Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Exotic Sounds of Exotic Exotica

A while back I bragged about my Christmas presents (at least, that's what it sounded like when I re-read it), especially a book called Exotiquarium, which billed itself as "Album Art from the Space Age", but concentrated more on the musical styles that were popular (in an "exotic" sort of way) during the early fifties to late sixties.

Well, reading Exotiquarium made me very curious about the music. In particular, I was curious about the styles that used "exotic" wooden instruments and cowbells and whatnot. Although I figured the probability was kind of low, I wondered whether this music would be anything like, say, Robert Rich's Rainforest, which is an "ambient" (or New Age, if you must) album of rather tuneless music that uses a lot of unusual instruments and a non-traditional tempering scale ("just intonation") which is Rich's pet project. I like it a lot, but it's music meant for an audience much different than the ancient hipsters the Exotiquarium albums were geared toward.

But, I got a Barnes & Noble gift certificate (Christmas gift from my parents) burning a hole in my pocket, so I figured I'd give some of these artists a try (after a precautionary listen to the sample clips, of course). Therefore I ordered

The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman

Tamboo!/Skins! by Les Baxter.

The Exciting Sounds of Martin Denny: Exotica/Exotica II

Afro-Desia: The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny

plus a couple other non-exotica CDs.

(I'm sending you to B&N, rather than Amazon, because they let you listen to clips of all the tracks on most albums, whereas Amazon usually has just a few.)

The first thing that strikes you about this music is how well you know it. This sound has been underneath countless TV shows, movies, filmstrips, and commercials. I'm pretty sure I've heard "Maracaibo" (on the Les Baxter CD) used as "bustling city" music somewhere. When I first heard the Arthur Lyman CD, my heart skipped a beat: I knew where I'd heard that before.

When Rhino Records first began issuing episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on tape, it came with a Rhino commercial at the beginning. They had a bunch of odd characters wandering around in the desert, mock-pretentiously declaiming the goodness of Rhino:

When old age shall this generation waste
Thou shalt become the bastion of taste
Rhino rocks my world

And underneath this was a tune with tingly vibes and funky percussion. I'd never heard anything like it before, but I liked it a lot, and wondered what it was. I figured they'd written it for the commercial (never think this, by the way), and that it was unlikely I'd hear it again. But there in Arthur Lyman's music was the exact same sound. There were a lot of pieces like it, but none that was exactly right. Then when I got around to listening to the Martin Denny Exotica album, there it was: "Love Dance". Which, according to Exotiquarium, was written by Les Baxter and covered by Arthur Lyman on his Taboo 2 album (which I don't have yet). I'm pretty sure "Love Dance" also ran under the trailer of the film I Shot Andy Warhol, which I saw approximately a zillion times on repeat trips to see Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

Now when Barnes & Noble sent these CDs, for some reason they were sent from different locations, so that four of the CDs were shipped together, and the other two shipped from somewhere else. The first to arrive was the set of four, which included Martin Denny's Afro-Desia. When I listened to it, I decided I was not going to like Martin Denny.

Afro-Desia has a lot of strange sound effects and screaming. I listen to instrumental music while I'm working, and I can't work when there's a damned tsetse fly buzzing (throughout most of "Tsetse Fly"). (Also, as Niles pointed out, "Tsetse Fly" should end with a loud SLAP! Got the bugger!) It's also difficult to concentrate when people are shouting in my ear in fake (maybe) languages. The shouting is supposed to evoke African chants, but it's cringe-inducingly phoney. I wanted to shout myself: "You're white people living in the whitest decade in the history of mankind! Cut it out, you're embarrassing yourselves." On "Mumba", there's a high-pitched yell which sounds exactly like a redneck imitating an AME preacher. ("Mumba" and "Ma'chumba" are the chief culprits on this album. "Mumba" contains shouts of, well, "MUMBA!" which reminds me of the old joke whose punchline is "Death by BOOKA!")

[I was going to go into a major digression here, but instead you can find it in a future post. Maybe.]

However, when Martin Denny's Exotica/Exotica II arrived the next day, I was reassured, There are still bird calls---far too many bird calls for my taste---but the ersatz African had disappeared, so that was all to the good.

These three groups sound very much alike, but there are differences. Arthur Lyman leans heavily on vibes, which is a bit unfortunate because it has the effect of making all the songs sound somewhat the same. Martin Denny (Lyman started out as his vibe man) has a somewhat smoother sound, except for the frequent birdcalls. Les Baxter is the smoothest of all, and many of his songs include a chanting chorus. They don't even try to sound African; any halfway decent volcano-bearing movie from the '40s and '50s---maybe a Hope and Crosby "Road" picture or an exotic Abbott and Costello---will have some homogenized chanting by what sounds like the Lemon Sisters. That's what Baxter's chorus sounds like, and even though it's not remotely authentic, it sounds better than the stuff on Afro-Desia. I find it very soothing. Lyman's album also has some muted chanting, but pulls it off much better without sounding like the Lemon Sisters at all.

