The Blue Hawaiians
On Big Island 





Christmas On Big Island is unsurprisingly the festive album by the Surf Rock-focused Exotica quartet The Blue Hawaiians. Released in 1995 on Restless Records, vocalist and bassist Mark Fontana gathers lead guitarist Mark Sproull, steel guitarist Bron Tieman as well as drummer and Ambient musician maxwellvision around him in order to enjoy the frostiest season… on Hawaii. Seven Christmas classics are united with three original cuts by the band, but actually, the track list is quite a bit longer, as the band delivers a stylistic peculiarity on three tracks that is utterly cool: some melodious hooks of Exotica classics are woven in temporarily, immediately jumping at the connoisseur and creating "aha!" moments while being nondisturbing for those who just want to bathe in the aural soundscape.


Considering the signature instruments of the band members plus a few additional vibraphones, lots of bongos and other exotic instruments, one imagines that the atmosphere differs quite much from the shedloads of winterly Christmas standard crap. It does indeed. If this is what you want from an exotic Christmas album – the utter transformation or metamorphosis with only a small core of the original intact –, The Blue Hawaiians definitely deliver. There are even a few vocal tracks on here that remind on their classics Live At The Lava Lounge Volume 1 and Volume 2. But even the dreaminess of their studio album Sway (1998) made it on here.


Traditional material in Hawaiian style, that is the formula The Blue Hawaiians apply to Vince Guaraldi's and Lee Mendelson's Christmas Time Is Here right from the start. Bron Tieman's languorous steel guitar meshes with the silkened maracas-fueled backdrop. Doleful yearning phases in minor intermix with a brighter outlook. The achievement of this composition lies in its minimalist structure. The steel guitar, an added bass guitar and the gentle shakers are everything there is. That typical Christmas mood is nowhere to be found; this makes for a warped effect in anyone's head when the melody is recognizable, but cannot be properly linked to Christmas in this incarnation.


A much thicker vocal take of Curtis Williams' Jingle Jangle is next: arpeggiato lead guitars merge with their dreamy steel brethren, vibraphone droplets mesh with maxwellvision's crunchy drums and Mark Fontana's vocals. The mood is sunny, the theremin-esque steel guitar injects that Hawaiian flavor big time. The backing choir comprises of the whole band, and while they mimick a Hapa Hale choir in the veins of Alfred Apaka's one, they are much more upfront and joyful rather than poeticizing. Irving Berlin's eternally great White Christmas follows, but it gets totally stripped off its kitsch, as a guiro-fueled classic drum placenta in tandem with belly-massaging bass guitar drops underline the world-famous lead melody on the steel guitar. Whether you see this version as an affront towards Berlin's original or not, chances are that you must expect mutations like this, given the album cover. The band shies away from vocals on this one, and thoughtfully so.


James Pierpont's Jingle Bells is radically changed in regard to its décor, now called Jungle Bells. The dichotomy of a crunchy-muffled surf guitar is the key, said guitar unchains the whole melodies, changing this jolly tale of frosty goodness into a sun-fueled blue-tinted sky afternoon ride through the jungle, especially so when maxwellvision's drums are revved up in the middle section. It is only in its last phase that the perfectly carved out melody traverses by for a short moment, therefore harking back to the original in glaring clarity for just few short seconds. I for one like this lively tambourin-free version of an already upbeat tune quite much.


Billy Hayes' Blue Christmas, on the other hand, is much dreamier for one good reason: the opening actually places Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein II.'s Bali Ha'i as an introductory segue and reappearing motif! It leads to Mark Fontana's Apaka-esque mellifluous vocals in an otherwise reduced soundscape that let his vocals shine all the better. For whatever reason, this shifting critter of two tunes works marvelously well. Afterwards, the first unique track appears in the form of the titular Christmas On Big Island, a gorgeous ditty with an outright fast tempo and superbly exotic percussion structures which underpin Mark Fontana's lyrics about luaus and "dancing in the sand," both of them things you will probably not link to the clichéd Hollywoodization of that festivity. The surf guitar backings are wonderfully mellow, the clicking castanets are much more captivating in these surroundings than Crimbo triangles, and Mark Sproull's short guitar solo destroys the last kind of melancholia the humongous C-term might imply.


Up next is an interpretation of Ralph Blane's and Hugh Martin's Have Yourself A Quiet Little Christmas… a very free interpretation I might add, as this is the ultimate laid back Exotica track, not just on this album, but even in consideration of the band's complete works! Meshing the melody of Les Baxter's Quiet Village on the bass guitar with utterly phantasmagoric vibraphone droplets, tick-tocking bongos, goblet drums and croaking guiros, Blane's envisioned melody is then played by both the vibe and the electric guitar. A dreamy steel guitar evokes feelings of the Space-Age version of Hawaii. An utterly enchanting tune! After this downbeat artifact, it is time to rev up the tempo again.


Alex Anderson's Mele Kalihimaka (literally Merry Christmas) is in the spotlight. The fast-paced Country-infused Hawaiiana works well. Acoustic guitar backings and warbled steel guitars are the signature elements, but the occasional bongos and vibe glints add plasticity to this vocal track; Fontana really sounds like the Golden Age Hawaiian vocal stars on here. The album closes with two (half-)unique compositions by the band: while We Four Kings is a prototypical surf anthem par excellence with the decay of the steel guitars bouncing elastically, the added depth of the bass guitar and the explicit appearance of the well-known Little Drummer Boy adding yet another great "aha moment" of this smoking-fast arrangement, Enchanted Xmas pesents a dreamy 3/4 rhythm with a surprising amount of glacial cymbals, loneliness-evoking guitar chords, a aqueous staccato bongo layer and the spectral ooh-ooh sung by the band members themselves. A surprising conclusion, I tend to think, for it exchanges the sun with a nocturnal melancholia… without any traces of a Christmas song.


Christmas On Big Island targets an audience who is neither fed up with Christmas itself, nor the many tone sequences that have burned themselves into their heads. It is tailored to people who are generally not fond of the commonplace arrangements out there, whether they are Gospels, pastoral or saccharine big band renditions. The Blue Hawaiians care for these traditions and melodies, and both are always glaringly perceptible in the mix and rather played on totally different instruments that are unrelated to the Hollywood scheme of Christmas, but all the more based on that Honolulu formula.


The omission of plinking devices – mostly tambourins and triangles – is the first step to a warmer clime, but the wealth of steel guitars and pumping drums really elevates this album into a sphere that is lofty and yet attached to the ground. The Christmas flavor is all over it, but the Hawaiian flair always wins by a wide margin. The vocals boost the luminescence of the sunscape further, and it is here that the band lives up to their Lava Lounge performances in Hollywood, at least partially so, for Mark Fontana's voice is deliberately smooth. And rightfully so, for this album is dynamic enough, you surely don't want to find an all to obvious coolness or aggression in his performance given the title and leitmotif. My favorite track remains Have Yourself A Quiet Little Christmas. The term Quiet serves also as a marker for that certain Exotica hymn Quiet Village. A great surprise and a real treat for Exotica fans. If you are searching for an altered Christmas album that is distantly comparable to Jerry Byrd's Christmas In Hawaii (1987) from a material-related viewpoint, but much cooler and more exotic than Hapa Haole in style, Christmas On Big Island is a splendid classic from the pre-neo-Exotica era by a very cool band.


Exotica Review 161: The Blue Hawaiians – Christmas On Big Island (1995). Originally published on Dec. 22, 2012 at