❉ This joyous collection is beautiful, funny and frequently very strange…
“Dave Henderson has created the perfect mix tape: it feels like you’ve asked a friend to guide you through a genre you don’t know and they’ve spent hours trying to thread together something that’s both cohesive and evocative… Every song sent me down a happy little rabbit hole realising how talented and brilliant these musicians were and how little irony was involved in the creation of this music.”
Do you remember the easy listening boom of the nineties? Among the thickets of heavy irony over “cheesy listening” and comedy versions of Britpop classics, a forgotten and much neglected genre suddenly had a chance at second life. It was but a passing fancy, but you have to hand it to Exotica/Lounge/Space Age Pop/whatever you want to call it, it’s not given up since. You could argue that the success of Trunk Records, the sudden love towards library music and the popularity of hauntology as a genre all owe something to that easy listening bloom.
There’s a lot of urban myths about easy listening (Yma Sumac was not in fact one Amy Camus) but there is basic truth in the fact that the fifties were a boom time in America and that boom time led to an interest and market for top quality stereo equipment. And you just have to listen to Esquivel or the Three Suns at their peak to hear music that’s gleefully designed to push this new technology to its limits.
Exotica is as much about that joy of stereo as it is allowing a suddenly affluent society who suddenly had the ability to travel to both dream of and remember the joys of the wider world. It’s a genre that’s perhaps ideally suited to compilations as rarely were these albums wildly distinct (there are exceptions, including my vote for the genre’s absolute masterpiece, the insane stereo-bothering giddiness of Andre Popp’s Delirium in Hi Fi and one particular album by Eden Ahbez we will come to soon enough) and they lose little out of their initial context. Which is handy for us, because Pure Exotica is a doozy.
Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of the Cramps – the late Erick Lee Purkhiser and his widow Kristy Marie Wallace to friends and family – are usually associated with a very different subgenre of fifties and sixties music. Rockabilly, early R&B, surf music, garage rock, novelty songs and psychotronic cinema all go into the trashy mix that became the signature of the Cramps’ music. But of course, Exotica would be an essential part of that mix – it’s the subtle shades to the big, bold, gaudy primary colours of the rest of their music.
Ostensibly this is culled from the highlights of their huge archive of records, but the best thing about this compilation – and it really is a joy of a thing – is that Dave Henderson has created the perfect mix tape: it feels like you’ve asked a friend to guide you through a genre you don’t know and they’ve spent hours trying to thread together something that’s both cohesive but also evocative of Exotica as a whole.
Partly why this works is that the mix has two sides – ‘Lite’ and ‘Dark’– that are beautifully structured. Familiar songs get new meaning in this new order, and it’s just what any good tape compilation should always have. There’s a sense of flow and structure here. Even the packaging design has a lovely loose fannishness to it, as well as a crucial nod to one of the seminal texts of Easy Listening (one cited in the sleeve notes too), the classic Re/Search Incredibly Strange Music book and compilations. In fact, the design of the track listing pages in the booklet is such a beautiful and blatant nod to those CDs it’s quite touching for fans of those seminal works to see someone treat them as part of the obvious lineage of a compilation like this. It’s not important to know the Re/Search books to enjoy this but if you do, it’s a really lovely nod.
So! To the music – Exotica Lite is heavy on the Polynesian side of the genre, starting with Martin Denny (complete with his trademark use of bird noises and sounds of wildlife added to the mix). Denny is one of the three main forces of this strain of Exotica, and his vibes player was one Arthur Lyman, who is the second of these pioneers – a little jazzier, as befits a vibes player, but they’re both definitely exploring the same musical world.
The third main player is Les Baxter, again represented here, an arranger and composer who through his work with the astonishing Yma Sumac ended up pioneering a far lusher variation of Exotica. Somewhere between the talents of these three musicians, the lighter sound of Exotica takes root: a longing, slightly melancholic, delicate beast.
