MEDiA: The Hobbit, Tolkien (BBC R4) [Audiobook]

“One morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green…”


More archival doings. Opening up a new (old!) chapter on Tolkienian Middle-Earthiness!

Whilst I’ve read very varied views on this adaptation, personally I love it. Anthony Jackson is good as the ‘Tale Bearer’, a story telling device of the producers (i.e. not of a strictly Tolkien-ian pedigree), Paul Daneman is a lovably flustered Bilbo (slightly posh and middle aged, which is as Tolkien wrote him), and Heron Carvic – more famous, perhaps, as the original author of Miss Seeton novels – is, for me, an excellent Gandalf.

A full-cast dramatisation, with excellent sound from the radiophonic workshop, this production also benefits from some highly unusual and individual music. This is an aspect of the production some find unattractive, according to my researches, but I’m with the actor Michael Kilgariff, who adapted the 1937 book for this 1968 radio play/serial, and agree that the music actually helps make the production.

Like the books, The Hobbit is aimed at a younger audience than the LOTR, and this version stands, in relation to the BBC LOTR, in exactly the right relation, like a younger sibling. There are aspects that I’m less keen on, such as the voices of some of the creatures, e.g. the Spiders of Mirkwood, or Roarc the old talking crow. But, all things considered these are minor gripes. 

Even now, as ‘big kids’, we love listening to this. It’s atmospheric, fun, by turns ‘epic and homely’, evoking a world at once alien and yet familiar. Love it!

BOOK REViEW: What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel

Clear and pertinent insights. But, poss’ stating the obvious & preaching to the converted?

Originally published on the Amazon UK website, a number of years back, it seemed to me that this would sit well here, now, along with my recent reviews of a few other more recent books critiquing capitalism.

I like the idea behind this book a lot – what Sandel calls the ‘marketization of everything’ is indeed a cause for concern. And I remember hearing and enjoying his Reith lectures, on BBC Radio 4, back in 2009, on the theme of ‘a new citizenship’, in which, if memory serves, he mentioned some of the ideas discussed in this book.

However, this is a rather thin book in terms of concepts and arguments (I read it in one evening), whilst considered in terms of lists and repetition it is, as several other reviewers have noted, rather fat. When Lyell or Darwin do this, in their books on geology or evolution, one feels the cumulative weight of their evidence was entirely necessary. By comparison, Sandel’s examples seem limited and almost entirely anecdotal. And if, as some reviewers suggest (and I suspect they may be right) this book is preaching to the converted, do we need so many examples?

His opening question, the two principles of ‘coercion’ (relating to fairness and choice in an unequal world) and ‘corruption’ (the corrosive effect that supposedly neutral markets can have in valuing goods), along with the closing statement (actually just a reiteration of the opening questions: ‘Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?’), supported by a few examples, could’ve made the same case in just a fraction of the space.

An Amazon reviewer calling themselves Sphex has said elsewhere that ‘We all know of public figures who scoff at the idea of progress and make a good living bemoaning the current state of the world’. My guess is (the Sphex quote comes from a review of Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels book) he’s referring to John Gray. Whilst one hopes and imagines that Sandel does at least believe we might be able to do something in the face of ‘market triumphalism’ he offers no ideas whatsoever here: this is really just a long (and, at £20, expensive) litany of woes. Whilst Sandel might not be blowing a dirge on the trumpet of pessimism in quite the same way Gray does, he does appear to be trading in gloom.

Although I’m in more or less complete agreement with him that rampant deregulated capitalism running amok in every walk of life is doing immense amounts of harm, I found the parade of morally repellent practices he adduced as evidence, well… frankly, depressing. And on the evidence given here current trends look resolutely headed towards ever more of life being colonised by commerce. Certainly a debate on these issues is needed. But, as Sandel quite correctly points out, neither debate nor engagement on such issues are in a healthy way.

Sandel is American, which is evident not only in his spelling, but also most of his substantive focus, and I feel this book would have benefitted from casting its net wider. I would like to have given the book more stars, but I don’t think it will change many minds, and amongst its readership the litany of gloom might even prove de-motivational. It didn’t really tell me anything new, other than a few specific details of how awful modern capitalism can be, and how frighteningly amoral or immoral its apologists often are, adding a few gory details to the minutiae of horror that its ever spreading tentacles of doom represent.

