Sunday, September 24, 2023

In The Neighborhood - Ernest Hood

Ernest Hood

The Nation, November 5 2019

by Simon Reynolds

South Pasadena, where I live, looks like the archetypal American suburban dream. Craftsman houses from its tree-lined streets featured in Thirtysomething and Back to The Future, to name just a couple of the town’s many screen cameos. And just a little way down our road, there’s a darling little house that’s frequently used in TV commercials. The film crews, craft services, and costuming trucks with their racks of garments were an amusing novelty at first. I particularly enjoyed the Christmas commercial, fake snow covering lawns while the sun shone down on yet another perfect 73-degree LA day. But then it got to be a drag, all those large vehicles parked up and down the road. The telegenic image of our street as an ideal neighborhood was detracting from the reality. 

These mildly aggrieved thoughts flickered through my mind while listening to Ernest Hood’s Neighborhoods, a gorgeously tender sound-portrait of the all-American suburban idyll, originally released in 1975 but now lavishly reissued as a double-disc vinyl set. Woven out of plangent ripples of zither, wistful synthesizer refrains, and children’s voices field-recorded by Hood in the streets of his own Portland neighborhood, the album can’t help reminding you of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and the halcyon mood, if not, the sound of Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy Peanuts score.

The only album Hood ever released, Neighborhoods is considered by some to have invented ambient music a couple of years before Brian Eno. “Musical cinematography” was Hood’s own description in the original liner-notes. “It’s like watching a movie—you get establishing shots and you’re pulled in,” says his son Tom Hood by phone from South East Portland, where he still lives. “In that sense, it’s not ambient, because with that you’re meant to tune out, but Neighborhoods makes you focus.”  

Each track is evocatively titled—“Saturday Morning Doze”, “The Secret Place”, “Night Games”—and comes with an impressionistic description designed to trigger mental movies, like the reference to “cards flapping in the bike spokes” in the text for “After School.” Sometimes the sense of place is very particular: Hood’s “caption” for “From the Bluff” mentions Portland’s Oaks Amusement Park and the “distant marshes” of the Willamette River. Layer upon layer of nostalgia enfolds the record: it’s partly inspired by Hood’s memories of his own pre-WW2 childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, but the album also features snippets of his 4-year-old children recorded in 1950s Portland. Playing Neighborhoods today only adds extra layers: the charmingly dated synth is redolent of 1970s PBS, while each listener will affix personal memories date-stamped to the decades of their own childhoods and linked to their hometowns in other states or countries. 

Hood was a professional musician who played guitar in jazz bands until polio  - which he contracted in the late 1940s when still a young man – made the travelling lifestyle unworkable. He carried on doing session work and briefly ran a Portland jazz club, but increasingly his energy was dedicated to the obsessive documentation of everyday soundscapes. Even before reel-to-reel tape machines became readily available, Hood used an earlier technology, the wire-recorder—a machine that captured sound by magnetizing points on a thin steel wire. He captured bird song and frog noises and would give tapes of outdoor sounds to ill people who couldn’t leave their houses. Hood had a particular obsession with the sonic ambience of covered bridges and would make expeditions to record and sketch Oregon’s surviving examples. Tom Hood recalls making a pilgrimage with his father to his ancestral hometown in North Carolina and recording the entire road trip. He is currently combing through his dad’s vast unruly archive, digitizing tape reels with a view to possible further releases. 

Hood’s preservationist impulse seemed to stem in part from an acute susceptibility to nostalgia.  This pained awareness of the passage of time also expressed itself through a hostility to the modern world’s noise pollution. He wrote letters to local newspapers complaining about the assaultive properties of contemporary music. A flavor of this invective can be gleaned from the Neighborhoods liner note, which passingly rails against “commercial music purveyors” and “plastic novelty music played on military weapons.” One of Hood’s pipedreams was a low-power, small-radius radio station that would play 1920s and 1930s music, carefully leaving 30-second gaps between each 78 r.p.m. platter to allow for proper musical digestion. That never transpired, but Hood did help to found the volunteer-run local radio station KBOO FM, to which a portion of the proceeds from the Neighborhoods reissue will go.  


