Good Music We Can Know

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Tonight on Explorers Room! – American Puberty: Beach Boys on the Treacherous Road to Manhood

Explorers Room returns tonight with an exploration of the Beach Boys' early work.  A safari of the Pre-Pet Sounds dynasty: exhortations of boyhood, yearning for manhood, and the gradual takeover of emotional interiority from the affectations of surfin'/hot roddin' as a way of life – all set, of course, against a backdrop of West Coast endless summer culture and with an alarmingly rapid increase in compositional sophistication.

To be followed up, in the coming weeks, with a deep dive into the dark waters of the unstable Post-Pet Sounds era, where some of my favorite songs of all time lie, waiting.


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Paradise Showers on Artficial Flowers: Johnny Spencer and the Kona Koasters - s'Pacifica (1959)

Hawaiiana (as opposed to true Hawaiian music) is often at its best when it mixes freely with the grander abstractions and vague sensory-evocations of broader Exotica, rather than hewing exclusively to Hawaiiana standards.  There are exceptions, of course; in the endless series of Hawaii Calls LPs, Webley Edwards has produced a few albums which disprove my theory, and more than a few which seem, through their blandness, to confirm.  And George Cates' Polynesian Percussion, which hews almost exclusively to old Hawaiiana beaten horses, becomes transcendent through inventive arrangement (and lovely, unusual usage of novachord and celeste).

But anyway, what the hell am I on about? It's a complicated world full of contradictions: some Hawaiian records are boring, some are great.  Some are authentic, some aren't; some are honest about that, others elide their establishment-whiteness by imitating or incorporating Hawaii's folk culture.  Some are ethnic Hawaiians playing what US tourists "want" to hear, some are white musicians inventing their own "Hawaii" because engaging the "real" thing is too hard, to complex, to actually engage with. But any of these modes, on their own or especially in combination, can produce a good record, or at least, a rich record.  Trying to produce a formula by which to navigate the overlapping worlds of Hawaiian recorded music, Hawaiiana, and Exotica is a foolish errand, I cast it aside.

This record is a fascinating case.  A mix of Hawaiian "folk" music, Hawaiiana standards (mainly "War Chant," thankfully not too much else), and all-in-for-fantasy hard Exotica, s'Pacifica is a 1959 opus from Johnny Spencer (of Ohio) and the "Kona Koasters" (about whom I know nothing, and wouldn't it be nice if I did?).  The Hawaiian-ness of this record seems to vary based on the selection.  Some are pretty native sounding vocal folk, others are cool-jazzy Hawaiian-inflected Exotica in the vein of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman, some are a mix of the two with subtle big band elements.  The great thing though, issues of thrillingly muddled authenticity aside, is that every track is really really good.  By excelling in basically every mode of Hawaiiana – on a single record – s'Pacifica actually ends up exemplifying nearly the entirety of the moment.  What's more, it's stunningly vibrant and unique in its execution of what is, essentially, a packet of some of the most overplayed clichés of all time – and really, that's the crux of what it is to make great Exotica.

Opening with the blowing of a conch shell, the record starts off with a traditional (or "traditional," I don't know which is more accurate) Hawaiian vocal, leading into a cascading Exotica section.  It's wet from the start, lush with sea breezes, bird calls, and lapping waves.  (Throughout, the waves never really stop gently crashing, whether its in the form of sound effects/field recordings or undulating cymbal work.  The bird calls trade between human and nature-recordings and blend indiscriminately.)

The second track is a jazzy adaptation of "War Chant," the all-too-familiar melody interspersed with frenetic Hawaiian vocals and powered by big hammering drums.  Then the waves roll in again for "Drifting Sand," a surf-inflected track reminiscent of the Surfmen's more guitar-inclusive Hawaiian-Exotica. Then the drums and vocals come back for  "Marcelle Vahini," and it seems as though variations on two basic constructs of Hawaii are alternating turns.  The next track bears this out: "Monsoon" is a high point of the record's Exotica inclinations, a wet, sleepy, narcotic dream.  "Sting Ray" and "Temptation" reiterate the more big-band Hawaiian sound, but without vocals.  "Kona Tide" is essentially "Monsoon" part two, equally excellent.  "Se Ulai" strips the big band and just delivers a playful Hawaiian folk vocal, with a huge drum sound, like a hammered hollow log, and ukulele. Alternation continues, and the record ends with a blatant plagiarizing of "Quiet Village" called "Maui Rain."  As is the case with so many derivations from Les Baxter's marvelous composition (including some by Baxter's own hand), it's less a flaw of unoriginality than it is a welcome reference, a familiar embrace from the octopoid arms of Exotica.

