Les Baxter
'Round The World






Composer and luminary Les Baxter (1922–1996) has created hundreds of albums in his long career and has, as the saying goes, never missed an opportunity to create something of value, be it the score to a B-movie, the improvement of one’s afternoon at the coffee table or a large chunk of exotic escapism. The latter is of course the field of expertise for which Les Baxter is particularly loved to this day, but particularly well-known he is for another feat, namely the metamorphosis of Margeruite Monnot's French chanson La Goualante Du Pauvre Jean into The Poor People Of Paris. A smash hit in 1956, Capitol Records of course were eager to let the composer build on that more mundane and earthen approach, and it so happens that Baxter comes up with a travelog called ’Round The World With Les Baxter a few months later, comprising of 12 destinations all around the globe… or so it seems.


It turns out that the success of Baxter’s faux-French ode drives him to revisit the country several times over the course of this LP, strangely neglecting other opportunities. Different parts of Old Europe and the New World are nonetheless featured aplenty. Realized with both wordless and poetic vocals by a Space-Age choir, dozens of strings, horns, mallet instruments and the occasional bongo or two, ’Round The World has its fair share of problems, but knows to enthrall few and far between. Here is a closer look at its flashes of genius and bold missteps.


Severely criticizing Les Baxter is something of a no-go, and indeed, the composer has created multitudinous hours of exotic or travelog-related delight. The opener, however, is a misstep and starts the journey in a dubiously ludicrous fashion: (What Happens In) Buenos Aires might be a shiny new tune written by Baxter’s frequent collaborator Dave Dexter Jr, but it depicts the wrong kind of carnivalesque entertainment… tipsy glockenspiels, barrel organ-evoking timbres clash with auroral strings and mellow harp twangs. The Space-Age strings, droning timpani and short bongo bursts are noticeable indeed, but cannot win against the choir of cheerleaders. Luckily, Melodia Loca (The Chilean Crazy Song) is a slightly better song. Supposedly written by Les Baxter, this frilly flute fiesta full of pizzicato strings only ever presents the Latin tonality by means of a few sun-dappled brass bursts and guitar chords hued in twilight, but is otherwise too disconnected from both the reality and the clichés of Chile. That’s quite an achievement!


What follows next is undoubtedly Les Baxter’s hall- and benchmark, for one of his most famous transformations follows that made him popular even outside the world of Exotica: the aforementioned The Poor People Of Paris. Based on a melody by Marguerite Monnot, Baxter makes this fleeting visit to the city of love in order to unchain wonderfully vitreous pizzicato strings. They remain certainly saccharified, and so does the melody, but the arrangement itself is top-notch. The first section is supercharged with whistling people, fillips and glassy glockenspiels, whereas the second section features a la-la-laing choir and brass fanfares par excellence. Not entirely exotic, but undoubtedly embracing and encapsulating the fascination of traveling through Old Europe.


Kazuo Totoki’s Japanese Parasols meanwhile turns out to be the best piece of side A, serving as a wonderfully soothing legato piece whose chime-accentuated legato physiognomy is ameliorated by whirling woodwinds of mystery, pentatonic string adjuvants and a choir. Not overly reliant on Japanese traits, Baxter’s alteration is a gloriously exciting yet soothing vestibule. Curiously enough, Dany Michel’s and Jacques Strop’s The Clown On The Eiffel Tower leads the listener right back to Paris after having been in Japan just a few seconds ago. A particularly pointillistic glissando affair, the Space-Age strings shimmer, drone and drizzle in all colors and are the real driving factor of this less comical effort. John Turner’s, Eberhard Storch’s and John Sexton’s Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart rounds off side A with an unbearable amount of romantic, er, interactions between the lead temptress and a male trio. The focus lies on the vocal performances, with only the bridges and segues allowing the sugar-coated strings to wash over the performers. This one is for the ladies, no savagery is ever implied.


Side B does not widen the stylistic potpourri, with this French term being a foreshadowing device of the francophile things to come. But first to Venezuela! Originally written by Alfredo Corenzo, it certainly enchants via its turqoise marimba billows and slick guitar accents whose aqueous influx whirls amid this transformed Tango. The archetypical sweeps of the drums, the mountainous plinks of the guitar, the wordless Space-Age vocals and the vivacity of the strings altogether create a dreamy and surprisingly varied arrangement. Walt Heebner’s following Purple Islands earns the prize for the greatest song title. The soundscape is luring as well since Baxter’s orchestra admixes fluttering strings and double bass blebs with hazy horns. Mellow and oneiric, the song is not completely surreal, but still otherworldly enough to feel like a reverie.


While Norbert Glanzberg’s, Mann Holiner’s and Alberta NicholsPadam, Padam provides the escapism to – or from? – a gypsy marriage via its Waltz structure, the rufescent pianos, histrionic choirs and dark matter strings, Al Sherman’s Normandy offers yet another viewpoint on the French savoir vivre by augmenting the Tango nucleus with accordion aureoles, celesta amplitudes and strings of romance. The final two songs are written by Les Baxter himself: whereas Monika showcases one of the composer’s gorgeous superdreamy string cavalcades with paradisiac-lilac complexions and aural butterflies before the inner eye (and points to the tendency of naming at least one song per album after a lady), Romantic Rio lessens the romance despite its title and focuses on the vivid side of the trip with mixed choirs bursting into singing in-between the timpani-fueled string/horn duality. The Brazilian spirit is cleverly entrapped in this piece and offers a solacing, consoling endpoint to a mediocre LP.


’Round The World With Les Baxter is a strange affair and turns out to be a surprisingly weak effort. This sentence of course demands an explanation. The album is dependent on a listener who is interested in Baxter’s complete body of work, not just his Exotica classics. The problem with this LP is that the vivid composer is so close and yet so far of reaching and building a truly enchanting state. ’Round The World does not want to be perceived as an Exotica album, nor can Baxter be reduced to this genre alloy. So what went wrong? From the outset, the arrangements themselves are indeed superb, housing instruments from all families, surprising with short bongo and marimba appearances and relying on a Space-Age choir that lives up to the genre conventions more often than not. However, the trip itself is poorly planned and realized. What is the meaning of letting (at least) three out of 12 tunes take place in France, with two of them divided by a visit to Japan?


Sure, it is the music that counts, and one should not bitch and whine about such picayune first-world problems. Fair enough. But the sequence of order feels thoughtless and cheap that way, raising one of the many criticisms whose target is the very concept called Easy Listening. A second problem arises due to the aesthetic gap between the arrangements and the chosen compositions. As beautifully arranged tunes like the opener (What Happens In) Buenos Aires or Auf Wiedersehn, Sweetheart are, the simultaneity of the parts does not make a great symphony. Some vocal symphonies are oddball inclusions, others rely too much on staccato or pizzicato shrapnel. But thankfully, this wouldn’t be a Les Baxter album were it not for the great inclusions such as the superbly dreamy Japanese Parasols and the slightly more cinematic but positively streamlined shangri la called Purple Islands. And Monika is a bewitched wonderwall as well. So in the end, ’Round The World is a hit-or-miss affair, and once the listener is aware of this, he or she might as well enjoy the travelog hodgepodge and absorb the great material. The album is available on vinyl and a remastered download version.


Exotica Review 357: Les Baxter – 'Round The World (1957). Originally published on Jul. 12, 2014 at AmbientExotica.com.