Hood strikes an “it takes a village” note when he writes about how the record will trigger pangs in listeners no matter “which neighborhood you sprouted,” describing the project as the paying of “a debt to some beautiful and loving people…. older folks… who put up with my childhood pesters [and] played such an important role in the formation of comfortable memories.” Hood emphasizes that while the record is not something to play in gregarious situations like a party, “it is a social record in that it reminds us of the fact that most of us made our first social contacts… in our neighborhood streets.” 

Reading Hood’s words while listening to his shimmery cascades of electronic instrumentation, which often have the flashback quality of a cinematic dissolve, I wondered to what extent the close-knit, placed-based nurturance that Hood celebrated still applied. I also wondered if I’d ever experienced anything like it. Britain has its romanticized myths of working-class community: a sentimental folk memory of housewives chatting over garden fences in back of terraced housing, next-door-neighbors popping round to borrow cups of sugar, and so forth. But once you go up the class ladder, self-contained privacy becomes the norm: as their descriptors imply, semi-detached and detached houses indicate a weakening of the social bond. That’s what it was like where I grew up, an English commuter town surrounded by fields and woodland but close to London: people were civil but largely kept to themselves.

Ascend some more rungs and you reach the super-rich, who lead completely de-territorialized lives, thanks to their multiple homes and cunning ways to avoid paying tax in the places through which they pass. Privilege is measured by the extent to which you can avoid public space and public transport (private planes and private elevators). You can live as though the humans immediately surrounding you do not exist. Hence the vogue in the posher parts of London for the ultra-wealthy to expand their properties underground, excavating subterranean floors for swimming pools and gyms, blithely disregarding the noisy and dirty disruption caused to everyone else in the street by the building work. The ultimate assault on the idea of “neighborhood” is owning a property without living there, ghosting out an abode as a vessel for investment while pricing out regular folks from the area. If rootless transience—a nomadic lifestyle that mimics the free movements of international capital—is privilege, then conversely it’s those at the bottom who are most territorialized, literally kept in their place. 

Class is a factor, but so is age. Young people who move to cities are partly attracted by the freedom of dislocation, the chance to escape the bonds and binds of belonging to a community. As a twentysomething living in London in the 1980s and 1990s, I recall being barely on nodding terms with neighbors in the various apartment blocks or subdivided houses in which I lived. 


The neighborhood as an extension to family that the uncannily named Hood celebrated seems to exist largely for children. That’s when I remember it as a social fact in my own life: you played with whoever was near to hand. And it was only when I had children myself that I really started to feel like I lived in a neighborhood. That was in the East Village of New York, a city that otherwise would seem to represent the ultimate in disconnection. Yet both within our 12-story apartment-block coop and in the surrounding streets, there was a pleasant sense of community. Children were the glue, or rather the dissolving agent, in terms of interpersonal boundaries. You talked to people with whom you might not have much in common simply because your kids played together. Halloween provided the treat of peering inside the apartments of people on other floors. Compared with the East Village’s jostling intimacy, suburban LA is diffuse, although PTAs, Little League, and “home churches” counteract the centrifugal tendencies of a spread-out, non-pedestrian city. 

Although the freedom for kids to wander around their neighborhoods that some of us enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s has largely been curtailed by anxious parents, small children still have that here-and-now, face-to-face orientation. But as soon as they get phones, bonding systems emerge that are steadily less related to geographic proximity. They start to resemble adults, with friendship systems organized around taste or interests. My own “true” neighborhoods for some time now have been unmoored from real space and real time: internet-based forms of conviviality and parochialism oriented around musical or intellectual concerns, gathered around blog clusters or message boards. A while back I started jokily addressing readers of my own blog as “parishioners.” And it would have been through a music-sharing blog or an online collective audio-archive that I first heard Neighborhoods some years ago. 

