Enoch Light
Spanish Strings






Spanish Strings remains one of my favorite records by Enoch Light (1905–1978). Its raison d'être (that's French, but anyway…) is that of a showcase marker for the latest advancements in audiophile recording techniques, but this is totally expected and business as usual with virtually all of Light's records of the 60's and 70's. This time Light is presenting a so-called Total Sound record, a buzzword setup whose unique characteristic comprises of the use of 35mm film material instead of using the usual audio reels of 60's studio settings.


Even though 35mm film costs much more than ordinary or even audiophile tapes, Light insists on this technique in order to present the best possible listening experience before the existence of the quadrophonic recording procedure that was hailed by Light in the 70's. The sound quality of Spanish Strings does indeed stand the test of time, but even the presented material shines on its own and is both noteworthy and memorable due to the catchy melodies on the one hand and the large pool of instruments on the other. This is no lackluster Latin album by the number, for the focus really does remain on the Spanish side of the stylistic spectrum, with lots of Balearic guitars, clicking castanets and Flamenco ingredients adding to the saccharine care-free attitude.


Twelve tacks are gathered on Spanish Strings, all of them classics and world-famous compositions. Despite the reduction to Spain (and Portugal!), Enoch Light releases a brightly-lit Exotica record full of paradisiac flutes, gleaming horn sections and beautifully pulsating Hammond organs, the latter of which are a clear sign of Spanish Strings being rooted in the beginning Funk movement and the rise of organ instruments in popular music. Thanks to this particular instrument, it's a tremendously funky, brass-laden Easy Listening album and maybe the most important selling point of the LP, which offers the following, sometimes embarrassingly catchy material.

April In Portugal starts with a sun-soaked, definitely Spanish guitar played by Tony Mottola. After his solo, dreamy violin washes flow over the listener, all the while the castanets are clicking, the silky alto flute, played by Stan Webb is playing a mellifluous melody. Of particular success is the focus on the bongo rhythm – played by Bobby Rosengarden (of Like Bongos! fame) – and the golden-shimmering harp cascades, courtesy of Robert Maxwell. These session musicians bring this classic by Raul Ferrão to life, and the tempo is surprisingly speedy. Even though the strings are washing oer the listener, each and every instrument is still plainly audible and never swallowed by their presence.


Up next is Without You, Osvaldo Farres' melancholic lamento in the vein of Misirlou, but played in minor. Doc Severinsen's trumpet solo is incisive and powerful and accordingly boosted by the horn ensemble, even the strings inherit the dolefulness of the brass sections; only Webb's alto flute offers a glint of unique blithesomeness. The punchiness of the trumpets is really the trademark sound of this production, the reverb of their sound waves is fired against the listener, and the sizzling-hot aura really does add a large dose of melodrama and pathos. It's by no means a favorite song of mine, but I have to acknowledge its utterly incisive and thunderous verve.


The following Come On, Come On, Come On, Don't Be Timido is the only unique composition on Spanish Strings, a collaborative effort of Enoch Light with his long-time arranger Lew Davies. The feeling of Exotica is particularly apparent here, with a vivid bongo solo at the beginning and a particularly wonky harpsichord that gleams and harmonizes well with the staccato strings and jumpy flutes. At the end of the day, this is an ephemeral, all too jocular song, but it's an unheard before composition, and as such valuable. Maria Méndez Gever's reverie-evoking smash hit What A Difference A Day Made puts Mottola's guitar skills to the foreground at the beginning. The famous melody is later played by luxurious strings, smooth horns, and accompanied by a cheeky harpsichord, making this streamlined version somewhat memorable.


While Osvaldo Farres' and Joseph Davis' Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps paints a gorgeous Space-Age panorama full of typical Portuguese harpsichord eruptions complete with mellow piles of strings that play the main melody, reminding altogether on Michel Magne's terrifically crazy interpretation on his 1962 Exotica hallmark Tropical Fantasy, the final song of side A, a rendition of Ernesto Lecuona's Maria My Own, closes the album on a romantic note with humble acoustic guitars, deliciously phantasmagoric string accompaniments and a clarion performance of Severinsen on the trumpet which outshines everything else. And yet this song is a hybrid, as the tempo is probably a tad too upbeat for this song to be reduced to its romantic notion. 

