Good Music We Can Know

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Search of the Waters of Oblivion: John Tender- Fantasyland Vol. 1 (1981?)

As we slide like snails down the edge of a straight razor, utterly doomed to tip our inarticulate bodies over the side and into the precipitous chasm of an unknown and unknowable new year, I feel like Sadak in search of the Waters of Oblivion, hanging by a finger and struggling to rise, unable to discern what exotic surprises or apocalyptic ruinations may befall me at the top of the in the daunting and inscrutable mountain of the future, but helpless to stop my ascent.

What better sonic guide for such a compulsory transition into the void than John Tender's Fantasyland?  Future exoticism, an expedition into the unknown, full of lead-heavy dread and breathtaking wonder.  Every track is a perfect marvel, clear as a crystal in the pink sun and heavy as a storm cloud on Jupiter.  So highly recommended, so deeply necessaryWelcome to the end of today, see you tomorrow.


PS: This rip originally came from the luminary blog Lunar Atrium, whose now-emptied treasury was a hall of wonders now sorely missed.  Thanks brother.  There is a volume two, and I don't have it, so allow me to beseech you all to toss me a link if you're holding.  Please!  Ten pleases, all pretty.

And permit me to apologize for being so long inactive this month, the throbbing of life is at times overwhelming for us all (and my how the jingles do bell away our days).  Rest assured I have many plans for the coming days and weeks, including an Obsession Exotique centered on Piero Umiliani, as well as just some regular ol' extremely excellent exotica, funk, and synth music that's been kickin around in my ears.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Savage Toy Recommendation: The Tropicals- Urubamba (1972)

Of all the incredible, one-of-a-kind treasures over at Boxes of Toys, Urubamba is a major highlight for folks, like myself, on the eternal exotica hunt.  Just in case any of you in my readership were unaware of the business over at Boxes of Toys, it's sort of my solemn duty to tip you to this thrilling LP of Italian library exotica.

It's got this classic, very cool sound, not super original but still subtly unique-- a toy-box simplicity with fat grooves and sugary lines of wordless vocals-- the sort of thing that would fit ever-so-nicely between Jungle Obsession and Umiliani's Africa/Polinesia, without really being more of the same in either (or any) category.

The link below will take you to Boxes of Toys.  Grab the link while it's still live (it's in the comments).  Two things: almost every other track on this album is, in my very humble opinion, even cooler and weirder than the one in the soundcloud sample, so just trust me that this LP is the bizarro bee's knees if you have any doubts.  The other thing: For the love of all things good, be thankful in the comments (specifically over there, not here, though I love and welcome your comments always).  I ask this of you.


There's lots of great stuff over there too (like this and this), check it all out.  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jungle Drums in the Primordial Wasteland

I'd like to present to you all a piece of work that I've recently completed: a three-part video suite, comprised of re-edited dinosaur claymation videos, salvaged from my elementary school library and transferred from VHS tape.  Intensively sound-designed and re-scored to be saturated with Exotica, library, and cosmic synth music. 

I won't lie to you-- I do have lofty aspirations and intellectual arguments for this work.  I hope that it functions as more than a nostalgia-steeped supercut for the Exotica-niche (in many ways, it is better served as a real-life installation-video piece, where one may be more easily encouraged to experience the work in an immersive fashion, rather than the immediate-gratification environment of a youtube video).  While those aspirations are true and earnest and hopefully not too tiresome, I want to say that when making this kind of work, the most important guiding principle, for me, is to create provocative entertainments.  (In the vein of Jodorowski's midnight movies, or 2001:A Space Odyssey, among many, many others., which were for thinkers and stoners alike, or even for the thinking stoned, a not-rare but too-rarely mentioned or respected type.) 

Which is to say, I hope for the viewer to be able to participate in the fantasy, illusion, or distilled nostalgia whilst allowing for engagement in something like a personal examination or philosophical critique (pseudo-science/infotainment as a coded language of poetics or propaganda, the timeless past as an exoticized temporal fiction, the primeval as a twin to the post-apocalypse and manifestation of a human longing for annihilation or nonexistence, the constructed narrative of the dinosaurs as a sort of martyr-allegory in humanity's modern creation-myth, memory fragmenting and purifying fact into surreal new forms which are crumbling and unstable, etc., etc., blah blah blah)

So I hope you enjoy, and don't feel that you have to think too hard unless you want to.  If you're extremely generous, you'll pull them up on a big screen and settle into them like a movie.  Or just click and watch, and have my gratitude for your eyes.

With all that ado and nothing more, I'd like to present to you:

Millions of Years Ago: A Primeval Bolero in Three Parts
Concerning the Origins of Man and the Savage Early Days of the Earth
For the Edification and Pleasure of the Audience: In Order to Please the Eye and Excite the Imagination

(click the images to link to videos)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Hypertension Functions: Flash Strap & William Onyeabor, a love story

Over the summer I was contacted by Luaka Bop with regards to our mutual appreciation of the fantastic Mr. William Onyeabor.  I learned of their long-in-the-making plans to release a deluxe, remastered Onyeabor compilation.  We spoke on the phone, and I was treated to a fascinating tale, outlining a recent Luaka Bop expedition to Enugu, Nigeria to meet Onyeabor and learn something, anything, about the elusive figure (much of that tale is satisfyingly laid out here, thank goodness, and I highly recommend the read).  In their bold, egalitarian magnanimity, they invited me to contribute to a newspaper project, one part of the elaborate panoply of Onyeabor items which have exploded onto the earth as accompaniment for the comp album.  I was to write a news story, covering the return to Enugu of Nigerian scholars from their studies abroad in the USSR.  I wrote it, made it as strange as I could, and the other day I finally got to see it in print.  Pretty cool.

 You can read the whole paper, which is chock full of weird pseudo-journalism, metatextual reportage, Onyeabor referentiality, and actual information, if you purchase it here.  It's only five bucks.  But what I really do have to recommend-- if the means are available to you and you have the inclination-- is that you procure the grand, magisterial comp, Who Is William Onyeabor? particularly on vinyl, which comes in the form of a 3LP monster-- not only does the vinyl sound amazing, it also features several tracks that aren't on the CD/online version, including a revelatory remaster of "Jungle Gods," which I for one have never before heard without cataclysmic scratches and pops (it bears mentioning, though, that all the remasters presented are truly heroic).
I'm spinning it right now on my Dual 1019, that funkelectro sound like warm African air just pouring from the speakers and filling my explorer's room, and I'm a very pleased head-with-ears indeed.  (The vinyl reissue of Good Name, if you can get it, is just insane, also-- the original cover art is gloriously reproduced-- and I hope it's followed by many more Onyeabor LP reissues.)