Originally released on his own Thistlefield imprint in an edition of a few hundred, offered for mail-order sale at $5.95 but mostly given away to friends, Neighborhoods gradually found its true audience as it circulated in used record shops, then reached the internet. Hood died in 1991, long before he could see the rediscovery of his one-and-only album. I don’t know if he would recognize file-sharing as a form of neighborliness. But he would surely have felt delight and vindication at its long and winding ascent to cult legend. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

El Ef Oh!


Oddly, never made the connection between the electro roots of Mark 'n' Gaz (who met as members of rival teams in a breakdance contest) and the fact that Tommy Boy put out Frequencies in the USA. 

Tommy Boy also put out 808 State's Ninety, in a remixed form. 




Observer Music Monthly, 2003

It’s a tough time for dance music believers. Mainstream house culture has imploded, with superclubs closing, dance magazines folding, and average sales for 12 inch singles on a steady downward arc. The more cerebral end of home-listening electronica suffers from stylistic fragmentation, overproduction (there’s just too many "pretty good" records being made), and the absence of a truly startling new sound (even a Next Medium-Sized Thing would be a blessing at this point). Trendy young hipsters think dance culture’s passe and really rather naff: these days they’re into bands with riffs, hooky choruses, foxy singers, and good hair, from neo-garage groups like The White Stripes to post-punk revivalists like The Rapture. 

Little wonder, then, that the leading lights of leftfield electronica have been looking back to the early Nineties, when their scene was at the peak of its creativity, cultural preeminence, and popularity. There’s been a spate of retro-rave flavoured releases from the aging Anglo vanguard--a reinvocation (conscious or unconscious, it’s hard to say) of the era when this music was simultaneously the cutting edge and in the pop charts. 

LFO’s Mark Bell is a case in point. Today he’s better known for his production work with Bjork and Depeche Mode, but back in 1990, he was one half of a duo who reached #12 in the UK singles charts with their self-titled debut "LFO". This Leeds group pioneered a style called "bleep", the first truly British mutation of the house and techno streaming over from Chicago and Detroit. In 1991 they released Frequencies, the first really great techno album released anywhere *(unless you count ancestors Kraftwerk, alongside whose godlike genius LFO’s best work ranks, if you ask me). Just about the only bad thing about Sheath, LFO’s third album and first release for seven years, is its title, which I fear is being used in its antideluvian meaning of "condom" (only "rubber johnny" could have been worse). Really, this record should be called Frequencies: the Return

Deliberately lo-fi opener "Blown" instantly transports you back to the era of landmark records like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 1985-91. All muddy heart-tremor bass, creaky hissing beats and tinkling, tingling rivulets of synth, it has the enchanted, misty-eyed quality of those childhood mornings when you wake to look through frost-embroidered bedroom windows. "Mokeylips" teems with fluorescent pulses and those classic LFO textures that seem to stick to your skin like Velcro. As bracing as snorting a line of Ajax, "Mum-Man" is industrial-strength hardcore of the kind that mashed-up the more mental ravefloors in ’92. With its robot-voice dancemaster commands and videogame zaps, "Freak" harks back further still to LFO’s Eighties roots as teenage electro fans body-popping and spinning on their heads in deserted shopping centres. "Moistly" shimmers and surges with that odd mixture of nervousness and serenity that infused the classic Detroit techno of Derrick May and Carl Craig. And the beat-less tone-poem "Premacy" pierces your heart with its plangent poignancy. 

Electronic music may be suffering from the cruel cycles of cool at the moment, but Sheath (ugh, I really don’t like that title) shows that music of quality and distinction is still coming from that quarter. Yet more proof (if any were still needed) that all-instrumental machine-music can be as emotionally evocative, as sensuously exquisite, as heart-tenderising and soul-nourishing as any rock group you care to mention. (Like for instance Radiohead, whose Thom Yorke, as it happens, was a huge fan of the Northern "bleep" tracks released by Warp in the early Nineties). One can only hope this album finds the audience it deserves.

