A YEAR IN MUSIC: JORGE BEN – A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Choosing one single album from 1974 was always going to be a difficult one; I mean ferchrissakes this was the year of John Cale’s Fear and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, Red by King Crimson and Neil Young’s On the Beach. It also saw the release of other heavyweight classics from as I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson to Bowie’s magisterial Diamond Dogs and… need I go on? What a coup it would be if 2016 could lay claim to even just one record of the stature of the aforementioned, and yet 1974 was able to boast something of an abundance, a surfeit. So that being the fruitful year that it was, the task of narrowing 1974 down to one defining record seemed a little bit of an exercise in futility, the warped practise of excessively anal and emotionally frigid fanboys. And yet there is something to be said for such an exercise if it forces you to ask yourself what it is that made you fall in love with an album in the first place, and can you rationalise it, and isolate at least some of those emotions and feelings that the music can evoke in you? And all that in turn usually provokes a deeper appreciation of the album itself, at least that’s how it’s gone for me in the past.  

In the end, the choice of record turned out to be fairly straightforward. For, casting my eye down the length of RYM’s highest rated chart for 1974 (at least the part from 1-100), I found myself inextricably drawn to one single record in particular, the album in question exerting its massive gravitational pull from near the top of the chart at an impressive seventh place. Not bad for a record that hardly anyone outside of the Lusophone has ever heard of and that you’ll have a hard time tracking down at your local record store. I’m talking about Jorge Ben’s remarkable A Tábua de Esmeralda.

I only discovered A Tábua de Esmeralda last year, shortly before Christmas, thanks to a very felicitous recommendation by fellow music fan and genuine Brazilian, Francelino de Azevedo. It’s an album that began to weave its spell on me almost immediately. At first the allure was all in its very understated, very delicate, almost spectral beauty — and in the beginning that beauty was all that I could hear. A Tábua de Esmeralda has so much of that innate joy and optimism that I associate with Tropicalia — as if it was always being sung through a smile. I am especially in awe at how Tropicalia, at its very best like A Tábua de Esmeralda, can manage to convey so much of the joy and optimism of a perfect, shimmering dawn: the soft, diaphanous and blissful quality of the music. Being up in Glasgow at the beginning of January, back when my obsession with the album had really started in earnest, I was in dire need of some reflected warmth and sunshine, I can tell you. 

Because I do not have much of a grasp of the language, the meaning of the words and the cultural references on the record were pretty much lost on me. Certainly the fact that the language in question is Brazilian Portuguese — a language justly renowned and justly famous for its richness and innate musicality — made it eminently easy to only focus on how the words sounded, how freely and joyfully they rolled off the singer’s tongue, rather than on what it is that they might actually signify. But gradually my superficial and purely aesthetic appreciation of Tabu began to trouble me. I started to get the impression that ignoring as I had been the whole socio-political-historical dimension to the album, I really wasn’t doing it proper justice; that I was in effect just projecting my exotic Brazilian-Tropicalia fantasies onto the music. It was more than just self-doubting right-on liberal guilt on my part though: the music kept on drawing me in further and further, and after I got over the initial impact that the grace and the dizzying beauty of Jorge’s music had had on me, then my mind became much more attuned to the more complex emotional palette of the songs. The centerpiece of the album — the song that convinced me beyond all doubt of A Tábua de Esmeralda’s status as a masterpiece, and that also never fails to give me goosebumps whenever I listen to it — is called Zumbi. It’s a song that is as close to perfection as it gets, at least to my ears. I would have it rolling on a loop in my head for days upon end and at night when I got up to go to the toilet I’d be thinking ‘What is this fucking song that’s still echoing away in my head? I have to listen to that Jorge Ben album straight away when I get up’. Zumbi though was clearly more than just a bunch of pretty words strung together in a charming and colourful arrangement. Part of what made it so compelling was that it sounded like it was about something horrifying, some kind of terrible event and that in the end was rendered into something beautiful and sublime and hopeful, without sacrificing that sense of sheer, fiery indignation, and all through the true songwriter-alchemist’s art. It tugged so powerfully at the heart and guts that you felt positively obliged to ask what it was all about, just what was the story behind it? — once the song got at you, you couldn’t just leave it at that. I went and checked online for a translation of the text and found out that it was about the leader of a slave uprising, the titular Zumbi, and learned the whole story thanks to Wikipedia; the translation of the lyrics with a brief explanation of the background of the song can be found here