[When my Atlantis aliens movie is made, there will be a lot of Lemon Sisters-like chanting during the human sacrifice scene, you can count on it. UPDATE: How convenient! Les Baxter has a chanting Lemon Sisters tune called "Atlantis" on the Ultra Lounge Mondo Exotica CD. (See end of post.)]

I suppose I should say something about the songs themselves, but I don't know enough about music to do so, and by and large they sound so similar as to flow into one another. I like that when I'm working, but others might find it boring. Les Baxter's Tamboo! is a bit less bad about this: the songs on that album include "Maracaibo", "Tehran", "Havana", "Mozambique", "Rio", and "Zambezi", and there's at least a suggestion of the namesakes about each one (though both "Maracaibo" and "Havana" sound like '50s New York to me). I particularly like the Middle Eastern sound of "Tehran", harking back to the time when the name Tehran evoked images of picturesque squalor and sharp-dealing rug merchants, rather than crazed jihadis.

The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman is billed as a combination of Yellow Bird and Taboo, but there are only about six songs off of those two albums on the CD. The album Taboo has exotica on it, while Yellow Bird contains more mainstream fare, such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Arrivederci Roma". Besides "Yellow Bird" itself, the only other cut from Yellow Bird on The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman is "Hava Nagila". That's a great song, but this arrangement sucks the blood out of it---it's "Hava Nagila" for the Lawrence Welk audience (and boy oh boy is that a spicy tune for them).

I am told that when I was a small and fussy baby, I would immediately grow quiet and listen when "Yellow Bird" came over the radio. I don't know what attraction it had for the baby me; the adult me thinks it's not really special.

"Quiet Village" is the tune that hit the top of the charts for Martin Denny, and it's on the Lyman CD. I don't think it's much special either, and am a little mystified at its appeal (maybe it was the bird calls). On the other hand, I liked most of the other songs, especially the haunting "Taboo" (for the first two minutes, until the drums take over), "Moon Over a Ruined Castle", and the rather odd "Aloha Amigo", and many more. I'm keen to get the full Taboo, but I think I'll leave Yellow Bird until I've collected Lyman's available exotica.

Cool Denny songs include the somewhat cheesy but fun "Hong Kong Blues" (now stuck inside my head) and "Similau" (which is an instrumental here, but has beautiful lyrics).

I like the Les Baxter sound best, but this CD is half taken up with Skins!: Bongo Party with Les Baxter. The words "bongo party" make me reach for the phone so I can schedule a root canal instead. Drum solos, it turns out, are just as annoying in '50s exotica as they are in rock and roll. I definitely do not recommend listening to this half of the album when you have a headache and are trying to typeset a mathematics appendix. Fortunately, there are only a couple songs which feature All Bongos All the Time; the rest are accompanied by other instruments. The album includes three bonus tracks, of which one is "Unchained Melody", which I think is the only real vocal number on the album. Perhaps you did not realize that the prelude (or whatever it's called) to the song has lyrics too: "Unchain me, unchain me, unchain me, unchain me..." over and over again. This is such an impossibly passionless version that you wonder how the song ever got unchained long enough for the Righteous Brothers to come across it.

Anyhow, this music's really cool. I look forward anxiously to getting more. (One 1996 Les Baxter CD is already scarce and apparently sells for around 100 bucks, which is way more than his 1950s vinyl albums are going for. I hope I can buy my favorites before they go out of print.)

LATE UPDATE: Bought the Ultra-Lounge Mondo Exotica CD, which is a nice sampler of exotica, containing many songs on my other CDs. Has Yma Sumac singing "Babalu" and "Wimoweh". I don't like Sumac's voice; I think she tries too hard. But I never knew "Babalu" was such an interesting song; I thought it was an I Love Lucy punchline. "Wimoweh" is clearly the precursor to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Some background on that here. There's also a song called "Alika" by Webley Edwards, which is the only tune which contains a Hawaiian slack key guitar, and therefore the only one that sounds like what most people think of when they think of Polynesian music.

Some exotica links:
Savage Rhythms: reviews of several exotica albums available on CD.

The Exotic World of Les Baxter
The Temple of Martin Denny

Space Age Pop pages:
Les Baxter
Martin Denny
Arthur Lyman

Don Tiki is a Hawaiian band that plays exotica. Their site is entirely Flash-driven, so you primitives without it can get used to being have-nots in the Flash-enabled global marketplace. Can you spot the virgin?

They have two CDs out, The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki, and Skinny Dip with Don Tiki. From what I can tell from the clips, they sound real good. There's more singing (especially on the latter album) than on most of the exotica I've listened to so far.