Exile On Main Street is often regarded as the greatest double album of all time, but there is another twin set recorded in the same year on the other side of the world, to which I turn far more frequently for joy and inspiration. Clube da Esquina is an album which infuriatingly never graces any of those Greatest Albums lists. Brazilian records never do. Even their most internationally renowned artists (Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Elis Regina, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Joyce) are mysteriously overlooked. And yet from bossa nova and samba, through the Tropicalia movement of the late ’60s, onto the exotic synthesis of MPB with Western sounds in the early ’70s there are such rich seams to explore in Brazilian popular music.
It probably helps if one has first undergone some conditioning. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve me playing with my Airfix soldiers on the living room carpet, my mother zipping round me doing the housework whilst blasting the music of Astrud Gilberto, Sergio Mendes and Maria Bethania from the hi-fi. Those soldiers were better equipped to do the samba than to engage in battle. I meanwhile would grow up with bossa nova in my blood.
Amongst all of that wonderful music, the mystical Clube da Esquina stands at the zenith. It’s title (‘The Corner Club’) was the name given to a collective of musicians from the state of Minas Gerais, but for this album, their debut offering, the reins were effectively yielded to Milton Nascimento and Lo Borges.
At over an hour in length, it remains a sprawling and highly ambitious fusion of styles. Nascimento had already made a name for himself in Brazilian music, and his ’68 album Courage is a classic of orchestral pop, while the younger Borges (a mere nineteen at the time) brought with him a more traditional roots sensibility. People presumed the picture on the album’s sleeve to be a photograph taken of the two friends during their childhood. Not so. The iconic image was actually snapped by Carlos da Silva Assunção Filho and perfectly captured the spirit of the favela, the ‘face of Brazil’ at a time of brutal political oppression by the military regime. Amidst such poverty and injustice, one might have expected the music to be rustic, a Brazilian variation of the protest song, but instead the songs were painstakingly constructed and richly textured, the arrangements often luxurious.
Is it possible to be in love with Nascimento’s voice without recognising a word it utters? I barely know two words of Portuguese, but it barely matters. For my heart discerns the purest of connections with this music and with its creators and this is an album to be enjoyed as much for its subtle inflections, celestial sparkle, twisting irresistible rhythms and piercing melancholia as for its social commentary.
It is a constantly surprising record; from the very first listen one’s attention is seized by the seesawing guitar lines of ‘O Trem Azul’ and ‘Nuvem Cigana’ as well as Nascimento’s hysterical wailing outro on the opening track, Borges’ ‘Tudo Que Você Podia Ser’. That in itself is a revelation – a traditional Brazilian folk tune ambushed by a contagious cockeyed samba. Then there is the meandering staccato piano fade into nothingness of Milton’s gorgeous introspective ballad ‘Cais’.
But what is most striking is the sheer extravagance of melodious inventiveness. The record has such a warm sound too – there are songs which subtly provide a counter cultural critique, some document an emotional catharsis, while others are clearly more celebratory, but one senses musicians completely in tune with one another, suffused with the sheer joy of making music together. There are little recurrent interludes (‘Saidas E Bandeiras Nos. 1 & 2’) and songs (‘Cravo E Canela’) which miraculously keep in balance some impressively dexterous whistling and the itchy ecstasy of bossa nova with the glitter and fizz of the carnival. Then hear how the laborious picking on ‘Dos Cruces’ cedes into an almost maniacal tango with a spitfire fuzz wigout at the fade. That is followed by the swooning intro to ‘Um Girassol Da Cor Do Seu Cabelo’ (when I first acquired the album in 1997, I managed to convince my younger brother this was the beginning of the brand new single by Gorky’s Zycotic Mynci) before a suspenseful cinematographic episode is blown apart by guitars quickly accelerating towards the finale. And if you fail to immediately press repeat after hearing the little six-string melodic miracles knitted together as ‘Estrelas’ and ‘Clube da Esquina No. 2’, then it is reasonable to assume your soul died a long time ago.
In amongst Nascimento’s ghostly sighs and shrieks (“If God had a voice he would sound like Milton Nascimento”, famously quipped Elis Regina), there is an outstanding vocal from Alaide Costa on ‘Me Deixa Em Pas’. Then there’s the darkly delicious psychedelia of ‘Pelo Amor de Deus’ with atmospheric autoharp, deranged keyboard and Beto Guedes’ crazed Strawberry Alarm Clock fuzz. But I’m barely scratching the surface here. There is such a proliferation of ideas and styles it is little wonder Clube da Esquina has often been referred to as the ‘Brazilian White Album’. And yet it is so much more than that. Let’s be clear, there is nothing that smacks of imitation here. If the Western influence has been accommodated, nevertheless these are quintessentially Brazilian rhythms and melodies. And this record represents Brazilian popular music at its finest.
As I write it is summertime in Brazil and Clube da Esquina is a record perhaps best appreciated amid the sweltering humidity of a long hot summer. But here in Glasgow the daylight is sparse and good cheer in short supply. There is no better time to let this winter warmer beckon swiftly the sun’s return. (JJ)