Thursday, May 10, 2018

Rex Kona and his Mandarins-Wild Orchids

While existing in the world since 1964, I only recently had the good fortune to encounter this domestic oddity with its tilt towards the Far East.  Overall, it’s a now sound record layered with copious vibraphone, wind chimes and marimbas. Further explorations reveal the prominent cross-currents of Latin jazz and samba swirling about at the time of recording.  The album is atmospheric in that listeners can hear the separation of the instruments and feel that something different in the air. Wild Orchids starts off with a brisk sense of urgency as the Mandarins quicken the tempo of the old standard “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” Besides the obvious influences of Martin Denny and Lex Baxter, there are also hues of Tak Shindo as heard in the Sino-Japanese motifs which run throughout the album and are especially pronoucned in “Bushi, Bushi.” “The Trolley Song” seems to even anticipate the playfulness of Rolfe Kent’s soundtrack for Sideways with its accordion-led melody. “Bird Train” meets and exceeds its song title with its dashing bongos and a whole Tiki Room of bird whistles. The only ambient sound absent seems to be the rhythm of the falling rain. Don’t expect a profound or earthshaking experience with Wild Orchids, however the sounds float on as refreshing as an Pacific Ocean breeze.

Bobby Montez-Viva! Montez

Bandleader and vibraphonist Bobby Montez hailed from Sonora, Arizona, but good luck finding it on a current map or on the actual horizon because it’s one of those copper mining towns like Ray that no longer exits.  Montez was able to quickly rise from his dusty desert beginnings to space age heights by creating a vast array of musical stardust by blending Latin jazz with elements of exotica.  Viva! Montez is one of two albums he recorded with World Pacific after previous releases on Jubilee (1958’s Jungle Fantastique) and GNP Crescendo (1959’s Lerner & Loewe in Latin). Viva! Montez abounds with his sophisticated, yet sweeping arrangements which slide open at times to reveal their percussive infrastructure.  One of his most evocative numbers is “Garden of Allah” which refers to the long-gone West Hollywood hotel and favorite haunt of F. Scott Fitzgerald. While Montez’s vibraphone and piano carry the waves of melody, the congas and timbales swirl and then crest before the chanting chorus. His playful instrumentals “My” and “Brazilian” sound way ahead of their 1961 time due to their freshness, vibrancy and understated elegance.  It was written that by day he worked as a landscape architect and by night he led his quintet at fledgling nightclubs from the M Club in East Los Angeles to The Crescendo in Hollywood during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The last printed mentions of Montez playing live were engagements at the Golden Sails Lounge in 1967 and a residency at the Executive Suite on the Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach in 1970, according to listings in the Long Beach Independent. The paucity of biographical information across the interwebs, only heightens the mysterious allure of this versatile artist and his incredible musical journey from Sonora, AZ to this century’s belated acclaim as an integral figure overlapping the West Coast Latin jazz & exotica scenes.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

I Am Another You-A Film by Nanfu Wang

In the urban wilds of South Florida roams Dylan who both explores for the sake of exploring and works for the sake of hard labor. He is doing his “Into the Wild” thing, but in the opposite geographical direction of Alexander Supertramp aka Christopher McCandless, as Miami becomes his new sunny habitat to be deliberately homeless after a stint in San Diego. Nanfu Wang, a film maker from over-industrialized mainland China, sets us out to document street life in America where her path converges with drifting Dylan. While she initially senses freedom in that the sky is Dylan’s roof, she later sees the selflessness of Dylan’s trajectory.  He may appear free on the outside, but inside his mind is mired in a vat of drugs and ensnared by paranoia. He tellingly declares that he is "22 years old, but feels like 100." Accompanied by her camera, Nanfu decides to enter dumpster diving street life in order to better understand Dylan and the concept of “freedom” in America.  Right away, they end up getting roused by police for sleeping in a city park.  She eventually finds out he was originally from Utah and was Mormon for more than a minute.  As she digs into his past, she finds more layers and much more complexity, which eventually leads to filming Dylan on his home turf within the dynamic of his estranged family in Utah. Nanfu and Dylan’s working relationship immediately halts when things come to an impasse over a donated bag of bagels given to Dylan as goodwill by a "Philadelphia-themed" Miami bagel shop.  Watching their underlying Eastern & Western values clash over the donated bagels is particularly piercing.  Dylan argues that he does not want to schlep the extraneous weight and make unnecessary restroom stops, but Nanfu sees it as a shameful act of wasting food-especially premium-grade bagels given away as an act of kindness.  Dylan and Nanfu lead viewers to both the visible and elusive edges of homelessness and ultimately to the question, “Does one have to lose oneself in order to find oneself?"

