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Music Reviews

Les Baxter:
The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter
Capitol CDP 724383702527 Lounge/Easy Listening


What can one say about perfection? Thy name is Les Baxter?

Baxter can arguably be called the Father of Exotica music. Authentic beats, influenced melodies and Hollywood orchestrations and vocal choruses all meet for this 1950s suburban view of the world beyond the back yard. It's hard to understand how anyone who produced such camp music can also be so good. As a vocal chorus, with all the soul of the New Christy Minstrels, wails above a barrage of "jungle" beats and a jazzy saxophone, it's hard not be sucked into this unique experience.

It's easy to imagine "sis" in a black leotard, pony tail high atop her blond head, doing her Afro-Cuban jazz routines, or an urban bachelor making the moves on his stewardess date by candlelight, or Dad, who's relaxing in his Barca-Lounger, listening intently as he enjoys an exotic "tone poem". Just when things get camp and slightly out of control, Baxter throws in a riff or melody that's so musical, you wonder how he manages the balancing act.

This two-CD set is just about perfect at capturing the more exotic aspects of Les Baxter's personalities. From the cover to the liner notes to the actual remastering, it's all great. Of course (as always), we'd have preferred a re-issue of entire albums, but we're more than happy to make do with The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter. We heard some grumblings about how the sound had been doctored from the originals but we're amazed at the consistency and clarity. The Capitol Records production values are state-of-the-1950s-art and the recordings are so deep you wonder how far we've really come in audio technology. Our one gripe about this and many of the albums in the Ultra-Lounge series is the irritating habit of making medleys out of two or three unrelated tracks. It adds nothing and ruins the integrity of the original recordings.

We sadly admit that we actually have friends we consider quite dear who don't "get" Les Baxter. It's sad, but we pity them, really. Put on Baxter's nifty version of Taboo at top volume, and allow yourself to be carried through a dense tropical forest by a train of elephants. Ahead you see strange lights through the mist. The mist clears and reveals a fantastic treasure of gold coins and fabulous jewels which are yours by birthright. A (rather good-looking) slave helps you descend from your elephant and you examine your newfound wealth when all of a sudden the angry Gods above strike you with lightning and you expire, clutching the large medallion you'd heard about from the wise but stern medicine man back at your village.

Don't blame us, it's the music.

Original review appeared Winter 1996


Carlinhos Brown
EMI (Brasil) 7243 8 41441 2B Brasil

Most of us know Carlinhos Brown from his Afro-Brazilian group Timbalada or Bill Laswell's great Bahia Black project. We think he's one of the most exciting things to come out of Brasil in years. Always close to Bahian roots, he experiments with popular Brasilian music in a unique way that sometimes misses the mark but it's never boring.

Fans expecting Timbalada or jazz will be a bit disappointed by this new solo album but that's to miss the point. It's pop music with a Brazilian edge and after a week or two in our CD player, we still can't get enough of it. The best tracks come later when he does the Bahian blocco thing with dozens of pounding drums, but there's great singing and songwriting throughout. A common complaint about foreign music to Anglo ears is the tendency towards sameness, but that's hardly the case here. Brown goes from straight ahead pop to samba. On the sublime Quixabeira, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Maria Bethâna sing along with Brown, and Marisa Monte guests on the equally wonderful Seo Ze. It has the potential to be an all-star mess but it's not. In fact, it's just grand.

Winter 96


Al DiMeola
Dimeola Plays Piazzolla
Blue Moon 2-92744 Jazz/New Age

As a lad, when dining in a better San Francisco restaurant with our dear pater, we once took a chance and ordered sweetbreads. You may or may not know, but sweetbreads are the thymus glands of a baby cow. We'll never forget the knowing nod from our waiter as he said, "Very good, sir". We felt as if we'd been let into an exclusive club that knows better. The sweetbreads themselves were pretty good but it probably was all the cream and stock that appealed to our chubby soul. We ordered sweetbreads in several other fine establishments and rarely failed to receive the knowing nod, indicating that indeed, we had ordered the correct item.

Our ramble is to illustrate the point that Astor Piazolla is like sweetbreads. He revolutionized the tango in Argentina and was criticized and later celebrated for it. "Those who know" are in a pretty exclusive club because he's hardly a household word, but the mention of his name gets the "knowing nod".

We've always wanted to like Al DiMeola but the recordings we've been exposed to are either a pseudo-flamenco mixed with 1970s fusion or airy fairy guitar ramblings with no direction.

While nothing earth-shattering occurs on DiMeola Plays Piazzolla, it's definitely a best case scenario for New Age music. Piazolla's melodies and the tango rhythm keep things disciplined while DiMeola shows off his chops. Dino Saluzzi on bandoneon is great throughout and the recording is rich and full, despite the fact that the sessions occurred between 1990 and 1996 at different studios.