The other musicians on this disc are just as fascinating: Henry Mancini convincingly adapts his musical skills to the genre and the slightly schmaltzy sound of the Living Strings is even more fascinating when you realise they were effectively purely a studio creation and one with heavy musical input by the very unexotic Hackney born Johnny Douglas. Elizabeth Waldo is still with us, a proper ethnomusicologist whose Balsa Boat is a proper collision of sentimentality, exoticism, escapism with a bit of Morricone-influenced whistling added just because she can.
Ruth Welcome’s zither led version of I Talk to the Trees is particularly lovely. In the Exotica boom years, you could fashion a pretty good career as a zither player after it was popularised by the soundtrack of The Third Man. It’s kind of archetypal of these musicians – you find a way in to express yourself to a mass market and then start tinkering and exploring what you can do once you have an audience.
We also have some Tak Shindo, a bona fide musicologist who filled his Exotica with authentic instruments – his version of Caravan is particularly lovely and feels properly exotic. Ray Anthony, another musician who is still with us, is the last surviving member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and his version of Eden Ahbez’ Palm Springs nicely prefigures that particular genius’ influence on the second disc.
Webley Edwards became a pioneer of authentic Hawaiian music but is probably more famous as the man who first declared that Pearl Harbour was being attacked over the radio. Every song sent me down a happy little rabbit hole realising how talented and brilliant these musicians were and how little irony was involved in the creation of this music.
The first disc ends with a Leo Addeo song from the brilliantly named James Michener’s Favourite Music of the South Sea Islands (a nice reminder of how much these records were beautiful almost in spite of their occasional existence as cash ins) and some more Les Baxter. He next appears on the second disc with Despair which is a gleeful bunch of dissonant strings and some vocalising that manages to mix Yma Sumac and Ella Dell’Orso. Johnny Richards’ Ochun is particularly cinematic and even feels like a prototype for Dr John’s masterpiece Gris Gris.
Nigerian musician Michael Babatunde Olatunji’s is, like Tak Shindo on the first disc, the real deal: an educator, social activist and musician whose drum-based music – Hail the King being a prime example of this – helping popularise genuine world music to American audiences. Clarinettist Robert Drasnin’s Voodoo again use some effective Camus-style wailing, with piano from a pre-fame John Williams.
Drasnin would definitely be a favourite of Lux and Ivy, as his soundtrack work includes such classic B-movies as Teenage Devil Dolls (1955) and Picture Mommy Dead (1966). Jack Fascinato, most famous for working with Tennessee Ernie Ford and early Sesame Street, contributes a lovely delicate string driven song that suddenly descends into wildly darker territory. Bill Russo’s Anger has an arrangement that’s a nice echo of Gil Evans’ orchestrations on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain and we end with Richard Hayman’s Incantation, a proper kitchen sink bit of tribal wailing and massed drums.
The spirit of Eden Ahbez also looms large on the second disc, with a quote by him on the back of the CD. In many ways the centrepiece of this disc is the epic Polynesian Suite by jazz musician Buddy Collette with narration by Robert Sorrels – an actor and convicted murderer, something Lux and Ivy would particularly enjoy – is almost a tribute to the utterly strange, completely beautiful Eden’s Island.
Ahbez, most famous for the song Nature Boy, was a pioneer of the hippy lifestyle and Eden’s Island is an extraordinary combination of melancholy Exotica and beatnik poetry. Polynesian Suite isn’t quite as potent as that heady brew but comes very close and has some wonderfully bonkers lyrics.
I loved this collection. It’s joyous and funny and beautiful and frequently really, really strange. It’s everything you want from Exotica and put together with real love. It’s a proper celebration of a still neglected musical subgenre. There’s no sense of irony here, instead a real and abiding love for this extraordinary and strange music. I cannot recommend it enough.
❉ ‘Pure Exotica: As Dug by Lux & Ivy’ (Righteous PSALM23102D) Released February 19, 2021. RRP £10.95.Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records. Header image: Detail from Martin Denny – ‘Exotica’ (Liberty LRP 3034, 1957).