I'm not trying to shill, it just makes me very excited to see Onyeabor being presented to the world in a major way, and very relieved to see that it's been done so well-- the whole thing is such a labor of love and a monument to mystery.  And I'm happy to have been a part of it, in my small way, and I wanted to tell you all about it.  Anyway, may you all explode like atomic bombs today.  Hiya hiya hiya hiya hiya.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


There is nothing I could say which would be adequate.  My god, it feels like such a loss.  I can't even listen to the records yet.  When I do, it will be the first time I hear them sung in the voice of a man who is gone.  I'm not totally ready for that.

For a lot of smart, alienated, angry young people, Lou Reed's art and art of persona offered invaluable coping mechanisms, apparatus by which to survive the necessity of having to expose our devastating sensitivity to an utterly uncaring, monstrously traumatic world.  His music sliced and tore through the pain of having to be alive with visceral, clarifying sounds and eviscerating lyrics, offering a sense of purpose and presenting a persona from which we could borrow in order to steel ourselves, transforming those weaknesses into an armory of detachment, a way to survive and thrive without dumbing ourselves down (even if it did make us assholes sometimes, or more than sometimes).  A talisman (real or imagined) of our own potential for subversive power, and a body of incredible work which could be endlessly examined and appreciated not only for its towering genius and impeccable construction of the cool, but for its infinite flaws-- naked, human imperfections.  

I'm a long way from all that now, I think.  I am who I am mostly on my own, having transformed the various syntheses of youth into self.  But in all honesty I have no idea how I would have gotten there or who I'd be without Lou Reed.  I know he doesn't need another obituary, and certainly not one from me.  But I can't be the only one who feels like an actual part of my self died on Sunday morning, and I hope you'll forgive the regrettable drama of my maudlin selfishness if I eulogize him on that personal basis.

I never stopped listening to the music, and I never will; his being gone doesn't and couldn't change that.  The music is there forever, a living document that has no need for a tombstone.  But I was one of many who counted him-- the man and myth, constructed to be conflated-- as a formative mentor, a spirit guide, a weird father, and now he is gone.  I know I'm not the only one feeling this way, this loss.  God damn it, the absence is palpable.

Uncle Lou, 
I love you and 
I could never thank you enough
How we ever gonna get through this awful old world without you?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Waning Years of a Musical Prince, Pt. 3: Arthur Lyman- Yellow Bird/Percussion Spectacular (1961)

"The name Arthur Lyman symbolizes the exotic percussion era.  There have been other albums by the same title but none as apropos of the real spirit of exoticism... contrasting the native and the modern, the group, their instruments of sound, and their music, are native, pulsatingly primitive, often eerie.  The Aluminum Dome is unmistakably modern, the product of 20th century modern genius."- Back cover notes, Arthur Lyman's Yellow Bird (originally released under the title Percussion Spectacular, to which the notes obviously refer.)

For an Exotica record that inexplicably opens with "Hava Nagila," I have to say: Yellow Bird is not half bad.  Sadly, its rarely pulsatingly primitive or eerie-- in keeping with the other entries in this series on late Lyman, it's pretty straightforward cocktail jazz, albeit with some interesting composition choices.

The song-by-song back cover notes, on "Hava Nagila": "How exotic can exotic be? Here is a traditional Hebrew folk song with the intrigue of the middle east, which Lyman has used to produce a monument to exoticism."  Alas!  A variation of this delicious copy could have been used to describe any number of Lyman recordings ("Legend of Pele" immediately springs to mind, though "Taboo" would be just as apt), but as an appraisal of this kitschy (there I said it, damn me) version of "Hava Nagila," it's fairly laughable.  This is just a playful but rather tepid and straight take on the traditional composition, with the very mild added novelty of having it played on vibes.  It can boast neither the intrigue of the Middle East (at all, come on) or the Jewish musical culture from which it borrows.  In terms of capitalizing on the wary pop-culture interest taken in Jewish music/culture following the 1960 film Exodus, it would have been no less tiresome if Lyman had actually just used the theme song, "Exodus" (which is a way more exotic composition anyway).

But enough of that.  Onto the good stuff.  The next track, "Yellow Bird," was such a big hit that the album was quickly re-released under that name.  A 19th-century Haitian song by Michel Mauleart Monton with lyrics from a poem by Oswald Durand, "Yellow Bird" was arranged and given new lyrics by Norman Luboff in 1957 as part of a calypso trend of the time.  Lyman's instrumental version is the biggest hit of his career.  While it is indeed a lovely track, it's not particularly impressive, and its hit status is to my mind slightly damning of the market.  Not that Exotica as a genre lends itself particularly well to hit singles.

This is followed by "Ravel's Bolero," an always-welcome selection on any exotica album.  Ravel's most recognizable composition, an orgasmically repetitious exoticizing of Spanish dance music, is one of the most influential pieces of early-20th century classical music in terms of the formation of the "Exotica" sensibility (alongside Debussy's body of work, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, etc.)-- so it's always fun to hear a classically Exotica-version of it.  It always falls short, of course.  How much tension can you build in two to four minutes?  It ends up being, by necessity, "Bolero" in miniature, but in this doomed task I think Lyman makes a good piece.

"Autumn Leaves" and "Arrive Derce Roma," which follow, both make better Exotica tracks than one might have suspected, with some really nice piano work from Soares energizing the tame selections.  "Sweet and Lovely" (described as "neither sweet nor lovely but completely intriguing") starts off slowly as a fairly unintriguing light little jazz blues, then with a wonderfully arresting gong crash and a wild howling scream, veers into... a barely intriguing light little jazz blues, spruced up with a decent bass solo.  Oh well.

