Werner Müller
Holiday In France






France is not a particularly exotic destination. Not anymore. During the Golden Age of rising tourism though, Hollywood injected the yearning for this romantic country into the veins of filmgoers, travel agencies fulfilled the suddenly rising needs of US citizens to travel abroad in order to seek the auroral clichés out themselves, and the thriving music industry was not far behind and adapted to this trend in no time, even before the rise of stereo records. Deep within this cultural melting pot, about a year after the Exotica craze kicked off, Werner Müller (1920–1998) and his orchestra collect 12 enchanting tracks about the savoir vivre of France on the record Holiday In France, one of Müller's titular Holiday entries which take listeners to such diverse places as Italy, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Japan.


Released in 1958 on the Polydor label, this album is specifically tailored to an audience residing in the United States, hence the usage of Müller's international moniker Ricardo Santos, a name like a flashing thunderbolt full of mystique, lovestoned adventures and distinguished verve. And then you find out that a pale German hides behind that mask. Hilarious, ja!


As is always the case when I review a travelog album about Old Europe and label it as an Exotica album, you should not shake your head in disdain all too much. Remember, a voyage to France was considered a tremendously exciting and exotic endeavor in the late 50's, it was no mundane fleeting visit for the average American family. No Polynesian jungles are depicted on Holidays In France, zero surprise here. However, there are two important reasons to loosely associate Müller's album with the Exotica and Space-Age labels: on the one hand, the orchestra strings are quite colorful, the expected accordions shimmer equally well, and blimey, there are enthralling vibraphones on here, devoid of any kitsch, boosting the dreaminess.


On the other hand, it is vibraphonist Arthur Lyman who convinces me to review such non-Polynesian works as well. Consider his work Percussion Spectacular! aka Yellow Bird (1960) and the body of material presented in his subsequent LP's. Tracks like Arrive Derce Roma and Bolero, the latter of which incidentally kicks off Holiday In France, are rooted in Europe and become skillfully exotified. Since France has not lost anything of its magic over the decades and is still an exciting country to visit, I hence dare a greater look into the interpretations of Werner Müller aka Ricardo Santos below, carving out the syrupy schmaltz as well as its genuinely elevating stardust glitters.


As previously mentioned, Maurice Ravel's Bolero starts the aural sightseeing tour through France. Joyful staccato eruptions full of timpani and brass instruments lead to spiraling flutes and saccharine strings. Everything feels over the top right from the get-go. There are more mellifluous sections with partially sneaky  pizzicato strings and their whitewashed brethren, but it is only in the song's final third where swingmeister Müller unchains a proper big band flavor with swinging horns and exotic bamboo rods! Until this state is reached, one has to go a long way, so in the end, Müller's freely flowing rendition is varied, but too melodramatic. His focused renditions are much better, and the following Pigalle sure is. Originally written by Georges Ulmer, this arrangements bleeds cascades of French stereotypes: a clumsy-jocular piano melody opens the scenery, and after a wonderfully soothing harp glissando is exchanged for comically warbled flutes and accordion rivers. The setting then constantly shifts between the typically dusky melancholia and sun-soaked carefreeness. The cuteness of Pigalle is unbearable, but its textures shine.


It is Jacques Prévert's and Joseph Kosma's Les Feuilles Mortes that proves to be the first languorous hit on this LP. A magnificent mystery prelude full of cascading vibes, shady clarinet injections and blurry strings evokes the full force of the Space-Age era, and if this state was maintained throughout the song, I would have rejoiced. But the ensuing mélange is very soothing as well, comprising of warped legato strings of warmth, gorgeous accordion washes and mellow flute flecks. Whenever the composition gets threnodic, a sudden shift occurs only seconds later with euphonious string veils of pure silk. Müller's Les Feuilles Mortes is on the brink of the Exotica, Space-Age and Easy Listening genre. One would not necessarily expect this. But it is truly gorgeous. The French classic La Petite Valse is a downer in comparison due to its all too Waltz-focused structure that admittedly lives up to the song title, but seems too wishy-washy even for this LP. The arrangement has its advantages. The strings are once again floating in ethereal climes and the incessant oscillation of different instruments and takeovers, among them accordions, tubas, flutes, pianos and cowbells, makes this more of a pre-90's interactive vignette than a focused presentation. But this bustling state of affairs is too jumpy for my taste.