* the first really great techno album

Is this unfair to 808 State, who did Ninety  a year earlier? Maybe, but not really, as I don't really think of that album as techno - it's more like a dreamy, ambient-tinged house record.  Great album, and one that has lasted for me whereas Ex:Cel (which is slightly more techno, even has some hardcore-aspiring tunes on it, and came out in '91) hasn't endured. 

Unfair to anyone else? Not sure what month it came out in '91, but Ultramarine might have pipped LFO to the post - but then again, Every Man and Woman Is A Star isn't really techno, is it? It's more acid meets chillout meets pastoral fusion. 

Also that year was Orbital's debut - but Frequencies wipes the floor with that. 

LFO labelmates Nightmares on Wax also debuted at album length in 1991 but Word of Science is already trying to expand beyond bleep and touching on the downtempo smoker's muzik of their later discography.

Unique 3's Jus' Unique came out in 1990. There's great stuff on it: deep-bleep like "Phase 3" and "Digicality", tuff little unit of a toon "Code 0274", plus the classic singles up to that point. Overall, though, it's not quite on a par with Frequencies - bit too much of an eclectic sprawl, with some Rebel MC-ish rap tracks that are fun but a bit dated.  

DHS did The Difference Between Noise and Music in '91 - I'll have to give that a relisten. Possibly a real contender against LFO.  (I did give it a relisten and it's pretty interesting stuff but not as consummate as Frequencies)

Oh, blimey, how could I forget - there's A Guy Called Gerald's Automanikk, from 1990. I don't  recall it quite being on a par with Frequencies, or even with Ninety (the apposite comparison). The great, all-time Gerald album is Black Secret Technology, with '92 's 28 Gun Bad Boy also a strong statement. 

A couple of contenders - 4 Hero's In Rough Territory (but it's before they've really found their path, and I don't remember it being a great album - a bit rough, in fact, and not ruff-rough). And then Nexus 21's The Rhythm of Life (from as early as '89), which I think is pre-bleep and when they are still very much Detroit-emulative and specifically Kevin Saunderson fanboys.  

Where else could we look for pipping-Frequencies-to-the-post possibles? Detroit? I don't think any of the major artists had done an album-album by that point.  Germany? 

Friday, September 15, 2023

Mo' Wack

Various Artists

Royalties Overdue

Mo' Wax

Melody Maker, June 18 1994

by Simon Reynolds

Headz 2 
(Mo Wax)
Village Voice, 1996 (remixed slightly for Faves of 1996)

by Simon Reynolds 

In the age of compilation gigantism, Headz 2 dramatically ups the ante. Mo 
Wax's latest anthology consists of not one but two separately sold double-CD's  (or two quadruple albums, boxed like Wagner's Parsifal), which contain nearly five-and-a-half hours of music spanning not just trip hop but leading innovators in drum & bass, techno, art-rap and electronica. Before I even saw these dauntingly oversize collections in the stores, I was put off by the air of hubris and self-congratulatory connoisseurship hanging over the project. When I saw them, the deluxe vinyl sets instantly reminded me of those calfskin-bound, gilt-inlaid editions of Dickens (sold through mail-order ads that appeal to "your unstinting pride"), which remain unread on the shelf but testify to an 
interest in being cultured. In Headz case, the word is subcultured. 

Despite their garish abstrakt covers, the vinyl Headz also resemble headstones, 
perhaps because Mo Wax supremo James Lavelle has herein constructed a kind of mausoleum of late '90s "cool". Appropriately, the music itself is sombre and 
subdued, mostly cleaving to the trip hop noir norm: torpid breakbeats, entropic 
sub-bass, dank dub reverb. (When it comes to non-junglistic breakbeats, give me the rowdy, rockist furore of the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and their amyl brethren, any day). The same Mo Wax kiss-of-def that resulted in Luke Vibert's only uninteresting release to date affects contributions from the likes of Danny Breaks, whose abandons his normal hyper-kinaesthetics for the idling headnooding tempo of "Science Fu Beats". (Perking the track up to 45 r.p.m improves this, and several other tracks, considerably). 

