Clube da Esquina is a Brazilian double album with 21 songs. One of those songs is in Spanish; the other twenty are in Portuguese. I do not speak or read Portuguese, which severely limits my ability to provide readers with lyrical interpretations. Even if I were fluent in Brazilian Portuguese, my interpretations could still be way off. Clube da Esquina was recorded in 1972, eight years after an American-backed coup turned Brazil into a fascist dictatorship. Curiously enough, the musical arts flourished during this repressive environment, but all written material (including song lyrics) had to be cleared with the authorities prior to publication and distribution. Milton Nascimento described his experience to the New York Times: “All it took was for them to see my name, and boom, it was, ‘No you can’t,'” he recalled. “You’d write a lyric and it would be censured. Then you’d write another lyric, trying to say the same thing in a different way. Sometimes you would write five different sets of lyrics before you’d get the stamp of approval from them. It was sheer craziness, but we were powerless.” Writers and lyricists learned to circumvent the authorities by “writing in code,” using metaphors that Brazilian audiences would understand (and hopefully squeak by the censors).
In addition to the linguistic and cryptographic challenges, Brazil, like the United States, is a big, diverse country where cultures and colloquialisms vary from region to region and from class to class, adding additional layers of connotation to the mix. The bottom line is this: I’ll share some impressions of “meaning” I glean from a particular song’s imagery, but those impressions are personal and not authoritative. I encourage any Brazilian residents or expats to use the Comments section to share their interpretations and insights. Meanwhile, I’ll focus on the more universal language: music.
My initial attraction to Clube da Esquina came from the chords and their multiple voicings.
Though Clube da Esquina is not a jazz album—a label that Nascimento emphatically rejected—you will hear a lot of chords that you would usually lump into the category of “jazz chords.” There are lots of minor and major ninths, major and minor sixths and sevenths, augmentation, diminished triads . . . that sort of thing. What’s remarkable about Clube da Esquina is that the underlying complexity never interferes with the accessibility of the music. The varied voicings add a kaleidoscope of color that is particularly delightful when combined with bossa nova or samba rhythms, but that chordal variation works equally well in the songs set to more familiar pop beats. The melodies that rise over those chords are exceptionally catchy, so though the words may not make sense to those not versed in Brazilian Portuguese, it’s likely you will be inspired to scat or hum along to the music.
So, no, Clube da Esquina is not a jazz album . . . nor really a pop album. I would describe it as a genre-defying album that successfully integrates influences from pop, rock, jazz, doo-wop, soul, progressive rock, classical, fado, samba, bossa nova, Northeastern Brazilian, Amazonian and even bolero. Grasping for comparatives in a lame attempt to induce their ethnocentric audience to embrace the record, some American critics have compared Clube da Esquina to the White Album, but the only feature the two albums have in common are four sides of music. A slightly better but still inadequate comparison with Beatle music would focus on the period from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper when the Fab Four’s career-long fascination with non-standard chords hit its peak. Both Nascimento and Borges acknowledged the influence of The Beatles, but echoes of that influence bear closer resemblance to the music of Revolver than A Hard Day’s Night or The White Album. Since Nascimento is a Miles Davis fan capable of modal, polyrhythmic composition while John Lennon famously described jazz as “shit music,” the Beatle comparison is superficial at best. Other critics have pointed out that the influence of British progressive rock bands (Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd) had just as much impact on the musicians who appear on Clube da Esquina as the boys from Liverpool.
The term Clube da Esquina is used to describe both a movement and the collective of musicians, lyricists, poets and composers who formed or joined the movement, many of whom contributed to this album. I’ll introduce the various contributors as I work through the tracks but point out (if it isn’t obvious already) that Milton Nascimento was the linchpin that held it all together, a musical sponge who absorbed an eclectic range of musical styles and shaped that breathtaking diversity into a coherent, unified and deeply satisfying work of art. That said, I can’t imagine Clube da Esquina without Lô Borges with his warm voice and gift for singable melody.
Collaboration is a wonderful thing indeed.
“Tudo Que Você Podia Ser” (“All That You Could Be”): During your initial exposure to the opening number, you may not even notice the truly wonderful collaboration taking place between the backing musicians because Milton Nascimento just happens to possess one of the most versatile and purely beautiful voices in music history. “If God sang, he would do it with Milton’s voice,” said the late Brazilian singer Elis Regina, a contention that even this atheist can’t argue with. Herbie Hancock called that voice “one of the most amazing voices I’ve ever heard,” a voice that came to life in the unique acoustics of his childhood surroundings:
Though Milton was born in Rio, he grew up in Três Pontas (Minas Gerais) and is more of a Mineiro than a Carioca – more attached to the land, full of rustic folklore and workers songs, than seaside trivialities. “My first companion was the echo of the Minas Mountains,” he says. When I was a kid, I used to have a lot of fun with it. That was when I discovered my musicality. And that echo is an element that is still present today in my singing.”
Eric Delhaye, “Milton Nascimento: The Life of a Brazilian Legend.”
