The Sounds of Exotic Island (Remastered from the Original Somerset Tapes) The Surfmen
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- 1Quiet Village03:06
- 2Tahiti Sunrise02:57
- 3Bali Ha'i02:39
- 5Jungle Romance03:09
- 6Forbidden Island02:28
- 8Moonlight in Paradise02:48
- 10Orchid Lagoon03:06
- 11Fire Goddess02:36
- 12The Moon of Manakoora03:36
Info for The Sounds of Exotic Island (Remastered from the Original Somerset Tapes)
The Surfmen were an ephemeral Exotica super group, consisting of only the best musicians David L. Miller, the man who brought us the 101 Strings, could possibly find. Even though super groups often cause the fear of being artificial, ego-driven and plastic, you don’t have to spend your time with pessimistic thoughts, for The Sounds Of Exotic Island, released in 1960 on Miller’s Somerset label, is one of the ten best vintage Exotica records of all time! Its 12 tracks are so melodious, coherent and beautiful that I come back to them time and again.
A whopping eight songs were specifically written for this release by the involved songwriters and arrangers Joe Kuhn and Robert Lowden, while the remaining material consists of takes on Exotica classics, and even these renditions feature imaginative bridges and slight changes in their formulae. Aesthetically, the album is a no-brainer and wholeheartedly recommended by me. Among the staff of The Surfmen are musicians like Jack Costanzo, Alvino Rey and Irv Cottler, and their names stand for the faux-Polynesian side of Exotica. You won’t find Hollywood strings à la Nelson Riddle or Les Baxter on here, although there is that one obvious Baxter tune on board.
One of the album’s unique selling points is the use of especially exotic percussive instruments. The liner notes mention coconut shells, lava stones and bamboo puppet shakers, among others; in contrast to George Cates’ Polynesian Percussion that focuses on a similar percussion-related prowess, the actual differences between the instruments can be clearly heard on The Sounds Of Exotic Island. Incidentally, the album has been released under various names – even though the notorious Crown Records label was not involved, ha ha – such as The South Sea Serenaders or Tradwinds – Romance From Hawaii To Tahiti, but the track order is always the same. So regardless of which version you get, you always receive one of the best and vivid entries of the genre.
And away we fly into Les Baxter’s Quiet Village, and a gorgeous architecture of this village it is for sure! It's unmistakably a faithful rendition with croaking birds of paradise, distinct maracas plus exotic bongos, a trio of piano chords, xylophones and a vibraphones in addition to an alto flute, and yet The Surfmen’s version has that particular something: their version doesn’t rely too heavily on a feisty sound carpet. At times, the presentation seems rather thin. This is a good thing, though, for the little spaces and reduced curlicues allow an unvarnished glimpse into the jungle that surrounds the village, i.e. the beautiful bird noises. A few notes of the main melody are missing and one or two bridges feature entirely new tone sequences, making this an incredibly creative and silky skit within the boundaries of a faithful interpretation. And this is only the beginning!
Tahiti Sunrise, a unique composition by Robert Lowden specifically created for this album, presents the last nocturnal remnants on Tahiti via glistening wind glasses, Tahitian logs and other tapping and clicking devices all the while the birds are finally waking up. A phantasmagoric female choir joins the pristine atmosphere of which Ann Stockton remains as the lead voice for the rest of the rapid-firing, tempo-shifting song that oscillates between a double bass-backed, Chinese tone sequence-driven mallet instrument majesty and surf guitar-loaded percussion prowess. The song ends on a mysterious note with a quavering flute, siren-like chants and glockenspiel sprinkles.
Up next is a steel guitar version of the classic Bali Ha’i. The muffled waves at the beginning of the track are an actual field recording, but they fade out to make room for the wonderfully twanged steel guitars, with the xylophones, flutes and even the liquid strings of a harp adding tremendously to the tranquilizing flavor. The superb Bamboo, written by Fritz Kuhn, turns things up a notch with vivid bird calls, a beautiful jazzy groove with vivid piano droplets scattered throughout the song, several rhythm changes, and a beautiful concoction of eupeptic vibraphone and flute melodies. The accompanying surf guitars round the effervescent tune off.