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Shane Martin-Columbia & Epic Singles (1967-1969)

Here is another installment in the Columbia Singles series which has taken me down some previously unexplored musical pathways.  This release proves to be no exception as it covers two brief, but intriguing years of a musician who has been on a lifetime voyage of discovery.  Shane Martin (aka Neale Lundgren) was from New Orleans and naturally drawn to soul music’s “range of emotion.”  Lundgren started out in the Crescent City garage scene as a singer for bands like the Twilights and an early version of the legendary Gaunga Dyns. 
The Gaunga Dyns '66
(L to R: Beau Bremer, Brian Collins, Steve Staples, Ricky Hall, Bobby Carter, Neale Lundgren, and Mike King)
His ship came in and he was signed as a solo artist to Columbia/Epic.  He certainly had a smooth and strong delivery, but not enough distinction in his voice to take him to the first class. Songs like “Don’t Take Tomorrow Away” had him leaning more towards Gene Pitney than Steve Marriott, but there is certainly the presence of soul (and sometimes a slight sneer) in his voice.  From around a corner, the propulsive horns on "You're So Young" and "I Need You"sound like the building brass section from "MacArthur Park" which makes sense because these two Northern Soul classics and the epic "MacArthur Park" were all composed by Jimmy Webb.  He connects "Black is Black" by Los Bravos and ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears" and it works because the stock material both share that "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" bass line. Interestingly, these singles were produced by Jason Darrow who previously wrote songs for ? and the Mysterians like "Hanging on a String." Also included is Martin's convincing "side-buckle shoes" interpretation of Jerry Butler's "He Will Break Your Heart." However, some of the singles like "I Keep it Hid" get a little too swanky and schmaltzy for their own good and enter B.J. Thomas-ville.  

He competently covers the Association’s soaring "Goodbye Columbus"-the theme of The Graduate-ish movie based on Philip Roth’s novella  The landing gear is activated and the album descends on Mark Eric territory with the wistful, sparkling and sweeping bossa-pop of "Something Beautiful is Gone." In the late ‘70s, Lundgren entered a Benedictine monastery and immersed himself in the sacred tradition of Gregorian chant, the mystical poets and Bach. These Columbia & Epic Singles provide the impetus to trace Lundgren's unexpected path both forward and back while focusing on this particular slice of time.  After all, it's part of an era that keeps offering a seemingly infinite supply of remarkable singles and stories.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Debbie Lori Kaye-Columbia Singles

Debbie Lori Kaye had the unique distinction of being of Portuguese heritage, growing up Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and being signed to Columbia Records as a teen.  It appears that she was possibly being groomed by CBS to be a consummate crossover artist.  She certainly straddled mid-sixties styles ranging from big production Nashville country through multiple branches of CanCon pop.   In other words, you could place her records somewhere between early Dolly Parton, Skeeter Davis and Lesley Gore.  This album starts with “Picking Up My Hat,” which was a #1 record in Canada for 9 weeks in 1965, and is undeniably catchy skip-a-long pop.  Her most recognized single “The Iron Cross” was arranged by Bergan White and later covered by the Untamed Youth. On this record released in July 1966, the lyrics defend her own donning of her boyfriend’s iron cross against the protests of her mother. Besides Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels some surfers, sidewalk surfers, gremmies, kooks and hodads wore these mass produced medals, most featuring a surfer on a board in the middle of the cross, as fashion accessories before the masses later clasped puka shell necklaces. The protagonist arguably claims the pendant is a symbol of her boyfriend’s love and the larger cross pattée shape no longer represents the horrific things it once did. She even slips in the fact that "some of our boys are dying over there," while many remained ineffectually fixated on a vending machine item. Then again, the younger generation was playing inconsiderately with a form of fire. What would Roland Barthes think? The B-side is the delightful “Baby What I Mean” which the Drifters would later convert into a R&B hit in late 1966 and then again covered by Spiral Starecase in 1969. However, her most compelling moment might be “The Playground” as it is laced with some monster fuzz guitar over subterranean lyrics, lavish strings and acoustic latticework.  Her one and only album from 1966, Hey Little One!, smartly included this track. This Columbia singles collection serves as a rectifying reintroduction to a singer previously resigned to one topical song, The expanded view presents a somewhat underrated musician who overlapped both national and musical borders.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Habibi- Cardamom Garden EP