The man has it all—the perfect articulation of a Sinatra, the ability to deliver held notes flawlessly, spot-on dynamic instincts, the gift of imbuing a line with heartfelt emotion without excess, and a falsetto that even Brian Wilson would envy. Written by Lô Borges and his brother Márcio, this song is in the form of a message spoken to an old friend, a dreamer who wanted to be “the great hero of the streets” but now finds himself living in fear and falling short of becoming “all that he could be.” The reference to Emilio Zapata, the great Mexican hero of the lower classes probably squeaked by the censors because it appears our dreamer had given up on the idea of emulating that historic reformer (Márcio Borges claimed he was actually referring to the film Viva Zapata). Nascimento understands his friend’s frustration, but reminds him that the loss of the preferred option is not a valid reason to waste his potential: “tudo que você consegue ser, ou nada” (you can be all you can be . . . or nothing). In the context of a repressive government, the message that the destiny of one individual is a matter of vital importance is a powerful message of resistance.
The song is set to a key of D minor, but the frequent appearance of major ninth chords along with the rhythmic shifts to upbeat Bossa Nova give the song a more uplifting feel than one would expect from a song in a minor key. The three-part guitar arrangement of Borges (acoustic) Tavito (12-string) and Toninho Horta (electric) is marvelously designed and executed, each part giving exactly what the song requires and no more. The first thing I listen for in any band is whether or not the rhythm section has their act together and Beto Guedes on bass and Robertinho Silva pass that test with flying colors, with assistance from Luiz Alves on caxixi (kind of a basket-like version of maracas) and Rubhino on the congas.
You hear a song like this and all you can say is, “Damn, these guys are really good—out-of-this-world good.”
“Cais” (“Pier”): Nascimento co-wrote this piece with composer Ronaldo Bastos, who made several contributions to the album. Bastos would eventually develop a successful career as a producer and songwriter whose works were covered by a variety of artists and earned Latin Grammy nominations. This piece in C minor with several interesting chord variations is a meditation on the growth of an artist—in this case, Nascimento. Filled with the desire to let go of the mundane and launch his artistic journey, he “invents” a different world in a series of metaphors (a pier, a new moon, love, the sea), the most important of which is the re-invention of himself as “the dreamer” (“Invento em mim o sonhador”). He is aware that even positive change involves a certain amount of pain: “E sei a dor de me lançar” (“I know the pain of ‘launching myself,’ i. e., ‘becoming’) but in the final verse celebrates the beginning of his journey with well-deserved self-validation: “Tenho o caminho do que sempre quis” (“I have the path I’ve always wanted”). Nascimento ends his personal pilgrimage on a held note while the music shifts from meditative acoustic guitar to more assertive descending minor chord variations on piano, reflecting his determination to follow his dreams. “Cais” is a beautiful, compelling piece that Nascimento sings with the authentic emotion of a man who has lived the experience.
“O Trem Azul” (“The Blue Train”): Our first Borges vocal (co-written with Bastos) marks a shift from minor chords to the more indefinite major sevenths and a pop beat that has the feeling of a soft, warm breeze. The lyrics here are impressionistic and slightly melancholy, reflecting memories of things left unsaid and images of sunlight that reflect off the train and inside the mind. Toninho Horta’s acoustic guitar solos and fills are an absolute delight as he rides the easy rhythm supplied by Guedes and Silva, choosing a variety of entry points to enhance the freshness of his contribution. Horta also joins with Lô Borges and Guedes on the three-part harmonies on the reprise of the verse, demonstrating the wealth of diverse talent in the group. Wagner Tiso (whose contributions up to this point have been both supportive and unobtrusive) finally gets his moment in the sun with a clever and assertive closing organ riff tinged with a touch of the blues.
“Saídas E Bandeiras No. 1” (“Exits and Flags” or “Sallies and Banners”): This is one of three songs on Clube da Esquina that Nascimento would revive on the 1976 album Milton. On this album, the piece is split into two segments; on Milton, the song runs for four-and-a-half minutes and has a much stronger jazz flavor thanks to Wayne Shorter’s saxophones.
Nascimento’s co-writer on this piece was Clube da Esquina co-founder, writer, poet and lyricist Fernando Brant, whose lyrics appear frequently on the album. This segment consists of two verses and establishes the apparent message: life in the city isn’t working anymore, so it’s time to return to the natural world of rivers and mountains (though Brant uses much more interesting language than mine).
To demonstrate how far off my interpretation might be, I’ll share a completely different take on the song when we get to No. 2.
The music to this piece has been labeled “psychedelic” by a few critics. The arrangement does have a distinctly Eastern flavor common to psychedelia, but while the percussion sounds recall the tabla, I hear more Japan than India in Nelson Angelo’s choice of electric guitar notes. Nascimento and Borges sing in unison, both in perfect sync as they rise to the falsetto range. Bass whore that I am, I’ve completely fallen in love with Beto Guedes at this point, marveling at his clarity and talent for complementing both rhythm and melody.
“Nuvem Cigana” (“Gypsy Cloud”): This second Borges-Bastos composition continues the emphasis on natural imagery, with the sun playing a supporting role to the clouds of dust kicked up by a couple dancing on a dirt road (hence “Gypsy Cloud”). The gentleman agrees to dance if the lady so desires, but imposes a soft condition that’s more of an encouragement than a demand: “Se você deixar o coraçao bater sem medo” (“If you let your heart beat without fear”). The rhythm is a playful sway; the chords are a mix of compatible variations and departures from the G major base; the melody is quite lovely with a hint of blue notes; Nascimento is in fine voice throughout.