But that’s just the one song. In the end, like any of the other great album masterworks in the popular music canon — Forever Changes, Blood on the Tracks, Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks — A Tábua de Esmeralda has its own rigorous internal logic, with nothing, not even a note, out of place. And like all those other albums it has its own distinctive magic, and that special exhilaration you feel whenever you hear the opening bars of the first song, and you already know what it is that you’re in for.

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC – 1967 – THE PEANUT BUTTER CONSPIRACY – The Great Conspiracy

Review by: Nina Anatchkova
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Did you know that in 1970, a hippie tarot set was published? It is named Morgan’s Tarot and features retro black and white images and New Age messages inspired by 60s “counterculture philosophy”. It was also intended to expand the consciousness of the reader apparently by departing from the structure of traditional tarot with images and insights that can be enjoyed in any order. Yeah, that tarot set is on mushrooms. And probably so was anybody else who expanded their consciousness back then. Or anyone talking about conspiracies. Although conspiracies are still hip, for some reason.

In reality, I don’t know what the peanut butter conspiracy was all about (maybe it prevented people from realising how yuck peanut butter truly is) but I can feel the air of 60s psychedelic importance radiating from every song on this record. This is helped, of course, by lead singer Barbara Robinson’s competent and sometimes hypnotic singing, and by the general confident playing in the trippy psychedelic vein and the tasty production. The songs are all well-crafted, of course, with nice variations in the driving rhythm, cool subversions in the chord changes, and quite enjoyable to feast your late-60s-sound-hungry ears on. They have probably blown minds or expanded consciousness way back in the day… or at least helped recruit some devout followers?… I don’t know. 

In the present day, however, when I find even Morgan’s Tarot a bit of a bore and everything too trippy a bit one-note, this record is still an enjoyable listen and I suspect Barbara Robinson’s singing is a hugely contributing factor. So um, give it a listen and don’t buy into the conspiracy?

By the way, “It’s so Hard” from the bonus tracks edition of the record features some of the guys on lead vocals and the nice interplay between them and Barbara’s additions also deserves a listen. There is also “Peter Pan” which, well, it sounds quite lyrically naive. As probably does the rest of the record, if you pay attention to the lyrics, really. At least “Peter Pan” goes out on something of a waltzy tune?

THE GUESS WHO – Canned Wheat (1969)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

I had never listened to the Guess Who before, except for “American Woman”, of course; so while I knew they came more or less from the era of “classic rock” I did not know their style. So I was pleasantly surprised when, after the bizarre “out of tune music box” thing that opens the album (and the purpose of which I still struggle to ascertain), my ears were treated to “No Time”, which seems to derive all of their elements from Buffalo Springfield. You know, the kinetic rhythm section, active bass lines, high harmonies, country guitars, even the acid fuzz guitar solos. And that is fine with me. (Researching a bit I learned that this song was re-recorded for the American Woman album and released as a single, so if you have heard it before, it’s probably not the version I’m discussing here).

“Minstrel Boy” deceptively continues with the soft country-rock vibe, but it’s soon clear that the Guess Who are not afraid of variety and inserting some more sophisticated sounds (something the aforementioned Springfield were also fond of, to think of it).

Case in point, the single tracks “Laughing” and “Undun” that follow. “Laughing” is a well-constructed melodic pop song that seems tailor-made to make a splash in AM radio, and “Undun” adds unexpected soft jazz elements in the electric guitar and flute solo, which underpin a veritable vocal tour de force. And this streak concludes with “6 A.M. or Nearer”, which combines bachelor-pad-cocktail-jazz guitar chords in the verses with a Woodstock-ready California style chorus that, again, reminds me of the Buffalos or CSNY.

