Franck Pourcel
The Sound Of Magic






The Sound Of Magic is an exotic Space-Age album of 12 renditions by French composer and violinist Franck Pourcel (1913–2000), released in 1967 on Columbia Records as part of its Studio 2 Stereo series which advertises and promises the best sound the average North American devotee can buy with his hard-earned money. Despite the orotund language in the liner notes and the merciless praise for the recording technique, The Sound Of Magic is no soulless artifact solely created to cash in, but does indeed contain a few gemstones which may have been heard before innumerable times, but are skillfully realized and envisioned here.


The biggest impact of the arrangements is based on the string side; fans of Les Baxter, Jackie Gleason and Stanley Black’s 60’s oeuvre will be grateful for their dazzling textures. Most of the times, these strings are a tad too romantic, or worse, too normal and commonplace, but once they tumble to Space-Age arabesques, one’s jaw might drop. Aside from the strings, there is a delicately large pool of instruments in here: harpsichords and organs nurture the cosmic nature further, all the while accordions, flutes, harps, banjos and vibraphones ameliorate the wadded string encapsulations. Do not expect exotic percussion layers, for there are none. In lieu of their appearance, there is something else in store: a great mixed choir. It may not appear to be otherworldly or creatively crazy, but does add much to the respective mood and flavor of a song by either humming along to the legato fluxions or spicing the bustling exhilaration up with typical Space-Age chants. Here is a closer look at each of the 12 compositions and their peculiar traits.


A sanguine sunset over a mountainous area, glistening glockenspiels resembling twirling fireflies which anticipate their favorite hour and last but not least the embroidery of a Pagan guitar aorta: Franck Pourcel’s interpretation of Johnny Mandel’s and Paul Francis Webster’s The Shadow Of Your Smile worships the shady interstices of nothingness as melodramatically as it is keen on the melancholic mélange of flute tones, vibraphone droplets and sweeping maracas. Once the symphonic strings enter the scenery and the choir hums along to the lachrymose aura, chintzy fulfillment sets in. Akin to Geoff Love’s long-winded project Manuel And The Music Of The Mountains, the opener is a feast for those Easy Listening aficionados who favor murkier undertones. These very undertones are then completely neglected in Cole Porter’s Around The World which is a super-sunsoaked symposium of Barney Kessel-like warmhearted guitar twangs, tuba protrusions which sound a tad too comical, and superbly euphonious string washes which elevate the construction. Bonus points for the shrapnel of staccato piano spirals in the middle section.


Since I have already mentioned Barney Kessel: nothing beats his eminently phantasmagoric-insouciant take on Henry Mancini’s and Johnny Mercer‘s Days Of Wine And Roses, found on Kessel’s Exotica album and unluckily titled Contemporary Latin Rhythms (1963), but Monsieur Pourcel comes close and ameliorates the crepuscular carefreeness with a midtempo rhythm of double bass blebs, transcendent strings and a choir that has every right to be perceived as kitschy, but prevents this very notion. The piano cascades in the middle, the coupled acoustic guitar with the glockenspiel and the placid string riverbed which flows into a protuberant fluxion makes Days Of Wine And Roses an enchanting take.


While Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound Of Music inspired the title of Pourcel's album and oscillates between an infinitesimally Baroque warmth and similarly antediluvian-ized “doo-doo” Space-Age hums which are then covered in rich alluvial strings next to glacial vibraphone prongs, the take on Don Black’s and John Barry’s Born Free is a cheeky counterpart and bachelor pad-compatible glitzscape loaded with plinking harpsichords, fiery organ shards, Steppe-painting strings from Arizona and a smarmy choir that knows when to stress the excitement. The finale of side A is a take on Who Can Say by Geoff “Manuel” Love’s frequent collaborator Norman Newell and co-written with Riz Ortolani. It resurrects the coruscating harpsichord, plays it in 3/4 time and leaves the stage open for the susurrant choir, bewitching glockenspiels and surprisingly infrequent string accentuations.


Side B opens with Maurice Jarre’s theme of Is Paris Burning?, and while this take cannot possibly be exotic per se, the melancholic-bucolic duality of the strings, organ riverbeds and – naturalement! – accordions paints a quirky picture of Paris, with the occasional warped Space-Age segue hidden in there. Edward Heyman’s and Victor Young’s Love Letters remains in rose-tinted categories which are luckily ennobled by galactic organ textures whose staccato nature offers a pointillistic counterpoint to the rubicund legato strings. The latter part is much more enthralling surface-wise, and the choir joins the elation as well. The triptych of romance is finished with Secret Love. Originally written by Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain, the same delicate organ driblets vesiculate in the background and face semi-serious strings of devotion and love, oh my, making it the most syrupy take of the whole album.


Glimmers of Hollywood are induced in the final triad: The Big Country is the theme to the eponymous movie from 1958, musically envisioned by Jerome Moross and taking the album to a genuinely exciting direction. I’m not kidding here: the quasi-Sicilian tonality of the original is played on a moist banjo which is then embedded in-between humming choirs, rattling train-like pipe organ blisters and piles of strings, making it an interesting contravention to the bog-standard Easy Listening custom pattern-wise. Charlie Chaplin’s This Is My Song then features a Manuel-like gallimaufry of sugar-coated harps, guitars and one too many string rivers, whereas the finale Tonight off the musical West Side Story (1957) from Leonard Bernstein features the rare instance of alto flutes with melodramatic sadness and a careful trumpet infusion. Add the theremin-oid organ dew and the voluminous climax to the scenery, and you get yourself a polymorphous yet stringent apotheosis.


The Sound Of Magic is no must-have album, as it resides in the outermost periphery of the Exotica and Space-Age simultaneity, with many other works to prefer before one reaches Franck Pourcel’s visions eventually. That being said, this late entry does not do any harm; the opposite is the case, for the amount of instruments and various textures offers a good dose of variety, with many an instrument appearing exclusively on one single tune only, a feat that is not often achieved by arrangers. Is Paris Burning? is the only instance where an archetypically French accordion appears. Likewise, The Big Country nurtures its wideness with a banjo injection that is less hillbilly-like than one might expect. And finally, This Is My Song is probably not the only, but the most opalescent instance where silken harps appear. These examples do not make a good album, but show the care with which the arrangements are embellished and realized.


The material is few and far between the interstices of Space-Age, Exotica and Easy Listening, not coincidentally three terms which desultory listeners could well merge into one. From the literally magic glockenspiel bokeh bliss of the opener The Shadow Of Your Smile over the enchanting Jazz breeze in the soothing Days Of Wine And Roses to the retro stipples in the shapes of harpsichords and organs in Born Free, the timbre is always benign and the euphony omnipresent. Indeed, if there is one good indicator for a harmonious singalong album in the case of Easy Listening and related genres, it would be the inclusion of a choir. Here, the ladies and gentlemen deliver a good, if not outstanding performance, doo-dooing and hmm-hmming their way through the lofty dreamscapes. Add the colorful paroxysms of the symphonic strings to the check list, and The Sound Of Magic is worth considering! At the time of writing, it is only available on vinyl, but it is one of the works deemed important enough to justify a reissue. In 2017 maybe, when its 50th anniversary is nigh? 


Exotica Review 293: Franck Pourcel – The Sound Of Magic (1967). Originally published on Dec. 14, 2013 at