As whistle-blowing, or acting the role of the boy who shouts ‘the emperor’s butt naked!’, the points Sandel makes are a necessary element of a debate that needs to be happening. Catch-phrase economists passing off their ‘expertise’ as morally neutral, and the oxymoronic concepts that suggest economics is at one and the same time both scientific and yet also clairvoyant are myths more deserving of deconstruction than, for example, Gray’s pet hate, progress. But as well as the critique, the negative, we need positive suggestions, and there are none to be found here.

BOOK REViEW: Politics English Language, Orwell

Stimulating, thought provoking, but flawed.

Transferred, and very slightly amended, from an old Amazon UK review.

This tiny 20 or so page pamphlet is not really a book.

As well as containing the essay boldly if drably emblazoned on the cover, there’s also a very brief review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. An odd pairing at first glance, but less so when one considers the subject of the first essay in broader terms. In fact Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf is a succinct example of the clarity and concision advocated in the main foregoing essay.

I’ll not say any more about Orwell’s review of the book that helped launch Hitler on his ill-started career here. So, to the main event. In discussing the relationship of politics to the English language, Orwell begins by using five examples of what he deems to be turgid, pretentious and, in several instances, largely meaningless prose, thereby attacking pretentiousness and politicking. Having given examples, he extracts five principles of poor English usage – his  ‘catalogue of swindles and perversion’ – giving them such names as ‘dying metaphor’, and ‘pretentious diction.’

He also puts forward six principles he feels writers ought to follow. Essentially it all boils down to clarity, honesty, concision and simplicity, as basics, with freshness and vividness, should you choose to use metaphor, as the icing on the cake. As some other reviewers of this little publication have observed, Orwell is oversimplifying things drastically to make his points, and even admits he’s guilty of the sins he’s throwing stones at. But this remains a pretty well written case for clarity, honesty and transparency in writing and thinking.

Despite this, and despite some rather unconvincing caveats from Orwell himself, this has the salty tang of Canute against the waves about it. And if he’s right about some things (say for example ‘politics and the debasement of language’) he’s flat wrong about others: both the clichés he refers to on p. 17 (read it to find out they are!) are still alive and well and, whether by the same rules as biology or not, languages and their usages certainly do evolve, an idea he doesn’t seem entirely happy with.

Ultimately I disagree with his reductive and proscriptive stance. Yes language can be and often is political, and yes it can be and often is used to ‘humbug’ us, and ‘give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’ (his objection to lazy off-the-shelf language and its anaesthetic affect on human consciousness is put beautifully, and remains a challenge to us now, perhaps even more so in our info-saturated cyber age). But language is also a rich, evolving, free-flowing mode of human expression, and to seek to control it as Orwell seems to want to do here, is to sit Canute like, before the waves.

Certainly I’ll be thinking about his list of rules, and trying perhaps to employ some of them; clarity and concision – basically the trimming away of verbal fat – being the most obvious and compelling aims. But, unlike Orwell, I won’t be consigning any phrases (except perhaps the new-speak of business culture?) to any kind of literary dustbin.

As others have noted, given the subject, and the slightness of this publication, the typos (particularly egregious is ‘turning’ rendered as ‘turmng’, in a note on p. 7.) are inexcusable!

Stimulating and thought provoking, but something of a flawed oddity, both in itself, and in this tiny, slim format.

BOOK REViEW: Byzantium, Herrin

Judith Herrin’s Byzantium is an engaging read, which is exactly what I want in a popular history book. 

She puts it well in her concluding statement when she summarises all the possible reasons why one might naturally be fascinated by the story of Byzantium – as a bulwark against Islam for nascent Western Europe, as the inheritor of Greek and Roman legacies, as the Eastern half of Christendom, or countless other things ranging from the creation of new alphabets to the use and roles of eunuchs – concluding that it’s not any one of these things, but the combination, what she calls “a rich ecology of traditions and resources”, that make for such a fascinating history.

She does seem to have a bee in her bonnet about the “systematic calumnies” perpetrated against Byzantium by the West, and she pinpoints the root of this as being the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Crusades. I was, personally, unaware of this allegedly jaundiced view, but I can quite easily see that she may well be right. Diarmid McCullough, in his History of Christianity makes a similar special plea for the re-evaluation of Eastern Christendom, so she’s certainly not alone in taking this position.