Side two opens on a real banger, one of those perfect jungle-Exotica tracks in the vein of "Taboo," with a creeping bass, unnerving bird calls, and dreamy atmosphere, cut through with a sinewy and slightly menacing melody.  Entitled "Bamboo Tamboo," it's "A pulsating, exciting composition... more typically Arthur Lyman."  I wish it was even more typical of Arthur Lyman, because it's great, and he should have continued to do more in this vein.  I also wish it was even two minutes long, but its brevity does leave me excited.  This is followed by the evergreen "Andalusia" (also known as "The Breeze and I"), which "starts slowly, builds and the blossoms out into an exotic wonder," aided by a great cascading piano from Mr. Soares.

Up next is "Adventures in Paradise," the theme from the TV program of the same name.  A pretty perfect Exotica composition, it makes a sterling contribution to the LP.  Continuing side two's run of goodness is "Granada," the kind of spooky Latin selection that constitutes one of Lyman's specialties, full of playful tempo changes and loaded with extra percussion.  The side closes out on two rather odd numbers, Weill's "September Song" (here given a "dreamy south sea feeling," with totally positive results), and "John Henry."  The notes: "Probably no other group would choose this American work song, a folk tune, to give exotic treatment but Arthur does and it's different all the way."  This (and "Yellow Bird," in a way), is Lyman keeping up with folk trends being established anew by the likes of Belafonte and The Kingston Trio.  The admirable effort is not successful in the case of "John Henry"-- at least, not as good music.  But Lyman often closes out even his best records with disastrously tone-deaf denouments, so this should come as no surprise and ought be taken as par for the course. 

YELLOW BIRD (320 rip from sorta scratchy vinyl)
YELLOW BIRD (very low bit rate, sounds pretty ok actually, without the scratches and pops)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Man With the Bird in His Mouth: Augie Colon- Sophisticated Savage (1958)

Augie Colón is an Exotica giant, in a way.  His work as a percussionist helped to define the smaller-combo Denny sound, and that of its various imitators, but his most noticeable contribution to the genre is his gift for imitating bird calls-- that nonmusically-indebted screeching and howling, so omnipresent in post-Exotica Exotica, tearing holes in the fabric of its easy-listening bubble.  Bird calls are a big part of what makes Exotica so curiously avant-garde and internally contradictory (or kitschy and gimmicky, depending on your point of view), and Mr. Colón is a major reason why they exist in the genre such as they do.  The idea of listening to an LP with Colón as bandleader, then, is pretty cool, especially one with such a splendidly enticing title as Sophisticated Savage.

It's not as weird as it could be, to be honest.  Most of the tracks are vocals, which sort of normalizes the exotic instrumentation, and there's nary a bird call to be had.  Still, it's a really enjoyable and unique album-- it feels a lot like a middle-America aimed record of some "exotic" ethnic folk music (Calypso, Cuban, what have you), but like so much Exotica it has no real geographical focus or loyalty.  Colón was, after all, a veteran of the outrageously pan-cultural Hawaiian hotel entertainment scene, and a member of Denny's band.  Thus his specialty is almost necessarily not any one field, but rather the exotic construct.  This makes the album sort of mysterious and dreamy, and places you at an Afro-Latin-Pacific percussion party with no specific location (either geographically or audience-wise; is this a village scene or a nightclub? or a museum diorama?).

Anyway, yakkety yak, there are some really enjoyable songs on Sophisticated Savage.  The first song is really odd, and introduces Colón in a flamboyant fashion.  The second sort of takes on a dreamy, big-Latin-hotel Lecuona Cuban Boys or Cugat vibe (an aesthetic Colón returns to occasionally throughout, especially for his rendition of "Tabu," which is near-identical to the Cuban Boys version).  The third track, "Okolehau" is a bizarro ode to the Hawaiian alcoholic beverage, okolehao, derived from the ti plant root.  Opening with a slurring utterance of "'Ey bro, you like drink some okolehao?", the track stumbles along through a lovely instrumental soundscape populated by further boozy, patois-inflected ramblings.  It's a high point, both for its basic strangeness but also musically.

The rest of the album is thoroughly good, though not really ever great.  There are some lovely romantic numbers, and a pretty interesting take on the eternal composition, "The Peanut Vendor" (as Stan Kenton says, "There'll always be a 'Peanut Vendor,'" though he may have meant it more literally).  It may not be a secret masterpiece of Exotica, but it's a really nice record and a great piece of its history.  It's also rare as all hell, so in this case I wouldn't recommend waiting til you see it on vinyl.


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.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Waning Years of a Musical Prince: Arthur Lyman- Isle of Enchantment (1964)

If you wish to escape the pressures and tensions of sophisticated commercialism, daily hypnosis of television, undercurrents of social and political tidal waves, then follow the sun to the islands in the Pacific... When you hear a recorded tropical bird call, velvet vibes, piano and exciting percussions blend together, you ARE on an island... you see tranquil blue lagoons, hazy purple valleys and lovely hula hands– you are immersed in the bewitching spell of Arthur Lyman's ISLE OF ENCHANTMENT. -Liner notes by Tony Lease ("Radio Voice of the Pacific"), for Arthur Lyman's 1964 LIFE series LP, Isle of Enchantment
In the past I have covered, in a manner I suspect more each day is wholly inadequate in comparison to the excellence of the material, the best LPs of an in-his-prime Arthur Lyman ("one of the few musical princes to be born of Hawaii", according to Mr. Lease).  Like the rest of his Exotica brethren, Lyman's heyday came in the late 50's and early 60's, an incredibly brief but fertile period.  Nearly everything that followed the output of these golden years evidenced a case of diminishing returns--  slightly undignified attempts to "keep up," or at least get work, in the changing 60's.  Denny pursued a trajectory that led, for the most part, straight down (excepting a few choice works here and there).  Baxter became increasingly hit-or-miss (but still, what hits!), and toiled endlessly in the ignominious Beach Party/teen movie soundtrack business (not that I'm knocking it, and bless him for it).  The imitators and hangers-on gradually slipped by the wayside, growing paler and more bland along the way.

Lyman, too, began to lose his grip on a legacy of firm excellence.  Yet, the autumn of Arthur Lyman remains a surprisingly fertile season, one well worth investigating, each successive record clearly second-tier but solid, containing occasionally marvelous moments.

