Good Music We Can Know

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)