Byzantium is delightfully pleasurable straightforward reading on the whole (although I think a glossary would be a good addition), structured in easily digested bite-sized thematic chapters.

One minor irritation was the way the supernatural side of religion (Christianity in particular, naturally, given the subject of the book) was related as if factual (e.g. p 107, ‘Leo’s defence … intercession of the Virgin’, or p 103 ‘Sometimes the icons … powers.’ This last is immediately followed by a short section couched in two lights, first as if the supernatural were factual (‘Patriarch Sophronius … witnessed’ etc), and then in a more historical/rationalist vein; ‘individuals who believed themselves cured’ etc. I find this double-standard a little odd.

Herrin explicitly states in her intro that she’s deliberately emphasising the role of religious belief (and in particular her feel for the historical weight of Christian belief: ‘an intensely personal view’ founded in work done on her previous book The Formation Of Christendom) in a history where she feels ‘secular scholarship and popular appreciation’ may be in danger of forgetting or overlooking this.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, yet there is a dissonance when religious experience (and by that I mean the supernatural aspects of religious belief) is couched in exactly the same terms as any other ‘fact’.

And indeed I was really struck by how little rational qualification of such ‘data’ there was, and how late it started putting in its rare appearances. So much so that when, roughly a third of the way through the book, on p101, she actually qualified a statement (‘Visions and … were alleged … icons.’), I felt like saying ‘at last!’

Quite what her exact personal position is, in religious terms, is then, potentially, an important and relevant issue to the proper understanding of the book.

BOOK REViEW: Ballad of Britain, Will Hodgkinson

NB: This is an archival review, first written 10 or more years ago, as part of the Amazon Vine programme. Sadly Amazon booted me off the program and deleted all my (thousands of) reviews!* Some of them I had back ups of. So I’m putting those up here, slowly but shirley!

* No explanation given, either!

There’s a lot here of real interest: some obscure artists, old and new, get some much merited exposure, and some seemingly divergent strands of musical interest are drawn together into an interesting if somewhat patchwork narrative.

Like the author’s barnet (see the cover of Song Man), this is a messy affair, and at times I really wanted him to go deeper into whatever it was he was relating, but he would always be off on the next leg of his journey.

Given the scope of the project, and the bewildering range of ground and style he covers, this isn’t surprising. In fact knitting it all together at all is quite an achievement. He does a good job of accessing all kinds of disparate (and on the whole ‘outsider’) voices, and navigates tricky territory – the minefields of opinion – with skill, relating the views of those he meets whilst ultimately keeping his own counsel, mixing candour and balance laudably.

The use of the road trips themselves to bind the book together is quite clever, though at times it did intrude on the ostensible subject: music and the ongoing evolution of musical culture in Britain. By way of illustration I can insert myself into this review as he does into his book:

Despite having had several bangers myself (including a knackered old Astra), and even leaving caps off crucial parts of the engine by mistake (the oil tank in my case), leading to the decease of a beloved jalopy).

Also, being a mildly technophobic musician – because of these shared experiences perhaps I should be more sympathetic? – I found the threads relating to his car and Zoom digital recorder occasionally irritating. Perhaps this is ’cause I’m used to books on music that are more conventionally academic? Focussing solely on the subject, without the author becoming a noticeable part of the fabric of the book.

Having said this, it was a fascinating read, and he is working in territory that sorely needs more light shining on it. When he occasionally muses on the wider cultural setting: the implications of our current state, both socially and musically, and in terms of how these might relate, and where we’re heading, it’s quite interesting: music is, or can be, or perhaps ought to be, something related to the fabric of our daily lives, as opposed to no more than product that we consume.

Perhaps as time progresses we will see, as he says, “that what we need in life is right there in front of us” and, perhaps, as the old markets and models collapse, a new climate of organic micro-scenes will become more normal, and we’ll all be able to enjoy a more egalitarian and participatory musical experience?

But there’s a note of the melancholy that he sees in his subject in the book itself: he admits (as do I) that the music of the sixties and seventies holds a particular fascination for him, and there’s a constant sense that he has to go digging out all this obscure stuff because the mainstream so ill serves us.

