesn’t shy away from political messages during standout track “Zumbi,” honoring Zumbi dos Palmares, leader of a runaway slave colony in 17th-century Brazil. Another album track “Errare Humanum Est” talks of space, gods, and astronauts. He has an understated style with a commitment to his complex identity. And the production is lively and the music is beautiful too. Fusing personality with an amalgam of musical styles, A Tábua de Esméralda is a great entry point into Jorge Ben Jor’s alchemy and artistry.
1966-1974: Rodd Keith - My Pipe Yellow Dream
A lot of fantastic talents were part of the studio musicians’ circles in Los Angeles from the 1950s onward – figures from both the jazz and classical worlds – and as incidental and film music advanced with the complex, psychedelic 1960s, so the introduction of soft psych, pop, and exotic flourishes became part of the environment. I guess one could loosely call composer-arranger Rodd Keith (1937-1974) part of that scene, but his situation was a bit different. A multi-instrumentalist who had a strong desire to compose classical music, Keith became a central figure in the song poem or “song sharking” industry, where amateur songwriters (mostly lyricists) would send in their words and a fee, and record companies would “guarantee” their next hit – pressing up a small quantity of singles with a few sent out as promos to be played on regional radio at some ungodly hour. The curious thing is that Keith – and probably some other song-poem arranger/composers as well – took seriously many of the lyrics and projects that were sent to him. Though the industry was a song mill and second takes were rare, Keith arranged the often goofy, naïve or just plain lame words of would-be “collaborators” into short gems that took shape as psychedelic pop, rockabilly, country or jazz-funk. To be sure, the music was sometimes shaky and rough around the edges, but there’s honesty to the tunes’ presentation and for being “work” for an aspiring composer and his occasional studio mates, it appears as though they were having a lot of fun with the proceedings.
Released in September 2011, Pipe Yellow Dream is the second collection of Keith’s song poems to be issued on the Roaratorio label, following Saucers in the Sky (2005). Tzadik put out the first two full-length Keith projects, I Died Today (1996) and Ecstasy to Frenzy (2004). For this collection, there’s even a 1968 cover of the Box Tops’ “Choo Choo Train” resplendent in blue-eyed soul, twang, and punchy brass. As with most song poems, the balance of this LP is culled from material released on Preview, Cinema, Action, and MSR from 1966 to 1974. Not all of the songs are hokey – there’s no reason that “Tired of Waiting” couldn’t be some undiscovered folk-rock/SSW nugget, for even with its plain lyrics, the dryly crackling shuffle and hazy arrangement give the tune an interesting feel. Even the absurdity of “Surfin’ Along” is rendered with sun-kissed catchiness. The second side begins with a shock in the unintentionally humorous political rant/poem of “America the Not So Beautiful,” covering school busing and pro-worker missives that’s credited to Keith nom-de-plume The Real Pros. Rarely was the music rendered in song poem form political, though there are occasional collisions of anti-drug and pro-trip messages across these collections. The Real Pros also weave a stammering slow funk on “Search out Your Soul, American” that, if not totally convincing, conjures a knowing wince. There’s a dark insistence to “Love Opens the Door” that renders the words’ absolute triteness as something appreciable and powerful. Rodd Keith was an excellent if left-field arranger and composer, sure, but he also imbued strangers’ potential missteps with a range of feelings, and that impulse comes from somewhere equally special.
1993: Hum - Electra 2000
Nostalgic remarks seem to dominate most blurbs and blog posts written about Hum. The band’s brief status as a “one hit” alternative rock wonder in the 90s was taken over by a new appreciation after many realized the band actually had the goods to back their success. “Stars” becoming a surprise hit may have been the worst thing to have happened to the group – it propelled their career, but was also a relatively average song that overshadowed Hum’s full repertoire due to its’ frequent airplay. Both You’d Prefer an Astronaut and Downwards is Heavenwards were both the rare kind of alternative rock albums that aren’t simply collections of filler material intended to bolster the sticker songs on the price tag.
This was nothing new to the group; by the release of 1995’s breakthrough You’d Prefer an Astronaut Hum had been toiling away for nearly six years and had two fantastic but overlooked albums. Electra 2000, the band’s second release in 1993, remains my personal favorite of all of Hum’s output. The kickoff track “Iron Clad Lou” could be considered the blueprint for “Stars,” starting off as a quiet intertwining guitar track until the group suddenly launches into repetitive near-metal riffage. Purely cathartic with its intensity and forward momentum, the rest of the album mostly follows suit. Electra 2000 is the group’s heaviest and most relentless album. Even the slower songs on the album don’t wallow for long before being overtaken by the bombastic guitar theatrics Hum became known for. “Double Dip,” despite the tacky lyrics and overdone vocals, is an early example of the group’s remarkably adept dynamic control that they’d later perfect.
Like You’d Prefer an Astronaut, Electra 2000 should be taken as a whole. While it certainly sports a number of weak songs, it is more than made up for by some of the band’s finest moments overall. They never again reached the intensity of songs like “Pinch and Roll” and “Scraper,” for better or worse. You’d Prefer an Astronaut still remains the most beloved and nostalgia driven choice for an introductory album, but for those wanting to hear Hum the at their most furious and cathartic apex, Electra 2000 will not steer you wrong.