Side B launches with How Insensitive, a song written by
Norman Gimbel and presented by Light in a much revved up version that's contrastive to the original. Being the most frantic piece on the album, the horns are hammering, the strings firing rapidly and the shakers almost hyperventilating. A lively beast of a Latin track. Someone To Light Up My Life is the second song by Jobim that Light chose for this album, and the titular reference to his name surely played a role in the process of selection. It's a terrific take thanks to Maxwell's dreamy harp solo, followed by auroral string sweeps and a euphonious brass mélange that has just the right amount of attack, never being too silky nor too melodramatic, although the last 15 seconds are admittedly overly kitschy due to the sizzling-hit trumpet blasts.


The following Lisbon Antigua, written in 1937 in a collaborative effort between Raul Portela, José Gachardo and Amadeu do Vale, it is all about Latin temper that's fueled by smashing brass eruptions and castanet grooves, but the bright violins and the flutes provide mellifluous counterparts to the attacks. It's one of my favorite takes, for Light arranged this hubris flawlessly. The horns are really warm and very cheerful. The jumpiness is surely helping in the marketing process and Light's insistence on a quality level that's deemed suitable by audiophile fans.


While I Love, I Live, I Love, a song written by Tony Mottola, is all about warmth and streamlined guitar goodness with added orchestra strings for a higher level of plasticity, Leroy Anderson's Blue Tango brings back in the harpsichord and adds majestic trumpets an unexpected piano as an accentuating device. Indeed, where have the pianos been all the time? They're usually linked to Latin albums, no? The alto flutes add a pinch of Exotica to the song. The final La Mentira by Alvaro Cavillo is the pinnacle of the album, with Far Eastern (!) hart twangs and tremendously thick violin build-ups. Mottola's acoustic is allowed to shine before this background. Allotted, pompously towering brass tidbits and Webb's paradisiacal flute tones round off the glittering track which I rank as the best of the whole album. It's definitely syrupy, but if I'd mind this particular style, more than half of the genre-related material would be lost to me. All in all, side B ends with a bang.

Spanish Strings is one of Enoch Light's best albums. Audiophile quality and instrumental arrangements finally meet harmoniously and are on par with each other. I'm normally more than a bit skeptical about gargantuan brass eruptions; as vivid as they are and as essential they may be in Latin music, their attack rate is destroying the careful buildup of many a composition, even Light's own Big Band Bossa Nova of 1962 falls prey to this stylistic flaw. With Spanish Strings, though, he accomplishes to mediate between the louder parts and the quieter. Everything sounds brilliant and life-like. The romantic strings are both kitschy and catchy, the occasional harpsichord reflects the times that are achangin' and lead to the slow development of rules in the up-and-coming Funk genre. Especially the harpsichord works much better on this release than, say, on Henry Mancini's Music Of Hawaii, released in the same year, as it is less acidic and cacophonous on Light's production. It's always wonkily warped and immediately in the spotlight once it enters the scene, but it merges well enough with its surroundings to be both notable and non-disturbing at the same time.


The bongos, Exotica's famous percussion instruments, aren't overly used on here, but at least they provide a good lead-in for a few actual compositions. The melodrama is scattered throughout the album, but thankfully held on a low level. Although Brazilian compositions are used, Light somehow manages to construct them in a European style that's less lamenting and hot-tempered while still retaining all the trademarks and peculiarities of Latin tracks. It's a truly great album with generally well-known, but less-considered songs, at least in regard to the Exotica genre. That this album sounds also truly great is just an added bonus after so many decades. Highly recommended to every Exotica fan, even those who aren't fond of Latin mannerisms. They're seen in a, err, new light here, as if through a moiré. One of Enoch Light's truly great records, with not a single obviously horrific dud in sight.


Exotica Review 141: Enoch Light – Spanish Strings (1966). Originally published on Nov. 3, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.