At the end of the book I have to confess I felt a little deflated: he covers loads of really interesting stuff (I love The Wicker Man references, and the history of early folk song collectors is fascinating), and succeeds in avoiding any glib over-arching conclusions or pronouncements. But he kind of leaves the reader hanging mid-air, with all kinds of loose threads flapping about in the windy rainy autumnal collective consciousness that he sees as the melancholy and cyclic heart of British music.

MEDiA: A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil Macgregor/British Museum (Audiobook)

Vision on the radio.

Yet more archival action. This was originally written not that long after the series first aired, on BBC R4, after receiving the audiobook version, via the Amazon Vine programme. This blog post is a slightly revised version of my Amazon UK review of the latter.

Quite justifiably described on the packaging as a landmark series, this is factual programming at it’s very best, up there with such monumental achievements as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, and David Attenborough’s prodigious and prolific Life series

British Museum director Neil MacGregor proves to be an eloquent, charming, and compelling guide, taking the listener on a fascinating, amazingly wide-ranging, and hugely absorbing travelogue through time and space, history and culture, in which the role of the listener’s imagination is, intriguingly, very important.

Thanks to the odd but inspired choice of covering the ostensibly visual world of objects through the language-based medium of the radio, the listeners mind is allowed, as with any good storyteller scenario, to create imaginative pictures of everything; from imagining how MacGregor might himself look, to picturing, in the mind’s eye, the varied and exotic objects themselves, their original locations, the journeys that brought them to the British Museum, and, of course, the peoples and cultures from whence they come. In pursuing this visionary approach via radio, the series succeeds in capturing the imagination, and through imagination, cultivating fascination. A clever and remarkably seductive ploy.

I think it’s better that, rather than trying to convey the effect of each episode by discussing particular objects, I try and instead convey the general approach: basically each object becomes a prism, through which MacGregor (with help from experts and other pundits) unlocks a veritable rainbow of associations, which range from the continual unfolding of new insights about the objects themselves (these things, at first sight static and immutable, become conduits for the ever changing plasticity of our minds, and in turn for what’s perceived in itself: amazing!), and our understanding of the cultures they come from, to how this feeds into history, and the evolution of culture, affecting us here and now.

The scope is thus truly grand, and MacGregor’s excitement (all the best inspirational educators seem possessed of this almost child-like glee: think of the aforementioned Sagan, Clarke, and Attenborough), as he guides us eloquently on this epic journey, is both palpable and contagious. Thanks to this series, the relatively frequent trips my wife and I make to our local museums have increased, both in terms of frequency, and in terms of quality, as I now pay more attention to a wider range of objects, more aware of the rich bounty of insight they potentially represent.

A rich smorgasbord of talking heads add their own views and insights, reminding us of the fact of continually evolving webs of human interconnectedness, which forms a kind of sub-plot of the series. I must confess that sometimes canvassing the ‘great and the good’ in this manner irritates me, but it’s well done here, and the people and quotes chosen are generally both full of insight, enlightening, and add colour and variety to the series.

MacGregor.

Not only does the series entertain and educate brilliantly, but it also stimulates reflection. Episodes covering such topics as sexuality and smoking throw up contentious and challenging views, views that continue to change through time. And rather than supplying glib answers, MacGregor and the series instead leave room for the listener to think for themselves, which is excellent. That this series will spark many and varied chains of thought in the listener is, I think, pretty much a certainty, and it’s part of what makes it so good.

And that’s just a small part of the great the beauty of the series: from a broken potsherd or a gilded galleon, to meditations on what it is, and what it once was, to be human, all this and much more are spun out from the individual objects, more often than not things of great beauty in themselves. And, as noted above, MacGregor’s style of delivery is an important part of this, the series as a whole striking a wonderful balance between serious mindedness and accessibility.

The series is also very well put together, structurally: three tranches of programmes aired over a year, in batches of approximately 30 or so at a time. Each programme being approximately 15 mins long. The combined total air time is just over a solid days worth of material, at 24/25 hours! And, as each episode is relatively short, each can be comfortably digested on it’s own, or you can enjoy several delicious courses at a sitting. Listening to the CDs I recall the excitement with which I would await each new episode as they aired (and the frustration of waiting between each tranche!).