One such work is Isle of Enchantment, with its thrillingly purple back-cover prose reprinted (in abridged form) above.  How wonderful, how telling, that a work positively steeped in influences, stereotypes, and anxieties related to and emanating from "sophisticated commercialism," television, and for god's sake, "undercurrents of social and political tidal waves" might also purport to offer reprieve from those same cultural facts of life.  This is Exotica, all right, in all its complex and utterly simple glory.

Opening with the well-played but almost hilariously derivative title track (a piece deeply indebted to "Quiet Village"), the record continues on in a fashion that's both terminally mellow and yet always enjoyable.  This album exemplifies second-stage Lyman, and is among the most consistent of the bunch.  Less inventive and experimental in every way, it operates as sterling, top-notch exotic easy-listening/background music, placing strong emphasis on Hawaiiana and cool jazz, with the invariable inclusion of a couple Japanese (or otherwise "Oriental," as the case may be) compositions and an effortlessly Lyman-restyled cover of a popular hit (or five).  In this case, there's a few of the latter, the best being the excellent Mancini theme from the also-excellent film, Charade.  The theme from The High and the Mighty, and "Et Maintenant" (also known as "What Now My Love") fare rather well, also.  As an album, it's helped along by the particularly exuberant version of "Guadalajara" that opens side two, breaking up the monochromatic sensibility and injecting some of the essential latin/afro-cuban elements that keep exotica on the other side of soporific.

Once you've made your way through the best of the Lyman catalog, I am confident that many of you will be left wanting more.  Let it be known: there is more out there, don't fear to take it.  True, nothing out there will reach the heights of Bwana A or Legend of Pele or Taboo, but it's still worth some attention from your ears.  Put this on, friends, and forget those social tidal waves, at least for a few vibraphone-laden moments of mild bliss.

Isle of Enchantment (192)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Polish Moon Over Tahiti: Zespół Instrumentalny Marka Sewena- Księżyc na Tahiti

Another remnant from the sadly departed Sleepy Lagoon, this album has yet to get its due amount of attention from hunters of rare and unusual examples of Exotica.  Księżyc na Tahiti (or Moon On Tahiti) is a classic exotic mishmash of Polynesian/Hawaiian fantasies with the occasional Oriental/Latin piece thrown in, all done in a dreamy easy-listening style that almost bubbles over into too conventional territory.  It doesn't go quite that far into to tame homogeneity (if it did, I wouldn't be talking about it now), and a lot of that is likely due to its country of origin, a land less-often encountered in the annals of Euro-Exotica: Poland.  The result does resemble a more typical 60's easy-listening exotica LP, but with interesting flourishes and more atypical coloring.  It has that sort of alternate-dimension feel to it-- it seems like normal, but not quite our normal. 


Highly recommended, loaded with wordless vocals, odd bells and echoey percussion, organ swirls, and dreamy abstractions.  Enjoy. (Unfortunately I don't know much else about this one, its production, or artist.  Fill us in if you have knowledge please.)

Księżyc na Tahiti (320)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ah, 'Lectric Blue: Piero Umiliani- Synthi Time (1971)

Synthi Time is one of my favorite Umiliani LPs, largely because it is so simple and direct in design and selection.  Produced in his own laboratory of sound and vision, the Sound Work Shop, Synthi Time comprises 14 selections, many of them variations on recurring compositions, done in a variety of musical styles and tempos, executed in a breathtakingly simple synthesizer vocabulary.  Pastoral, exotic, and strangely innocent, Umiliani's restless, childlike experimentation and toy-box sound on this album is to my ears reminiscent of Roedelius' work (and some of Moebius', among other Kraut synth-wizards), and paints a picture in the mind of a bizarre, alternate dimension dream of a nonexistent children's animation.  It also sounds a lot like a genius playing around with new synthesizers and their tempo/style settings, using familiar melodies for the sake of freer stylistic experimentation-- which is probably pretty close to the truth of it.

Many of these melodies appear elsewhere in Umiliani's ouvre-- I know I recognize some tunes from the Zeudi trilogy-- but it all feels very fresh and vital, as though a robot angel had dropped these sounds out of the sky in the form of a glowing cube.  The tones are warm and breezy, and the music is as beautiful and pure as the sky is blue.  The composition-repetition only increases the flow of dreamlike continuity.

This one has been around for a long time.  Far from a scoop, I know.  But it seems like one that is often overlooked in favor of more flashy or overtly complex Umiliani efforts, so I wanted to highlight it (also it has been charming the hell out of me this summer, growing more fond to me by the day, which I wouldn't have said was possible a few years ago).  So have at it, and enjoy your beautiful summer days.  Thanks to all who checked out my last mix, by the way.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Flash Strap Presents: Jungle Shadows Vol. 4- Discover Jungle Shadows

I present to you, in the dead center of this summer, the fourth volume of Jungle Shadows, a slightly-experimental installment inspired by (and functioning as an homage to) Van Dyke Parks' phenomenal Discover America.

Using that album as a launching-point, conceptual guide, and loose framework, I have designed this Jungle Shadows as an exploration of cultural relationships: between the U.S. and its Southern neighbors, the western world and the greater "exotic" world; the various two-way streets of appropriation, collaboration, homage, and cross-cultural pollinations; the cover and the covered, the artist and the producer.

Many of the original versions of compositions from Discover America are included (notated below with an *).  Several of the selections have complex or at least very specific reasons for their inclusion, while others are just great songs that loosely fit the theme.  Its not airtight-- give me a break-- but it ought to be interesting, and a fun listen, anyway.  The Bermuda triangle of Caribbean music, Black American music, and experimental "pop" music plays a large role here, exemplified perhaps by The Beach Boys diaspora of pop, the soul/funk of Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey, and Calypso.  WWII-era American obsession with Brazil and Latin America checks in as well.

Please enjoy, make sure to grab both parts (links at the playlist head), and drink some palm soda or coconut juice or something.  Have a great week.


