Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ultra-Lounge Disc 1: Mondo Exotica

This collection kicked off a short-lived but tremendously intense tiki fetish of mine back in the summer of 2004. Chiropractic school was kicking my lily-white ass after only four months, and I was ready for some well-needed relaxation. So on spring break, I picked up six albums at the famed Electric Fetus in Minneapolis with two very distinct but well-matched themes: exotica/lounge and surf guitar. (For the record, the other albums: Mambo Fever and Bongo Land, both in the Ultra Lounge series, and the first three in the Lost Legends of Surf Guitar series.) This little span of time ended up being the only thing really pleasant from 2004 to me. (And yes, I did learn how to make a killer mai tai. I still refer to that particular recipe as the drink of death.)

Not by any stretch a perfect album, Mondo Exotica is rather a perfect intro to a mid-20th century American escapist dream. The whole tiki/exotica scene came about when American GIs in the Pacific theater of World War II came back with tales of how amazing this heretofore unexplored territory was. Cue the xylophones, vibraphones, bird calls, and bongo drums. Enter the phenomenon of Oriental restaurants and pineapple and teriyaki pork shishkabobs grilled in the backyard. And this certainly has to have led in no small part to Hawaii becoming the 50th state, ensuring that Americans could have their little bit of Pacific paradise.

Exotica is one of the cheapest, most plastic, least authentic and least soulful forms of music out there. It's basically small orchestras led by the likes of Les Baxter and Martin Denny attempting to encapsulate a glorified version of the South Pacific, replete with mai tais, volcanoes, hula girls, wild birds and tikis. But damned if it isn't evocative and fun.

Mondo Exotica has some fun, laid back stuff. Hawaiian paradise is perfectly rendered by the lazy slide guitars and ukuleles of "Alika" and "Hana Maui." But the bulk of this album has a surprisingly dark edge to it. This is not the music of some happy-go-lucky parrothead paradise where revelers enjoy their light fruity pina coladas and Coronas, but rather, an aural exploration of, well, exotic lands and the mysteries they hide. "Hypnotique," "Voodoo Dreams/Voodoo" and "Jungle Madness" do indeed evoke what their titles promise. And from the beginning, I have considered the ending of "Atlantis" to be perhaps the scariest six notes to end a song, repeated over and over again until they fade.

Since exotica is a small musical genre, a representative collection is bound to have some missteps. "Lust," for example, where Bas Sheva quietly moans in front of pizzicato strings, guiro, and bongos, then channels Shirley Bassey in some truly awful, um, vocal noises that evoke pain more than lust. And although the inexplicable but impressive talent that is Yma Sumac is on fabulous display on "Babalu," she ends Mondo Exotica with a brassy rendition of "Wimoweh" that would fit in Las Vegas more than in Waikiki. Still, as far as introductions to exotica go, you could hardly do better. It's perfect music to listen to while having a pupu platter and a zombie or mai tai and daydreaming about that trip to Hawaii or the South Pacific or the Orient (yeah, I said the Orient, not Southeast Asia).

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