By 1958, Cugat's "hotter" numbers-- his mambos and the like-- were starting to trade warm rowdiness for cold slick muscle, and on LPs such as this, many of the compositions he had made famous a couple decades earlier were reappearing as brash plastic caricatures with a nagging "bigger is better" sensibility. The slightly murky, languid sounds of the romantic 78 RPM era were giving way to comic-book brass explosions with a hi-fi polish. If you want mambos as muscular and thrilling as a Batman fight, you could give Perez Prado a listen (particularly Dilo!), and you would get all that and more-- and it would be good, even grand. With late-period Cugat, it just sounds strained.
The King Plays Some Aces has some of the symptoms of this disease. Indeed, as a sort-of tossed-off long player padded with old, repackaged hits, it's potentially emblematic of many of Cugat's thoughtless failings as a populist entertainer first and artist of any integrity second. It fairly reeks of squandered nostalgia. But stay tuned for the twist: fortunately, because Cugat really is a magnanimous king and gifted bastard, this seemingly lesser work is, in fact, stocked with a fair share of notable aces. Late Cugat may not have been a rightful king of the rowdy-ass mambos and rumbas and cha-cha-chas, but he still had that undeniable knack for the lush and exotic. In this department, the larger orchestras and elaborate production can be employed in such a way as to suit him quite well.
Two real revelations: "Danse des Mirlitons" and especially "Danse Arabe," from, yes, The Nutcracker. Deftly eliminating whatever Christmas associations we might have, these two glorious arrangements splendidly highlight their essential exoticism (and that of their source-- The Nutcracker, based on the writings of Hoffman, is an extremely exoticizing work at its core). They emerge seductive and a little eerie.
There's also"Baia" and "Adios." These songs are great every time Cugat tackles them, and the notably novel arrangements, by Sid Ramin, are exquisite. "Night Must Fall" is another ace, sounding a bit like a less taboo "Jungle Drums," and "Green Eyes" is another ancient chestnut revived for one more charming outing. I also quite like the version of "Carioca" presented here, though I guess I know its only pretty good.
So if you skip past the merely mediocre and the stinkers, which for me (but not necessarily you-- depending on your tastes, you may feel I have over-emphasized the weaknesses of these selections) means "Mambo No. 5" and "Cuban Mambo," you actually have a somewhat secretly great album. Afford it your ears if you are so inclined, and do please enjoy yourself.
PLAY SOME ACES (320)
Viva! CUGAT! (192)
One Last Thing: There's been a fair bit of doom-and-gloom drifting about the blogosphere (RIP Mutant Sounds, you fine stallion-- and welcome back Mutant Sounds, in your newish incarnation) but I just want you guys to know that I smell no stink of death on me. I will be here as long as you keep reading-- you know, maybe not till I die, but for a while anyway. Unless the pigs pitch a big enough fit, I guess. I know my output has slowed down of late, but I assure you it is not the first signs of that tragic dry-rot, when you can tell that the proprietor of the blog is slowly losing interest. I just have a ton of shit to do these days, and there's nothing I can do to help that. So it goes, I suppose.
Stay tuned for some cool stuff later in the week.