“Gypsy Cloud” also features our first official mini-orchestral arrangement courtesy of Wagner Tiso, who brilliantly blends strings, French horn and flute over the more rustic acoustic guitar baseline to create a sometimes dreamy, sometimes determined milieu that fits the song like a soft leather glove. I do want to note that at this point we’ve had five different songs with five different rhythms, all handled with professional excellence by the musical cast.
“Cravo E Canela” (“Clove and Cinnamon”): This song brings the total to six different rhythms, and the rhythm on this one is so unusual that I had a helluva time trying to figure out what the boys were up to. Fortunately, Jonathon Grasse solved the mystery in his book Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil):
Opening with four measures of samba in an unusual triple meter, this song features a Toninho Horta masterclass in nylon string guitar playing, wedded to an uplifting, driving 3/4 ostinati of a surdo’s dotted rhythm. The charismatic melodic theme is first whistled, its four-measure antecedent phrase repeated. These eight measures are followed by a consequent eight-bar answer, coolly accompanied by Horta’s syncopated, anticipatory samba patterns assisted by a motoric bundle-stick type rasp marking each down beat. This is pure Brazilian elegance wrapped in an unusual triple feel.
Grasse, Jonathon. Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
I may not be able to accurately translate Portuguese, but I can explain the musical terms. Ostinati = repeated riffs. Triple meter = any rhythm where 3 is the number on top of the time signature; a waltz is in triple meter. Samba rhythm: typically 2/4, hence my confusion. Bar = though technically a “bar” is the vertical line that opens and closes a measure, the term is used interchangeably with measure. Syncopated = messing with the emphasis in a beat pattern. Surdo = a Brazilian tom played with mallets.
You certainly don’t need all that technical information to appreciate “Cravo E Canela”—it’s an absolute gas! They sold me on the song as soon as I heard the whistling over a light background of guitar and beat. The group’s command of rhythm and dynamics on this piece is outstanding, alternating between soft and loud presentation enhanced by superb vocals. I love the passage when the two voices (Nascimento and Borges) move to deep background in the sound field and join together in a gorgeous display of falsetto harmony; I also love the way the instruments and voices combine in a joyous celebration of “A chuva cigana/A dança dos rios/O mel do cacau/E o sol da manhã” (“the gypsy rain/the dance of the rivers/the honeyed cocoa/and the morning sun).” Though the natural imagery might lead you to guess the Borges brothers had a hand in its creation, “Cravo E Canela” is a Nascimento-Bastos composition. Nascimento repurposed the song with jazz instrumentation on Milton, but I prefer the warmth and instrumentation of the original.
One more thing about the six different rhythms before we move to Side B: the musicians appearing in rhythmic roles vary from song to song, a pattern that will continue throughout the album. Since the tightness of the rhythm section is essential in every form of modern music, you might think that switching out the players would entail significant risk. The fact that it doesn’t is a tribute to the collaborative ethic of Clube da Esquina, its talented group of multi-instrumentalists and the strength of a common vision.
“Dos Cruces” (“Two Crosses”): Nascimento reached all the way back to 1952 for this lost-love song written by Carmelo Larrea, a renowned Spanish songwriter. Larrea wrote this song about a failed relationship he had while living in Sevilla, where he played saxophone for a band working in the main tourist area (Santa Cruz). The experience continued to haunt him after he moved to Madrid, where he composed the song that would become one of his biggest hits.
The bulk of the arrangement is simply Nascimento and Spanish guitar, both appropriately toned down as the narrator mourns his loss of a “un amor sin pecado” (a love without sin). Love without sin sounds pretty boring to me, but you have to remember that Larrea was living in Franco’s Spain, where all the women were virgins until the sacrament of matrimony transformed them into baby-making machines. The heightened drama associated with Spanish music comes late in the song when the percussion shifts to pseudo flamenco and the arrangement grows in complexity with the addition of organ, piano and bowed string bass. Having sung most of the song in a voice that aches with regret and unrelieved pain, Nascimento rises to the occasion and delivers a stirring finish filled with genuine anguish over the vagaries of fate that led to the breakup.
“Um Girassol Da Cor De Seu Cabelo” (“A Sunflower the Color of Your Hair”): I have mixed feelings about this piece, though I think the song itself is quite lovely, both melodically and lyrically. Here’s what lyricist Mârcio Borges had to say about the song’s origins:
(the song is) the fanciful narrative of a bus trip I made with my girlfriend, whom I would one day marry. It was the first time we traveled together. I rested my head on her lap, looking closely at the details of her blue jeans dress. Through the window the radiant sun filled the bright blue sky. And I lay there declaring eternal love. Sunflower was my favorite flower, and it all made sense.
Grasse, Jonathon. Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
What he is describing is a sweet and gentle moment between two lovers in the nascent stages of a relationship. The music captures that loveliness through the first verse and chorus with Lô Borges singing the simple melody in a soft voice as he plays piano with a light touch. When his supporting cast enters (Rubhino on drums, Beto on bass, Tavito and Nelson Angelo on guitar), they do so subtly and quietly, so as not to disturb the tender moment.