While Lowden returns with the terrifically relaxed spy theme Jungle Romance that features quavering organs, downspiraling flute tones, cozy piano chords, yet another vocal performance by Stockton and James Bond-esque notes on the vibraphone – despite being released before the first Bond movie –, Kuhn provides the last song of side A, the Middle Eastern-flavored, flute-fueled Forbidden Island which starts dreamy but morphs into a hectic ritual with punchy drums, only to push the tempo even further in the last few seconds, making this the fastest section of any Exotica song ever created! I’m sure Jack Costanzo can be applauded for this.
Side B launches with Margarita Lecuona’s Taboo. The Surfmen decide to keep the melodramatic lamento of the original, but present it nonetheless in a more laid-back fashion. The Latin piano is in here, as are the pulsating flutes and the suffused vibraphone. Stockton’s doleful chants fit in well here, but the actual surprise are the sizzling-hot spurts of the accompanying organ. I’m not too fond of the composition due to the sad yearning and melancholy it evokes, but fortunately, the next four songs written by either Kuhn or Lowden return to brighter colored lands.
Moonlight In Paradise starts with blurry waves, wonderful harp washes and rather sunny steel guitar strings that are accompanied by an exhilarative flute. The mood is totally relaxed, but the permanent juxtaposition of the dreamy harp and mellow piano chords with the warped steel guitar doesn’t seem to fit too well. But that’s just my personal preference that shouldn’t let anyone down, for the song has it all, even the harp as one of my most beloved instruments. Lowden’s jazzy Luau is dynamic and quickly paced, with hectic double bass backings, rushed melodies and exquisite percussion solos. The plasticity in the second half is especially noteworthy, for Costanzo and crew go all in, creating a whirling maelstrom of exotic tribalism.
Orchid Lagoon is the right tune to calm down a bit. It is my favorite composition on the album with a bold boost in dreaminess and care-free bliss, starting with a spellbinding mélange of mystical harps and cascading vibraphone drops. The remaining minutes seem to be Exotica by the numbers at first, but this song actually showcases the silkiest mellowness and most auroral rapture. For fans of Arthur Lyman’s or Ted Auletta’s dreamiest renditions, this is an epic little piece. It expresses the genre’s sumptuous side most splendidly.
While Kuhn’s last unique track Fire Goddess is a classic example of a development within a quiet bongo track whose tension and use of percussive instruments grows with the help of dramatic vocals by Stockton and sunset-evoking, almost funky guitar backings, the final offering, an interpretation of Frank Loesser’s Moon Of Manakoora, sees its original outlines intact thanks to glitzy vibraphones, enigmatic wind chimes and mesmeric steel guitars. Two successful additions consist of the clear-cut use of Tahitian logs and similar percussive devices that add a pinch of vividness to this dreamy song on the one hand, and a jazzy interlude in the second half that is as surprising as it is gorgeous. A Chinese temple gong is heard, and thus ends a towering album.
One of the best Exotica albums of all time, The Surfmen deliver! This high-budget production has it all: Well-known session musicians, field recordings, fake bird calls, exotic percussion, a few renditions of classic Exotica tunes and – most welcome – unique material that hasn’t heard before or ever since. The dreamy atmosphere is maintained throughout the album, and while the compositions of Lowden and Kuhn have their fair share of hecticness and an oxymoronic well-coordinated percussive chaos, the swirling melodies, spiraling chords and flowing keys are so utterly great that it is the purest joy to listen to the whole album in one go. Lowden’s Orchid Lagoon is anything but a footnote in the vivacious history of the Exotica genre, but to me, it means the world!
Similar in spirit to Arthur Lyman’s rendition of Whispering Reef Lullaby or Ted Auletta’s related dreamy skit Makaha, Orchid Lagoon is dreamful in the best sense of the word, and even though it outshines every song on The Sounds Of Exotic Island, it fits right in and doesn’t degrade the presented material in the slightest. David L. Miller gathered the very best talents around him, and while big budget productions often leave a stale aftertaste, this doesn’t apply to The Surfmen who capture the very essence of Exotica. This is the perfect album for lovers of melodious songs who aren’t too fond of complex structures. Despite its jazzy interludes and excessive percussion sections, the melodies and interplays of the glinting mallet instruments with the steel guitars, flutes and pianos are always in the spotlight and the most important thing. A milestone of the genre, easily available on vinyl under its various names or on digital music stores. I recommend this album wholeheartedly, as it remains, as I've stated before, one of the ten best vintage Exotica LP’s ever released.
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