Easily, this album can be embraced by New Age fans but the rest of us can play it loud and follow the interesting arrangements and DiMeola's great playing.

Winter 96


Various Artists
The Young Flamencos (Los Jovenes Flamencos)
Hannibal HNCD 1370 Spain

We really do love the Gypsy Kings and think the world of their talent, but have you noticed how many otherwise fine restaurants play nothing but their first album? Honestly, they have several other fine discs and the whole genre of Spanish pop with a Moorish attitude includes more than their first release. The Young Flamencos is another great example of this music that ranges from traditional flamenco to fiery Spanish pop that is quite a few notches above the duo Azucar Moreno.
It's a treat to be exposed to this music. If MTV Unplugged wasn't so busy trying to legitimize mediocre rock bands, they could take a look at what inspired acoustic music can be. These tracks are new and exciting. The Moorish influence is there, but the modern vocals are much easier for non-flamenco fans to digest.

Feb 1995

Various Artists:
Bachelor in Paradise
Rhino Movie Music/Turner Classic Movies
R2 72464 Soundtracks/Lounge

If recent converts to the musical genre of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music are expecting wacky arrangements and inspired lunacy, they will be disappointed in this Rhino collection of 18 tracks either from or associated with M-G-M films. That's the bad news. The good news is that they will learn that there was an even more omnipresent Bachelor who wasn't Space Age. He drank martinis instead of banana daiquiris, he wore a white dinner jacket instead of a sharkskin suit and he made out with icy blondes instead of cheesy bimbos. Bachelor in Paradise is a near perfect collection of music a typical movie bachelor may have used for making time with a dreamy date.

When it's on the mark, it's pretty amazing. The best tracks are the instrumentals by the M-G-M Studio Orchestra. Muted horns and silvery strings are accompanied by a subtle yet steady beat. You could easily play Bachelor in Paradise as background music for cocktails or an adult dinner party. You just feel pretty swank drinking and holding witty conversation with these tunes playing. Suddenly your world is in vivid Technicolor.

Our favorite track is Fashion Show from the film North by Northwest. It's really background music but it swings in a gentle effective way and at five minutes and 18 seconds, it's just about the time needed to finish your first martini.

If you find yourself confused by some of the tracks, you need to read the album credits carefully. Neal Hefti's Over the Rainbow sounds wrong with its vague rock beat and Percy Faith-like arrangement. Yes, the original melody was from an M-G-M musical, The Wizard of Oz, but this track has nothing to do with shawl collars on a tuxedo. Ol' Man River fares better with its cha-cha-cha treatment but associating it with the rest of the concept seems a push. Personally we would have dropped the M-G-M connection, but we're probably nitpicking. If you're up for some easy listening in the best sense, you can't really go wrong with Bachelor in Paradise.

Winter 96


Keely Smith and Louis Prima
Twist with Keely Smith/Doin' the Twist with Louis Prima
Jasmine JASCD 334 Vocals

This is pretty much high camp. These two 1962 releases were recorded separately by Louis and Keely to cash in on the popularity of the twist. Anyone expecting the thrill of Louis doing Just a Gigolo or Keely melting butter on It's Magic will be pretty horrified. Still, fans should consider this re-release because quite a few of the numbers are worthwhile.

Keely approaches the twist with a more rock-and-roll feel that probably sounded somewhat dated even in 1962. I Know is a pretty good 1960s pop song and her version of What'd I Say is actually great. Twistin' Cowboy Joe is a clever take on the old chestnut Ragtime Cowboy Joe. On the whole, Keely sounds pretty silly taking on a teenage sensation like the twist but she's in good voice and now and then it works.

Louis' version of the twist is closer to boogie woogie at times and he remains closer to his own sound than Keely. This is partly due to the fact that his band is again Sam Butera and the Witnesses. Still, there's not a lot of heat generated and he sounds almost bored.

It's all very silly and not bad but we can't quite recommend it.

Winter 96

Angelique Kidjo
Mango 1625399342 World beat

Angelique Kidjo's infectious "world beat" hit Batonga was the kind of number that got under your skin. A lot of African musicologists were horrified but the rest of us were dancing. What Kidjo does is not folkloric and it's not even very African except for the language and the reliance on beat, but it sounds great. This new album is even less ethnic, which seems fine for the dance numbers, but things grind to a halt on the few ballads. Almost every track has a moment that's so clever and new, you wonder how she gets away with it.

Much of the world music we get is recorded in Paris and too often that means taking away the edge. Aye needs to be judged as a Pop record, and we bet you'll be dancing, too.

June 1994




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