Sunday, January 17, 2016

Zephyrous Aquamarine I

"Out Upon the Islands on a Cool Summer Night"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]



As I first alluded to in Salsatic Vibrato I and expanded on in Salsatic Vibrato III, the Swedes are the masters of mixing swing with other musical styles: Movits! (rap), Diablo Swing Orchestra (metal), and, of course, Koop (electronica).  Besides viewing them as in the company of other Swedish swing-mix-meisters, we could also view Koop as one of those European bands that’s forging the new sound of electro-swing, along with Caro Emerald (from the Netherlands) and Caravan Palace (from France).  But in reality labeling Koop as simply “electro-swing” is missing a big part of their identity.  They are electro-swing, sure, but also electro-lounge, electro-jazz, and sometimes not even particularly electro-anything.  While their first album (Sons of Koop) is pretty firmly electronica with infusions of various jazz styles, their latest1 is more straight-ahead jazz with electronic flourishes.  From the second I put it on, I was blown away.  That’s mainly because it opens with “Koop Island Blues.”

It’s hard to describe this song, which is why I threw you a rare YouTube link so you can hear it for yourself.  A coworker once said it reminded him of French chanson, which it does, sort of, but it also has a very tropical sound, in more than just the background waves and seagull calls.  There is something in it which is pure and true, and transports you to a place where there is sand as far as the eye can see in one direction, and, in the other, the blue-green sea, and a light tropical breeze blowing through the palm trees overhead ...

Of course, there are lots of types of music that could fit on a mix like this, but some of them are really out for me.  For instance, I am not a Parrot Head, and you will never hear any Jimmy Buffet (or anything remotely like it) here.  Then there’s “beach music”: my record-collector father once had a record-collector friend2 who absolutely loved beach music, so I was treated to a fair amount of it growing up.  The Drifters, primarily, but, having grown up a stone’s throw from Virginia Beach, no more than two hours from Nags Head, and maybe five from Myrtle Beach, we were geographically disposed to find a lot of the strictly local beach music artists.  Still, I never got into it.  And, from the other coast, there’s the sunny surf-based pop from various California groups, but mainly the Beach Boys.  Never much cared for that stuff either.

For me, this mood needs an injection of either the Caribbean, or the Pacific.  The latter naturally leads us to the strange phenomenon of exotica.  Just in case you thought I was spurning all 50’s- and 60’s-based ocean-inspired music on general principle, I threw in a 1965 version of “Quiet Village”—whose original some say kicked off the whole exotica movement in the first place—and the Arthur Lyman version of “Misirlou” from 1958, a song which exists in multiple genres, from traditional Middle Eastern ballad to surf rock anthem.3  But it’s always been the exotica version that speaks to me.

Some think the prospect of Hawaii becoming a state is what originally fueled the exotica craze; there’s certainly no doubt that statehood (achieved in 1959) certainly contributed to its popularity.  Or perhaps it was South Pacific, which came to Broadway in 1949, just two years before Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village” hit the airwaves, and then to movie screens across the country in 1958.  It was probably South Pacific more than anything else which cemented the image that most Americans had of Hawaiian music—regardless of how inaccurate it might be.  Pretty much any music that sounds like South Pacific is going to make us think of Hawaii ... or, contrariwise, if you want your audience to feel a Hawaiian vibe, you just make your music sound like a throwback to South Pacific.  We have two such tunes here, one from our old pals the Asylum Street Spankers, and the other from ex-Squirrel-Nut-Zipper Tom Maxwell.4

Leaving the Pacific Islands and moving over to the Caribbean, we have quite a range of musical styles to choose from.  Calypso is an excellent choice, and there will probably never be a volume of this mix that doesn’t feature a Harry Belafonte tune.  Here it’s “Angelina,” which is one of my favorites off his greatest hits collection Pure Gold.  Plus I threw in the humorous (but still calypso-adjacent) “King of Calypso” from those champions of the silly-yet-poignant, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.5  Then we have Thievery Corporation, whose brand of electro-world can only be considered broad-ranging in the sense that it ranges from one side of the Caribbean to the other.  Their reggae-tinged tunes don’t really work here,6 but “Exilio” just screams “island” to me.  And of course the inimitable George Benson, whose version of “On Broadway” somehow takes a beach music song7 and gives it just enough Caribbean rhythm to make it sound like an iconic island song despites its roots, its lyrics, and pretty much everything else about it.

