Sunday, September 22, 2013
The Waning Years of a Musical Prince, Pt. 2: Arthur Lyman- Polynesia (1965)
Here's another look at late-period Mr. Lyman, still worth your attention even in his decline. Polynesia has some really strong selections, actually.
It opens on a killer one-two punch with "Afro Blues" and "One Night in Tokyo." "Afro Blues" is an extremely enjoyable take on Mongo Santamaria's exotic jazz classic, "Afro Blue." Lyman's is pretty faithful to Santamaria's version, all things considered, but he does give it his trademark slow-motion treatment, upping the air of mystic somnambulism that pervades his work at its best. He turns it into a classically Exotica track, with really savage bird calls and a drum section played for spooky percussion-candy; when the whole affair is suddenly punctured with a crashing piano, it drives the whole thing into the fires of the sublime. It's over far too soon. This is followed by the lovely "One Night in Tokyo," one of the better Lyman Japanesque pieces and another dewily nocturnal sleepwalk with a great sense for atmospherics.
The the album segues into a mood-killing rendition of "Waltzing Matilda," supposedly included as a tribute to Churchill, who died during the album's recording sessions, because it was his favorite song. You could make a case that a Hawaiian-American paying tribute to a British politician is a fascinating subject for analysis, but it wouldn't make "Waltzing Matilda" any less of a bore to listen to.
After that we're back into clearer waters, with a really nice twosome of unexceptional but nonetheless unusual and pleasant Exotica standards: "Malaguena Solorosa," played as a very sleepy pulque hallucination (this is the slowest you will ever hear "Malaguena," probably), and "Drifting Sampans," with the emphasis gloriously on drifting. After these, comes "More," the decent-enough Riz Ortolani composition (and 62 mega-hit/Oscar nominee) that doesn't really ever need to be played outside the über-repetitive but pretty great soundtrack to Mondo Cane (it's given extremely straightforward treatment here).
Then there's one more really good song before it all goes to dry rot, the wonderful title track. "Polynesia" doesn't really blow you away with its originality-- it's thoroughly typical, utterly derivative of the Exotica canon generally and Lyman's own earlier work specifically-- but it's awfully perfect in that archetypal way that makes the repetition of Exotica as a genre both bearable and so very rewarding. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, it's not particularly Polynesian in its sound-- it's pretty Latin, in fact. As usual, it's slow but arresting, throbbing with passion and languor. Alan Soares, as ever, totally ignites the scene with his brilliant work on the piano. (Seriously, this guy is Lyman's secret weapon since the first days, his playing so direct but his tones so subtle. This would be one of his last LPs with the band, sadly).
The rest is pretty bland, occasionally even bad. The three Hawaiian tracks are mainly just lazy, but pretty listenable (actually "Hawaii Tattoo," arranged as a march, is un-fucking-bearable, but unremarkably so). "Don't Rain On My Parade" is just nothing. "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" (arranged to sound basically just like "Brown Skin Gal") is actually pretty pleasant, and at least has the historical interest value of attempting to reconcile an older idiom of popular music with a much younger one-- something Lyman worked at much harder than many of his other contemporaries, though to only varying degrees of success.
Ok, here's the bad news: this rip sucks. I'm sorry, it does. I mean, its listenable, particularly as background music, but it's a low-bitrate version of a not-so-great vinyl rip. You should still grab it-- I do think it's worth it, for what it's worth-- but consider this an invitation to help us all out with a better version, if you're holding. For that matter, a lot of later Lyman is a non-presence on the web, and I'd appreciate any help I can get in compiling it all.
Also, if nothing else, consider this an opportunity to hear a record and know that it is good, so that when you stumble on it in a goodwill bin or a record shop, you know that it's worth it. That goes for the whole of the blog, of course, but you all know that.