Various Artists
Ultra-Lounge: On the Rocks, Parts One and Two

I've marveled at the sonic gimmickry and the compositional and arranging genius of Juan Esquivel, I've basked in the cheesy tropical splendor of Martin Denny, and I've been obsessively passionate about Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra since my mid-teens. But Ultra-Lounge: On the Rocks is where I draw the line -- where I withdraw my mostly casual interest in what's usually referred to as exotica or cocktail music, the campy E-Z listening crud from the Fifties and Sixties that's been picked up over the last few years by disenfranchised postmodernists and boneheads who can't do anything better with their stereo time.

On the Rocks -- the respective fourteenth and fifteenth volumes in Capitol's vault-clearing, quick-cash Ultra Lounge series -- is a collection of rock and roll covers by the likes of Mel Torme, Guy Lombardo, the New Classic Singers, and the Hollywood Strings, recorded at a time when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, et al., had displaced these ersatz hitmakers from the pop charts. Their response? Beat 'em at their own game, or at least try to find a portion of the rock audience. Hence the Johnny Mann Singers covering the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul," Julie London stumbling through Bob Dylan's "The Mighty Quinn," and both the Hollywood Strings and John Andrew Tartaglia turning in Beatles medleys -- "Can't Buy Me Love"/"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" from the former, "A Day in the Life"/"I Am the Walrus" from the latter -- each more astoundingly bad than you can possibly imagine. (There's also a Doors medley executed by the Lettermen, which would be offensive if I thought there was anything worthwhile in the Doors canon, but frankly I'll take "When I Fall in Love" over "The End" anytime.)

Don't get me wrong. Not only do I have a sense of humor, I understand the appeal of this garbage (and make no mistake, dear hipsters, it is garbage), and in terms of sheer historic value, it's interesting to hear the last feeble gasps of dinosaurs like David Rose, Henry Jerome, and Buddy Morrow as they were being led to the tarpits of obsolescence. Nevertheless, how anyone could actually enjoy it -- at least anyone smart enough not to be suckered by yet another record company marketing attempt to turn old shit into new gold -- is another question altogether. Surely P.T. Barnum is laughing himself senseless in the heavens.

-- John Floyd

Taj Mahal
An Evening of Acoustic Music

More than three decades after he quit the Boston folk scene for Santa Monica and closed in on a breakthrough record deal, Taj Mahal still projects the image of a tireless blues troubadour who provides tonic for the soul with his rhythm and inflected accents. He likes nothing better than to serenade crowds, and on An Evening of Acoustic Music he's heard doing just that before a receptive German audience in 1993.

Mahal's storytelling ability rests largely on his deep, resonant voice, with its vocal trick of emulating Howlin' Wolf via Wolfman Jack. He sizes up the Wolf ("Sittin' on Top of the World"), Robert Johnson ("Come on in My Kitchen," "Dust My Broom"), the Reverend Gary Davis ("Candy Man"), and African-American traditional music, and also proffers several originals (among them "Texas Woman Blues" and the silly "Big-Legged Mammas Are Back in Style") as well as a musical adaption of poet Langston Hughes's work ("Crossing"), one of the set's highlights.

Mahal points out in his disc-sleeve blurb that this performance is set apart from others that year by his old tuba-playing friend Howard Johnson presenting on a few numbers. True enough, but what's really surprising is the glaringly bright, antiseptic sound of Mahal's acoustic guitar and his sometimes imprecise playing; the instrument often irritates like a mosquito in need of a good slap. Also unsettling are spots of god-awful electric piano and unwieldy banjo. Still this is mostly entertaining stuff.

-- Frank-John Hadley

Don't Check Me With No Lightweight Stuff (1972-75)
(Blood & Fire)

When sampling began to appear on American rap hits in the late Seventies, it was just plain weird, a novelty in which big swatches of a familiar hook were thrust in your face as a dare not to buy the record. Over time, sampling evolved from a joke to an art form to just another way lawyers do business under the cover of music.

But where North America's music industry was huge and impersonal, Jamaica's was small and, despite fierce rivalries, intimate. There was constant overlap and interplay between reggae producers, DJs, sound system operators, singers, and session musicians. So when, in 1970, dancehall DJ U-Roy burst on the scene with three consecutive number-one records in the brand new style of toasting over rhythm tracks from somebody else's records, it didn't provoke the great philosophical and legal debates that sampling did in the U.S. Indeed, it was the original producers who were the source of those rhythm tracks, which they often remixed specifically for new recordings.

A host of DJs-on-wax followed U-Roy. One of the best was Roy Reid, the mighty bantamweight toaster better known as I-Roy. His voice, a combination of subtle earth tones and piercing power, always seemed to find an element in the backing track to dance with; it's the horns on "Sidewalk Killer," the wah-wah guitar on "Hot Stuff," the slinky bass on "Ken Boothe Special." On the magnificent "Holy Satta," based on the Abyssinians classic devotional "Satta Matta Gana," I-Roy seems to be in a duet with the Holy Spirit itself. I-Roy's also a movie critic ("Buck and the Preacher"), a sports fan ("Don't Get Weary Joe Frazier"), and a bit of a folksinger (Bob Marley's "Talking Blues"). All of this is presented with great sound and packaging, as we've come to expect from Blood & Fire, the pioneering reggae reissue label.

-- Lee Ballinger

Ivan Spassov
(Concord Concerto)

Gheorghi Arnaoudov
Empire of Light
(Concord Concerto)

So what's going on in musical Bulgaria and why should you care? National Public Radio named Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares (Nonesuch) the best CD of the Eighties, and once you've heard it you'll know exactly why: The pungent, nasal tones of the women's chorus cut deep and permanent scrapes into your mind's ear, and the singers' fearless and dead-accurate negotiation of impossible, non-traditional harmonies are enough to leave even classical choirs scratching their heads in wonder.

Aishinka is cut from the same rough cloth, but if anything it makes an even deeper impression. Not strictly authentic, these songs were composed by Spassov in a variety of Bulgarian folk music styles. (Director/composer/arranger Philip Koutev did the same on the Nonesuch disc.) Two women's choirs from the Plovdiv Academy are featured: the Women's Folk Choir and the smoother-toned, more classical Female Chamber Choir. Spassov asks them to do things that most Western composers would never dream of, from note clusters to canine yips, and they comply with home-style strictness. At once prehistoric and daringly modern, this CD is the musical equivalent of bondage and discipline.

Gheorghi Arnaoudov has a different Bulgarian voice; he speaks through the piano. Ringing chords, banging, twittering, and rapturous or threatening silences are his trademarks. The stillness of Morton Feldman, the ritualistic fervor of John Cage, and the nature-painting of Olivier Messiaen are three of Arnaoudov's apparent antecedents. Nevertheless, his voice is not derivative, and his music is of more than passing interest to listeners holding stock in contemporary classical music (mystical subdivision).

Pianist Angela Tosheva negotiates her way through thickets of notes with a brain-surgeon's delicacy. This empire gives off heat as well as light.

-- Raymond Tuttle


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