Les Paul & Mary Ford






If it’s 1948, it must be Space-Age. And shiver me timbers, it is also proto-Exotica! I am talking about Brazil, a nine-track LP of various renditions, envisioned by the – back then soon to be married – couple of guitarist and arranger Les Paul (1915–2009) and vocalist Mary Ford (1924–1977). Brazil is released in said year on Capitol Records which cross-licensed the work to the Pickwick label. In a tiresome and technically highly advanced way, the duo, all alone in the studio, creates a record that seems bigger than the sum of its parts. This is achieved by multistep dubbing, recording various layers and then reuniting them bit by bit. Today’s bedroom producers yawn severely, but it was quite an achievement back then, one which was taken to the next big level by the married couple – I sense a trend here – of Danny & Dena Guglielmi with their left-field Space-Age obelisk Adventure In Sound (1958). Sure, Brazil is less sophisticated and spheroidal than the Guglielmi’s LP, solely guitar-and-vocal-based with only an added classic drum kit, but remember, this is a record by Les Paul.


Expect cavalcades of phase delay, bent frequency helixes and expeditions in dubbing the tape… for reel! The LP oscillates between clownery-evoking Space-Age splinters that sound way too comical on the one hand, and downright enchanting legato guitar washes whose longevity and circumambience are, on the other hand, thankfully much more ubiquitous and add multilayered, carefully dubbed strata and rhizomes to each composition. But granted, the plinking blips and chirping trills are both Les Paul’s trademark style and an unusual aural architecture which influenced guitarists all over the world. Here is a closer look at a special Exotica/Space-Age work, and although both genres are similar to each other and are constantly reviewed here, there is hardly one single work that unites both characteristics this coherently… years before they turn into a craze! Enter the tropical coppice called Brazil.


Every time I listen to Les Paul’s and Mary Ford’s rendition of Ary Barroso’s title track Brazil, I keep reminding myself of the year this take was originally produced. This sounds anything like the celestial symphonies of that time. It is verdured Space-Age of the tropics, its interpretation one of a kind. While the dreamy backing chords are languorous and awash with sunlight and fittingly accompanied by a classic drum kit, it is Les Paul’s overlaid tonewood-like plucks and claviochord-evoking spirals which are the real standout inclusions here, adding pristine and glistening specks to the otherwise mellow aura. The arrangement feels as if different layers face each other, and granted, this is exactly what Brazil is about. The benignancy of Barroso’s original vision suffers from the stringed polka dots, but their twirling formations add a quirkiness to this classic that was previously unheard of.


Pat Boone’s anthem Jealous gets the same aural facelift, introducing the vocals of Mary Ford on this album. Paul’s guitar-based faux-harpsichords coruscate along the jungular tracks, and I for one would love to know whether the female backing choir consists of tripled vocals as delivered by then-Miss Mary Ford, or an actual choir. Not exotic per se, Jealous is still transformed into an insouciant stroll in an embracing rain forest, lit with neon lights.


If I Had You by Jimmy Campbell, Reginald Connelly and Ted Shapiro then is another instrumental, and one of my absolute favorites of the album, as the trio’s downbeat number is transmuted into a strikingly hammock-friendly mirage by Paul. Dreamy and euphonious to the maximum, laid-back and ready to let the interstitial shrubbery of acoustic guitar tendrils glow from behind, If I Had You is a revelation, an enshrinement I come back to time and again. While That Old Feeling by Lee Brown and Sammy Fain is similarly easygoing, purposely reduced and pastel-colored guitar-wise in order for Ford’s lascivious-yearning vocals to unfold all the better, Arthur Johnston’s and Sam Coslow’s Just One More Chance marks the end of side A. It is a short lullaby. The polyphony of the sun-dappled guitar twangs stands out from behind the curtains, the arrangement is decidedly streamlined in order to yet again showcase Miss Ford’s vocals and grant her the exclusive limelight. The intertwinement of the backing vocals with various stressed syllables is far ahead of its time, so much so that today’s listeners cannot possibly grasp this achievement and may shrug their shoulders, as this is only a phantasmagoric ballad after all. But a great one it is, albeit not as exotic as the first two tunes of side A.


Side B, meanwhile, launches with a bang that shows Les Paul’s prestidigitation like no other song. It causes tachycardia, frantic formations and the return of the ever-plinking guitar galore: Tiger Rag by a sextet of writers led by Eddie Edwards and Harry Da Costa is a crazy take on the vaudeville hymn, supercharged with stringed blisters, meow chants en masse and other onomatopoeic gleeful nonsense. Hued in ashen Space-Age lights, Tiger Rag is lively and bucolically bubbling, with only its final guitar chord adding eminent dreaminess to its very end. Did I mention that it depicts life on the fast lane?


Duke Ellington’s Exotica gold standard Caravan follows, and yes, it features bongos and other exotic drums for a change, sees its principal Middle Eastern tonality illumined by spacious dots and candles and even features a cinematic Doppler alloy. Another fantastic take! Leo Robin’s and Ralph Rainger’s June In January quenches the tempo out of its pores, but maintains the thermal heat and funnels it into a melancholic-nostalgic base frame filled with Mary Ford’s velvet vocals. Whereas the acoustic guitar is near her, the forsaken fret guitar howls like a wolf and resides in the background, adding a parallax plasticity to this studio tune. The warm and fuzzy finale The Lonesome Road, originally written by Gene Austin and Nat Shilkret, succeeds with its duality of amicable guitar chords and incisively glacial counterparts, but really enthralls due to the bird-like slaps and Ford’s soothing performance.


It is astonishing: Brazil is written in 1948 and should not possibly be compatible with the Exotica craze that launched a decade later. But it is! The reason is not found in the two renditions of the title track and Caravan, for even if these two pieces were not included on this short LP, it would have appeared sooner rather than later on AmbientExotica. No, the reason is found in the two textural bases: incredibly carefree and mellow chords on the one hand, and over-the-top cosmic scintillae on the other, making Brazil a kind of proto-Exotica album and Space-Age blueprint at the same time. Mary Ford’s vocal range is delicately suggestive even to this day, and once her performance becomes a flamboyant shooting star on the magnificent varieté Tiger Rag, delight ensues.


It is true that Les Paul gives in to this infinitesimally hillbilly-evoking tune which towers above the mellifluous mélange of blurred sinews and piercing antipodes, therefore risking the danger of destroying the work’s stringency, but it does not matter in the end: Brazil is one of the earliest North American Exotica artifacts that is not a movie soundtrack. And better still, it is also a glorious Space-Age work and a feast for those who like a fair amount of light cacophonies and whirling surfaces in their music. Vocal fans meanwhile will find Miss Ford’s voice luring; it makes a trifold synergy out of Brazil’s explicated hybrid nature. Les Paul was far ahead of the competition back then. Luckily, the album does not suffer from overly sophisticated or convoluted treatments. This emerald sapphire gleams on, whether in vinyl form or as a download.


Exotica Review 295: Les Paul & Mary Ford – Brazil (1948). Originally published on Dec. 21, 2013 at AmbientExotica.com.