The first sign of trouble comes at the start of the next verse when arranger Eumir Deodato introduces “silvery strings” that create a sound that is either a high-pitched violin filled with air or an extremely poor example of flute technique. The sound is terribly grating, so much so that I lose all connection to the flow. My suspicions concerning Deodato’s questionable choices are confirmed by the jarring appearance of what Grasse calls “an orchestral interlude of expressionistic, cinematic proportions, smearing those silvery background strings into an angst-ridden cloud dissonantly answering the lover’s question, ‘ou será que é tarde demais?’ (‘or will it be too late?’).” Talk about an overreaction to a simple question! Grasse goes gaga over the arrangement (he has a tendency to go gaga with annoying frequency); I would describe it as a classic example of the arranger absconding with the song. The up-tempo coda that follows might have worked had it not been for the orchestral intrusion; as it is, it feels like a failed rescue attempt. Deodato arranged some of the other pieces on the album but none are as obviously out of sync with a song’s content as this one.
“San Vicente”: Don’t waste your time trying to link this San Vicente with a spot on the world map because il n’existe pas. In an article on Medium from Dr. Eduardo Campos, Doctor of Philosophy at the Instituto de Psicologia Fenomenolólico-Existencial (Institute of Existential Phenomenology Psychology) argued that the San Vicente in the song doesn’t exist in the real world (“A cidade San Vicente, que dá nome à música composta por Milton Nascimento e Fernando Brant, não existe em nenhum lugar.”) This is confirmed by Grasse (whose judgment may be questionable but his research is excellent) who tells us that Nascimento wrote the music for a stage play by José Vicente de Paula entitled Os convalescentes (“The Convalescent Ones”) in which ‘”San Vicente’ was originally conceived for that play’s portrayal of an unidentified Latin American country under dictatorship, as a stand-in for Brazil during years of heavy censorship.” Fernando Brant somehow managed to write lyrics that made it through the censors: ” . . . when I wrote the lyrics I wanted to synthesize the feelings passing through all of Latin America, that began here (Brazil), and continued through Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.”
Nascimento assumes the role of the narrator, delivering an emotion-laden vocal that Dr. Campos beautifully described as “the perfect marriage between blood and spirit.” Milton’s voice brought me to tears the first time I heard it and I still well up the second I hear his bittersweet tone of mourning in the opening line “Coração americano” (“American heart”). Those two little words—repeated at various points in the song—reflect not only Brant’s desire to link the darkness that fell over Brazil with the darkness that eventually smothered life in other Latin American countries but also expresses confidence that the Pan-American spirit is real and will survive the cataclysm. As Grasse points out, that Pan-Americanism is reflected in the song’s arrangement, a mix of various Latin American influences such as Chilean tonada (a form re-energized by Phil Ochs’ companion Victor Jara) and the Paraguayan guarania (polka) reflected in Beto Guedes’ bass pattern.
Backed by a superb and diverse arrangement, Nascimento soars at the upper end of his range, smoothly connecting with his falsetto to hit the highest notes. In his role as narrator, he describes the experience of waking up in a country transformed into a dictatorship overnight as “a strange dream,” sensing “A taste of cut glass/A taste of chocolate/In the body and in the city/A taste of life and death,” watching as “what was black got dark.” Due to the relative opacity of the lyrics, it’s up to Milton to communicate the heartbreak and angst triggered by this new reality, and he accomplishes this challenging assignment with stunning effect.
The fade features the sound of church bells (actually tubular bells), echoing Donne’s famous lines, “Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee.” For some reason, my brain scrambles the signals (perhaps because I can’t stand Hemingway) and calls up Sir Edward Grey’s remark to a friend at the start of World War I: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” To those Americans who cling to the belief that coups are events that happen to other people in less civilized countries, I would remind you that you came within a whisker of living in San Vicente.
“Estrelas” (“Stars”) and “Clube da Esquina No. 2 (Corner Club No. 2)”: I want to make this official: Clube da Esquina wins my award for Best Track Placement on Any Album in History. “San Vicente” is a song of such unique and lasting power that almost any song in the universe would have been perceived as a letdown. The boys cleverly avoided that trap by inserting a twenty-nine-second intermission in the form of a dreamscape called “Estrellas” followed by a full-length instrumental with solfego called “Clube da Esquina No. 2.” In “Estrelas,” Lô Borges sings a melancholy melody over a guitar and the held notes of a chorus, all bathed in a sheen of echo. It’s pretty, it’s soothing and it gives me a moment to decompress and dry my eyes.
“Clube da Esquina No. 2” involves a fairly simple, circular chord pattern of Gmaj 7, F#minor, Em7, F# minor that gives Nascimento an open canvas to improvise guitar riffs and accompanying melodies in multiple octaves without singing a single word. The one change in the pattern is cued by a shift to A major that opens a melancholy variation to the main pattern beginning with an Em7 chord. Eumir Deodato completely redeems himself with the tasteful introduction of strings that add color and depth without disrupting the easy sway of the bossa nova rhythm. The piece is absolutely delightful, a song guaranteed to soothe troubled minds and turn the grumps who wake up on the wrong side of the bed into happy campers.