1. Have You Been To Baia? (from Three Caballeros)
2. Baia- Cults Percussion Ensemble
3. Four Mills Brothers- The Radio*
4. Riverboat- Lee Dorsey (composed by Allen Toussaint)*
5. Slave (feat. Bert Inniss and the National Recording Orchestra)- Mighty Sparrow
6. Aren't You Glad- Beach Boys
7. Summertime- Sharon Marie (produced by Brian Wilson)
8. Out On The Rolling Sea When Jesus Speak To Me- Van Dyke Parks (cover of a song by Bahamian musician Joseph Spence, and apparently an occasional bonus track on some reissues of Discover America)
9. Sinnerman (1956 original with vocal by Will Holt)- Les Baxter (recording of the classic spiritual from which most modern versions are derived)
10. Our Prayer- Beach Boys
11. Born Again Cretin- Robert Wyatt
12. Out Of The City (Into Country Life)- Allen Toussaint
13. Storm Chant of the Skraelings- Robert Calvert (from Lucky Leif and the Longships, a concept album dealing with how American culture might have been different had the Vikings managed to colonise the continent, produced by Brian Eno)
14. Surf Rider- Eden Ahbez
15. Taboo- Buddy Collette (jazz version of the Margarita Lecuona composition from the awesome album Polynesia)
16. Hindou- Lecuona Cuban Boys
17. Caravan- The Mills Brothers (A capella, save for the guitar accompaniment)
18. Danse Arabe- Xavier Cugat (Rhumba version of the Tchaikovsky composition from The Nutcracker)


1. You Belong To My Heart (from Three Caballeros)
2. Bing Crosby- The Lion*
3. Occapella- Lee Dorsey (composed by Allen Toussaint)*
4. Bacon Fat- Andre Williams & His New Group
5. John Jones- Rudy Mills*
6. Tambo, Tambo- La Cumbia Soledeña
7. Taboo- Cyril Diaz & His Orchestra (1950's Trinidadian, an intense reworking of the M. Lecuona composition)
8. River Come Down- Andre Tanker (the Trinidadian genius)
9. Take Me Away From The River- Fletcher Henderson
10. G-Man Hoover- Sir Lancelot*
11. I Wish I Was a Cowboy- S.E. Rogie (Sierra Leonian palm wine guitarist)
12. Cool Water- Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters
13. Cool, Cool Water- Beach Boys
14. Ports O' Call- Paul Page
15. Ode to Tobago- Lord Kitchener*
16. Jingle Bells- Brute Force Steel Bands

As a parting note: if you haven't heard Discover America, one of the greatest albums of the 70's if not all time, then allow me to gently encourage you to to change that fact about yourself.  It is a masterpiece and a deep pleasure, and you need it in your life.  Either way, anybody might enjoy this incredible video of Mr. Van Dyke Parks talking about the album.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Bevy of Duo Ouro Negro Singles and EPs, A Godsend

I've expressed to you in the past my love for the brilliant and beautiful Angolan musical duo, Duo Ouro Negro.  I've recommended the superb shares to be found over at the old Ghostcapital (by the way, you should hit up his new site if you haven't) and I've shared a couple additional LPs over a year ago, Mulowa Afrika and the beyond-excellent Blackground .  Apparently those latter shares, sent to me by a friend with the hope that I would disseminate them, were the subject of some distress for a fellow blogger (and the original ripper I presume), who-- as courteously as he could, under the circumstances-- alerted me to his desire to receive some credit for his own posts.  Indeed: fair enough.

Only too happy to oblige (and as balefully remorseful for my unintentional transgressions as any man can be), I trotted over to his site to check the link to the source and see what in fact was what.  To my thorough surprise and delight, I discovered there a treasure chest of Duo Ouro Negro singles and EPs.  I, for one, had never seen them anywhere else before, and while there is some considerable inevitable overlap with various LP tracks from the period, there's also a wealth of material that was brand new to my ears.  Such a thing is good indeed.

I urge you to do the right thing for your life and your summer, and head over to Musica dos Anos 60 and scope the Angola section, brimming with wonders such as these (from the Duo) and many more besides.  Don't forget to thank our mutual benefactors while you're there.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Kyushu Island: Werner Müller and His Orchestra- East of India (1963)

Another odd one from the bosom of Sleepy Lagoon, and another very western take on the inscrutable and mystical Orient.  This one (by the much-maligned, often fairly so, Werner Müller), in contrast to the Paris Theater Orchestra, slathers on the exotic instrumentation (koto, shamisen, etc., along with exotica-stalwarts like vibraphone, wordless chorus, and 60's additions such as surf guitar and spy brass) and engages in all variety of reckless experimentation.  Add to that, all the compositions are originals, and you have one of those total outlier Exotica LPs.  It might not be perfect-- it's not even great, though it's awful close-- but it's just totally unique.

Sometimes its just bonkers (as on the dopey "Chinese Tittle-Tattle") but far more often it achieves a dreamy, transcendent and cinematic air, as on the sort-of Latin-tinged "Moon Over the Pagoda" or the excellent album-opener, "The Banquet," which offers exotica infused with a dose of Italian soundtrack and a killer vocal part.  Likewise, the sublime "On the Kyushu Island" mixes the hallucinogenic mysticism of Les Baxter's Sacred Idol work with a kind of wagon-train western sound, a weird act of East/West culture blending that works so well it's sort of hard to believe.  The sound, if not the intention, is not unlike Tak Shindo's Far East Goes Western or Edmudo Ros' Bongos from the South, but in this case actually successful (and far far less overt).

This is not a perfect album, and again I wish I had a clearer-sounding rip, but it's very much worth having a listen if you're an Exotica hunter.  For a more thorough, and very positive review, check out this post on Ambient Exotica.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Evoking the Oriental Construct, Orchestrally: The Paris Theatre Orchestra- A High Fidelity Adventure in Exotic Lands (1957)

A classic example of orchestral exotica, A High Fidelity Adventure in Exotic Lands first came to my ears through the late, great, lamentably expired Sleepy Lagoon, a wonderful resource for all things exotica-based.

The Paris Theatre Orchestra here presents for your listening pleasure an enjoyable set of exotic tone-poems steeped in the vague notion of the East.  Animated entirely by Western romanticism, there is virtually no trace of actual "exotic"/ethnic musical culture manifest in the music, save the occasional (very Western) use of "oriental" compositional signifiers.  The closest you get to any kind of alien presence on this record would be, perhaps, the bird sounds which open the last track.  The back cover notes are perfectly damning:

"The far east, Arab lands, India and Persia have always held great fascination to the western mind.  Their cultures are old and at times mysterious.

It would have presented the problem of uninteresting listening to have recorded the definite ethnic music of these places, therefor, this program in general is what we consider the music that these places suggest."

