Friday, May 21, 2010

Martin Denny - Exotica (1957) / Exotica II (1958)

Judge me if you must, but I make no secret of the fact that I love Exotica. In fact I can't get enough of it. It is a genre lost in time, existing for about a decade and then vanishing entirely forever (Okay, there was a brief revival in the 90's led by the band Combustible Edison, but honestly who remembers Combustible Edison?)

Martin Denny didn't invent Exotica. - that honor belongs to the great Les Baxter - but he gave it a name and brought it into its own as a full fledged style. For anyone who is unfamiliar with this style, it basically consists of incorporating world music motifs and instruments into Hollywood style lounge music in the shallowest way possible. Anyone interested in actual world music traditions should turn back now, because that's not what you're getting here. However, as offensive as this concept is to most music aficionados, it's hard to deny that the result has a charm all of its own and that has not been often duplicated.

The first of Denny's Exotica albums was born after some members of his band discovered they could imitate bird calls while playing their instruments (it should here be noted that the most prolific of these bird callers was Arthur Lyman, who would later go on to great success as an Exotica performer in his own right.) There's hardly a track here that doesn't feature some inventive whistling and chirping. Add to that the gentle rhythms and atmospheric percussion and you've got a bona fide lounge classic.

Denny's focus is generally on sounds from the South Pacific and Asia, but throughout his career he would also incorporate idioms from Africa, South America and pretty much anywhere else American audiences would find "Exotic." The CD reissue collects his first two albums onto one disc. It's nice to have the extra material, but there's no apparent change in style or direction across the two records. If you enjoy one, you will certainly enjoy the other. And if you enjoy relaxing with a tropical drink, it's hard to imagine a better soundtrack.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Residents - Meet The Residents (1974)

And so with the childish vandalism of a classic Beatles album cover, the world was introduced to the one of the strangest musical acts in history. The amazing thing about the Residents is that after more than thirty years of performing and recording, almost nothing is known about them. They have stubbornly maintained their anonymity, no one knows their names and they consistently perform disguised in large eyeball masks. The sleeve notes tell a long and rambling story about the band's formation that I'm sure is utter nonsense.

There have been many great Residents albums over the years, but this, their debut, remains my favorite. After a few albums they would start relying heavily on synthesizers, which I always felt made their music seem cheaper and less authentic. Not so here, with the inexpert pounding of out of tune pianos, squawking horns and various non-musical sound effects dominating the proceedings.

The album almost plays like one extended song, drifting from one idea to the next with no sense of direction or purpose. The lyrics are generally of the absurdist variety and in all probability have no meaning whatsoever (song titles like "Smelly Tongues" and "Spotted Pinto Bean" should make that clear enough) and are sung alternately by women who sound like they know what they're doing and men who don't.

Non sequiturs abound and just when you think the band is trying to be taken seriously (the oddly beautiful "Rest Aria") they put on a record of the sixties classic "Nobody But Me" (by the Human Beinz) and start singing along in a silly voice. Worth special mention is the abbreviated cover version of "These Boots are Made For Walking" that begins the record. I wonder what Nancy Sinatra would think.

At the end of the day, it's a record that is so stupid, so amateurish and so unlike anything else you've ever heard that it's hard not to love it. It's rare that I make it through a whole listening without laughing out loud. While the Residents had more conceptual success with albums like "Eskimo" and "Third Reich 'N' Roll," they never seemed to be having quite as much fun as they did on their first album.

Monday, May 10, 2010

23 Skidoo - The Culling Is Coming (1983)

23 Skidoo's first album, "Seven Songs," is often cited as a major milestone in the field of industrial music, with its groundbreaking incorporation of funk motifs into the harsh electronic sound of industrial. With their second LP, "The Culling Is Coming," the band went in a completely different and unexpected direction, alienating almost all of their fans in the process. Good for them.

This album is divided into two very different halves, the order of which has been reversed from the original release for reasons that remain obscure. The first part of the CD (side B of the LP), subtitled "A Winter Ritual," consists of the band banging cheerfully away on Indonesian Gamelan instruments. It does not sound like Gamelan music, however, as none of the musicians really knows how to play these exotic instruments. The result is simple, ritualistic, repetitive and thoroughly hypnotic. I'll admit it took me a few listens to get into this, as it sounds completely different than pretty much everything else out there, but once you open up to it, it's really quite beautiful.

The second half of the CD (side A of the LP) is subtitled "A Summer Rite" and is of a completely different character. Recorded live, the music here is even less approachable than the preceeding tracks. It is noisy and consists largely of tape loops, electronic feedback and crude metallic banging. If you can get past the low fidelity recording, there's some pretty interesting stuff going on. After all, this is what industrial music is all about, right? The CD adds a twenty-seven minute bonus track (subtitled "An Autumn Journey") that is similar to the rest of the live material, but it features David Tibet of Current 93 fame on "Tibetan Horn" so that is pretty cool.

As dense and difficult as this album is, you have to give 23 Skidoo credit for bucking people's expectations and going out on a limb. Besides, most of the music is quite good, it just takes some getting used to.

Friday, May 7, 2010

La Dusseldorf - La Dusseldorf (1976)

Most people who have heard the term "Krautrock" are familiar with one of that genre's most celebrated bands "Neu!" What those people don't know is that when Neu! dissolved after three incredible albums, drummer Klaus Dinger started a new band called "La Dusseldorf." This is their first effort, and it's a mighty impressive one.

From the first few seconds, the Neu! influence is obvious, but here the sound is a little more polished. There is a substantial keyboard presence that gives the production a shiny gloss that sometimes borders on psychedelic, but the chugging drum and guitar parts maintain the same rhythmic feel of the band's predecessor. The album cosists of four rather lengthy tracks, but the first two are really seperate parts of the same idea, a title suite ode to the band's namesake city.

The music is minimal, repetitive and hypnotic, invoking feelings of driving along very long, very straight roads. The vocals arelargely limited to the chanting of song titles, although the last track "Time" contains a large numbers of somewhat clever German puns, a treat for the bilingual listener.

Whereas Dinger had been primarily a drummer, here he switches to guitar, feeling that he had accomplished all he could from behind the drum kit. To be honest, this switch isn't terribly obvious, as the drumming retains a very "Dingeresque" feel.

La Dusseldorf is an excellent Krautrock record, and while it lacks the adventurous experimentation of Neu!, it makes up for it in polish and accessibility. This is certainly a must have for those who heard the first Neu! album and liked "Hallogallo" better than "Negitivland."