In the end, this is probably what you'd get if you just alternated tracks from Webley Edward's Fire Goddess and selections from one or both of The Surfmen's two LPs.  But I think it's even a little better than that, if only for the dewy, evocative production – the aural equivalent of morning rain beading up on the petals of hibiscus, of standing on storm-pocked wet sand in the early hours of the morning and grappling with the unreal experience of paradise, the scenery before your very eyes reflected precisely, if reductively, in the pattern of your rayon aloha shirt.

As is often the case, if anyone has an upgrade, I welcome it.  It would be great to hear a higher-quality version of this exquisite stuff.  Thanks to Sleepy Lagoon, from whom I first acquired this file.

s'PACIFICA (192)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Babalucolage and Never Enough Taboos: Tino Contreras - Jazz Tropical (1962)

I posted this one a couple years ago, just as a link to Sleepy Lagoon.  Lagoon being gone, I figured it best to do a new post with a fresh link.  This is a great record; unfortunately it's ripped at a stinkin' low bitrate.  Alas.

Contreras is a Mexican drummer-bandleader with a strong facility for syncretic influence-absorption.  His mix of jazz (many faces of jazz), Latin music (in all its multivalent splendor), and exotica/eastern-modalities/experimentalism makes him a singularly fascinating figure at the crowded intersection of Exotica and Latin jazz.  Perhaps the best illustration of this can be found on Jazzman's highly-recommended compilation, El Jazz Mexicano De Tino Contreras, but this awesome record, Jazz Tropical, is a strong contender as well.

It certainly has lots of Latin/Exotica classics: "Poinciana," "Taboo," "Andalucia," "Caravan," "La Malaguena."  And all great, of course.  It doesn't have his weirdest stuff, like those notoriously-employed choral vocals, or the intense modal workout of a track like "Ravi Shankar" (both of which can be found on the aforementioned comp), but it's just a really good jazz attack on a bunch of Latin/Exotica themes and compositions, and it's a blast.  On a less well-trodden note, the best track is probably "Orfeo en los Tambores," which has some really huge Lecuona Cuban Boys-style vocals.  "Noche en Tunisia" is really good too.

Hit me up with an upgrade if you have one, anybody.  This one deserves to be heard at at least 320.

One last thing: there will be no Explorers Room this week.  I'll be back the week after, with Bibliotheque Exotique 3, so stay tuned if you please.  I'm also working on a post for Buddy Collette's incredible work of genius, Polynesian Suite, and it too is ripped at an appalling bitrate; allow me to once again solicit the world for a better copy of it before I publish the post.

JAZZ TROPICAL (159) Check the comments for a slightly better 192 rip (though I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet so I can't vouch for it).  Thanks to Mischa!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chick Vekters: Travelogue update

Just a head up to discerning listeners: Chick Vekters' Travelogue, which I like very very much, is now available in full on Bandcamp.  Go check it out.  Now is the time to find your lost mid-century utopia and realize to your surprise how alien it always seemed to you.  Why were you looking for it, when you weren't ready for it in the first place?


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Science Fiction Fantasy Dioramas from Library Masters: Piero Umiliani- Tra Scienza e Fantascienza (1980); Roger's New Conception- Informatic 2000 (1982)

Here's a couple transcendent glimpses into science fiction worlds from two (or three, really) of the shining stars of library music.  I know these are rather old news for those who troll these bloggy waters, but with the landscape changing as quickly as it has been over the last few years, I figure it's nothing but good to keep these old links alive.  Though I sure wouldn't mind some upgrades.

This 1980 LP from Umiliani's own Omicron label (and under the pseudonym Moggi) is one of the first Umiliani records I'd ever heard (was it from 36-15 Moog? How can those days be so long ago now?), and a big hook for myself getting into him.  It's perfect science fiction music.  It achieves what it sets out to do with aplomb and beyond. This is a highlight of a majestic ouvre, and one of the most fun of his many electronic records.

It's also one of those lovely miracles of good album art.  The imagery is the perfect accompaniment to the music, evoking some equally-weird nonexistent companion piece to Fantastic Planet.

Particularly exemplary are "Cowboy Spaziale," "Bric Brac," and "Officina Stellare," but this whole slab is gold.

TRA SCIENZA E FANTASCIENZA (192, anyone have an upgrade?)

Equally good science fiction soundtracking music, and from an equally stellar body of consistently tremendous work, is Roger Roger and Nino Nardini's 1982 Crea Sound LP Informatic 2000 (credited to "Roger's New Conception").  This is as ecstatic and fresh as any of the best work this team has ever done.  The title track is one of the best library tracks I'll probably ever hear, and "Expectation" is a chunky, clunky delight.