“Paisagem Da Janela” (“Window Landscape”): The music is definitely Borges and the lyrics are definitely Brant, a combination that creates stunning contrast pregnant with meaning. The song’s light melody and happy-go-lucky rhythm create an aural appearance that all is well in the world, but the lyrics, depicting the view seen by a man through the side window in his bedroom, paint a completely different picture. The initial images he absorbs evoke normality and tradition: a church, a white wall, a bird in flight, an old sign. Suddenly, the imagery takes on a darker cast of “morbid colors, ” “sordid men” and a “storm,” but when he shares those images with a companion, he finds his companion in complete denial:
você não escutou (you did not listen)
você não quer acreditar (you don’t want to believe it)
Mas isso é tão normal (but this is so normal)
você não quer acreditar (you don’t want to believe it)
E eu apenas era (loose interpretation: and I could barely believe it myself)
I’m reminded of the hobo in Slaughterhouse-Five who keeps telling Billy Pilgrim, “This ain’t so bad” as they ride the rails on their way to a Nazi prison camp; nine days into the trip, the hobo freezes to death. This song was written several years after the coup, and the interchange between the narrator and his companion tells us that the Brazilians were in a frame of mind similar to the hobo, telling themselves “this ain’t so bad” and denying the signals that tell them otherwise. Even when the narrator tells his companion of “the towers and cemeteries” and “the men and their watchtowers” he gets the same dull response. What I love about this song is how the light pop music serves to highlight the insidiousness of mass denial and the danger presented when a repressed populace no longer believes they have the power to change things.
“Me Deixa Em Paz” (“Leave Me in Peace,” or “Leave Me Alone”): This cover of a Brazilian standard composed by Monsueto and Ayrton Amorim and recorded by the immensely popular Linda Batista in 1951 (and many others since) features the mellifluous voice of Alaíde Costa in a duet with Nascimento. Due to hearing problems and fading interest in her cabaret stylings, Costa had been out of circulation for several years; this recording brought her back into the limelight. I could listen to Alaída sing the phone book (do they still make phone books?) and enjoy every second—and her performance on this song is enhanced by Nascimento’s generosity. Although he could have tried to compete with the sheer beauty of her voice with his own beautiful timbre, for most of the song he limits himself to high-pitched scat and acoustic guitar backing—and when presented with the opportunity to “out-beautify” her during his turn to sing a verse, he chooses to provide textural contrast with a rougher, more earthy vocal.
Collaboration is a wonderful thing indeed.
“Os Povos” (“The Peoples”): This composition (also reproduced on Milton) involves a collaboration between Márcio Borges (lyrics) and Nascimento (music) that continues the exploration of the Brazilian state of mind during the years of repression introduced in “Paisagem Da Janela.” Márcio explained the song’s origins to Grasse: “Márcio points to his biting, contemporary critique of others’ irrational dislike for the new and different, adding that ‘the images scattered randomly are shards of memories and history, hardened pieces of a conservative and retrograde soul [with] prejudices clinging like barnacles to the hull of a ship.’” As has become obvious in the field of politics in every corner of the world, conservatism has less to do with economic theory and a belief in small government and more to do with the fear-based rejection of anything new and different: immigrants, transsexuals, homosexuals and most artistic creations.
The song is best categorized as a dirge. Márcio Borges uses the metaphor of a “dead village” to express the distrust pervading the community; the supporting music consists of Nascimento playing slow arpeggios on the guitar with occasional hints of dissonance, backed by Wagner Tiso’s unobtrusive piano and very light percussion. Nascimento plays the role of an inhabitant of this dead village, relating his story in a tired, slightly tense voice, mirroring the lifeless dissonance that surrounds him. The character admits that he is not immune to the general cynicism (“Não quis saber do que é novo, nunca mais” “I didn’t want to know what’s new, never again”), and the depth of his pain is captured in Milton’s rising voice at the end of the verse, crying out, “Na beira da vida/A gente torna a se encontrar só” (“On the edge of life/We meet to find ourselves alone).” Each verse ends with a similar cry, and Nascimento’s vocal transformation, moving from numbness to a searing expression of pain is both breathtaking and extremely moving. Though the song’s bridge departs from the dominant pattern where Tiso adds a touch of organ and Silva some light cymbals, that slow guitar arpeggio and Milton’s cry to the heavens are the musical imprints that linger in the mind and heart.
“Saídas E Bandeiras No. 2” (“Exits and Flags” or “Sallies and Banners No. 2”) As promised, I’ll use the space allotted to the reprise to give you a completely different take on the song:
Charles A. Perrone subtitled a book chapter on Milton Nascimento “Sallies and Banners,” a translation of this song title. That author incisively notes that while Brant’s lyrics to “Saídas e Bandeiras N.º 1” provide images of Portugal’s seventeenth-century flag-bearing colonial explorers first traversing the mineiro interior—its dust, rivers, and diamonds—those for his “Saídas e Bandeiras N.º 2” indict the unbearable oppression of the contemporary regime’s authoritarianism: “andar por avenidas enfrentando o que não da mais pé/ juntar todas as forças para vencer essa maré” (to walk down the avenues facing up to what’s over our heads/ to join all forces, to overcome that tide). Here, N.º 1’s exaltation of early colonial adventures and fruitful discoveries in the Brazilian interior are a foil to N.º 2’s denunciation of the calamity of authoritarianism.
Grasse, Jonathon. Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Hence my disclaimers at the start of this review. I have no problem admitting my cultural ignorance because denying it would only reinforce that ignorance.
“Um Gosto de Sol” (“A Taste of Sun”): In keeping with the generally mournful feel of Side C, “Um Gosto de Sol” is largely a solo effort featuring Milton on piano as he recalls a bittersweet memory (or dream) of a trip to Caracas made shortly after he finished composing “Cais.” Though I wouldn’t go as far as Grasse in describing the lyrics as “Dali-esque,” they are rather elusive. The pleasure derived from the song comes from Milton’s beautiful voice and the Deodato-arranged strings that replicate the closing theme from “Cais.”
