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.

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.  

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ENO – Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Andreas Georgi

Eno’s next album “Another Green World” is most often cited as his best and most influential, and it certainly is a great one, but “Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy” is my personal favorite. The combination of experimentation, humor, and plenty of pop hooks make this a classic, though a decidedly odd one.

Eno handles all the vocals and, while he certainly is no great singer technically (he’s referred to himself as a “non-musician), he does have a unique. mannered style that grows on you. I don’t know if you can call it a “concept” album, but there are some threads that run through the songs – travel, conspiracy, China. Each song has a unique sound texture to it, resulting from unorthodox instrumentation (one song has a typewriter solo) and Eno’s trademark and groundbreaking sound treatments. The album starts of with a very melodic pop ditty called “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More”. That incongruity sets the tone for the rest of the album. “Third Uncle”s scratchy, staccato guitars foreshadow Gang of Four and Wire, among others. The most challenging listen on the album is definitely “Put a Straw Under Baby”, which is a deranged, deliberately out-of-tune lullaby with surreal lyrics, and features the Portsmouth Sinfonia. The Sinfonia, of which Eno was a member, has only two requirements – that members honestly try to play well, and that they show up for rehearsals. You need to hear this to believe it! Quite honestly it’s a bit of an “Excedrin Moment”, but very creative. The closing title track is a pretty, airy, melodic piece that presages the ambient direction that he would take, starting with his next album (A.G.W.).

 This album was released in 1974 and was ahead of its time. Eno had a huge influence on all sorts of new wave and post-punk bands that came on the scene some years later, starting with Talking Heads. I first heard the album in the late 70’s and even then I remember how odd the album sounded. It’s a cliché, but one of Eno’s talents is his ability to “think outside the box”. In an interview David Bowie, who worked with Eno in the late 70’s on some groundbreaking albums, said they deliberately threw away the instruction manuals for the synthesizers, to see what kind of “bleeps and farts” they could come up with. Eno took (and further developed) elements from the avant-garde and applied them to pop music. Many of these innovations have since become part of the mainstream (sampling, incorporation of non-musical elements), and the electronics sounds decidedly retro now, but the creativity and quirkiness still makes it sound like nothing else. Historical significance aside, this is also a very enjoyable album. Highly recommended.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK / BERLINER PHILARMONIKER / RAFAEL KUBELIK – Symphony No 9 "Aus Der Neuen Welt” (“From The New World”) (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

1974 is “supposed” to be a low year in music according to the Rolling Stone Established School of Thought, but there are dozens of albums that are personal favorites of mine (War Child, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Red, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, Rejuvenation, Eduardo Bort, Señora Azul, It’s Only Rock’n’Roll…). But the most important album for me would be Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Dvorak’s Symphony nº 9, since this was the first symphonic recording I enjoyed all the way through when I was 12 years old or so. (Although I’m more familiar with Ferenc Fricsay’s recording, also in Deutsche Grammophon).

The first movement is has two main themes, the epic horns theme and the slow, American folk influenced lyrical theme, and both had a long lasting influence in the scores of classic Hollywood (and beyond – there’s a strange oboe passage that always reminds me of “Revolution 9”), and the intermediate melody that connects both is no slouch either. Nice find of Dvorak to base the development on the second theme but making it sound as epic as the first.

The second movement is probably the best known, the one based in a spiritual melody, which is one of the heights of 19th century melodicism, but I’m also very fond of the opening, those majestic crescendo chords that again sound like coming from an epic movie (I think this guy and Holst were the most pilfered by Hollywood). There’s another melody that after being introduced is developed in a marching, processional arrangement that is one of my favourite moments from the work.

The scherzo is very good; Dvorak said part of the inspiration came from Amerindian and folk songs but I also see a strong influence from the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth (but being that this is Dvorak’s Ninth it might be deliberate).Finally the last movement is to me the most disjointed (although its main melody is the first I knew from this work, since Miguel Ríos adapted it into a song way back in the 70s) but ends climaxing suitably in a brass pandemonium.

To sum up, one of the cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire and deservedly so. Like with Tchaikovsky, the melodic invention surpasses the structural craft, but the melodies are catchy and unforgettable.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: FRANK ZAPPA/THE MOTHERS – Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Dan Sullivan

The 1974 iteration of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention was probably the greatest in the history of the group, and the album Live At The Roxy & Elsewhere catches them at the peak of their powers. Zappa had been recording studio albums with this group of musicians throughout the early 70’s, but Roxy/Elsewhere is a far more satisfying listen than those previous efforts. The problem with most Zappa albums is that they either tend to become a showcase for Frank’s long-winded guitar solos, or they devolve into irritating comedy skits. Here, Frank wisely focuses on displaying the incredible technical prowess of his backing band, and the result is a collection of mind-blowing jams, imbued with an infectious energy that could only have been captured in a live setting. And while there are plenty of guitar solos and plenty of comedy, the solos are all spectacular, and the comedy almost never irritates. 