I also have the podcasts and a good old-fashioned hardback print version of the series, in book form. It’s so good that having it in all these formats seems, to me, very worthwhile. The book has the obvious added advantage over the other formats of bigger more sumptuous illustrations of the objects. There is a small booklet, however, accompanying the audiobook release. So images of all the objects can be viewed, grouped in sets of five (corresponding to the weekly transmissions), with, over each set, a small précis of that weeks themes and objects, but they – the images – are rather small.

Nothing short of stunning, this series is a complete and very exciting triumph, and this audiobook is a good format to own it in.

PS – The wiki entry on the whole project is well worth reading.

BOOK REViEW: Children of Hurin, Tolkien

Another of my occasional archival posts.

The basic premise of this story is that one can’t cheat fate. I’m not going to synopsise the story. Let other folk do that! (Plenty have.)

Whatever our current views of such an ancient idea as fate might be – the Final Destination movie series is one contemporary take on it – there’s no doubt that in Tolkien’s world it tends, more often than not, to be unpleasant. In this instance Tolkien really goes for the darkest of pagan vibes, with a selection of themes that might be equally at home in the harshest of Nordic, or even Greek tragedies.

Apparently Tolkien worked on a sequel to LOTR, but abandoned it, because it was, according to his son Christopher, “too dark”. In much the same way, the story told in Children Of Hurin shared a similar fate, never reaching completion in J. R. R.’s own lifetime. Elements of the story first appeared in The Silmarillion, itself the first of Christopher’s works as literary executor, after his father’s death.

I first read it, many, many, many years ago, as a young teenager, in that incomplete state, and under the title ‘Narn I Hîn Húrin’ in a volume entitled Unfinished Tales. It was captivating then, and perhaps even more tantalising due to its incompleteness, like a partial fossilised skeleton might be to an archaeologist, biologist or palaeontologist.

So it was exciting to learn that Christopher Tolkien had revisited his fathers archives and put together a complete version of this bleakly compelling, highly enchanting tale. I have long hoped he might be able to do likewise for the story of Tuor, and the fall of Gondolin (I believe he may have?).

Tolkien inspires such devotion and admiration amongst a part of his readership, to which I belong, I guess, that many of his readers enjoy learning about the evolution, the archaeology if you will, of his work, and Christopher’s subsequent part in this. How Christopher managed to finish this particular unfinished tale is included in this volume, and was in itself fascinating.

But, ultimately it’s the story, and Tolkien’s gift for creating a believable world that contains such unbelievable elements as magic, elves and dragons, that lies at the heart of the success of this book. I’m not a fan of fantasy literature as a whole. Most of it seems to me so poorly conceived and written it puts me off rather than draws me in. Tolkien’s obsessively scholarly depth and detail mark his work out as a rare exception in the genre.

I absolutely adore this story. And that’s what’s getting five stars in this review. I’m a little less keen on the recent Alan Lee illustrated editions, to be honest. I have no beef with Lee, per se. It’s just that, aside from Tolkien’s own artworks, I prefer to let his words and my imagination give rise to how I see his creations. Having someone else’s visualisations kind of gets in the way a bit, for me.

And that’s why ultimately I feel all the Peter Jackson stuff, and how it’s popularised Tolkien’s oeuvre, has been – for me – a difficult or troubling issue. More on this, perhaps, in some other Tolkien related posts? But for a work of dark powerful fantasy, with the power of ancient myth, The Children of Hurin is great.

BOOK REViEW: The Malay Archipelago, A. R. Wallace

More archival shenanigans!

Alfred Russell Wallace’s Malay Archipelago is a wonderful Victorian-era adventure, combining travel to far-flung exotic locations with myriad fascinating themes, from the roots of science in collecting specimens in the field, to C19th commerce, imperialism, and even anthropology and philosophy. This is not the author’s equivalent to On The Origins (he wrote no such work), but rather his counterpart, of sorts, to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.

Because of this I certainly wouldn’t go as far as the writer of the back cover blurb on this Periplus edition – who asserts that Alfred Russell Wallace “deserves equal billing with Charles Darwin for his independently drawn but parallel conclusions on the theory of evolution” – because, like Wallace himself, I feel Darwin’s stupendous amount of research work quite justifies his precedence. Nevertheless this is certainly as exciting a read as Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and certainly Wallace deserves to be – and is clearly gradually becoming – much better known.