After this, “Old Joe”, while still in a melodic mold, takes us to a more rootsy, country-soul territory, and the pace then quickens a bit with “Of a Dropping Pin”, an infectious roots-rock number with R&B and gospel elements. Then, the piece de resistance of the album – the 11 minutes of “Key”. This one takes us back to the Woodstock aesthetics, with the rhythm section giving their all throughout (the jam section is mainly percussion-based, and it even has the mandatory drum solo to finish the proceedings) and some very welcome folk elements popping up here and there.

And we conclude with the jazzy ditty “Fair Warning”, with a rather bizarre spoken part that reminds me of something I can’t recall now. Speaking of ditties, many songs are linked by small segue bits – classical piano bits, Travis picking guitars, sitar noodlings, treated piano chords – which I think make them sound like trying too hard to invoke the spirit of the White Album, but that’s a minor complaint.

By the way, I enjoyed immensely Randy Bachman’s guitar solos throughout, but to me the hero of the record is Burton Cummings – not only he sings perfectly throughout, with finesse, flexibility and power, tender in the softest moments, raucous in the more driving points, soulful and controlled, but his keyboard touches are always totally appropriate and memorable and the couple of jazzy flute solos he has in “Undun” and “6 A.M. or Nearer” are highlights as well.

Bottom line: If the only thing you’ve heard from the Guess Who is the (terrific) “American Woman” single (or worse, the cover by Lenny Kravitz!) and you have this mental image of some king of Canadian Grand Funk Railroad, don’t be fooled by that impression, and if you like late 60s rootsy classic rock, don’t hesitate to give a listen to “Canned Wheat”. You’re in for a treat. Thumbs up.

CATHERINE RIBEIRO + ALPES – Le Rat Dèbile Et L’Homme Des Champs (1974)

Review by: Franco Micale
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Although I like this album, it’s very difficult for me to actually judge it for what it is. The big issue I have is that I don’t speak French, so therefore half the time I have no idea what is going on; a lot of the music here seems to be highly lyrically centered. Also, the production and musical content here leaves much to be desired. Basically, the best way to describe this album is that it’s like a mixture of Renaissance, Can, and Nico, except with a very sparse range of instrumentation. There is also a noticeable lack of drums on this album, and although this sound does make for a fairly unique style, it wouldn’t have hurt to ingrain some more rhythmic textures to the songs. On top of that, the production is rather weak to my ears, as the instruments sound muddled together without any attempt to make the tones or timbres shine out. Also, melodically, few of the songs here really stick to my attention in any way, but I don’t think the band was necessarily aiming to create catchy melodies, so I’ll give them a pass.

However, despite all these flaws, I can’t deny that Catherine Ribeiro totally owns the show here. She displays some of the greatest and most expressive singing I’ve ever heard in rock music. I remember I once made an argument about how good singing in music was just as important as solid songwriting, and I declare this album as definitive proof of how right I was. If someone with a horrible voice had sung any of this, then I guarantee this would have been unlistenable, but this woman really raises this album’s quality from abysmal to highly captivating.

Because of Ribeiro, I can honestly say that the first three songs on this album are actually really great, all else aside. The album hits it off with “La Petite Aux Fraises”, a rushing piece with an intense performance from Catherine and a gripping arrangement, in which all the instruments sound as if they are racing against each other. There is also this jiggly and jostling percussive sound that I can’t quite discern. It sounds similar to the electric jug that would appear on a 13th Floor Elevator song (like on this tune), but I can’t tell. Anyone know?