Mo Wax belong to what you might call the "good music society", or more 
precisely, they belong to a specific "good music society" which dates back to 
the "eclectic" list of influences on Massive Attack's "Blue Lines" (wherein PiL, 
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Isaac Hayes and Studio One coexisted in smug 
self-congratulation). The sensibility is pure fusion: "it's all music, man", 
"what kind of music don't I like? -- just bad music!". Every area of music has 
it own "good music society", its little cabal of cognoscenti, what Kevin Martin 
calls the "taste police": Junior Boys Own for deep house, Creation (in the late 
Eighties at least) for leather-trousered rock, Grand Royal for white American 
B-boyism. Each maintains a canon of cool, and as with all canons, what is 
excluded is as significant as what is included. What is excluded tends to be 
both the vibrantly vulgar and the genuinely extremist/out-there: neither The 
Sweet nor Stockhausen make it. (Although Pierre Henry, bizarrely, has been 
canonised --as a pioneer of E-Z listening alongside Jean-Jacques Perrey!!!).

Bonus hateration

The return of WANKLE 
(from Retromania blog)

I saw an early version of this James Lavelle doc at a festival a few years ago and what amazed me, first and foremost, was how many UNKLE albums there'd been.

The first was bad enough - so I guess I'd assumed that that would have been it

But no, no, they persisted after Psyence Fiction (yuk wot a title) -  there's something like FIVE subsequent UNKLE albums!

And what's worse is that they get increasingly rocky, involving such as Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age

Like Lavelle started buying into this really naff idea of rock rebellion and intensity and authenticity

Like a less tastefully executed version of the Death in Vegas approach - a studio assembled simulacrum of rock, without the actual rhythmic engine of band-energy powering it

I guess it shows the odd lingering prestige of rock - and especially the punk strand within rock - as the ultimate stand-in for rebellion and individuality, which continues to exert its thrall over people who've come up through hip hop or dance music, and whose creative procedures are radically different

For some reason deep in their hearts their burning desire seems to be to collaborate with Noel Gallagher (as with Goldie circa Saturnz Returnz on "Temper Temper") or Pete Doherty or somebody like that, despite being light-years ahead sonically of those guys.

Give this a butchers if you fancy a cringadelic experience

The other thing I gleaned from the doc - and Lavelle's embrace of rockism - was that he'd managed to convince himself that  being a curator really is the same as being a creator -  that's there's really nothing to writing songs, creating a distinctive band-sound, a band-voice.

All you need is some famous pals, and some connections - and taste, and attitude

Simply convening the ingredients would somehow generate vibe in itself, hey presto, through the magic of chutzpah


Hubris 101: not knowing your limits, the nature of what you are actually good at (in his case, arguably at any rate,  branding, packaging, spotting talent in others i.e. Shadow, Krush, building a buzz)

Yet despite this, UNKLE is still going - there's a new album out soon  -  The Road: Part II/Lost Highway -  a "filmic" affair whose cast includes the  Clash’s Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison, Editors’ frontman Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, Mark Lanegan, Keaton Henson, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Jon Theodore and Troy Van Leeuwen, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds vocalist Ysée, Brian Eno collaborator Tessa Angus, producers Justin Stanley and Chris Goss,  BOC,  spoken-word contributions from legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox, and more

First single

Press release:

“Once you have walked the road, everything becomes clear,” says Elliott Power on the Prologue to the sixth album from genre-bending pioneers UNKLE. ‘The Road: Part II / Lost Highway’ is the sound of an artist forever in transit on life’s journey of discovery.

