Lux and Ivy get another name-check (I wonder if Ivy gets a cheque in the post?) with Righteous‘ new comp which has far more focus than some of their recent collections. Rather than scatter-shot artists across two discs in the hopes that a certain percentage come back and get you to check the sleeve as to what you just listened to, Pure Exotica is themed, unsurprisingly with the sounds of the orient, as channelled through those peculiar few in the 50s and 60s who brought birds of paradise to Bridlington and Bognor.
Before I rattle on about Exotica as though you already know the scene intimately, I should give some background to all these shenanigans. Exotica is not simply easy listening music, though there are blurred borders in some cases – indeed, the jazz world could hold claim to Exotica far more readily with many of the musicians coming from the scene. Exotica is a distinctly post-war phenomenon born in America, designed to give listeners some much needed escapism after the brutality and austerity of the 40s. Similarly, with the world born anew, a thirst for foreign climes and the exotic and unusual was rampant, from the allure of Hawaii (especially with the craze for surfing) to the steaming swamps of the Amazon, the tribes of deepest Africa; the volcanoes of Java, the sunsets of the Bahamas and the snowy foothills of Nepal. It was both cynical in terms of marketing and a necessity – pop culture needed to go East to survive.
The sound of Exotica certainly does have some go-to motifs, many of which make no sense – for example, how exactly does whistling evoke the vistas of Macau? Fundamentally, they don’t, we’ve never heard a native whistling (please don’t write in if you have). However, much like the use of whistling in the themes to so many Italian Westerns, it does bring to mind a certain expanse of space and a sparsely populated and intriguing place we don’t know. Other recurring sounds make more sense – tribal rhythms battered out on bongos and congas; bird calls; the simulated sounds of the sea; indigenous instruments like gongs and bells, even animalistic growls. Written down it looks clumsy, haphazard and even racist but in fact these albums were tremendous adverts for the places they sonically described. All of these elements were brought together by a group of composers and musicians who actually worked in areas of music which were far less tropical.
There can be little argument that the three Titans of the scene were Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Baxter’s albums from 1950 and 1951 – Yma Sumac’s ‘Sound of the Xtabay’ and ‘Ritual of the Savage’ were the kickstarters to the Exotica movement, albums which still retain a mystery and magic today. Baxter’s day job was as a big band leader and film scorer composer, orchestrating songs like “Mona Lisa” for Nat King Cole and bringing the world a huge number of film themes, perhaps most notably, many of the films from Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. Denny was another bandsman, with a passion of exotic instruments he picked up whilst touring South America. His 1957 album ‘Exotica’ is now widely viewed as the benchmark and he lived long enough to see the second wave of interest in his albums in the 1990s. Lyman has a more direct link to the scene in many ways, having been born in Hawaii to a lineage featuring Chinese and European family members. A skilled vibraphone player, it was whilst working in Denny’s band that he brought many of the sounds now familiar to so many Exotica albums, from bells to ankle spurs to wooden blocks and sea shells. Naturally, all three feature on the compilation.
This isn’t a random selection of tracks and artists – these two discs are split along ‘light’ and ‘dark’ themes – on a basic level, chirping budgies versus bubbling cauldrons. It’s skillfully done and shows how dextrous these albums could be in bringing to life places and scenarios which listeners would never get to see themselves but gave them the cheap thrills of being a global traveller. Disc one is bookended by Denny and Baxter – “Bali Ha’i”, a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific, is given the full Denny treatment with vibraphones, bird whistles and caws, a neon cocktail bar sign to the original’s slushy lament. Baxter’s “Dawn Under the Sea” is a shimmering mirage of foaming surf, harp-like glissandi tumbling with electronic keys. On one level, outrageous cheese, musically, magnificent.
There are a pleasing number of less well-known artists to discover – Elisabeth Waldo, an ethno-musicologist, went out of her way to ensure pre-Columbian musical instruments appeared on her tracks and her track “Balsa Boat” is both dreamy and imbued with an air of the ancient. Hawaii is a recurring destination with elongated boings of lap steel on Leo Addeo’s “Now is the Hour” whilst Arthur Lyman ventures much further East with “Moon Over a Ruined Castle”, a track from his album ‘Taboo’ which sold two million copies. These were not niche albums, they were hugely popular. There’s an odd juxtaposition to Ruth Welcome‘s tropical reworking of “I Talk to the Trees”, now draped with zither but known to most as the track Clint Eastwood sings in the none more American, Paint Your Wagon. It’s the odd meshings of these worlds that defines exotica.
Disc Two – ‘Exotica Dark’ is naturally the one you’re really waiting for. There’s a heavier use of vocals, whether it be screams, tribal chanting and strange tongues, as is the case with Johnny Richards‘ “Ochun”, a furious mix of percussion volleys and chanted vocals and fruity brass. Richard Hayman’s “Incantation” takes it up to 11 with some blistering drumming which makes your arms ache just listening and an African howl which can’t help but make you wonder what on Earth the studio was like the day they recorded it. There are misses though, mostly in terms of where the lines blur between Exotica, Lounge and Space Age Pop – Ray Anthony’s “Room 43” is a jazzy horn workout which takes you little further afield than Harlem and Bill Russo’s Anger is Crime Noir to the gills, a world away from the mangrove swamps and rarified air of Disc One. Much more interesting is Buddy Collette’s “Polynesian Suite”, a stunning boozy jazz jaunt with some waxy narration from Robert Sorrels, a jobbing actor later sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. Also top-notch is Jack Fascinato’s “Foggy Recollections” which perfectly captures the rolling mist and blaring foghorn but the overriding feeling is that the dark side is actually a bit of a muddle, confusing unusual percussion for the exotic. Still, well worth exploration.
Originally published on AltFeed.org