Then we have steel drums.  Steel drum music is a bit like bagpipe music: as much as you may like hearing the sound of the instrument, most of the music that features it is just annoying.8  I wanted some steel drum music, but I had a hard time finding much of it that I could stomach, much less tunes that I actually enjoyed.  For volume I, I chose Kent Arnsbarger, surely the only Chicago-based steel drummer, and OD TAPO IMI, who are at least prolific if not that well known.9  Steel drum artists seem fond of doing steel drum covers of recognizable songs, and I suppose “Oye Como Va”—written by Tito Puente, although the Santana version is the one you undoubtedly know—was sufficiently tropical to start with.  The Arnsbarger tune is an original, as far as I know;10 a mellow, sultry track with just a hint of Jamaica.

Also, let us not forget that the Caribbean flows into the Gulf of Mexico, where sits New Orleans.  Most New Orleans music is brassy and festive, but there are a few which can relax and fit the vibe here.  “Iko Iko” is, Wikipedia tells us, about two floats in a Mardi Gras parade which collide.  Good thing Wikipedia tells us that, because I certainly would have never gotten it from the lyrics.  But “Iko Iko” certainly does have a New Orlean vibe, somehow, and the version by Cyndi Lauper always fascinated me.  As a late addition to the volume, “I’m Sailin’,” by Mazzy Star, is a lazy, almost breezy, tune which (rather uncharacteristically for them) slots in nicely here.

In the category of songs that feel Caribbean without you really knowing why, I couldn’t overlook the Bonedaddys, whose “Shoo-rah Shoo-rah” I heard on the radio sometime around 1990 and never forgot.  It sounds exactly as tropical as you’d imagine a band who looks like this would sound.  Plus it transitions beautifully into Mental as Anything’s “Good Friday,” which (like many of MaA’s songs) is quite light musically and quite a bit darker lyrically.  Even so, this tune has always made me think of celebrations like Carnival in some equatorial place, so I felt like I had to throw it in here.

And, in the category of over-obvious choices, I ended up throwing in a Beach Boys song after all: “Kokomo” is the only song from the Brothers Wilson and Co. that I ever really liked.  I understand proper Beach Boys fans hate it, which may explain everything.  And it wouldn’t be a real tropical island mix without including “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson.  The Wikipedia article on this tune puts it in the category of “novelty songs,” which I think sells it a bit short.  It notes that it’s included on the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs, which is indeed whence my copy comes.  But I remember it more from Practical Magic, which is one of those silly movies that you just have a guilty pleasure for.  I find it to be a bit sly and a bit circular, sort of twirling along in a pleasantly buzzed haze while sipping margaritas on the screened-in porch of a cabin on the beach ...


Zephyrous Aquamarine I
    [Out Upon the Islands on a Cool Summer Night]