A lot of the selections you'd expect from an album of this ilk are present: "Theme from Prince Igor," "Arab Dance," "In A Persian Market," and of course, "Scheherazade."  It's a bit tame for Exotica, and hardly essential, but for some reason I just love having it around.  "Drifting Sampans" is great, and the whole thing has a real classic Hollywood vibe, sort of the perfect score for a huge-budget Orientalist costume epic.

A High Fidelity Adventure in Exotic Lands (320)
(This rip is a bit flat-sounding if you ask me, help me upgrade it if you can)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Flash Strap Presents: Dub Hot Dubs 3 ("Black Majesty")

Dub Hot Dubs 3 is here, "Black Majesty," a dread freighter for to steer you through the thick hot haze of these wicked and cruel days of superheated summertime perdition.  Cool off like the righteous and pull one with the ancients, so to speak.

1. Jungle Of Crime- Dennis Alcapone
2. Satta - Masa - Ganna- Cedric Im Brooks (United Africa Version)
3. Fighting Dub- Tommy McCook & King Tubby
4. Black Man's Dub- Impact Allstars
5. Black Man's Land- Vivian Jackson & The Prophets
6. African Roots- Skatalites
7. Kentucky Skank- Lee Perry and The Upsetters
8. Outcry- Cedric Im Brooks
9. My Nocturne- Keith Hudson
10. Spying Glass- Horace Andy
11. Iron Fist- The Observers
12. Heavy Duty- Herman Chin Loy

1. Satta Massa Gana- Cedric Im Brooks
2. Melody Maker- Keith Hudson
3. Waap You Waa- Lee Perry and The Upsetters
4. Present- Burning Spear
5. Tribal War- U Roy Junior
6. Lazy Mood- The Prophet All Stars
7. Money Money- Horace Andy
8. Invasion- King Tubby/The Aggrovators
9. Scientific (Hurting Dubb)- The 4th Street Orchestra
10. Sabasi- Cedric Im Brooks
11. Roots Talk- Mabrak
12. Try Love- Sugar Minott


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Here Come the Night Owl: Horace Andy- Skylarking (1972)

The mighty Horace Andy's first LP; you could scarcely ask for a sweeter slice of roots-reggae soul.  Andy's voice is here as crystal-sharp and precise as a stream of icy springwater, and the whole affair is handled with a perfect simplicity.  Tidy trails of echo around the vocals, a crunchy exactness in the guitars, and deep soul grooves with a nascent sense of dread menace emanating from the bass.

The title track is just monstrously classic-- I mean, seriously, it does not get any better than "Skylarking," in terms of Jamaican soul-- but it's far from the only stunner.  Nearly every track is a frank stunner in fact, but the highlights include the stupendous cover of the classic French single, "Mamy Blue" (here "Mamie Blue"), the sexy come-on/break-up of "Night Owl," and the prophesying "Every Tongue Shall Tell."  The album-opener, a surprising, meandering cover of Cat Stevens' "Where Do the Children Play," is likely among the weaker selections on record, but nonetheless fascinating and really quite lovely.  You can't lose with this one.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Mouth Harp on the Beach: Tommy Morgan- Tropicale (1958)

  Beneath all the obvious Exotica classics-- the monstrous, mysterious, weird, perfect-- there exists a beautiful paradise of sly little LPs.  Not particularly ambitious, bombastic, or even original, but nonetheless exquisite.  Along with all the regular programming (Jungle Shadows 4 and Dub Hot Dubs 3 coming very very soon, among others), I'm going to be highlighting a few of these in the coming weeks-- I know a lot of them can be found elsewhere on the web, but I'm here to convince you not to overlook them in favor of other more well-known records.

Of these unsung heroes, Tommy Morgan's Tropicale is one of my very favorites.  Mr. Morgan, a well-known and oft-used harmonica man for hire (you can hear him on "Good Vibrations," which is awesome) is here backed by the Warren Barker orchestra, and together they turn in a subtle and unique Exotica LP with harmonica as the lead instrument.

Don't expect the vast primeval vistas of mouth-harp as employed by Sven Libaek (him being particularly well-known for composing with harmonica in mind), or the honkin-n-tootin of any number of easy-listening harmonica trios of the the time; Morgan's sound here is fluttering and dreamy, a pleasant ghost in a misty pastoral scene.  This, in conjunction with the lush but fairly basic orchestral arrangements from Barker, does lead to the occasional moments on the record where things start to feel bogged down in slushy melodrama, but there's more great tracks than not on Tropicale, and it always redeems itself with a big winner.  "Baia" and "Taboo," which bookend the album, are predictably excellent, but in some rather unpredictable ways, and "Bali Hai" is particularly ghostly.  "Miserlou," too, is quite a highlight, and it's a pleasure to hear Morgan's harmonica wind its way through that classic snakelike melody.

Paradise music.  Use it well.
TROPICALE (192, it sounds pretty good but feel free to help me upgrade this one)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fire Music in the Shadow of the Moon: Gato Barbieri- Under Fire (1971)

"Gato's great strength lies in the huge, wild high tone he coaxes from the tenor instrument and in his novel mingling of South American concurring rhythms and melodic traditions with the searing energetics opioneered by Coltrane, Coleman and Albert Ayler.  The great appeal of his music is the apotehosis of heartbreakingly gorgeous melodic lines... into churning imploding kegs of rhythm and the soaring expression of feeling via the tenor saxophone." - Stephen Davis, quoted in the liner notes for Under Fire

"...I sing sometimes, not because I like to sing but because the music needs singing.  And when I scream with my horn, it's because the music needs screaming."- Gato Barbieri

I have talked before about Gato Barbieri's sweet spot, between the 60's spent sessioning (usually exquisitely) for the likes of Lalo Schifrin and Don Cherry and his eventual late-70's latin-lover endgame into bombastic mediocrity.  This is Barbieri in that sweet spot, his classic early/mid-70's prime as bandleader, blending spiritual and passionate modal jazz with experiments into Latin folk tradition and cinematic romanticism.  Under Fire finds him blowing his trademark pink-hot, sweaty fire-music sound with Lonnie Liston Smith at his side making cool breezes on piano and Airto Moreira on percussion (Moreira being most famous for his work on Bitches Brew-- further proof of his genius in this thrilling video).   

