Journey Through the Secret Life of Neighborhoods

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A while back, I had the privilege and honor of bestowing Best New Reissue upon Ernest Hood’s 1975 album, Neighborhoods, over at Pitchfork. If I were to try and summarize it in one line, it would be: “Hear children shouting out songs, crickets chirping, and the noise diesel engines rumbling past and feel the illusion of time dissolve.” The review has most of the bio/ backstory in it so won’t go into much detail here, save that it was a real thrill to finally hold a physical copy of it in my hands. Freedom to Spend label did an incredible job, even digging up the master tapes for it (a real rarity in this age of the easy-rip reissue).

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To say I had spent many years in search of this neighborhood would be an understatement. Freedom to Spend fellow Matt Werth surreptitiously spun it for me one Sunday morning and it was that rare record that seemed to dissolve into the morning air and suddenly become tactile all around us. Searching for a copy took on the qualities of the former and I never found a copy myself. (Blurbing it for Pitchfork’s Top Ambient Albums List certainly didn’t help with future eBay bids and Discogs searches.) Like most private press records, it’s one person’s undisturbed vision, a singular sound, a path that but one person traveled down.

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A few months prior, I found myself going deep on Stevie Wonder’s Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, a truly misunderstood album from the man both at the time of its release in 1977 and even in the 21st century. When Slate did their Wonder Week back in 2016, they celebrated nearly every single facet of the man’s career, some 16 features in total. Secret Life of Plants merited one begrudging sentence. Short shrift for an album that was the first to use a sampler, echoes the messiness of creation, touches on the cosmic philosophy of the Dogon tribe, the god Pan, the legacy of slavery, and sending pretty flowers to your sweetie.

secretlifeIt’s the kind of indulgence that few artists can attempt, much less get away with, yet Stevie did it, as I wrote near the end of the Sunday Review: “Rather than attempt to carry on with Key of Life’s trajectory and his own heritage, Stevie had the rare cache to wander down every path, in effect making Motown his own private press label… Wonder literally branched out, reaching upward towards an undetermined new destination, exploring intuitively and fearlessly in a manner that few artists have ever managed to do in the history of pop music.” But I don’t mean to draw a connection between Stevie’s effort and that other private press album about plants, Mort Garson’s Plantasia.

There’s something about the use of field recordings and overheard dialogue on Secret Life of Plants that brings to mind Neighborhoods, and they are like two peas in a pod, to use a garden metaphor. Sure, one is a massive pop star, the other a neglected jazz player, but there’s something about Wonder and Hood’s blending of new-fangled technology and field recordings that resonates. Perhaps there is a correlation in that both men were dealing with debilitating disabilities, Hood confined to a wheelchair from the effects of polio, Wonder blind almost since birth from retrolental fibroplasia. As such, both men oriented themselves in this world via deep listening and conjured a full-spectrum of sound in an attempt to adequately describe these rich worlds they could hear.

Both albums acted like seeds, sinking deep into the subconscious, barely heard for decades, only to come to life in the 21st century. Hearing these albums now in 2019, one also hears an unbridled freedom. No doubt it inspired Solange’s A Seat at the Table (she vocally called out the Stevie album in interviews) which in turn had an effect on the forthcoming Joy Orbison (Joy O) Slipping EP. In a recent feature on Orbison, Gabriel Szatan notes that Solange’s album gave the producer a template for “something supple and introspective without adhering to the usual strictures of a set medium.” While both  Wonder and Hood might have been physically restricted due to their disabilities, they conveyed a real sense of the freedom to roam in their music. Listen to either album and find yourself in the center of the universe.

 

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