Marty Robbins
Island Woman






During the sunset phase of Exotica, Country singer, songwriter and NASCAR driver Marty Robbins (1925–1992) uses the opportunity to come up with Island Woman, released in 1964 on Capitol Records and full of yearning guitar scents, vocals to the max by both Robbins and a mixed choir as well as a notable braiding of exoticism in the shapes of congas, bongos, shakers plus the very rare appearance of a vibraphone. Is Island Woman a Country work camouflaged as an Exotica album, or even vice versa? The answer is not easy. While there are many tunes that are figuratively moist due to the syrupy schmaltz that drips out of their pores, there is contrapuntally jocular tongue-in-cheek material that is nothing short of delightful. However, if you made it this far in the review without my mentioning of Country having resulted in severe facepalming processions, there is another highly intriguing tendency that Exotica fans should be aware of.


I am talking about a stylistic particularity: whereas the liner notes state that Marty Robbins "invites you to go along with him on a musical, island-hopping holiday," it is not the Golden Islands of Hawaii he has in mind. Instead of setting foot on Polynesian grounds, he is keen on the Caribbean, especially so Jamaica. This assertion is nowhere mentioned, but comes to life both via the stylistic range, the landmarks and locations depicted in the titles as well as the genre-specific sylvan markers which are found in the titles too. Still, Island Woman is about any group of islands really and comprises of 12 songs, with three of them written by Marty Robbins and the other nine comprising interpretations of better known material. Does Robbins' exotic album have something worthwhile to offer? As expected, I am going to tell you over the course of this review.


A sun-dappled ditty and one of his greatest hits called The Mango Song provides the first aural destination on Marty Robbins’ tour through, over and between the islands. Written – and naturally sung – by the Country luminary himself, it is much less Polynesian than joyfully Caribbean. "Pick the mango from the tree, hand the mango down to me" and "take the mango to the square, try to sell the mango there" are but two lines off this wooden percussion-accentuated paradise, fueled with warm acoustic guitar spirals and a yearning choir aspirating the signature word, Mango. Despite the reduced instrumental pool, this uplifting tune is draped in blue skies with carefree spirits wafting around it as if this was a mango-themed song by Harry Belafonte. A gorgeously exotic piece.


However, Robbins then makes it his top priority to visit a Girl From Spanish Town. Here the Country roots shimmer through a bit more detailedly, not just due to the singer’s suspiring (or was that surprising?) glorification of the girl’s physiognomy, i.e. her brown skin, or because the syrupy backing choir, but also due to the more mountainously plinking guitar which does not fit with the comparably planar Jamaican city. This one is simply too romantic and kitschy for my taste, but Robbins’ following rendition of Dave Bailey’s Blue Sea succeeds. It is based on a similar structure, but the placid bongo groove and the reverb of the Elvis-like impression make this an artifact that works due to its vocals and not by the means of the guitar-related susurration.


While Bill Johnson’s Calypso Vacation is presented in a superb way with dissonant marimba shards, silkened castanets, a prominent bongo beat and the mildly upbeat strata which are a great backdrop for the country singer’s interplay with the backing choir and solidify the pleasant anticipation, Joe Babcock’s Calypso Girl seems like a golden-shimmering reprise as it is based on similar guitar licks but reduces the percussion thicket, replaces it with warm double bass globs and thus allows a more contemplative view onto the topic. The final fleeting visit of side A is that of a Native Girl, originally envisioned by Jack Pruett. Another more mirthful mirage, the percussion scheme is revved up with congas, the crunchy nylon guitar gleams brighter, and the all-male choir performs unexpectedly crisply, at least partially so.


Side B kicks off with one of my favorite Caribbean-flavored tunes, and I am almost embarrased to admit it, but Bahama Mama is hot. Another tune written by Bill Johnson, it towers above the syrupy schmutz of the Country genre – and Dr Kelso’s inclination toward the identically named alcoholic drink – thanks to the faux-accent of the vocals, the most prolific bongo patterns, the fizzling sizzles of the shakers and the gleeful atmosphere, not to mention the potential happy end of Hollywood dimensions: "Drink much rum, get me in a fight, sailor hit me on head, out go light. When I came to, guess what I see? Bahama Mama, and she kissing me." Robbins travels further, and what do you know, there are additional male living beings somewhere, for Lee Emerson’s Tahitian Boy is clearly about the lifestyle only men are entitled to, even on an island of freedom.