This record is very much in line with others of the time, especially those I've shared here (Latin America Chapter One and Bolivia certainly come to mind, particularly the latter).  Evocative and smoldering, with deep grooves; studious use of South American popular music elements, in this case with a soft focus on Brazil; experimental and restless without getting too far out into free-blowing brain-splitting material (which might be said of the same year's howling Fenix, which gets pretty bonkers, admittedly to considerable rewards).  This LP stands with the best of Barbieri's work in terms of quality and consistently sublime mood, even if it doesn't have a track as transcendent as Bolivia's "Bolivia" or the majority of Latin America-- or the stunningly unique vitality of either of those records, honestly.  Still, it's basically a minor masterpiece, a slow-creeping and near-perfect set.


Sorry I was away so long.  I'm back now, and I've got some things lined up that I hope will be just right for the summer that is here now, including the newest Jungle Shadows mix, if anyone's interested.  I guess I oughtta shine up Dub Hot Dubs 3 too, as it's gettin' hot out there, my god.  Anyway, please do stick around.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Esorcismi in the Lonely Village: Piero Umiliani- Africa (1971), Polinesia (1972)

I present to you today two wonderful and rare Umiliani works from his classic period, a time when his own Sound Work Shop studio was churning out record after record, including a slew of weird, spooky, docu-exotica LPs such as the phenomenal Continente Nero and its brother-album, Genti e Paesi del Mondo.

These two LPs are precisely of a piece with the aforementioned albums, and thus they are indispensable to the Umiliani discography and great, just great.  Africa is very like Nero, very eerie and off-putting in its dissonant, spare approach to exoticism.  Not at all music for a tiki cocktail scene-- rather, the sound of discovering, in the middle of the night in a deep fog, an abandoned and haunted tiki bar, feeling the hair raise on the back of your neck, horrified in the presence of a timeless darkness. 

AFRICA (320)

Polinesia takes the Continente Nero approach to the kind of "Polynesian" paradise music that Umiliani plays mostly straight on Le Isole dell'Amore, and it's a weird piece.  The results aren't dissimilar to his experimental-paradise music as produced for soundtracks such as La Ragazza Dalla Pelle di Luna or Il Corpo, but far less lush, almost skeletal.   Quite excellent indeed, and so highly recommended.

The Field Has Eyes, and the Forest Ears: I've wanted to find and share these albums with you all for quite some time now, but I could never find them.  I never did.  Rather, I threw some inquiries out there and the super-human Owl lent a helping hand.  In a bout of characteristic generosity of spirit, he allowed that I might share the wealth.  If you thank anyone, thank him-- if you know what's good for you.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Flash Car: Summer Storm/Changing Lights (2013)

I present to you all the debut single from Flash Car, the project of a one Mr. Morgan Friedman: longtime friend of the blog, even-longertime friend of mine as a hu-man and knucklehead from the day, a fellow member of the Cumberland County Mean Gang, and artist of sound in the first degree.

I know that I have tipped the hand of my bias (and I'll tip it further-- I myself supplied the cover art), but I say this with complete conviction and sincerity after bracing self-reflection: these two songs are fantastic.

The first track, "Summer Storm," produced in collaboration with a Mr. Boogie Reverie, is a sparkling jewel of 60's pop with crumbling edges-- the naiveté and baroque tinge of Buffalo Springfield or Left Banke by way of the oddball, just-off-center and out-of-time pop sensibility of someone like Eddie Callahan:

The second (in collaboration with another venerable Gang member, Sid Martin, who does some phenomenal work here), is a sexy night drive, on patrol in the land of Robocop: "Changing Lights."  Like "Tusk" filtered through the pilot episode of Miami Vice, but even better than that sounds:

This is some great "now sound," friends.  I hope you get down and into it, pump it into your own zippy little flash car and make it go.

Check out Flash Car's bandcamp to download the tracks at name-your-price.  You can't lose with a deal like that.  Have a good day on this day.

F L A S H  C A R

Monday, April 15, 2013

Trance-Like With Glazed Eyes: Bianchi and His Jungle Sex-Tet- Music to Play in the Dark (1959)

I've wanted to post this for a long time, but I've never had a great quality copy.  My hope was that someone would put out an upgrade on the 128 rip that's been floating around for years, but alas, to my knowledge no one had done so.  Today I come to you with that same tired old rip, sad to say, but only because it's a record worth hearing even in a diminished state.  If you'd rather wait until 320 kbps pop up like a little a wild strawberry, be my guest, but if the last three years are any indication, you may be in for a long wait.  Or, perhaps just by my posting this or by total coincidence, someone will pony up a knockout copy.

Music to Play in the Dark is a sexy little slice of exotica flute-jazz, with a touch of beatnik cool by way of the hotel lounge.  Bianchi (also known as Bob Romeo, on flute) leads a small ensemble with very Denny-esque piano (Eddie Cano, so no surprise there), nice Latin guitar with a tinge of surf (from the great Laurindo Almeida, perhaps channeling a bit of his surf sound from Lalo Schifrin's Gone With the Wave), drums by the top-notch session jazzman Alvin Stoller, percussion by Carlos Vidal Bolado (formerly of Machito's Afro-Cuban boys), and Rafael Vasquez Jr. on bass (whom I know nothing about).  The album copy sums up the sound rather well, I would say:

The persuasive spell of the flute and the primitive pulsating background of timbales and bongos creates a delightful, lavish mood in which even the most modest and restrained males and females have been know to take flight to another and more exotic dimension, on a journey of mysterious and romantic sensations.  With rhythmic sounds of the jungle, the excitement of Lisbon, and the strange exotic sounds of Algiers, they sway, trance-like, to and fro with glazed eyes, drunk with sound, in an emotional fantasy under the hypnotic spell of the lonely flute.

Perhaps it over-states its case just a tad.  The record's promotional accolades give you a better idea of what they want to sound like (an admirable fantasy in this case) than how they actually do.  This album likely won't drive you wild with amorousness and exotic hypnosis-- it's far too mild to achieve any such thing-- but it will set the mood of languor and cool with precision and grace.  It sounds a lot like the rather homogenous, but utterly intriguing and atmospheric, "exotic" jazz from cinema, such as the nightclub scenes in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (or perhaps just my memory of such scenes).  Give it a spin, have a martini and a sex party while wearing an Italian suit.