        “Koop Island Blues” by Koop, off Koop Islands
        “I'm Sailin'” by Mazzy Star, off She Hangs Brightly
        “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys [Single]
        “Could This Be Magic?” by Van Halen, off Women and Children First
        “Quiet Village” by L'Ensemble Instrumental des Iles, off The Exotic Sounds of Tiki Tribe [Compilation]
        “Coconut” by Nilsson, off Reservoir Dogs [Soundtrack]
        “King of Calypso” by Ed's Redeeming Qualities, off It's All Good News
        “Oye como va” by OD TAPO IMI [Single]
        “Exilio (Exile)” by Thievery Corporation, off The Richest Man in Babylon
        “Misirlou” by Arthur Lyman, off The Exotic Sounds of Tiki Tribe [Compilation]
        “Iko Iko” by Cyndi Lauper, off True Colors
        “Angelina” by Harry Belafonte, off Pure Gold [Compilation]
        “On Broadway” by George Benson [Single]
        “White Orchid” by Tom Teasley, off Painting Time
        “Peaceful Island Life” by Nickodemus [Single]
        “Shoo-rah, Shoo-rah” by The Bonedaddys, off Worldbeatniks
        “Good Friday” by Mental as Anything, off Fundamental as Anything
        “If I Had You” by Tom Maxwell, off Samsara
        “Reggae Blues” by Kent Arnsbarger, off Trip to the Tropics
        “Tradewinds” by Asylum Street Spankers, off Spanks for the Memories
        “Cool Down” by Dragon, off Body & the Beat
   
Total:  21 tracks,  79:59


Although it’s the poster-child for songs from unexpected artists, “Could This Be Magic?” by Van Halen is actually the second song that I chose for this mix.  It’s utterly unlike any other Van Halen song ever: light, and playful, and wonderfully evocative.  Eddie’s guitar work is simple and sublime, and, according to Wikipedia, it contains the only recorded instance of female backup vocals on a Van Halen track.  Even David Lee Roth restrains his usual clownish exuberance for a change.  Although Wikipedia will tell you that the B-side of “And the Cradle Will Rock ...” was “Everybody Wants Some!!,” other sources confirm what I already know: at least some versions of the 45 have “Could This Be Magic?” as the flip, and at least some of those were used in jukeboxes, including the one in the concrete-floored warehouse-like building called a “rec room” at the little campground where my grandparents kept their camper year-round.  I spend a good deal of nearly every summer of my childhood there, and the poorly-named rec room was at least some place to hang out.  There was a pool table and a foosball table and 2 or 3 pinball machines, so it was often inhabited by the older kids, smoking and shooting pool and engaging in other dangerous activities that made us little kids wish we could be so cool.  And, somewhere amidst this band of teens, there was one kid (or more than one, for all I know) who completely loved “Could This Be Magic?”  As a consequence, I heard the song a lot, and it will always epitomize summer vacation in a weird, inexplicable way for me.  As soon as I realized I was putting together a mix about islands and tropical getaways, I knew I had to include it here.  Besides, it contains the brilliant line that provides the volume title.

We also have a couple of artists first heard from in Paradoxically Sized World: Nickodemus, who I first heard of in a list of songs used in LittleBigPlanet PSP, brings us “Peaceful Island Life,” which is pretty much just what it says on the tin; and Tom Teasley, who I believe I first heard on my cable provider’s “Zen” channel, provides “White Orchid,” a mellow little number that has quite a cool tropical jungle vibe.

Finally, we wrap it up with “Cool Down” by New Zealand’s underrated Dragon.  While the majority of Dragon’s output lies somewhere between prog rock and glam, “Cool Down” is uncharacteristically mellow for them.  It’s not particularly a desert island tune, but it does make me think of warm and humid summer nights after a quick rain shower, so I thought it would make an excellent closer here.


Next time, we’ll keep it on the relaxing tip for a trip back to autumn music.



__________

1 As of this writing.  Although it’s been 10 years, so hopefully there’s a new album coming soon.

2 He’s since sadly passed away.

3 It’s this latter version that you likely recall from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

4 And we’ll hear another from SNZ themselves on Volume II.

5 We first heard from ERQ on Tenderhearted Nightshade.

6 There will be another mix for that, which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

7 As done by the aforementioned kings of beach music, the Drifters.

8 For a fuller discussion of my thoughts on bagpipe music, see my comments on Skyedance in Numeric Driftwood.

9 Well, maybe they are if you’re a huge steel drum fan.  Assuming that such creatures exist.

10 Although certainly it could be a cover of something I’ve never heard before.

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