“Pelo Amor De Deus” (“For God’s Sake”): I think Grasse cops out in his description of this song as “an ode to psychedelia.” The term “psychedelic” suffers from serious overuse, imprecisely applied to any music from the era that contains weird sounds. The piece certainly has the surrealistic touch that provided much of the gloss in psychedelic music, but the tonal qualities are closer to avant-garde jazz than Country Joe & The Fish and the combined impact of the gaggle of sounds and contra-rhythms are more suited to an experimental film soundtrack than FM radio. Brant’s lyrical imagery ranges from a mouse gnawing on a photo to a naked woman on a beach, both of which elicit a shout of “Pelo amor de deus,” a phrase that can mean either disgust or wonder—but since Milton’s tone is more anger than delight, I’m going with existential-level repulsion. It’s one of those odd pieces you find on a double album that you really don’t care to listen to but understand why it’s there.
“Lilia” (“Lilia”): The only solo Nascimento composition on the album is a lively instrumental in 5/4 time, where Milton leads the way on an open-tuned acoustic guitar while adding flurries of falsetto notes that recall the sound of a bird in the wild. Wagner Tiso’s striking organ riff propels the song forward, placing Tavito’s 12-string and Beto’s bass into the foreground and giving the piece some extra oomph. The baseline of the song revolves around a root note in A with several side trips to minor and blues scales—“Lilia” leaves the musicians a lot of room for improvisation. Following the relative heaviness of Side C and the circus-like atmosphere of “Pelo Amor De Deus,” “Lilia” has a lightening effect that is exceptionally refreshing.
“Trem de Doido” (“Crazy Train”): Beto drops his bass for lead electric guitar on this Borges-Borges creation that Grasse inexplicably describes as possessing the “seemingly drug-fueled qualities of a Beatles ‘White Album’ track.” ENOUGH WITH THE WHITE ALBUM COMPARISONS ALREADY! Putting aside Grasse’s tendency to play fast-and-loose with words, I will grant that “Trem de Doido” is probably the song that is most accessible to rock fans, though it doesn’t come close to the Led Zeppelin sound Márcio Borges had in mind—the beat is too laid-back for that kind of thing. And though the song has a comfortable feel to it with breathtakingly beautiful harmonies in the bridge, the lyrics are explicitly uncomfortable, as Márcio confessed to Grasse: “a fable that speaks of rats and men mingling and being treated under the same whip,” and these rats “denounce comrades, spy, invade, disrespect, attack, steal and act in packs.” As a demonstration of the versatility of the Clube da Esquina musicians, it’s a smashing success.
“Nada Será Como Antes” (“Nothing Will Be Like Before”): Sorry, but this song really doesn’t grab me, musically or lyrically: it’s way too poppy. Others feel differently–Grasse loved the song (he loves everything, but I sure don’t hear anything close to “riveting guitar” here) and bolsters his argument with a quote from Charles Perone, who argued that the song “exemplifies Milton’s multi-textured music architecture and asserts readiness for change.” That’s fine by me; I’ve never claimed to be the almighty arbiter of musical taste. I just don’t care for the song.
“Ao Que Vai Nascer” (“To What Who Will Be Born”): Fernando Brant ran afoul of the censors when he submitted his original version, so I’m going to proceed with extreme caution and not even attempt a complete interpretation. What I do glean from the lyrics is a man facing the reality of aging in dialogue with either his child or his younger self, troubled by the “the clear serene voice” that tells him “answers will come from time.” What I hear in Milton’s voice are a plethora of conflicting feelings—sadness, frustration, longing, aching. The combination of Nascimento and acoustic guitar is always riveting; the man can capture the listener’s full attention like few other singers in history. His stirring performance ends on what feels like a note of hope for the future as his voice sings the words “corro a te encontrar” (“I run to find you”), queuing the band to join in with guitar, percussion, organ and bass while Milton repeats the line throughout the fade. The lyrics certainly suggest a rebirth of sorts, but I hesitate to follow that possibility further. All I know is that “Ao Que Vai Nascer” is a fantastic closing song on a fantastic album.
I don’t have much in the way of awards to give, but I have added Clube da Esquina to my Desert Island Disks list, replacing David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. My usual M. O. after finishing a review is to pack my bags and move on to the next album on the list. Not this time—I’ve played Clube da Esquina every day since finishing this review two weeks ago and I hear more brilliant subtleties every time I hear it. Clube da Esquina provides irrefutable evidence that timeless art is indeed possible in the realm of popular music; it is a gift to humanity that deserves to be celebrated in every corner of the world.
Tull fans who follow this blog have probably wondered what the hell has taken this broad so long to get around to Heavy Horses. Ignoring the middle piece of the “folk-rock trilogy” that began with Songs from the Wood and ended with Stormwatch (both of which I’ve reviewed) leaves an obvious hole in my Tull narrative. The Heavy Horses tour also gave us Tull’s first live album (Bursting Out), so the album has added significance in Tull lore.
Well, here we are, and I’ll use a famous quote to explain my reluctance to engage with Heavy Horses.
“I yam what I am.”
Truth is, I have a hard time relating to the country farm environment depicted in some of the songs in Heavy Horses. I’m a city girl. I’ve lived in cities for most of my life. I feel more comfortable in an urban milieu. I’ll take a sidewalk over a forest path or a furrow anytime.