SEX-TET (128)

Album art images above from Like...Dreamsville's post on this very album (good post, link dead unfortunately).  Thanks be to him for what he's done.

ALSO: Does anybody have a line on Bob Romeo's Aphrodisia?  I've always wanted to hear it, but it's rare as hen's teeth apparently.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Obcure Little Beast on the Prowl: Orera- Orera (1970)

There's a lot of great stuff to be found over at Obscure Little Beasties, much of it original rips (I assume) and of course very obscure (at least it is for me, as I know relatively little about the Russian/Soviet/Eastern European diaspora)-- but since there is almost nothing on the blog in the way of description, it can be a difficult or intimidating sea to navigate.  This is a fine way to run a blog as far as I'm concerned, as I love to spin the wheel and see what emerges from the mystery.  But recently I snagged something so delightful that I wanted to highlight it, ensure you knew about it, and send you all in its direction (and hopefully turn you loose on the wider pastures that Obscure Little Beasties has to offer).

I still know almost nothing about this group, Orera, other than that they are Georgian (perhaps someone out there can better fill me in).  They seem to be practicing a kind of harmony-laden vocal music, blending the (polyphonic?) vocal traditions of their region/culture with the poppy, sunny sensibilities of "sunshine pop" acts like Free Design and the like-- with a good amount of top-notch lite-jazz and Burt Bacharach mixed in.  At times they remind me of a Eurasian Duo Ouro Negro, and while I'm sure that's a shallow comparison, it may be of use in conveying the surface aesthetic at least. 

My inability to intelligently describe or analyze Orera should be clear to you by now, but my perspective isn't really necessary.  Orera are able to advocate for themselves with this video-delight (after which, nothing else really need be said):

Go to Obscure Little Beasties and check this right out, brothers and sisters. 


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Baby Cart in the Land of Demons: Hideakira Sakurai- Lone Wolf and Cub OST (1972-74)

The six Lone Wolf and Cub films are, without a doubt, six of my favorite films of all time.  Based on the notably cinematic 1970's manga, and starring the glorious Tomisaburo Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the series depicts the nihilistic exploits of a father-and-child death machine, as they wander the Japanese countryside accepting assassin commissions and meting out utterly merciless revenge.

Because of their cartoonish nature and outrageous violence-- the constant challenge to top themselves by inventing increasingly bizarre ways to depict sword-deaths and blood-spray, the ubiquitous final-act battle wherein Ogami Itto must slay no less than an entire army or armies-- the Lone Wolf and Cub series has rarely been taken as seriously as art as it deserves.  While many of the great Samurai films-- nearly all of them, in fact-- explore the socio-political constructs and resultant injustices of feudal Japan (think Sword of Doom, Three Rebel Samurai, Kill!, Hara-Kiri, Samurai Rebellion, all of you-know-who's samurai efforts, from Seven Samurai to Ran), thus offering subversive elements of allegorical social critique and achieving a deep contemporary cultural resonance, Lone Wolf and Cub traffics very little in these waters.  The protagonists' identity is largely defined by their total rejection of the entire social contract. 

Itto characterizes himself and his son as "evil," or "demons."  Though his sensible, self-evident morality (and paternal devotion) often casts him as one of the only noble characters in the universe, he still represents an unusually nihilistic agent of death death death inevitable fucking death, remorselessly cutting through the landscape (while pushing a stroller), leaving nothing but wind blowing over silent corpses in his wake-- and so the demon comparison is, in many ways, a fitting one. There are no lessons learned, no morals reinforced, no power structures or social codes satirized in any but the most basic sense-- the polemic of every Lone Wolf and Cub is: mess with Lone Wolf and Cub and you will die. 

This fascinatingly simple premise, combined with a committed gonzo aesthetic of splorching, spraying, erupting blood, could result in jokey cult cinema-- somewhere between Riki-Oh and early Shaw Brothers (One-Armed Swordsman springs to mind)-- and that, honestly, would be enough.  Fortunately, it's much more than that, and Lone Wolf and Cub, for all its excesses and absurdity, is a devastatingly elegant body of work (particularly when director Kenji Misumi is at the helm).  Based on a comic book, it embodies much of what a comic book offers, and that includes graphic composition, graceful impossibilities, and psychological impressionism alongside all those surreal eruptions of belief-beggaring violence.  The Samurai genre is often spoken of as a cultural analogue to the western world's Westerns, and while it's not always a clean comparison, it certainly does make a lot of sense to discuss these ultra-violent, anachronistically mythic, and surprisingly graceful pop reconstructions of the Samurai flick in relation to Leone's similar treatment of the Western genre.

It helps that the films are anchored by Wakayama, a troll-like goblin-man with the body of a small sumo wrestler and all the grace, reserve, and dignity of a beautiful god.  With such a magnetic and quiet eye at the center of the storm, you scarcely dare laugh, even when Itto is slashing the tits off a carrot-throwing lady assassin, or striking a statuesque pose while his foe bazooka-sprays blood from his throat.

Contributing to the utter greatness of the series is the exquisite score, by Hideakira Sakurai.  Like the films, it's all over the place, tonally.  Barry-esque spy surf guitars and blaxploitation wah are thrust with inspiring confidence alongside spaghetti western weirdness, eerie psychedelic avant-garde soundscapes, giant pregnant silences, and whatever passes for "traditional" Japanese instrumentation.  It's amazing.  Today I'm sharing with you all the "Best of" Lone Wolf and Cub music, as compiled by La-La Land records (and now out of print).  It's a good collection of themes from each of the six films, a real treat-- though I do wish I could find a complete collection of all the Lone Wolf and Cub scores, because La-La leaves out a lot of the best incidental stuff, which is where Sakurai gets the most abstract, atmospheric and weird.  Sakurai deserves a dimension-x comp of this other stuff like Morricone got with Crime and Dissonance, if you ask me.  But this will have to do for now.

Please enjoy, then check out the films.  You will not regret your choice.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Coconut Ballet and Jungle Drums: Xavier Cugat- The King Plays Some Aces (1958) and Viva Cugat! (1961)

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.


Also, there's Viva Cugat!  I've written about it before (somewhat incompetently, but still) so I'll be brief now, but Viva Cugat! is probably the best and loveliest of the later-era Cugat LPs.  So incredibly highly recommended for those Exotica-lovers among you.

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.