The soft bongo surfaces tropicalize the otherwise clearly Country-influenced song, and the situation does not improve on Don Kingston’s Kingston Girl either, an enormously reduced – or focused, if you will – soundscape with anything but an acoustic guitar, a few bass blebs and Marty Robbins in the middle, naturally accompanied by a horribly humming choir. The intentions of this tune are reputable, but viewed from an Exotica angle, it is situated in no man’s land, neither Caribbean nor Polynesian, let alone Hapa Haole-based.


Marty Robbins’ self-written Back To Montego Bay is better suited for the Exotica connoisseur’s taste. Despite the omission of exotic percussion, with only a few finger cymbals and bass guitar protuberances being in place, the guitars are coated in a warmer hue. The ode to Jamaica’s pearly white beautiful beach works well, but be aware of that Country timbre. Feminists will fume not much later, for Joe Babcock’s A Woman Gets Her Way is an all-male (!) good-natured lamento about a woman’s reign over her husband. Need a lyrical portion? "Man makes the wheels go 'round, cuts the cane and tills the ground. Then he gets his weekly pay, woman spends it all in just one day." A teary-eyed situation. Is paradise lost? It is, especially so in Marty Robbins’ well-arranged finale Sweet Bird Of Paradise. Turquoise-tinted vibraphone glitters underpin the bongo-accompanied acoustic guitar tune complete with frizzling hi-hats and a mixed choir. Unfortunately, the tone sequences are too chintzy, notwithstanding the great mirage this song unchains. "Farewell to thee, sweet bird of paradise," and to this presumably Jamaica-focused work.


If you love Country and Exotica, Island Woman is the album to own. Marty Robbins manages to intertwine these partially compatible genres and lets a genteel discourse unfold, with some songs tending to the former genre and others to the latter. Of particular note is the concept of yearning, a feeling sewed into all vintage Exotica albums as well as all Country albums, so if there is one denominator, a nucleus perturbed by both genres, this would be it. However, yearning is constructed differently in the respective music-related field, and Island Woman shows it better than other works: while Exotica records are keen on a multitude of textures in order create instrumentations which lure the listener via soothing segues or mellow melodies, Country is all about the duopoly of vocals and guitars. Robbins' voice thus remains the centerfold attribute, a fact that may be largely mundane in the given prospect of Island Woman being his album after all, but important to recapture due to the timbre, tonality and range of colors. The backing choir boosts the effect of Robbins' voice, never outshining him, which is yet another of the many Country tendencies or even rules. Some renditions such as Tahitian Boy are rather dull as there is anything interesting going on in the background, whatever this may mean for the listener.


The guitar remains the lead instrument, no doubt about that, but then there are the many congas, bongos, shakers and vibes which, in the end, cause a tropical breeze. Songs like Bahama Mama, The Mango Song and Calypso Vacation prove to be excellent countryfied Exotica products. Two tunes are particularly noteworthy in terms of a strongly exotic and a more country-based approach, and they are even placed in a consecutive order: the just mentioned Calypso Vacation marries warm guitar scents with exotic percussion and Robbins' vocals, whereas Calypso Girl features highly similar guitar riffs, but annihilates the percussion. Now you have a Country song in front of you. Highlights, at least to me, are the more uplifting midtempo tunes telling quirky incidents. It is here where my center of attention changes from the instrumental pool to the performance of Marty Robbins. My reception henceforth becomes congruent with the one of Country listeners! Without creating an unnecessarily academical debate – aka an erudite big fuss – about this album, it is clearly no must-have item for Exotica buffs, but those who favor a Caribbean timbre rather than a Polynesian one and are on top of that keen on Country melodies, Island Woman is at your service in LP, CD and digital download form.


Exotica Review 252: Marty Robbins – Island Woman (1964). Originally published on Aug. 24, 2013 at