Warren Barker
A Musical Touch Of

Far Away Places





Let me emphasize in advance: This is one of my very favorite Exotica albums of all time, regardless of the artist, the decade, the style and the collectibility. Warren Barker delivers mostly original tunes that resemble the United States‘ vision of music played in far away, mostly Eastern places at the turn of the decade, right before the Swingin‘ Sixties materialized. Thankfully, this album is easy to find on digital music stores as it has been digitally remastered. I encourage you to check this album out if you don‘t know it yet.


It is considered an enjoyable, important work in Exotica circles, and I will mention the best tracks in this review which, apart from a few examples, all consist of original compositions, four of them being created by Barker himself: Malayan Nightbird, Junk City Hong Kong, Kowloon To London and Javanese Valley. The tracks I don‘t mention are neither boring nor negligible, it‘s just that I‘m focusing on certain parts and tracks of any LP I‘m reviewing here that features a dozen of songs. First of all, the album cover gives us a glimpse of a common marketing ploy (or synergy, if you‘re less sarcastic) of this millennium, and it is a joy to see that it has been used to great effect in the 50‘s as well: The presentation of a product by a well-known star who hasn‘t too much to do with it other than giving his name for promotional purposes.


In this case it is everybody‘s darling William Holden, movie star of such films as Sunset Boulevard, Escape from Port Bravo and The Bridge on the River Kwai. His aura was so illuminating that his name is actually in a larger font than the conductor‘s and arranger‘s, Warren Barker, who isn‘t even featured on the cover of the LP instead of Holden who is posing behind a pair of congas, with another pair of bongos is in his reach, while he is smiling because of the beautiful music he is about to present. 


This trick was repeated once more in the same year with the album As I Hear it, also arranged by Barker and presented by Holden. However, I‘m probably a bit too harsh about Holden, as his role in the production of this LP was indeed a leading one for three reasons, because firstly, most of the various instruments used on this LP were actually taken off Holden‘s private collection that he established during the filming of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) and his further travels through various Eastern countries. Secondly, this lead to his profound knowledge of Eastern music, especially the music of the Philippines, one of Holden‘s favorite places on Earth. And lastly, Holden was responsible for the liner notes of the LP which give an insight about its production, while Holden stresses the shared values and ideas between the trio – Holden, Barker and producer Bill Stewart – that found their way onto the LP. So Holden‘s role as a presenter is indeed based on a synergy and not a marketing ploy – those were innocent times, I tell you.


The album starts in the most pleasant way: Malayan Nightbird, a joyous, relaxing ode realized with the help of quiet bongos, wind chimes and gorgeous string sections. The main melody played by the strings is then repeated by a Japanese zither, probably a koto or shamisen, and wooden clappers imitate the chirping of the nightbird. The whole song has a carefree, positive vibe without sounding too kitschy, a well-known feeling that is evoked by a lot of Exotica songs, but not this one. Junk City Hong Kong captures the mood of a quiet night in, well, Hong Kong by featuring a mysterious female choir, flourishes by mallet instruments, and zithers that are so typical for China from a Western point of view in the late 50‘s.


Shojoji is the fourth track on the album and one of the upbeat, cheerful songs, featuring zither and flute and therefore staying true to the concept of creating the mood of a foreign place – until everything stops at 52 seconds. Strings start to play for 30 seconds, creating a heart-warmingly (modern listeners: read schmaltzy) mood for the aforementioned timespan before koto and flute start to play again. This song might be a hit or miss for modern ears. I for one like the short worry-free strings in the middle of the song, but I leave this open for discussion and feel slightly embarrassed by admitting my affection.


Lotus Land, another favorite of mine and the longest track on the LP with over 4 minutes, also has a female choir, enigmatic wind chimes, sky-high vibraphones for the higher octaves and a bunch of flutes. The song creates a relaxing atmosphere due to its length alone, as most songs are short of the 3-minute mark, and is thus a real winner. Again, this song doesn‘t feel dated or ridiculous at all!


Kyoto Merry-Go-Around is another gem. It‘s actually an Eastern-flavored rendition of Hoagy Carmichael‘s 1951 hit My Resistance Is Low minus the lyrics. The setup is surprisingly traditional, focusing heavily on the strings but adding most of the ingredients of the other Eastern songs like mallet instruments and zithers, all played short and crisply in unison with the strings. Moonflowers is another blast for me, featuring the same female choir, but their key changes from mysterious to soothing, as if the singers were drugged with pleasant fatigue due to the consumption of moonflowers. Believe me, once you hear this song, you won‘t get it out of your head – it is just that catchy a melody, paving its way through your ears, ignoring any resistance you might have. It‘s just magic.


And just to make things even better, the album closer Mountain High, Valley Low is again similar in nature to Moonflowers, featuring the very same choir but with a clearly audible lead vocalist. On this track, a distinct hall effect is noticeable, resembling the echo that reaches the valley beneath the mountain. The strings are reduced to a minimum while koto and mallet instruments are on the foreground this time, closing things on an Eastern note.


Keeping things short at the end, I wholeheartedly recommend this album for listeners who are looking for highly euphonious, hummable, Eastern-flavored (for Western ears at least) tunes that blend Eastern instruments with conventional strings and an exceptionally mesmerizing female choir that is used far too infrequently on this LP. I also recommend it for fans of William Holden. Oh dear.


Further reading:
The SpaceAgePop.com synopsis of Warren Barker is interesting, as is the Warren Barker quiz.

Exotica Review 006: Warren Barker – A Musical Touch Of Far Away Places (1959). Originally published on Dec. 18, 2011 at AmbientExotica.com.