Tiki For The Atomic Age
Kava Kon is the duo of Nels Truesdell and Bob Kress, their music-related home is on Dionysus Records. While Kava Kon‘s second album is also available on CD and digitally, I can wholeheartedly recommend the LP version of Tiki For The Atomic Age. This version only features 10 of the 12 original tracks (the omissions are The Atomic Clock and Behind The Sun), but it makes up for it with the gorgeous artwork of fine-art heroine Heather Watts.
The beautiful green space-age scenery truly shines in this large format – check out her Tiki artwork portfolio and see what the front cover of the next Kava Kon album could potentially look like, as Watts already provided the artwork for the duo‘s first album, Departure Exotica from 2005. This is without a doubt the most beautiful Exotica-related cover artwork from 2009. But what about the music? It is mainly synthesizer-driven, electronic by nature and a hybrid of Middle Eastern and Polynesian influences, but it is an Exotica album of pure breed nonetheless that resembles Arthur Lyman‘s quiet and soothing vibraphone pieces in its best moments, while the more quirky sections are similar to Tipsy‘s Exotica cuts, for example Uh-Oh! of 2001, which is again no disadvantage at all! In this review, I concentrate on almost all songs of the album, so believe me, there‘s a lot ahead of us, especially in its second half which goes far beyond Shangri-La.
The Atomic Clock starts the album, and it does so in the most surprising way, namely dark and fateful with Oriental strings, Middle Eastern chants, tic-toc percussion and deep basslines and breakbeats. Not the best start for this album in my opinion, because this particular apocalyptic Middle Eastern style is a one-time affair, and the thumping beats are surely effective, but overall too dominant in comparison to all the tracks that follow and that completely shift the mood away to brighter territory. The listener is almost scared off, but things change for the better. Take Chinese Surfer, for example, with its quavering, twisted theremin-like strings, the vividly lush bongos, its drunk seaman choir, and its mandatory inclusion of two surf guitars. This is mean surf music for indefeasible bandits and not exactly suitable for a bright beach day.
Turkish Honey returns to Eastern climes with polyphonous flutes, ubiquitous shawms, a contradictory, slowed-down bossa nova rhythm and the use of a bachelor pad organ. Again, this is no Easy Listening, but a graver interpretation of bazaar music. I am fond of this track, as it has a clear focus and no gimmickries attached to it. The Exotic Traveler is the most electronic song on the album. It starts with majestic strings as if the listener encounters a beautiful vista, and breaks loose after a minute with dominant beats, samples of male choirs and a trembling main melody realized with synths. The skillfully modulated melody remains stuck in your head once you hear it for the first time, and since it sounds so tremendously weird and over the top, it makes The Exotic Traveler a hit in my book – a strange hit, but a hit nonetheless. Sometimes when I‘m out running, this song gets shuffled and when it reaches my ears, I always start to smile a bit, as this is a standout track at all times.
Mood shift! In the second half of the album Kava Kon start to settle in familiar Exotica territory with slower beats, dreamy percussion and lush synth strings. Track six, The Killing River (Without The Sun, Moon, Or Stars), features a beautifully haunting female singer, a reverberated steel guitar and a tambourine. A mystic mood with lurking danger is evoked. The following track, Behind The Sun, is a very good track, with the welcome introduction of vibraphones to the mix, laid-back percussion and short bursts of a synth choir. After 2 minutes, the percussion is intensified with maracas while whiplash-and-horse samples, eagle cries, an electric guitar and long notes on a rock organ can be heard. The last third of the song swells down again, resembling the starting point before fading out with wind noises.
Palace Of The Tiger Women is another Middle Eastern song with the addition of a harp and marimbas. The haunting flute melody is accompanied by female chants. Enter Pacifica 66, which is a killer track. Reverberated three-note vibraphone structures, a horrific conga percussion and three layers of female vocals with occasionally added laser sounds make this the mellowest track. A great idea is the 70-second Ambient intermission which is added to the end of the song: relaxing ocean waves and a melody quietly plucked on a distant acoustic guitar let me beg for more sounds of this kind. Another stormer follows thereafter: Polynesia Poppies resumes the atmosphere of Pacifica 66 with a brighter touch. The vibraphone is now the standout instrument, and chinese gongs and chirping birds are added to the mix. I also dig the ukulele. This is simply my favorite song by Kava Kon, the relaxing atmosphere lets me include Polynesia Poppies time and again in my playlist.
Zero Gravity Lounge remains in Polynesian lands, with a flashy 6/8 beat with hand claps, ukuleles and a good mood overall. In the middle, a syncopated shift in rhythm takes place for a minute, before the song ends the way it started. If you listen carefully, you can hear the permanent sound of distant cascades – a nice addition! Journey Home marks the end of the album and presents one last shift in mood and style. It is a synth-laden, tremendously euphoric finale, relying heavily on the euphonious magic of the synths, while everything else – wah-wah guitars, oriental flutes, bird samples and a Moog synthesizer – comes second to the soundcarpets. Another gigantic track, although it has nothing to do with the Exotica genre despite its bird samples and flute melodies. But that doesn‘t degrade it in the slightest! All Exotica listeners who are willed to try something entirely different should listen to this final fanfare which adds another 70 seconds of pure bliss and Ambient strings to its end.
This is the most electronic release I have ever reviewed in this section so far. If this isn‘t your preferred style and you are asking for a more jazzy or acoustic approach, you should rather look elsewhere, although you would miss an electronic Exotica album that concentrates on melodies and atmosphere, as Kava Kon rely less on gimmicks and needless junk. The inclusion of Ambient noises and nature recordings are always welcome here at AmbientExotica.com, so this is definitely a big plus of the release. I wish that this album was a bit more coherent – I can really split its sections in two halves: whereas the first 5 songs depict a raw wasteland with the addition of heavy beats and eerie melodies, the second half, starting with The Killing River (Without The Sun, Moon, Or Stars), is blissful, relaxing and Lyman-esque. Of course, there must be listeners who disagree with me and see it vice versa, but I for one prefer these dreamy tidbits plus the closing fanfare over the beefy, bass-heavy thumpers. Exotica fans best try the second half of the album and if you are open-minded and don‘t mind an expedition into dance territory, give the first half a go as well.
- Nels Truesdell's Twitter account is @kavakon.
- Their website KavaKon.com is a feast for the eyes and a gateway to other projects and social websites where Kava Kon participate.
Exotica Review 021: Kava Kon – Tiki For The Atomic Age (2009). Originally published on Jan. 7, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.