INFORMATIC 2000 (again, 192)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Legend of Vocal Exotica: Miriam Burton- African Lament (1961)

I did a post on this one four (!) years ago when Sleepy Lagoon was blessedly still active and had just posted a link on his site.  Sad to say, it's gone now.  Anyway, I played a few selections from this dazzling record on the radio show last week, and as a result got a few messages from folks in fruitless search for a live link.  I thought it might be wise to make a new post with a fresh link.  So here you are.

African Lament is a tremendous piece of work, one of those classically, formally exotica records that has a weird aura of specialness to it, a whiff of profound uniqueness without any radical digression, like Magne's Tropical Fantasy or Frank Hunter's White Goddess.  It's also more than likely the best piece of vocal exotica outside of the Yma Sumac ouvre.  Mournful, lush, utterly cinematic and faintly mystical stuff.  Especially tremendous are "Kalahari Bushman," "Apartheid," and the epic"Rites of Passage 1-3."


Friday, March 27, 2015

Death is Just Around the Corner: Flash Car- Lady Lindy (new single)

Flash Car's new single is out now over at bandcamp.  It's called "Lady Lindy," and it's so good.  It's just great.  Check it out.  I had the honor of being enlisted to do the cover art, so that which you see above is indeed one of mine.  Now go enjoy the tunes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Delicate Blend of Power and Joy: Dominic Frontiere - Pagan Festival (1959)

Pagan Festival (An Exotic Love Ritual for Orchestra) is Exotica in the cinematic and seductive style of Les Baxter: orchestral and epic but not overblown, with snakily layered arrangements, wordless vocals, glittering harps, percussion, and an illusionistic sheen of shimmering fantasy.  Along with Milt Raskin's Kapu, it's one of the better and more pure examples of Baxter's method in another man's hands.  Of course, it scarcely achieves on a high enough level to challenge the best of Baxter's records in any category, and is at times rather baldly derivative of Ritual and Tamboo!, but it's a splendid member of the Exotica canon (where all sins can be made virtues anyway) nonetheless.

Pagan Festival was made rather early on in the composer's career, and it's one of his very few records of original material not to have been made for television or film.  In fact, like many who dabbled in the creation of one-off Exotica LPs, Frontiere was mainly a soundtrack composer, whose many credits include The Outer Limits, Hang 'Em High, The Flying Nun, The Rat Patrol, and Branded

Most of the back cover notes are taken up with gushing over young Dominic, who was only 28 at the time of this recording. Beginning with a mash note from his mentor/sponsor, Alfred Newman, it goes on to give three columns of prose over to describing the composer as a wunderkind and a prodigy, and thrilling to his relationship with Newman in almost romantic language.  The hard-selling of Frontiere's talents comes to a close with this passage, before moving on to a brief description of the particular exoticisms at hand: "there are several promising young men around Hollywood just about ready to join these cinematic pioneers.  Among them is a dedicated lad from New England whose latest claim to such fame you now have in your hands."  Then on to the good stuff:

The basic theme of PAGAN FESTIVAL is exotic in its interpretation of ancient Inca rituals, superstitions, and the romance and mysteries of their colorful civilization.  The individual selections, each composed, arranged, and conducted by Dominic Frontiere, portray many facets of this strange and exciting long-vanished way of life.

Festival with its intriguing tempos and sensuous beat depicts exotic revelry and pagan incantations; House of Dawn is almost mystic and unreal, blending deep feeling with a spiritual quality; Temple of Suicide contrasts sharply with symbolic clashes of light and shadow and fear of the unknown; Moon Goddess reflects an almost unearthly appreciation of beauty which the Inca culture aspired to.  Time of Sunshine has themes of luminous warmth and airy buoyance, exemplifying the more casual details of Inca existence; while Goddess of Love has an inspirational uplift of beauty and reverence.  House of Pleasure stresses in more earthy overtones still another aspect of Inca life.  The delicate blend of power and joy in The Harvest conveys a time of plenty and rejoicing and Venus Girl contains moments revealing a great appreciation of beauty.

I recently read a sort of breakdown of Yma Sumac's Voice of the Xtabay, another (better) Exotica take on Inca themes (with, surprise, Baxter producing), and was caught off-guard by the assertion that there's almost nothing musically South American on that record.  Not that I had ever bought into the ethnomusicological myth-making that accompanies Ms. Sumac, but I was still mildly shocked at the idea that there was not even a single formal or structural connection to South American music, antiquity or otherwise.  After hearing Pagan Festival, you might be more taken aback if I told you that it was even South America-inspired at all.  There's no Mesoamerican DNA whatsoever.  It's wall-to-wall movie music, symphonic with exotica touches and purloined Baxter leitmotifs, and scarcely even a hint of the sort of ethno-forgery that you find in Sumac's work, or Elizabeth Waldo's somewhat more respectable records.  And yet each track is accompanied by a (presumably) Inca-language title in addition to English.  This pursuit of concept in the paratext but not the compositions themselves is typical of Exotica, and very much like Les Baxter's own soundtrack work on The Sacred Idol (interestingly enough, working on Idol was one of the few occasions the supposed ethnomusicologist Baxter ever took to leave the country, writing the score in Mexico but never leaving his hotel room).  In the case of Pagan Festival, the commitment to the theme hardly even extends to the gaudy cover art, which skews away from specificity using an eye-grabbing silver background and imagery that's half dusky babe (in a Playboy-esque painted style) and half vaguely "primitive" art.