The next piece, “L’ere De La Putrefaction,” is one of the two lengthy suites on the album, and it definitely has a “thematic” and “epic” feel to it. Even though it feels a little clunky at times (what’s with that gap of silence between the third and fourth movement of the suite?), when the piece gets heated, it’s BURNING. I especially love the last part, where the music gets all intense, Catherine boasts her singing out loud, the organ plays a fiery, Morricone-esque melody, and then they even bring in DRUMS! FRICKIN’ DRUMS! The piece just builds up more and more, the drums start going crazy and banging all over the place, all the instruments start doing random stuff, and then BOOM BOOM BOOM! Everything crashes and ends with a blast. Whoa…the whole thing plays out like a climactic scene in an epic movie, and if the rest of the album was like this, I definitely I would have gushed over this more.

Now, as the individual songs go, my favorite song here is the folky “Un Regard Clair”, if only because of how great Catherine sings on this track. Listen to how she oscillates her voice back and forth, swaying between triumph and despair, as if all the passion swelling within her is about to break her down in tears. And kudos to whoever wrote that concise yet anthemic organ melody that correlates to her singing, as it pushes the piece’s emotional power a few inches further. 

So that’s the first side: Extremely solid. Had that side been released alone, I would have easily given this album an 8/10. But then comes the second side, completely comprised of a 25 minute suite, and from this point on my opinion on the album becomes distorted. Basically, this isn’t so much a song as it is a long-winded poem spoken by Catherine, with the music providing the atmosphere and texture. Now see, it’s difficult for me to judge any of this because, well, I don’t speak French, so therefore I have no idea what the hell is going on. So this means I only have the music to focus on, and frankly, a lot of this is very grating. On one hand, I can admit Catherine really gives a fantastic performance on this track, injecting so much life and personality into the words that she speaks. When I focus on her voice, I find myself really enthralled by the track. On the other hand, the actual music here is very tedious, with no rhythm, structure, or logic to hold anything together. I guess it can be amusing at first, but the end result sounds like an ill-fated cover of The Doors’ “Celebration of the Lizard”. Perhaps once I major in French, I can appreciate this more… but for right now, ehhhh…

So in conclusion, flaws aside, I would say that while this isn’t the most likable album ever made, this is a perfectly enjoyable one if you pay close attention to Ribeiro’s voice, and disregard all of the other flaws surrounding the album. She is able to find all sorts of pitches, moods, and resonances to keep the music engaging. Once you have that in mind, everything else becomes very interesting, as she is able to lead you down this twisted, confused, yet sprawling and ambitious journey. But no matter what, this album is really not easy to swallow, so proceed with caution!

Melody: 2/5 
Resonance: 5/5
Diversity: 1/5 
Adequacy: 1/5
Originality: 3/5

Overall: 6/10

BURNING – Madrid (1978)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

“En La Elipa nací y Ventas es mi reino, y para tu papá, nena, soy como un mal sueño.”

From the streets of La Elipa in post-francoist Spain came Burning, delivering ‘good old rock and roll’ to the madrileño public with their debut album. Lyrically, the album ranges from common rock and roll rebellion (“Sábado noche con mi chica voy a salir, cogeré el coche díselo a papa…”) to more local references (“Tendrás que sentir las caricias de Madrid sobre tu piel”) and slang (“voy hacerte un coco y chulearte la piba por el morro”).

Musically, we find piano driven rock and roll in ‘Rock’n’roll Mama’, a power ballad in ‘Lujuria’, and even an attempt at a multi-section epic in the closing track. There’s also some hints of glam rock here and there. However, for most of the songs, the main musical influence is clear, too clear: The Rolling Stones. Swap the singer for a Mick Jagger impersonator in some of these songs and you would easily end up with a Rolling Stones tribute band. All right, I’m probably exaggerating a bit, but not too much. In tracks like ‘Madrid’ or ‘Mientelas’ they channel the Stones’ sound and attitude in a very close way, at least instrumentally. In ‘Hey Nena’ they even imitate the background vocal “woo woo’s” of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

That’s not to say this band just copies and does not deserve your attention. Burning’s debut may not be innovative, but it succeeds at its purpose. This band is really good at what they’re doing. They avoid the artificiality and dullness of sound of which many late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s attempts of recreating classic rock and roll and rhythm and blues suffer. These songs are fun and spirited and the album is completely enjoyable. The album is pretty consistent but if I’ll have to choose a highlight it would probably be the opening track with its catchy chorus: “Ah no, sin vivir en Madrid no lo entenderás”. I’ve never lived in Madrid and I may not fully understand what this men are singing about; but I believe their message is getting through pretty well anyway (and if it’s not, nevermind. This is good rock music).

