Back in 2004, the Arcade Fire released one of the greatest musical documents of our still-young 21st century, an album titled Funeral that was built around a series of four songs, each titled “Neighborhood.” Those songs, with their high tension and genuine pain, evoked something both local and emotional. They became huge. They moved far beyond neighborhoods, into the stratosphere.
Nearly three decades earlier, Portland, Oregon jazz musician Ernest Hood wasn’t aiming for the same kind of emotions with his album Neighborhoods, but he did hit on something very local and emotional in his own right. And, I would argue, nearly as essential. It’s an important album, one I’ve been listening to for months, and I want more people to hear it. It may be one of the 20th century’s greatest unheralded albums.
The record, released in 1975, is perhaps one of most interesting examples of the “private press,” or albums released in small batches by the artist or one of their friends. And Hood’s record, released on his label Thistlefield Music, was rarely mentioned at the time of its release. The only mention of the record I can find from a mainstream source is in The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, an in-depth work in which the record is briefly mentioned along with Hood’s career as a composer.
Hood wasn’t just some random guy. He had some legitimate music-industry bonafides, including credits on mainstream jazz records such as Brazilian fusion singer Flora Purim’s Butterfly Dreams.
But with his solo Neighborhoods, which can be listened to here, he was trying for something else. He was purposely aiming small. He was trying to evoke his childhood in Portland, and in its own strange way, everyone’s childhood. Per his note on the back cover:
My purpose in creating this album is to pay a debt to some beautiful and loving people. To older folks everywhere, but especially the ones who put up with my childhood pesters, those who played such an important role in the formation of comfortable memories I hope this brings back something warm and joyful to your hearts. It saddens me to know that the predominately commercial music purveyors of today give such scant consideration to the enrichment of your gentle spirit. Perhaps they have forgotten where it dwells. Young people looking for something other than plastic novelty music played on military weapons may find here a balm for the mind. It hardly matters in which neighborhood you sprouted. The games we played. the mocks, the terminology and the feelings we experienced as youngsters are tantalizingly familiar, If I didn't exactly capture your territorial terms forgive me and just let the mood suffice.
This is not a social record in the sense that it be played at a gathering. Indeed, it is a rather personal thing to be reflected upon (as musical cinematography) alone, or with a dear close friend It is a social record in that it reminds us of the fact that most of us made our first social contacts and early transactions in our neighborhood streets How familiar, how indelible the pictures are: aromas of soft velvet days. strong friendships, fears. hates. loves … our first brush with such mystical elements as sex and power. If the music seems a little bittersweet, well ... isn't that the taste of nostalgia? Mostly it is meant to bring joy in reminiscence It's for all of you who still have that little kid inside you, robust and eager to be let out to play. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.
Hood used simple tools—a free-flowing zither and an early synth—to build the foundation of his sound. But the thing that made the record stand out was his use of field recordings. He captured his local neighborhoods, the young children having fun, spare conversations heard in the distance, and an array of truly beautiful sounds. Childhood rhymes are turned into “hooks.” The somewhat modern sounds of the synth have a way of cutting through the field recordings, becoming the best kind of wallpaper—the kind that evokes a moment without overwhelming the surrounding atmosphere.
Hood, who often went by Ern or Ernie, was a major figure in Portland’s music scene. He helped found KBOO, a nonprofit FM radio station that still exists today in the city. He was also involved in launching the city’s first jazz club, The Way Out. And the radio show he hosted on KBOO and KOAP, “Radio Days,” aimed for the same kind of audience his record Neighborhoods did—one that wanted to relive the serenity of the past.
In 1995, his passing was front-page news for the Statesman Journal in the nearby city of Salem, but not because of his musical endeavors—though those were mentioned. That year he became something of a face of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, a ballot measure passed the year prior but initially blocked by courts. (It was eventually enacted in 1997.) Around that time, the childhood polio that both limited his mobility and helped make him a great observer of the world had re-emerged as post-polio syndrome, which weakened his muscles and eventually limited his ability to communicate with that world.
A longtime radio host of many words, he could no longer speak, and his condition was deteriorating. But because of the legal issues the law raised, the hospital was hesitant to let him and his family pull the plug. Eventually, after a long delay, they reconsidered. His passing was peaceful; his music lives on.
The thing that strikes me about Hood’s album, one of those records in which scraps of information have to be pulled from random places to even get within 100 feet of properly telling its story, is how finding these details, however modest they are, somehow enrichen the work hiding on Neighborhoods, an album that doesn’t yell its demands or ask for anything of the listener other than their memories of being a few decades younger.
Like many private press records, Neighborhoods makes you want to learn more about its creator—about the person whose creativity and inspirations just missed the internet era. From what little I’ve seen and from the 58 minutes of Neighborhoods I have to appreciate, it seems like Ernest Hood would have been a great person to know.
And his neighborhoods would have been great ones to live in.