All that examination of authenticity and influence aside, it's a terrific Exotica record.  If "House of Pleasure (Tampu-Anca)" is a naked theft from Baxter, it's also an effective, delightful concoction of exotic and erotic signifiers.  It does the job, and it does it damn well.  "Temple of Suicide (Ixtab)" is a great brooding storm of Conrad-lite dark-exoticism.  "Jaguar God (Balam)" is great jungle-safari stuff.  Nothing here reinvents or transcends what it is – a reductive formula derived from Baxter's more inventive records and a studied professionalism learned from Newman and the film industry in general – but it executes flawlessly, and plays like a dream.

PAGAN FESTIVAL (a very nice-sounding 192)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Flash Strap Dublab Mix! Voyage: Up Synthetic River

A while back, Dublab asked if I would do a mix for their mega-music site.  I put one together using an assortment of synth-exoticisms that had been intriguing me of late; many of them went into this last episode of Explorers Room (which shared the same name), though not all, and not in the same form.  I tried to make this more of a free-flowing collage of sounds and evocations. 

Give it a listen!  Download it! And when the summer rolls around, get yourself on a river with some sort of sound device and use it as your voyage-soundtrack.   


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Smell of Gasoline and Jungle Rot: Rhythm Devils- Apocalypse Now Sessions (1980)

Despite an obsessive love for Apocalypse Now and its music which goes back to my early teen years and has never abated in dozens of viewings, I had somehow never heard any of the "Rhythm Devils" recordings for the film (other than the earth-splitting stuff that accompanies the original version's closing footage of the burning camp) until very recently.  I'm pleased to say that I have now, because it's really, really awesome.

The Rhythm Devils was an ensemble put together by Grateful Dead percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann after being approached by Coppola to generate some music for Apocalypse Now.  While I generally find I have very little enthusiasm for anything Dead related, I have always reserved a respect for their double-drummer percussive odysseys, and that's what you get here, only better, more visceral and vital.  These sessions are brutal, seething, and amorphous, crawling with menace and insects.  Full of dread and nauseous adrenaline, stinking of gasoline and jungle rot.  They perfectly fit the film they were intended for–when sinking into these selections, it's impossible not to picture the chaotic, violent, primal exoticism of Kurtz's camp. 

They also used some pretty interesting custom instruments.  I'm just pasting from wikipedia, but it's cool to know:

"In addition to using a large collection of percussion instruments from around the world, provided by the various musicians, the Rhythm Devils constructed some new instruments. One of these was The Beast, an array of bass drums with different tones suspended from a large metal rack. After the recording of The Apocalypse Now Sessions, The Beast was incorporated into the "Drums" section of Grateful Dead concerts, an extended percussion duet performed by Hart and Kreutzmann in the middle of the second set of songs.

Another unusual percussion instrument built for the sessions, variants of which have been built and later used in Grateful Dead concerts and Mickey Hart's solo touring bands, was The Beam. This is a large aluminum I-beam (actually a "C" shaped beam facing down with the strings across the flat outside-top surface) strung with 13 bass piano strings all tuned to the note of D (a Pythagorean mono-chord at various octaves). The Beam has a heavy-duty bridge and string anchor at one end and a nut with tuning hardware at the other end. It has a movable magnetic pickup block to facilitate capture and transmission of various tonal qualities. The pickup block feeds a volume pedal and various audio effects units, which route the signals through an amplifier or sound system. The Beam generates a large variety of low frequency primary tones and harmonic overtones, and is played by hitting the strings with a percussion mallet, plucking the strings by hand or with a plectrum, scraping them with various implements (fingernails, plectrums, metal bars), or by pounding on the beam frame itself to induce a bell-like resonance of all the strings simultaneously."

This may or may not be a version of (or the inspiration for) "The Beam," in this case called "the Cosmic Beam," by the artist Francisco Lupica.  Feel free to inform me on this subject as I did the laziest, most perfunctory of research into it and then moved on.
Check it out.  Also, check out my radio show tomorrow night (Thursday Feb. 12), as I'll be playing a few selections from this record and a great deal of material sort of sonically/conceptually related to Apocalypse Now.

SESSIONS  (320) (1990 ryko reissue)