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Musical cinematography — the evocation of a place in time, of time in a place. Ernest Hood made good on the vivid label that he’d designated to the searching, surveying sounds of his pioneering 1975 album Neighborhoods. Loping synthesizers and moony-eyed zithers sauntered its boulevards, mingling with the sublimely ordinary field recordings of cans kicked and errands ran to unfurl as suburban sepia tone poems. Hood’s private-press prize was statedly nostalgic, his strums and stipples knowingly foxing the auditory documents of daily life, implying a warm return to an ambered yesteryear.
Now, unearthed some 40 years after its completion, Hood’s Back to the Woodlands offers a welcome foil to the dusky suburban scenes conjured on Neighborhoods. On the surface, the two pieces are composed of similar materials and marked by Hood’s notably whimsical approach, but as the long-lost album unfolds it becomes clearer that the musical cinematographer hadn’t simply traded the sounds of the ’hoods for the woods.
Written and recorded over a decade of Hood’s travels across western Oregon, chirps and whirrs and pattering rain fill the album’s foley in lieu of the paved world’s low thrum. Where Neighborhoods dwelled — at times near-voyeuristically — in scenes specific yet mundane, the artist sounds far more interested in using the natural timbres of his field recordings as jumping-off points to guide Woodlands’ ornate instrumental arrangements. Though the album opens with a pair of compositions underpinned by birdsong and placid precipitation, those natural elements lie further from the foreground than most of Neighborhoods’ overt dispatches, and, as Woodlands wends further along, one realizes they’ve dissipated almost entirely.
If there’s one key distinction, however, between Hood’s landmark environmental-sound album and this newly released collection, it’s in their tenses: Back to the Woodlands is palpably more present than its predecessor. While Hood sought to harken back to days of yore through common cultural cues on Neighborhoods, Woodlands succeeds on the impressionism imbued by the rich bed of cascading zither yawns and plucks to take listeners on a more implicit journey through the coastal terrain the artist so loved himself.
Though Hood, a jazz guitarist who turned to less physically taxing instrumentation after polio left him in a wheelchair in his late 20s, reaffirms his knack for whimsical composition on the more orderly numbers, such as the fleeting waltz “The Jantzen Rag (Raccoons)” and the contrapuntal meditation “Bedroom of the Absent Child,” Woodlands’ most winsome passages are those in which Hood gives himself fully over to the moment he’s created. As the marshy mood of opener “Noonday Yellows” shifts from serenity to syncopation, Hood’s reedy flute leaps a register, batting at the motif with charming imprecision. His notes land a little off pitch, a little off tempo, yet fully capture the kind of quicksilver reverie that could only be divined from the natural world. For so long the one behind the figurative lens, it’s heartening to hear the artist centered and delighting in his own piece, just one of many moments that makes Woodlands a joy to meander among, to go back to again and again.
Stephen Anderson is a musician and writer based in Denver, Colorado. As VMP’s Quality Manager, he has overseen production of numerous Anthology and Record of the Month releases, and wrote the Listening Notes for VMP’s reissue of Dorothy Ashby’s The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby.
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