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Ernest Hood: Neighborhoods

Ernest Hood: Neighborhoods

This is one of the year’s essential remasters, bringing new life to an underloved masterpiece of early ambient music.

Ernest Hood: Neighborhoods

4.25 / 5

Ernest Hood’s Neighborhoods is unique among proto-ambient synth albums in that it looks back in time rather than forward, and that’s why it’s aged so much more gracefully than most of its contemporaries. Synthesizers were desired in the ‘70s for the space-age possibilities they represented, but music meant to evoke the future looks pale and silly once the future actually rolls around. Meanwhile, music meant to evoke the past only becomes more uncanny and mysterious the further we drift from it down the timeline.

Hood, known as Ern or Ernie in life, was born in North Carolina in 1923 and spent most of his life in Portland, Oregon. A hotshot jazz guitarist during the ‘40s, he lost the ability to play after contracting polio in the early ‘50s, switching to zither and keyboards. He obsessively recorded the sounds of his environment, taking his backseat mic setup on car trips around the suburb of West Linn. After co-founding the independent radio station KBOO, which still exists, he used his airtime to broadcast “audio postcards” made from found sounds and his own narration.

Hood’s goal was to unite his art and his environment, and Neighborhoods, released in 1975, is the culmination of this vision. Half of the album’s real estate is devoted to sad, simple synth melodies and attractive blossoms of zither. The rest is field recordings, mostly of kids interacting with their parents, all of them talking in that folksy mid-century way that feels a little more stilted and innocent than how we speak now. Crickets and birds chirp balmily. A kid spills 7-Up on his peanuts. Old cars race around; a dog barks; thunderclouds rumble.

Neighborhoods is beautifully sequenced. At first, Hood keeps the music and field recordings separate. He’ll play a melody and strum his zithers, the music will yield to a few minutes of field recording, the melody will return like the head of a jazz composition. Slowly, Hood starts to show more willingness to interact with his environment. He riffs on a chant of “popsicles, popsicles” and echoes a “Ring-Around-the-Rosy” sung by a distant crowd of children. Bits of music creep in from the suburban scenes: a snatch of organ, an old swing record, what might be Hood’s brother Bill practicing his saxophone.

By the second half of the album—tracks like “Gloaming” and “From the Bluff”—Hood’s contributions are less like commentary than part of the scenery, no more intrusive than wind chimes swinging from a porch. The recordings get more interesting, too. An old seadog tells of a ship that sank to the bottom of the Columbia River, and we can imagine both the domestic scene captured on record and the moldering old wreck in the riverbed. Neighborhoods always works on multiple timescales like this. We hear old men that might have been born in the 19th century, and we imagine their childhoods. Memories on memories are layered into this music.

Hood had a unique vision, but he never sought much recognition for it. Neighborhoods was only released in a run of a thousand copies, their quality severely compromised due to Hood’s decision to cram nearly an hour of music onto two sides of vinyl. For most of its existence, it sold in the triple-digits behind the counters of record stores. This reissue comes courtesy of Freedom to Spend, a label run by Portlanders Pete Swanson and Jed Bindeman, and it’s invaluable, not least because the easiest way to listen to Neighborhoods for years was a YouTube rip that further muddied the quality of a record that didn’t sound great in the first place.

Russ Gorsline of Portland’s Rex Production & Post didn’t have an easy job, and he deserves every industry award for his restoration. “The recordings occasionally betray the limits of the master source,” reads a disclaimer in the liner notes, but you’d never notice. Hood’s zithers arc and dance psychedelically, his synths undulate and streak as if across the sky, and the underlying field recordings seem to pop out of the frame. This is one of the year’s essential remasters, bringing new life to an underloved masterpiece of early ambient music.

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