I’m glad Mother Nature is there. I just don’t want to hang out with her. You can read the introduction to my review of Woodstock to learn more about the trauma that bitch inflicted on me at a very tender age.
As for farms . . . I’ve only been to a farm once in my life (not counting vineyards). As a consequence of that experience, my brain has identified farms as smelly places that trigger my allergies and has forbidden me from coming within ten miles of a barn or silo. Old MacDonald can bring his wares to the farmer’s market and allow me to shop with my feet firmly planted on brick or concrete.
Many of the characters in Heavy Horses are animals—mostly farm animals or animals that have become acclimatized to farm dynamics. Mice are featured in two songs (in one a victim; in the other a hero of sorts). We also have a murderous cat, a scarcely domesticated hound dog, a gaggle of moths, a team of draft horses and a rooster in the role of meteorologist. I love animals, especially those animals who sit on my lap and give me little kisses and who obey the order to shut up and leave mommy alone when she’s fucking. None of the animals on Heavy Horses meet those qualifications, but overall, I consider the animals a plus.
Biases and idiosyncracies confessed, it’s time for the review!
Sharp-eyed readers may have already noticed that the cover depicted here differs slightly from the original release. Down at the bottom you’ll see the words “The original 1978 album remixed in stereo by Steven Wilson.” While I generally prefer to review the original recording without enhancement or improvement (if available) and try to avoid promoting “deluxe editions” that cost more and often fail to deliver much in the way of “deluxe,” I strongly recommend Steven Wilson’s remix. Wilson has remixed and remastered several Tull albums, but his work on Heavy Horses qualifies as exceptional.
Unfortunately, Wilson couldn’t do much with Ian Anderson’s less-than-stellar vocals, the sound of a voice run ragged by overuse, a condition that would become more serious during the Under Wraps tour in the 1980’s. Sometimes the roughness works in the context of a song; in other places I miss the vibrato he commanded in songs like “Wond’ring Aloud” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day.” As for the rest of the band, I would label their performances as spirited and tight, with the proviso that you can never have enough Martin Barre on a Tull record.
“And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps” seems a curious opener, but if you look through the playlist, there really isn’t a signature opening song in the bunch. This is one of those songs that only Jethro Tull could have created, with its 3/4 time signature cleverly disguised by splashes of flute, guitar and bass that fall on and off the beat. The clarity of Wilson’s remix allows you to follow any disparate part you choose, and all I can say is I would have loved to have been in the studio when they worked out all the details—the arrangement is a marvelous creation. As for the subject matter, I think Ian Anderson did a fine job depicting the contrary nature of a cat (“Savage bed foot warmer/Of purest feline ancestry”) and (“From warm milk on a lazy day/To dawn patrol of hungry hate”). The contrary nature of the feline is exactly why I steadfastly refuse to own a cat.
They’re too much like me.
The song also reminds us of another unpleasant aspect of nature: it thrives on the cycle of life and death. The cat may be “domesticated,” but its animal instincts remain: “Eats but one in every ten/Leaves the others on the mat.” If you scolded and shook your finger at the cat when he dropped off his prey on your front porch—“Bad cat—no kill mice!”—the cat would give you one of those laser-focused feline stares that says, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” Ian Anderson clearly accepts this gruesome truth that natural survival entails killing; I cry whenever I watch one of those nature shows where the lions eat the gazelles. “That’s horrifying,” I might remark . . . while taking another bite out of my cheeseburger.
My hypocrisy regarding nature is showing.
“Acres Wild” is an Ian Anderson love letter to his relatively recent bride, offering her the opportunity to make whoopee in both rural and urban environments. The first verse anticipates the couple’s purchase of the Strathaird Estate on the Isle of Skye (the “Winged Isle”); the second depicts a drearier environment in an unnamed U. K. city, most likely London. While the offer may have been tempting to Shona Anderson, I don’t find “deep brown rivers that slither darkly” a particularly romantic image (“slither darkly” calls up images of snakes crawling all over my naked body), and the song pales in comparison to the delightfully kinky “Hunting Girl” and darkly erotic “Velvet Green” on Songs from the Wood. That said, the Steven Wilson remix manages to give the song some life, largely by cranking up the volume on John Glascock’s outstanding bass performance.
Steven Wilson’s greatest contribution has to be his work on the instrumental passages in “No Lullaby.” I suggest that readers head over to YouTube, find both the original and Steven Wilson versions of the song, and compare the two renditions of the introductory passage. Martin’s superb lead solo is brighter and cleaner, Glascock’s bass features more punch and Barriemore Barlow’s drums are rescued from the muddiness of the original. Martin’s extended solo in the middle of the piece also makes me very happy. As for the song proper . . . ugh. It’s one thing to suffer from parental paranoia (all good parents have a tendency towards over-protectiveness), but this is a bit over the top:
Keep your eyes open
And prick up your ears
Rehearse your loudest cry.
There’s folk out there
Who would do you harm
So I’ll sing you no lullaby.
There’s a lock on the window;
There’s a chain on the door:
A big dog in the hall.
But there’s dragons and beasties
Out there in the night
To snatch you if you fall.
Even if a baby can’t understand the language, they can feel the vibes, so I hope Ian didn’t actually sing this song to baby James or encourage him to use his rattle to develop his swordsmanship.
