The Hula Girls
The Curse Of The Tiki






That genre named Exotica is dreamy, soothing and cozy. It is solely about Hawaiian beaches, Polynesian jungles and African steppes, right? Wroooong! Let‘s admit it, folks, we come back time and again to the Exotica grandmasters of the 50‘s and early 60‘s, but wouldn‘t it be nice if there were bands that transported these formulae into the new millennium and concentrated solely on the harder side of the genre? These bands do exist: a few takes of The Tikiyaki Orchestra and the majority of Clouseaux‘s or The Crazed Mugs‘ output would fall into that category, as the bands mix electric or steel guitars with surfers' attitudes.


Do you want a mercilessly intransigent no-compromises approach rather than the wishy-washy romantic interpretation of Alex Keack‘s Surfers Paradise? Enter The Hula Girls, the all-male Rockabilly and Surfers Rock quartet whose nucleus, Matt "Spike" Marble, gathers talented people around him in order to take the worn-out Exotica genre to the next level with a new style called Hula-Billy while still harking back to the old decades.


The band already passed through a few studio and live line-up changes, but people involved in this project at some point are drummer and backing vocalist Doug Sanborn, steel guitarists and song writers Kevin Bullat and the Gary Brandin, helping hand of The Tikiyaki Orchestra, The Vanduras and The Blue Hawaiians, bass guitarists and backing vocalists Christian Kessler and Lucas Vigor, as well as percussionist Dominic Tucci who – surprise, surprise – is also responsible for vocals. You see where this is going on their 14-track debut album The Curse Of The Tiki: the vocals and lyrics are as important as the eclectic electric eclipsing music and its Exotica context, as you can boldly see on the cover and in terms of the Caribbean green vinyl pressing. However, the band is clearly more influenced by acts and artists like Elvis and Los Straitjackets rather than by the usual suspects I have reviewed. So without further ado, let‘s all be cursed in the following paragraphs.


Hula Girl is the opener and features the superstructure of a swinging Elvis track: it is all about Spike Marble‘s echoey King-like vocals, ooh-ooh backings and shedloads of steel guitars which are played in Hawaiian style. Think of Jailhouse Rock, not of Lujon and you get a pretty good idea about the rhythm and style of the song. Hawaii‘s Not That Far Away is a bittersweet drama about a girl leaving a guy as you‘ve heard it a thousand times before. Her reasons, though, are more than sober: she‘s moving to Hawaii ("Hawaii makes me dream"), but the song is actually very upbeat and catchy. Even more than the vocals, I adore the delicious guitar bridges in-between the vocal sections, as they are tremendously real. In moments like these, I wish for more instrumental songs on The Hula Girls‘ forthcoming oblations.


The title-giving The Curse Of The Tiki is a Crime Jazz Rockabilly song, but without the Jazz. Superbly warped guitar backings, a rather frantic Marble ("All I can do is beg and plead") and a lamenting refrain that is catchy as hell make this the signature track of the band for me. It‘s very melodious and easy to sing along with. While Suck ‘Em Up is another polyphonous vocal track with a typical Rockabilly flavor reminiscent to the album opener, Moonshine Mai Tai is a much needed and wonderfully wonky instrumental with a strong Surf Rock feeling. The guitar interplay and the euphonious dazzle of each string put the emphasis on a sunny afternoon rather than a tropical night, but the song works fantastically well on daytime when I‘m out in the fields for running.


Another song worth mentioning is Volcano with guest musicians DJ Bonebrake and Gary Brandin, for it breaks the mood completely and is a surprisingly slowed-down, dreamy and dusky song that blends the mood of Kenny Sasaki & The Tiki Boys‘ spaced-out guitar twangs on songs like Jellyfish (off Island Slumber) with majestic backing vocals as in Clouseaux‘s Walking From Juarez (off Lagoon!). This is one of my favorites, as I‘m more into the dreamy side of Exotica, so this album pulls exactly the right triggers. Mellifluous and serene!


While Leilani starts side B in the same style than Hula Girl did start side A but with specifically clarion ooh-ooh backings, Longboard Baby is a gorgeous surf song with sophisticated guitar interludes and Dominic Tucci‘s energetical Joe Cocker-like rasping voice, making his surf chants the perfect foil for the colorful guitar string-laden surroundings.


The Warm Sands Of Huntington Beach is another gorgeous instrumental in 3/4 time. The band comes up with the daydreaming kind of reverie that is augmented by the inclusion of a shimmering vibraphone which is interwoven into the mélange of flowing guitars, making this another strong favorite of mine, and as usual, it has to do with the vibe, for I am loving this mallet instrument tremendously. Now if The Hula Girls include a harp in one of their songs one day, I‘d be utterly amazed! Surfin‘ With Von Franco is another Rockabilly song that's in the vein of the title track, but one element stands out, namely the cheekily nasty guitar riffs that really induce the idea of a battle. This is the definitely the most rocking song in the classical sense of the term, for the way these guitars are played inherits a certain sportsmanlike aggressiveness. Another killer track for me that I keep with me all the time.


The penultimate Waikiki Moon delivers an especially romantic chorus on an otherwise upbeat mood that is so endemic on this album, while the final The Hidden Village invites DJ Bonebrake and Gary Brandin again and unites them with tiki carver Crazy Al in the very best, most Exotica-like track on the album that broadens the formula immensely and for the better: bird noises and cloak-and-dagger guitars are juxtaposed to iridescent vibraphones whose sustain illuminates the otherwise dark mystique of the jungle. The primitive tribal ooga-chooga chants remind me of Don Tiki‘s The Natives Are Restless, and the whole song is a gargantuan album closer that lets me hope the band will pick up the stylistic thread that is left here and weave it into their next album more prominently.


The Curse Of The Tiki is a special album. There are many bands that try to mimic the greatest hits of Elvis and mix these with original material. However, The Hula Girls are one of a kind, for despite all of their Rock-related influences, they clearly belong to the Exotica genre and enhance its stylistic devices with a lot of energy. Their own volition and aesthetic values prohibit the band to fall into the reminiscence trap – it is only in the last song The Hidden Village that they hark back to the 50‘s and 60‘s, and very successfully so. This supposedly weak moment is actually a strength, for I am now hooked by this symbiosis of Rockabilly with vintage Exotica and want the band to continue this path … if I were imperator and lived in an ideal world, that is. I cannot complain about the consistency of The Curse Of The Tiki. While I mentioned Alex Keack in the beginning of the review, The Hula Girls‘ album is similarly coherent, but cannot be compared to Keack‘s singular album in the end. The topic of both albums might be the depiction of a surfer‘s life, but The Curse Of The Tiki is much more sophisticated, breaking the Rockabilly formula with both instrumentals and three dreamy offerings.


It is true that some of the songs are incredibly similar to each other – Hula Girl, Suck ‘Em Up and Leilani –, but at the same time, there is not a single bad or inappropriate song on this album – not a single one out of 14! And even though the album is coherent, it offers enough variety that cannot be unmasked as variety, but in fact fits perfectly into the overarching Surf Rock style of the album. A great debut, and although I am no expert at all when it comes to the band‘s primary influences, I like what I hear, because the novelty factor is even greater to my ears than to those of many others. While the vinyl edition can still be purchased at Dionysus Records, the album is also available on iTunes and Amazon in digital form. I recommend the album in every incarnation, it‘s one of a kind in the Exotica realms.


Exotica Review 058: The Hula Girls – The Curse Of The Tiki (2010). Originally published on Apr. 14, 2012 at