1995: Eric’s Trip - “Smoke”
I live in Calgary, a city of one million people that’s fairly isolated in the vast prairies of Western Canada. A few weeks ago we had our first snowfall of the season. Winter is bitterly cold here, and it lasts for months — last year it got cold in September, and it didn’t let up until late April. There was snow on the ground for roughly a third of the year, with windchill temperatures regularly going below -30 Celcius (that’s -22 Fahrenheit). When it’s so cold outside, it takes a lot to convince any sane person to leave the house. In the coldest days of winter, there’s quite honestly nothing to do but get as warm and cozy as possible, often in isolation from friends and socializing — and that, at least for those of us up here with a penchant for introverted 90s indie rock, is where Eric’s Trip comes in.
Eric’s Trip, from Moncton, New Brunswick, experienced their share of winters. The majority of their discography is laced with lo-fi tape hiss, the mark of extensive 4-track recording done in basements and bedrooms — the sorts of isolated recording locales the Canadian winter tends to force upon a person. I’ve never experienced winter in the Maritimes, but I can imagine the chilly ocean air makes something comparable to the snowy wastelands I’ve grown up with in the west. This is part of why I like the song “Smoke” so much — somehow, it finds beauty in the winter life.
“Smoke” comes from The Road South, a three-song 7” that Sonic Unyon released in 1995. Much of Eric’s Trip’s music is as 90s as one can get, often warranting comparison to Sebadoh/Dinosaur Jr./etc. — but “Smoke” strikes me as distinctly their own, lightly psychedelic and reserved. Put simply: “Smoke” is a winter mixtape staple.
Rick White opens the song by quietly singing, “snow outside is only in your eyes.” After the first verse, however, a beautiful harmonized vocal line fills out the recording space, sounding as enveloping as a fresh coat of snow. The tremolo-soaked guitar notes are as brittle as ice, and the cavernous, echoed vocals that fade in during the last minute are as cold and airy as a winter breeze. I feel that songs like “Smoke” can only be crafted in the heart of winter, so let’s ignore that this single was originally released in July 1995.
Eric’s Trip wrote other winter songs. Both Rick White and Julie Doiron continue to write their fair share (The Unintended, a band that’s essentially Rick White with the Sadies, put out a distinctly cold album in 2003). It’s “Smoke,” however, that does it for me: in just over three minutes, Eric’s Trip crafted a quintessential 90s indie rock track for the coldest — but vaguely optimistic — moments of winter.
1971: İlhan Mimaroğlu - “Wings of the Delirious Demon”
Can you imagine what exactly a delirious demon might sound like? Maybe the closing scene of Disney’s Fantasia pops into your head, where a towering black god conjures dead spirits to the tune of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, but even that moment doesn’t approach the shear sonic chaos I assume would accompany a full scale breakout from the underworld. In all likelihood, no other piece of music ever written will encapsulate the absolute terror of these unknown evils like Turkish composer İlhan Mimaroğlu’s masterwork “Wings of the Delirious Demon.” “Wings” is the fifteen minute centerpiece of Mimaroğlu’s 1971 album of the same name that to this day remains one of the most captivating and utterly bewildering works of electro-acoustic manipulation laid to tape, and considering he was a contemporary of men like Edgard Varèse, that’s saying something.
The full length of this track consists of heavily manipulated clarinet playing that Mimaroğlu twists into squawks, metallic pings, deep growls, ear-splitting static, and literally every frequency in between. It really is hard to describe how many completely off the wall noises Mimaroğlu coaxes out of his clarinet, but I’m not exaggerating when I say nearly all of the bleeps and bloops crammed into this track have become staples of many respectable electronic manipulators active today. No words can quite describe the insanity, both audibly and creatively, of this piece, so do yourself a favor and check out this lost classic of electronic madness.
1964: Raymond Scott - Soothing Sounds for Baby
Raymond Scott is not much of a household name. Usually when people do recognize him it’s for the many soundtracks Carl Stalling adapted from his material in old Warner Bros. cartoons (Scott himself never directly wrote music for cartoons). In spite of this, Scott is without a doubt one of the most influential people in all of electronic music. In the 30s he began work in the field, inventing early electronic instruments such as the Clavivox and Electronium; Bob Moog – as in Bob “invented-the-fucking-Moog-Synthesizer” Moog – called him an important personal influence.
The greatest of Scott’s work can be found in the midst of a three disc collection, Soothing Sounds for Baby. It is exactly what it sounds like. Scott worked with the Gesell Institute of Human Development to create an electronic music album that could help soothe babies to sleep. The pieces consist of playful melodies, lullabies, and some more abstract moments (“Tic Toc” simply simulates a ticking watch). The best of all the pieces, “Little Miss Echo,” is one of the most breathtaking pieces of early electronic music ever recorded. It is a hypnotic, dreamy, and effortlessly beautiful synthesizer piece that becomes even more stunning when you realize it was released more than a decade before Eno’s Music for Airports. Simply put: nobody was making music like this in 1964.
“Little Miss Echo” builds over seven minutes with various looping electronic chirps, blips, and beeps. The entire piece is carried by a warm pulsing beat while other melodies seem to dance around it. It may have been intended for babies (“Little Miss Echo” in particular was intended for babies 12-18 months) but this music works for everyone. The particular timbre of Scott’s instruments triggers something in the brain that truly does relax and soothe. It is unbelievable how similar some of these tracks are to the ambient and electronic music of the late 70s such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and of course Brian Eno, but on the other hand I’m not surprised ─ Scott was so ahead of his time it simply took everyone else a decade to play catch up.