This all-female quintet certainly exudes a certain thrift shop charm, while weaving an appealing tapestry. Their focal point and catalyst is lead singer Rahill Jamalifard who is of Iranian-American descent and actually grew up in the flatlands of Michigan before following her global dreams to NYC. Under her direction, the combo adeptly intertwines Middle Eastern undercurrents with the enduring influence of the Shangri-Las, Luv’d Ones and Vashti Bunyan-which differentiates their sound & image to stand apart from their contemporaries. While many kids nowadays (inaccurately) call this surf rock with its abundant echo, reverb, and rolling drums, it all conspires to have a magnetic pull on listeners. Cardamom Garden sometimes slopes into that languid realm of wooziness where the weekend slips away before it even gets started.  Despite moments of slack, they have thickened their overall sound and expanded their sphere of influences to include Persian poetry (“Nedayeh Bahar”) and a Pebbles cover (“Green Fuz”) with the verses sung in Farsi that works to everyone’s advantage.
They should also be commended for their attention to harmonies, backing vocals and arrangements. This focus allows them to transcend the one-dimensionality that plagues many an emerging band.  If you have ever been enamored by the Century 21 female-fronted sounds of La Luz, Slumber Party, Louie Louie, the Girls at Dawn, Bobcat ’65, Summer Twins, the Splinters or even Best Coast, there is certainly something similar to connect to with Habibi.  It should be interesting to hear what they will do next, which is usually the point of an EP. Here’s hoping they incorporate even more pronounced Persian influences into their future pop efforts. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Photos-S/T

When I first came across this album from 1980, I was excited to discover a power-pop band that I have never previously before encountered.  What was further intriguing was that the band was led by a woman who went by the stage name of Wendy Wu (not the Homecoming Warrior).  Groups that were female-fronted and supported by male backing musicians were surprisingly rare in the new wave-era despite the runaway commercial and critical success of Blondie and the Pretenders.  Moreover, a band featuring a female lead singer with an assumed Chinese surname of Wu was certainly striking during this angular time.  My initial impression was that the band was originally from somewhere like St. Louis before moving their impossible dreams to N.Y. or L.A.

The British Blondie?
The Photos actually hailed from Evesham-a civil parish between London and Birmingham and instantly expressed their chagrin when pegged as the British Blondie.  This is one band that accurately sounds like their graphic design while being fortunately directly inspired by Blondie despite their frequent denials. Songs like the dashing "Irene" would have sounded perfect on Rhino's Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80s or their DIY series from 1993. “Friends,” a standout slower number building on Spector's wall of sound, could have been the closing number on the Valley Girl Soundtrack. Their stellar rendition of Bacharach-David’s "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" fittingly concludes the proper album.  It also sounds like a highlight from an old episode of Rock Over London before being taped over and existing only in memory.

Developing their Sound
Overall, the songs are straight to the slanted point aesthetic of power-pop with some cuts wearing a splash of reggae-which humidified the UK air at the time.  The layered and large production is able to achieve the tricky balance of offering taunt and tough guitars within songs that sweep and even soar at times. Perhaps the only shortcoming holding the Photos back was Wu’s voice.  While her voice was certainly proficient with pronounced Debbie Harry inflections, it is not in the same distinctive league of her model or Chrissie Hynde. In brief moments her voice slips into that dreadful office worker-Diet Coke metallic shrillness that would later be heard coating the hoopla of Grace Slick's Starship.  Along with Sheena and the Rokkets (Fukuoka, Japan), the Shivvers (Milwaukee) and the MnM's (Los Angeles), the Photos seem somewhat overlooked in the stack between the trailblazers that came before (Blondie and the Pretenders) and those who came successfully after (Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Katrina and the Waves) in the video era. By happenstance, the Photos bring another perspective on the new wave movement to light.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Wildlife - Columbia Singles (1967-1969)

What an unexpected surprise to see this collection of singles surface here in 2018. Previous to this release, the Wildlife were one of those ‘60s bands that recorded a handful of standout singles on high profile Columbia Records, but their music could only be partially found as Youtube recordings of the original records. Legacy is most likely releasing this digitally in order to extend their copyright and prevent having these 50-year old recordings slip through their grasp and into the public domain. The front cover photo presents the band in their full pop art glory-almost looking like a ‘90s Madchester band sitting in on a Stone Roses photo shoot. The first half of the album opens a trove of folk-rock pop songs that I have heard before by other acts, but needed to refresh my memory  in order to recall their exact origins. “This is What I Was Made For” came from the prolific pen of PF Sloan. “Where Do You Go” was actually Cher’s first single and written by none other than Sonny Bono. “Hard Hard Year” is a deep cut by the Hollies in waltz time, while “New Games to Play” was written by Ritchie Cordell who composed some of Tommy James’ biggest hits. “Come See About Me” is the Supreme number, which could be considered a brave & bold move by the band or simply foisted on by Columbia atop the heavy slab of Vanilla Fudge.  After uncovering these covers, we get the downbeat & folked up “Time Will Tell” which could be considered the chiming centerpiece of the collection.  The verses presents the conflicted jilted lover pleaing for that one last chance, while the choruses have him convincing himself of the eternal truth and foregone conclusion that "Time Will Tell." Directly following is the previously unissued "Visions" which is mid-tempo psychedelic-propelled pop at its mid-sixties finest. The tale of a combo from the Ohio hinterlands getting lost in proverbial New York major label hustle-bustle-shuffle is among the oldest tropes in show business. However, their captivating and enduring songs have reemerged 50 years later, thanks to copyright extension, to convey there are sometimes second acts for unsung American garage bands.