What carried Music of Another Present Era away from its stoned roots was a dedication to beauty.
It could have gone wrong in so many different ways. A bunch of white boys from the Pacific Northwest congregated on their love of jazz and Indian music, smoking dope in dorm rooms of the University of Oregon and vibing out to Ravi Shankar vinyl. Oregon State may have a class over the study of Phish, but UO is the OG blazed music school (please see metal voyagers YOB for further reference). At best, Music of Another Present Era could have been a proto-Vampire Weekend romp, at worst, the drum circle in that one friend’s backyard on the solstice.
And yet, the not terribly creatively named Oregon came together and made some of the most gentle and genial autumnal music of the ‘70s. Considering the spiritual-leaning progressive rock and folk of the time, that’s no mean feat. There’s little in the way of sheer virtuosity unlike an Emerson Lake and Palmer record of the same era. Instead, the natural flow of the album and spaces of silence allow for a more tranquil feeling. When Glen Moore begins his bass solo on opener “North Star,” it doesn’t reach for transcendence, instead his fluttering notes have a relaxed mischief to them. When Paul McCandless and Ralph Towner come back in with a reverbed out piano melody, it has a similar impishness. By the time they reach a BPM above comatose on “Sail” it shimmies like Van Morrison, even with an off-kilter oboe from McCandless.
Multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott brought the flavor and spice to Music of Another Present Era. His tabla and sitar give an obvious nod to The Beatles Anglo-fied versions of Indian Classical music. But his playing is better mixed than say “Norwegian Wood,” where the sitar was simply used to play a traditional guitar line for texture. His chiming work on “Opening” provides a bed of sound for McCandless to bounce across and adds eerie murk to the already spooky “Baku the Dream Eater.” But it comes off as a deeply democratic effort. The balance between instruments, outside of a few solos for Moore’s thunking bass, are woven together peacefully. Short interlude “Silence of the Candle” could have been a solo track for any one of the instruments, but the oboe, guitar, piano and sitar all sift through each other’s notes in harmony, never taking the spotlight away from each other, despite the at least four different melodies ringing out.
There are moments where the whiffs of hashish become too strong. The buzzing “Children of God” is a pointless atonal exercise in the midst of this Eden. And late album weirdo “Land of Heart’s Desire” nearly dips into this territory, but Towner’s playful piano saves it, even sounding like it may have influenced some of Fleet Foxes’ odder detours. Thankfully when they get a bit too high, they still manage levity. The cascading “Naiads” flows like Phillip Glass’s Glassworks and “Bell Spirit” could be a Miyazaki interlude. Most of Music of Another Present Era trapezes between the pastoral jazz of Bill Evans and the goofy new age of the Windham Hill gang, with just a bit more smirk.
“At the Hawk’s Well” is the album’s best track and the best example of why Oregon still endures. They just released an album in 2017, and it’s the sense of melody and comfort that has always allowed them to thrive. There’s something in “At the Hawk’s Well” and nearly all of their early work that turns the mind to thoughts of fall. The piano slowly spiraling downwards like leaves, the trees flashing shades of red, yellow and brown. There’s a somberness to the music, a mellow wake for the dead summer and the coming winter, but a breath of joy in the cooler weather, in the grey skies perfect for pondering. What carried Music of Another Present Era away from its stoned roots was a dedication to beauty.