Wallace.

It was via David Attenborough’s enthusiasm for Wallace and this book – an illustration in which ignited a passion for Birds of Paradise in the young Attenborough, begetting a lifelong obsession, resulting in numerous trips, films and books – along with my continued avid reading of Darwin related material, which lead me to eventually request this book as a birthday present (thanks mum!). I have the very handsome – and often hard to find (it seems to go out of print regularly!) – Periplus edition.

Essentially this is a write up of Wallace’s travels in the Malay Archipelago, where he was collecting wildlife specimens for private collectors, back home in Great Britain. As well as being a tireless collector and ardent observer of both the wildlife specimens – mainly bugs and birds – and the natural history observations that go with them, Wallace was a very eloquent thoughtful man. As a result you get a mixture of natural history, adventure, anthropology, and so on. The indefatigable energy and industry, and the omnivorous enthusiasm and inquisitiveness of men like Wallace and Darwin, so alike and yet also so different, continues to fascinate and inspire.

This is by turns exciting, amusing and enlightening, illuminating wonderfully how the worlds of commerce, adventure, and science met, in the exotic islands of the Malay archipelgo and the person of a self-made polymath adventurer.

MUSiC: Marcos Valle, Marcos Valle, 1970

Marcos Valle gets into the ’70s, in style.

Off the back of some quite dour bossa material (Viola Enluarda, 1968) and the first hint of weirder things to come ( Mustang Cor De Sangue , 1969), brothers Marcos and Paulo Sergio Valle stepped into the ’70s in a bolder and more varied style than many might’ve have expected, based on their previous catalogue.

One or two tracks, for example the very beautiful O Evangelho Segundo San Quentin, on Mustang, had hinted at a broader musical palette being used. But by comparison with that ’69 recording this self-titled work, sometimes known as Quarentao Simpatico, is a whole new thang. Quarentao Simpatico is the first song, and kicks things off with a more pop-rock feel than anything in their previous catalogue. A slow, magisterial piano lead groove, the whole sound is new and modern, but still quintessentially Valle.

Of his first four or five albums made in the 1970s, this is perhaps the most strangely eclectic and diverse. His ex-wife Anamaria (for whom crickets had sung previously and famously) provides her distinctive vocals on Ele E Ela, which has sounds of the couple petting and giggling rather erotically, under a pillow (or should that be duvet?) of easy listening horns. Dez Leis is delivered in a strangely declamatory (for Valle) vocal style, whilst Pygmaliao (which I believe may have been a TV or film soundtrack), is just plain strange in places, with little sound-effect interludes (e.g. the sound of ice plopping into a glass) punctuating a very-easy listening waltz.

When Valle revisits his big hit Os Grilos (known in English speaking countries as Crickets Sing For Anamaria), it’s a decidedly odd version, compared with the sliky smooth original. It’s still a recognisably bossa/samba jazz number, but now with weirdly tripped out vocal effects, Tropicalia style woodblock percussion, a fuzz-guitar lead break, and the sound of Valle and co. goofing off in the studio.

Marcos and Paulo were busy writing music commercially around this time, and unlike in the US and UK, where this might be considered weird, the music makes it’s way onto Valle albums of the period, and makes them all the more fascinating. The text of my japanese import is unreadable to me, but I believe Suite Imaginaria might be such a piece, possibly recorded for a TV theme. It’s extraordinarily beautiful, and, in places, one of my favourite cuts on the album. Starting as a haunting instrumental with ticking clocks, and a wordless female vocal, it later morphs through several other phases, some pretty weird, all of which are pretty musically wonderful in one way or another.

My Japanese import adds the 1967 single version of Os Grilos as an extra track, whereas the Light In The Attic version appends Berenice to the album (also included as a bonus on the Japanese version of Garra). For me, as much as I like Valle’s previous six albums, and I really love ’em, this is where the magic really starts. It would get even better, unbeleivably, with Garra , Vento Sul and Previsao Do Tempo . But this is still, to my mind, essential musical magic.

MUSiC: Marcos Valle, Vento Sul, 1972

Absolutely stunning!

Originally reviewed March, 2013, on Amazon UK. This version is slightly updated/revised.