A YEAR IN MUSIC: KRAFTWERK – Autobahn (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov


Autobahn is not just my favorite album of 1974, it’s also a good contender for the title of my favorite Kraftwerk album ever, and here’s why:
 
1) It was the first album to establish Kraftwerk’s trademark electronic sound, so, like it or not, this one can be called their most groundbreaking record.
2) It is not quite as robotic and cold as their later output (and not 100% electronic either, as it features some ‘live’ instruments as well), there is genuine emotion to be found here – specifically that almost transcendental feeling of actually moving along a long, smooth highway which seems to have no beginning or end and always looks and feels the same but is still somehow constantly changing. A classic metaphor of life, if you please. I actually have very nice personal memories of listening to this album in headphones while traveling in a car on an actual German autobahn in North Rhine-Westphalia some four years ago – and I had never before experienced the music I hear being so adequate to what I was seeing from the car window. The title track particularly stands out in this respect, of course, but the rest add to that same feeling as well, with slight variations of mood (for instance, ‘Mitternacht’ probably represents getting lost on a deserted highway at night rather than driving along it).
3) It’s so overwhelmingly, gloriously, triumphantly German that you can’t help but admire it. You could argue that the same could be said about every other Kraftwerk album, but, contrary to Radio Activity, The Man Machine, Computer World or even Trans-Europe Express this one is less about technology and robotic antics and more about seeing beauty in specifically German things – like motoric rhythms, order, progress and… highways, of course.
 
In other words – this album is absolutely unique, it’s the first of its kind, and it does what it sets out to do with utmost perfection. I love every second of it.  

THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH – Welcome to the Beautiful South (1989)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is one gloriously deceptive album, which after the first three listens I didn’t know how to approach – it sounded nice and cool-sounding but didn’t quite click with me… until on my fourth listen I finally paid closer attention to the lyrics. HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT. The lyrical dissonance here might be even more shocking than on Steely Dan’s records. This stuff is so gleefully dark, sarcastic and bitter – it features songs about murder, rape, backstabbing, hate, broken hearts and other beautiful things set to wonderfully poppy melodies and lush arrangements. Even quoting arguably the happiest Beatles’ song ‘She Loves You’ near the end of the epic ‘Love Is…’ comes off as a piece of deadpan humor rather than an actual positive emotion (especially when it turns into “I love me – yeah yeah yeah”). I won’t spoil you the rest of this wonderfully insidious album – let me only say that it features such lines as “That’s sweet – that conversation we had last week, when you gagged and bound me up to my seat” or “But he only knew his problem when he knocked her over, and when the rotting flesh began to stink”, set to catchy pop melodies! When vocalist Paul Heaton doesn’t sing disturbing songs about blood and women in walls (in a voice that sounds like a somewhat less depressed and more self-aware Morrissey), he engages himself in some social-political satire (‘Have You Ever Been Away’, ‘Oh Blackpool’), or creates some anti-love statements that are biting (‘Girlfriend’, ‘Love Is…’) or just incredibly sad (‘I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’). A very punky attitude, Paul – this is pop, but EDGY pop!

The music works just as well, of course – it could be described as catchy 80s jangle pop with a tinge of melancholy – Paul’s previous band, The Housemartins, immediately come to mind, as do The Smiths. This is enjoyable by all means.

So in the end it’s one of those cases when an album works in two ways: it can be enjoyed as a nice-sounding pop album with interesting melodies, great arrangements and production, as well as good playing and singing, or it can be seen as a collection of scathing, biting and malicious songs with quite a bit of dark and sarcastic humor. In any case – good stuff, fine album.