“Moths” is a lyrical mess that begins with trite imagery and moves steadily in the direction of unintelligibility. An attempt to liven up the proceedings with a sudden key change falls flat, and Ian’s vocal problems are on full display here, his sandpapery voice rather grating in contrast to the gentle arrangement. I do like the use of truncated measures, and as I’ve said before, I don’t think Tull gets enough credit for their rhythmic excellence.
The milieu shifts to urban with the song “Journeyman,” a word that originally meant “a worker, skilled in a given building trade or craft, who has successfully completed an official apprenticeship qualification” but now is generally used to describe a crappy relief pitcher assigned to mop-up duty. Ian absconds the term and assigns it to the drone on his daily commute. Unlike the muddled poetry of “Moths,” Ian combines concrete imagery and wit to offer us a vivid picture of modern meaninglessness:
Sliding through Victorian tunnels
Where green moss oozes from the pores.
Dull echoes from the wet embankments
Battlefield allotments. Fresh open sores.
In late-night commuter madness
Double-locked black briefcase on the floor,
Like a faithful dog with master
Sleeping in the draught beside the carriage door.
To each Journeyman his own home-coming
Cold supper nearing with each station stop.
Frosty flakes on empty platforms
Fireside slippers waiting. Flip. Flop.
Sadly, our journeyman doesn’t have time to “stop for tea at Gerard’s Cross,” a rail stop considered a bit posher than most. The band is nice and tight here, engaging in several mini stop-time moments to accentuate punch lines.
“Rover” explores the ways and mores of canines in an arrangement that could have fit nicely into the mix on Songs from the Wood. Cats will be cats and dogs will be dogs and there’s hardly anything a dog loves better than to escape the leash and taste a precious moment of blessed freedom:
The long road is a rainbow and the pot of gold lies there.
So slip the chain and I’m off again
You’ll find me everywhere.
‘Cause I’m a Rover.
Heavy Horses is an album of exceptionally strong introductions, and “Rover” features one of my favorites with its perfectly-executed flurry of notes coming at you from all instruments in all directions. Ian and the band deserve lots of credit for turning a minor key song into something joyful and full of life. I also love Ian’s insight into the charmingly manipulative ways of the species—the couplet “I’m simple in my sadness/Resourceful in remorse” is brilliant, painfully true poetic economy.
My favorite song on Heavy Horses features Ian Anderson taking tea with “one brown mouse sitting in a cage.” Following another fabulous introduction featuring Ian’s stereo acoustic guitars, we hear Ian chatting at his furry companion in what seems to be a daily ritual:
Smile your little smile take some tea with me awhile.
Brush away that black cloud from your shoulder.
Twitch your whiskers. Feel that you’re really real.
Another tea-time another day older.
Meanwhile, in the background, a slow build begins with the introduction of vocal harmony, John Glascock shifting from root note bass to more complex patterns, the appearance of light orchestration and a very gentle touch on Barriemore’s drum kit. After building to a peak, Barlow signals a shift with a transitional fill, cueing Martin to let it rip with distortion-tinged power chords and a nice little run. This delightful bridge contains the essence of the relationship between man and mouse:
Do you wonder if I really care for you,
Am I just the company you keep?
Which one of us exercises on the old treadmill,
Who hides his head, pretending to sleep?
Cursed with our anthropomorphic bias, I don’t really know if it’s possible for a human to truly read an animal’s thoughts or accurately empathize with an animal’s feelings. Ian finds an ironic connection in the treadmill, a humble observation that raises valid doubts concerning human superiority. “One Brown Mouse” is one of Tull’s most delightful and most human creations, a song guaranteed to lift that black cloud from your shoulder.
It’s hard for me to evaluate the title track, since I have little interest in horses and couldn’t tell a fetlock from a feather. While Ian celebrates the noble breeds who work the land, I find myself wondering whether or not the horses really like doing the shitty work humans have bred them to perform. The most controversial passage ties the horses to our overdependence on the oil that feeds the tractors and, by extension, our overdependence on technology itself:
And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry
And the nights are seen to draw colder
They’ll beg for your strength, your gentle power
Your noble grace and your bearing
And you’ll strain once again to the sound of the gulls
In the wake of the deep plough, sharing
Putting aside the nostalgic, anthropomorphic projections, I have to say that while I think Ian’s desire for a life that maintains our connection with Mother Nature is admirable (and getting rid of fossil fuels even more so), he ignores the simple fact that returning to the horse and plow would leave billions of people starving on our overpopulated planet. That’s misplaced nostalgia, not a helpful solution.
As for the music, though the band executes their parts with the usual excellence, the transition from verse to chorus feels rather awkward and the shift to the instrumental section featuring Darryl Way’s violin solo equally so. I also think the violin gets buried in the mix, something not corrected by the Wilson remix.
The album ends with a generally uninteresting appeal to an inanimate object, a “Weathercock,” to be specific. I have no problem talking to animals or even plants but conversing with a metal rooster is too much for this gal. What I do like in this song is Ian’s mandolin work, reminding me how much I admire his ability to make any instrument he touches come alive.
Despite my experiential limitations, I still admire the hell out of Ian Anderson for sticking to the folk-rock path during a period when punks, post-punks and new wave artists were all the rage. Heavy Horses shows all the signs of a very stubborn artist and a band fully committed to the craft. Though I’m generally uncomfortable with nostalgic yearnings, the state of music today has led me to fully embrace nostalgia honoring displays of artistic commitment and excellent musicianship like Heavy Horses.
And that’s not “misplaced nostalgia.” That’s reality.