AMN Reviews: Post-Millennial Exotica

Exotica is the weekend cousin of the piped-in, workaday easy-listening Muzak baby boomers grew up surrounded by in elevators, shopping malls, restaurants, dentist´s waiting rooms. Characterized by David Toop in his book-length study as ”fabricated sondscapes” for “a golden age recreated through the lurid colours of a cocktail glass, illusory and remote zones of pleasure and peace dreamed after the bomb”, it was tropical bliss colonized, refracted and democratized, the reassuring sound of postwar plenty – easy access to a faux jetset lifestyle for all. GIs had come home with stories from the Pacific, Hawaii had only just become a full member of the union and direct flights were affordable, the suburbs sprawled and there were good schools and good jobs for everybody. Balmy island sounds and parasol drinks were the antidote to brown liquor and neckties, a kinder, gentler hedonism compared to the disco infernos and Plato´s Retreats to come a decade later.

One of the most fanciful sidebars of exotica was its projection of paradise on earth to the ones off-world awaiting beyond the year 2000. But now that that milestone is well behind us, what does retro-futuristism offer more than a longing for the future´s better past? Easy enough to mimic, simple to subvert by sampling, the challenge is to do it well while bringing something new to the genre. Otherwise it´s just a bunch of hipsters wearing fezzes on their heads, another ironically staged, temporary nostalgia (remember the swing revival of the 1990s?).

In 1997, a group of Hawaiian studio veterans released “The Forbidden Sounds of Don Tiki”, the most polished and vivid, lovingly kibbitzing rendition of exotica in the post-postwar era, including nods to vocalists like Jeri Southern and Mel Tormé and collaboration with “father of exotica” Martin Denny. Readers will likely be familiar with John Zorn´s ”The Gift” (2001), a warm, languid postcard written poolside by a band featuring the inimitable likes of Marc Ribot, Jamie Saft, Joey Baron and Cyro Baptista. Mr. Ho´s Orchestrotica´s ”Third River Rangoon” (2011), a recent and accomplished foray, is wildly entertaining and does everything with the utmost professionalism but adds little originality. Otherwise you are much better off digging out the widely-available reprints of Les Baxter, Denny and Esquival.

On “Tiki for the Atomic Age” (2009), Kava Kon gets it right from the cover art (by Canadian pop-surrealist Heather Watts) to the name of the label (Dionysus) and the pitch-perfect combination of tiki worship and atomic age optimism slightly tempered by a chill Cold War breeze. The duo of Nels Truesdell and Bob Kress, originally from Detroit, transports listeners with a post-millennial exotica that is a cargo cultist´s wet dream, a loving documentary travelogue through the genre(s) and a clever dissection of it and the postwar era, starting with the detonation of an atomic bomb somewhere in Oceania to close the opening track. Surf, space flight airline lounges, swamis and Sinbad the Sailor, spaghetti saucy cowboy round-ups, roller rink organ, all executed on a combination of analogue machinery, delicate piano and warm strings judiciously teased with beat boxes, dub, autotuned voice, and a smattering of samples. There is also a Cecil B. Demillean remix by the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble online.

A day at the beach, a night in Tunisia, Yma Sumac coming at you out of the Amazonian jungle attended by a bevy of comely handmaidens direct from central casting.  The final wind-in-the-hair, stars-in-the-eyes “Journey Home” is utterly exhilirating. Kava Kon perfectly grasp, cuddle and poke good-natured fun at the last great American pop optimism, consumerism as a democratic tool for cosmopolitan, even otherworldly experience.

Stephen Fruitman