Graded on a Curve: Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights

It’s doubtful that a new exotica compilation, 18 years into century 21, is going to result in the en masse dropping of jaws, though this observation isn’t a slight; in fact, it lines up rather well with a musical style that from its very inception was much more about setting the mood than leaving listener’s agape. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t new insights to be had while enjoying the tiki torch, luau, and lounge ambience offered by Numero Group’s extensive survey of the form. Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights is a well-ordered and meticulously researched plunge into an often unfairly disrespected genre, out now on exquisitely designed and info-drenched 3LP and 3CD.

I was around for the initial exotica retro-wave, which played out as part of the larger ’90s lounge craze, and at the time I dug into reissues of material by Juan García Esquivel, Martin Denny, Yma Sumac, and even a little Les Baxter. As covered in this set’s outstanding notes by producer/ compiler Ken Shipley, it’s the last three of those names who prove the most germane to the copious material spotlighted here.

It’s not that Esquivel isn’t exotica exactly, though his stuff is probably best described by its promotional catchphrase of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. The major diff is that Esquivel was a bandleader, with the size of his group big as he reliably utilized then cutting-edge studio technique to results that are often enjoyably zonked. While there are moments on Technicolor Paradise that can get a little out-there, overall the contents are far more modestly scaled, a tendency that hits the sensibility of exotica right in the bull’s-eye.

It also sticks to Numero’s working program of uncovering underheard and obscure sounds, a la their long-running Eccentric Soul series (spotlighting regional independent ’60s-’70s soul and R&B), the Yellow Pills and Buttons collections (digging into the rich underbelly of the power-pop wave), and the Wayfaring Strangers (folk), Warfaring Strangers (hard rock & metal), and most recently Seafaring Strangers (yacht rock) compilations.

But Numero doesn’t just polish up any random discovery and call it a gem; quality is very much of the essence, and Technicolor Paradise continues this trend, holding up well across six sides of wax and a slightly expanded 54-track total on the triple CD, in part through the overlapping division of contents into three complementary yet distinctive themes: Daiquiri Dirges (which is devoted to guitar instrumentals with a tangibly surfy bent), Rhum Rhapsodies (dishing vocal numbers with touches of pop and jazz), and Mai Tai Mambos (which is where the itch to dance can be effectively scratched).

As said, exotica was/ is about setting the mood (with, as the above subcategories highlight, the help of booze), and largely for this reason, assessing every track offered here would stretch descriptive capabilities to the limit (also, it would make for a really long review). However, a few highlights from each disc are in order, like the opening Martin Denny meets tribal surf of “Blue Oasis” by Chuck “Big Guitar” Ernest with the Satellite Band.

“Jungle Guitar” by The Palatons takes the Denny worship, complete with birdcalls, to the border of proto garage rock; the year was 1962. Jump ahead nearly five years, and Texas garage act Chayns divert from their general template with the attractive refinements of slow mover “Live with the Moon.” Along the way, aspects of Hawaiian flavor, peaking with Daiquiri Dirges’ closer, Bill & Jean Treadway’s Sol Hoʻopiʻi-influenced “Paradise Isle,” are as common as unenlightened song titles, with The Gems’ “Slave Girl” combining the two.

Exotica will never be lauded for its progressivism, but with a few flareups (and the plunge into the noggin-smacking ridiculousness of “Jaguar Hunt” by The Crew, it’s vocal additive spot-on assessed in the notes as “culturally inept gibberish”) the appropriation, stereotyping and assumptions are kept at a digestible minimum, even during Rhum Rhapsodies’ excursion into voices.

This is partly due to a fair amount of the singing being wordless and high-register, as the influence of Yma Sumac is asserted. Upon consideration, it’s also my least favorite of the three discs, though it holds enough winners, like The Monzas’ woozy sax-spiked crawl “Forever Walks a Drifter,” to be consistently more than just interesting. Plus, some unexpected developments increase the appeal.

Amongst these twists are a pair of exceptions to the rule of obscurity, as actress Martha Raye (known for her work with Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, and others, plus decades as a pitch woman for the denture cleaner Polident, although I’d rather tip a hat to her acting in Charlie Chaplin’s superb serial killer flick of 1947 Monsieur Verdoux) joins the Phil Moore Orchestra for the hovering and indeed wordless textures of “Lotus Land.”

Something of a curiosity, its mildly weird aura easily justifies inclusion. Also worthy of resurrection are the two selections by Darla Hood (noted as a member of Our Gang as a child actress), especially her vocal take on the foundational exotica track by Martin Denny (though written and initially recorded by Les Baxter) “Quiet Village.” It’s not a knockout, but Hood is a capable vocalist, and it provides a pleasant variation on a tune that was recorded scores of times (again per the notes, it’s really the “Louie Louie” in exotica’s framework).

The Rhum Rhapsodies disc isn’t the only place where non-obscure items emerge; there’s the tranquil jazzy vibe of “Driftwood” by The Wailers (the Washington state proto-garage outfit, not Bob Marley’s backing band) on Daiquiri Dirges, and speaking of jazz, well-respected soul-jazz organist Jimmy McGriff makes the ranks of Mai Tai Mambos’ CD version with the lively ’65 Hammond-guitar-bongos late trend-stab “Jungle Cat.”

Amid a wider instrumental base, the third disc is the most varied of the bunch, with clear links to the prior two, frequently in the same song (e.g. the big guitar and wordless accents of Bobby Christian’s version of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”), and it solidifies Technicolor Paradise as a consistently engaging listen amongst all the excavation.

Kick-starting with the legit jazz flavor (flute!) and striking violin (or oud) of Eddie Kochak & Hakki Obidia’s belly dance craze-oriented “Jazz in Port Said,” the latter portion of disc three does hold some of the set’s most robust action, continuing with the bountiful rhythms and guitar strutting of Gene Sikora & the Irrationals’ “Tanganyika” and including the crisply pop-jazzy “Dark Continent” by Bobby Paris, it’s piano putting Ramsey Lewis in my mind, at least until the vocals arrive.

If you choose to accept that Technicolor Paradise is largely and at times utterly lacking in authenticity (and thankfully, the otherwise groovy “Hari’s Harem” by The Slaves is all instrumental), the myriad attempts to branch out from the standards of pop, jazz, or rock ‘n’ roll via the platform of a fleeting vogue establish their own appeal, cohering into a time capsule that goes down surprisingly easy. Especially if your glass holds something strong and fruity and you’re in the company of friends, this is a splendid soundtrack.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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