Marcos Valle has been something of a musical chameleon over the years. Coming up in the second wave of bossa nova in the sixties, he could and did write in that form brilliantly, producing several albums, mostly in his native Brazil and sung in Portugese, but including Samba ’68 , recorded in the US and sung in English. As the sixties came to a close he and his brother, a songwriting team of rare excellence, began to experiment with broader ranges of sounds and lyrical themes, keeping bossa and samba in the mix, but gradually incorporating the broader themes of MPB*, various pop forms (rock, soul, soundtrack, funk), even psychedelia and Tropicalia.

* Music Popular Brazil!

Already he had behind him such eclectic masterpieces as his self-titled 1970 recording, and the utterly sublime Garra. With each new release there were increasing signs of a musically omnivorous diversity that would make categorising and describing Valle’s music ever harder. So far this hadn’t hurt his success, sales, or the critical reception that he was getting. Indeed, the brothers Valle were very busy commercially, writing music for the Brazilian franchise of Sesame Street (Vila Sesamo), an album for an airline (Fly Cruzeiro), and frequent commissions for TV and movie soundtracks, which often pop up on their albums.

Feeling the pressure of such demands, the brothers Valle (acc. to Allmusic) decamped to the hippie beach town of Buzios, where they continued to collaborate, and not just with each other, but a really quite broad collection of fellow Brazilian musicians, and Vento Sul (South Wind) was the result.

Personally I feel that Valle’s music between 1970-4 reaches a peak the likes of which is rarely attained in popular music. As I type this Bodas de Sangue is playing: the fifth track on the album, it’s a sublimely beautiful instrumental that moves through several segments, ranging from filmic, to classical chamber music. From this they effortlessly segue into the baroque pop psychedelia of Demoscustico, in which a very rhythmic and phonetic poem is declaimed, over a musical background that continually morphs from section to section, in a dizzying but satisfyingly homogenous way. It really is stunning!

The title track is gorgeous, a lush, slow, gentle waltz. Marcos takes the lead vocal on this track. And that highlights another remarkable thing about this album; Valle doesn’t dominate the lead vocal spot on this album entirely, as he normally would. Several of the other musicians are just as prominent vocally on certain tracks, and a keynote of the recording is the amount of collective singing, such as that which takes over from Marcos after the first verse of the title track. It’s a literal musical embodiment of a kind of dreamy, gauzy, diaphanous hippie idealism made concrete in musical terms. Astonishing!

The musical range is also flabbergasting, many of the pieces are like little sonic worlds, the richness and the transitions so natural and beguiling one doesn’t always appreciate quite how amazing the range of the music is. At times it is quite challenging, as with parts of Democustico, or Rosto Barbado (Red Beard, on account of Valle’s emerging facial fuzz, perhaps?). Voo Cegoo and Mi Hermoza exemplify the strands where other vocalists, and group harmonies, dominate, with Marcos generously stepping back from the spotlight. Both are from the dreamier, mellower side of the repertoire, with the former being amongst my personal favourites, and the latter showing how far off his usual musical map Valle and co. were willing to travel, with Vinicius Cantauria and the musicians of O Terco stamping a psychedelic rock vibe on proceedings, especially in the fuzzed out rock section, with its distorted lead guitar.

I got the Japanese import version of Vento Sul (via Chicago’s dustygroove.com) some time ago, and it cost me a bomb. But it was very definitely worth every penny. That version of the album appends the wonderfully sunny and goofily upbeat O Beato as a bonus track.

I like O Beato a lot, but it kind of breaks the mood of gentle reverie that was created by the original final track, Deixa O Mundo E O Sol Entrar, which is a gorgeous song. Sung by Marcos, accompanied by several acoustic guitars, piano, electric bass and percussion, there’s almost some kind of Pink Floyd-esque feel at work, but with that jazzy Brazilian vibe thrown in. Fabulous!

Apparently all of this fabulousness was too much for the critics and Valle fans back in the day, and, bizarrely to my mind, Vento Sul marked a dip in Valle’s success at home in Brazil. But it has stood the test of time very well. Yes, it certainly sounds very much of its time, but in a truly wonderful way, showing what a creative and open era this was, even under the heel of the Brazilian military dictatorship of that era.

The beautiful cover painting conveys perfectly the dreamy feeling of this incredible album. If you like Valle, or just music brave enough to go its own way, this is a must have.