While the following Parlez-Moi D'Amour by Jean Lenoir is a tasteful romantic ballad full of rose-tinted string breezes, moony vibraphone sparkles, harp glitz and accordion intersections which altogether form a delictately diffuse dreamscape that is only marginally perturbed thanks to the lead fiddle being too much upfront the mix, the final piece of side A, Guy Lafarge's La Seine, is a genuinely great and aqueous take on the composition, unfortunately loaded with pesky accordion placentas, but then ennobled with gaseous, translucent strings. It is a hit-or-miss affair, highly dependent on each listener's personal kitsch threshold.


Quality-wise, side B does not fall behind side A, for better or for worse. A good start is provided by Jean Casanova's and Paul Durand's Je Suis Seul Ce Soir, one of Müller's few takes that are cohesive and positively streamlined from start to finish, launching with wondrously fully-fleshed string cascades, silky clarinets and an awfully threnodic fiddle which is thankfully outshone by the great orchestra strings. The setting reminds of Dominic Frontiere's Venus Girl off his LP Pagan Festival (1959), but succeeds this masterpiece by a year. Here, the German orchestra leader successfully delivers. Whereas the following Domino by Don Raye, Jacques Plante and Louis Ferrari shuttles between melancholic sepia-tinged mourning phases and sudden segues of moonlit glockenspiel-loaded settings with warmhearted accordions, Edith Piaf's eternal hit La Vie En Rose must not be missed and puts the brass instruments a bit more into the spotlight, but with Müller leaving mostly everything else to the soothing flutes and sky-high strings, the big band feeling is again very low, and rightfully so. Bonus points for the song's closure which consists of downwards gyrating harps.


Sous Les Toits De Paris follows. Raul Moretti's and Rene Nazelles' ditty is transfigured by Müller into the greatest piece of side B due to the clear focus and the omission of most comical elements. Dreamy string harmonies underline the vibraphone glints, a surprisingly cliché-free accordion evokes justified and less melodramatic feelings of being in France, and paradisiac flutes whirl through the air. Sous Les Toits De Paris is neither a ballad nor about romantic allusions. It is an almost transcendental piece in the given prospect of an Easy Listening album, a discovery I make time and again.


The generically titled Symphony follows, and I am not sure who wrote this piece in the first take. At first I thought I spotted a few notes off André Gide's La Simphonie Pastorale from 1919. Then again, Müller's take is too uplifting and gleeful. Starting with a catchy piano prelude, the soundscape continues to surprise with fizzling shakers, hazy horns and droning timpani which expand the grandiloquence of the benign strings. In the second half, Müller temporarily turns Symphony into a big band setting with brazen trumpets before the strings return for the finishing phase. This track is vivid despite its mid-tempo, feels sunny and carefree. A nice change to the occasionally sad undertones that traverse by. For the finale, Müller – or the folks at Polydor – chose J'attendrai by Dino Oliveri and Louis Pastorat. It showcases the most important intrinsic parts and instruments: mellifluous horns, French accordions, double bass accents, and large amounts of strings. Mallet instruments and reeds are amiss, but this helps the setting to unfold its luring vibe, making it another more straightened out, less hectic take.


Holiday In France lives and breathes the romantic notions and exciting times of bustling cities like Paris and Marseille and then poeticizes these perceptions to transform them into unreal, almost wraithlike impressions of exuberance and rapture. In this regard, Werner Müller succeeds under the disguise of Ricardo Santos. The brass instruments keep an unexpected low profile when compared to Holiday In New York and especially so Holiday In Japan. Here, everything is about the strings, even the omnipresent accordion is swallowed by their majesty and occasional melodrama. String fans will be simultaneously happy and sad: happy because of the highly capturing vividness of the Space-Age strings, and sad because of the encounters with earthen fiddles and sugary tone sequences which seem like counterpointing artifacts that want to annihilate the lofty aura. In addition, the infrequent shimmers of vibraphones and glockenspiels are great inclusions.


Shall Exotica listeners investigate? This is a question I have asked or at least implied literally hundreds of times at AmbientExotica, and it is a question that will reappear time and again. The impetus and suspension of this very question are, I think, always particularly visible when I review works that cannot be genuinely counted to the Exotica genre as we know it and how it is perceived today. Holiday In France falls into that twilight category. Fans of France and Space-Age strings can investigate. Some string entanglements are truly superb and cozy and thus tower above the Easy Listening hubbub. All dedicated Exotica fans who want to reside in jungles and Far Eastern lands rather than Old Europe should avoid this Holiday episode and rather pick up the aforementioned excellent Holiday In Japan, Müller's great Hawaiian Swing (1962) or the pinnacle of his creative energy, East Of India (1963). Each of Ricardo Santos' Holiday albums has been digitally re-issued and is available on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and other music stores.  


Exotica Review 328: Werner Muller – Holiday In France (1958). Originally published on Mar. 29, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.