To understand the brilliance on display here, look no further than the album’s centerpiece, the instrumental showcase, “Echidna’s Arf/Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”. The band shifts from melody to melody, constantly changing tempo, dynamics, and time signatures, yet the song never falls apart. Just imagine the hell that Zappa must have put his musicians through to perfect this arrangement. After several instrumental solos at the end of “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” (including a killer drum solo by Chester Thompson), Zappa brings the house down with one of his best fiery wah-wah solos. These songs in tandem are my favorites in the very prolific Zappa discography.

The other songs are mostly excellent as well. We get an updated version of the classic “Trouble Every Day” that trounces the original, an updated version of “Oh No/Orange County Lumber Truck” that also improves on the original, and the beautiful and nostalgic “Village of the Sun” with great vocals by Napoleon Murphy Brock (he also sings on a few other tunes and his soulful voice is one of the best things about the album). Just skip “Dummy Up”, an inane skit in which Frank tries to get his bandmates to smoke a diploma, and you have the best Zappa money can buy. Definitely my favorite album of ‘74.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: KING CRIMSON – Red (1974) (2)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Alex Alex

“Red” by King Crimson is a concept album, telling a story of two brothers.  The older brother loved the younger one very much, ever since their childhood.  When he first learned that his mother was pregnant he could not hold the tears of joy, that’s how he loved his younger brother. The older brother even could not think of his own life as a separate one from that of his younger sibling.

As teenagers both brothers spent together much time on the streets of the New York, engaging in quite dangerous, perhaps, even criminal activities. Probably, they were members of some street gang, though the story does not have that clear. It was not a rare thing that the brothers participated in knife fights, often receiving some wounds.

Then the older brother moved some other place, we are not told where but it’s an airplane flight from New York. The younger brother remained in New York, continuing his shadowy activities, and was killed one winter in a street fight, presumably by some other gangsters.

When the older brother had learned that, he immediately flew from where he was living to New York. During the flight he can not think of anything but the blood. He is trying to sleep but cannot and is seeing the blood everywhere, as in a nightmare. That’s the blood of his younger brother. At the same time he realizes that bloody nightmare will be the last thing he will remember of his brother.

The older brother safely arrives to New York. He is now calmed down and thinks of the absurdity of the providence which has led to that tragic death.

Finally he stands at the funerals. It is a bright sunny day but he is not able to see the sun. All he sees is blackness. Some old friends are trying to tell him some words of condolence but he does not really hear, nor sees them, only seeing starless and Bible blackness all around him.

The album is called “Red” because of the blood and the earth. 

The phenomenon of seeing a total blackness under certain emotional stress is described in other works of art (“And Quiet Flows the Don” is the most prominent example) and is quite a common thing to experience should you happen to be VERY unlucky.

For an equally heartbreaking tale of two sisters see this movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0365376/

A YEAR IN MUSIC: GENE CLARK – No Other (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Charly Saenz

To me, “No Other” is one of the top 10 albums of all time. I cannot exaggerate its influence in my life. It’s the album that some years ago brought me back to the emotion of music. 

Gene Clark, one of the creative forces in the original Byrds, was always a low profile man, the classic artist that never “gets there”. This album has a dramatic story of its own, a complicated and long production, economic losses, the usual. But the outcome is.. fantastic. Cosmic. Would it have succeeded, a Psychedelic Soul concept album was the next step. Go figure.

Meanwhile, here we have the most beautiful and deceitful “country rock” album ever; because calling it country rock is like trying to define The Beatles as “a pop group”. The music here is all over the place as defined by the title track – almost a prog rock number, with psychedelic tones, soul, blues and more. “Life’s greatest fool” (the opening number in non-US releases) is country .. with a big soul chorus ensemble in the background. But if you want to be up there with the angels, look no further than “Strength Of Strings”, every little detail, the piano track, the floydish girls chorus (Gorgeous, more than just complementing, they truly stand out), Gene’s voice, sweet and totally vulnerable… 

And If you’re still not convinced.. The acoustic intro of “Silver Raven” sends electricity down my spine to you know where. Or “From A Silver Phial” and its gentle caress, its pretty wah wah solo.. And yet, my favourite “Some misunderstanding”. The song I introduced to my nephew at 15, and he’s a prog rocker ever since. His world shaken totally. A direct child of those great hymns like “I Shall Be Released”. We should be singing this to praise the departed. Why not!? 

Forget Gram Parsons and his Grievous Angel (same year to add more disgrace). That’s just a great album. This is an epic forgotten masterpiece. Only Forever Changes comes close to my heart in terms of resonance. Cherish it. Do never let it go.