“My work has always had an eclectic essence and soundtrack-influence in its structure,” says Lavelle. “If you go through the back catalogue, there’s a continuity between the motion and the ambition of the sound. Ideally, you’re constantly collaging and sampling elements of what’s relevant at the time to create something new.

“Now, there’s a lot more freedom. When I first started, the walls between genres in front of you were a lot greater to climb. We’re at a much more open-minded and eclectic place with music now.”

"I started doing a show on Soho Radio last year, which made me think about playing records in a different way,” says Lavelle of his life after ‘Part I’. “It wasn’t about trying to make people dance in a nightclub. It was a breath of fresh air, and about playing a more eclectic mix. ‘The Road Part 2’ was made in the same way – it’s a mixtape and a journey. You’re in your car, starting in the day and driving into the night. The language of it was for it to be the ultimate road trip.

He continues: “It’s the mid-part of a trilogy. The first record is like you’re leaving home; you’re naive and trying to discover. There are elements of my early days in there, as well as a bit of everything since. There’s an optimism and excitement to it, as there was with me having to direct this project alone for the first time.

“This record is the journey. You’re on the road, out there in the world. There are let downs, highs, lows, love, loss and experiences. The third record to come is basically about coming home; wherever that may be."

With the album split into two acts each with a beginning, a middle and end, the trips from light to dark, from brute force to tenderness make for both the full arc of the adventure and suites to be enjoyed separately. It’s a bold, assured and confident collection – from the Americana of ‘Long Gone’, to the Kanye West ‘Black Skinhead’ - inspired ‘Nothing To Give’, the alt-orchestral rush of ‘Only You’ to the guitar-heavy mantra of ‘Crucifixion/A Prophet’ and the electronic child’s lullaby of ‘Sun (The)’ – via covers of ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’ made famous by Roberta Flack and the ‘guilty pleasure’ of the euphoric ‘Touch Me’ by Rui Da Silva. Helping to travel further down the myriad avenues of UNKLE’s sound are the full spectrum of collaborators and guests.

‘The Road: Part II/Lost Highway’ welcomes The Clash’s Mick Jones, Dhani Harrison, Editors’ frontman Tom Smith, The Duke Spirit’s Leila Moss, Mark Lanegan, Keaton Henson, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Jon Theodore and Troy Van Leeuwen, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds vocalist Ysée, Brian Eno collaborator Tessa Angus, producers Justin Stanley and Chris Goss,  BOC,  Philip Sheppard and artist John Isaac among others –  as well as spoken-word contributions from legendary Scottish actor Brian Cox (who used to be Lavelle’s landlord) and Stanley Kubrick’s widow Christiana, who leant her trust and voice to Lavelle following his acclaimed exhibition to the seminal director. The two names who crop up most throughout the record however are rising West London singer and producer Miink and experimental rapper Elliott Power.

“They’re just both so incredibly talented, and everything I love about London right now,” says Lavelle. “I’ve been playing a lot with going back to sampling and going back to certain aesthetics from when I was first buying records and DJing, then to mix that with something contemporary. They’ve helped me create this ‘Bladerunner meets London Soundsystem’ kind of vibe.”

But then, Lavelle has always been an artist as inspired by the past as he was racing towards the future.

“The way that things are now are what we were always doing with Mo’Wax,” says Lavelle. “The legacy was that we broke down barriers, took down everything culturally-lite and put it into something. Now street culture is the predominant visual culture of the world. It’s mad to think that Supreme is more popular and recognised than Louis Vuitton. Every major label and rapper is making sneakers and toys. At the time it was seen as vanity and gimmicky, but look at the way culture is now. That’s what we started.”

The striking artwork of the hooded knight that adorns the sleeve on 'Lost Highway' is by celebrated artist John Stark – renowned for drawing upon magical realism and using the more mystical elements of the past to reveal something profound about the present.

"It’s about the yin and yang, night and day, the rolling journey," says Lavelle of the artwork. "Here's a Ronin-like, lone warrior. It represents what it means for me to be going out into the world and finding myself."