Album Review: Martin Denny – Deep Exotica

Some readers of this blogzine may remember the 1990s, a period when – for a moment, at least, it seemed – exotica made a comeback. Exemplified by the self-consciously retro stylings of groups like Combustible Edison (who made new music that sounded old), the music of the pre-Beatles era came back in a big way. Whether the songs were new takes on the form or visits to actual tunes of the past, it was all a nostalgic, slightly arch throwback to music of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Even Todd Rundgren got in on the act recording a clever album called With a Twist, in which he recast many of his classics into bossa nova and/or tiki lounge- styled arrangements. It worked, and it was undeniably fun while it lasted.

The original exotica had several forms: there was space age bachelor pad music, with its “ping-pong stereo demonstration record” aesthetics, and there was, well, the other kind, that instrumental tiki lounge stuff, replete with bird calls, marimbas, Hawaiian guitar, vibraphone and lots of percussion. And the undisputed king of the scene was Martin Denny.

Denny tapped into the zeitgeist (or maybe he bent the zeitgeist to his own vision) when he released Quiet Village in 1959. That album was a smash hit; eventually, it seemed, you could find a copy next to every home’s hi-fi system. Was this music authentic? Hell, no. Was it a kind of what we would today call cultural appropriation? Likely yes. Was it it a delight nonetheless? Absolutely.

As it happens, Quiet Village wasn’t even Denny’s first foray into the land of exotica. That honor goes to his 1957 debut, titled fittingly enough Exotica. It lit the fire, and so a few months later the less imaginatively titled Exotica II appeared. The music and arrangement were plenty imaginative, though. Vibraphonist Arthur Lyman played some delightful melodies (he’d eventually head off on a solo career and find higher profile success that way). Augie Colon (percussion) and John Kramer (bass) stuck with Denny, and they continued to make more of these (semi-) instrumental albums including – you guessed it – Exotica III.

The albums contained original material here and there, but for the most part Denny and his band focused on taking the tunes of other composers and recasting them in their signature style. That means that listeners are treated to tiki-style Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues,” Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” and even “Hello Young Lovers” from those South Pacific guys, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Fun stuff all around.

Righteous Records’ new 2CD set brings together all four of those LPs – the three Exotica volumes plus Quiet Village and some stray singles – in a tidy 2CD package. A brief but informative essay from MOJO’s Dave Henderson provides some context, and a facsimile sticker tells us that the package is “As dug by Lux and Ivy.” Whether the endorsement of the couple from The Cramps carries any weight with you or not, Deep Exotica is a wonderful (and wonderfully kitschy) way to while away an evening while sipping on your choice of Mai Tai or Zombie. Recommended!

P.S. If you dig this and want to head to the outer reaches of exotica, I would suggest that you click this link and read the review.