Al Caiola
Music For Space Squirrels






The listener is warned on the front cover, a closer look at the title annihilates the last doubt: this must either be a comedy album or a Space-Age artifact. Obviously, at least in hindsight, Music For Space Squirrels by versatile guitarist Al Caiola (born 1920) is mostly the latter nowadays, though it surely must have had a particularly funny aftertaste back in them olden days, even if this taste just derived from the chagrin of one’s parents.


Released in 1958 on ATCO Records and harboring 12 standards and traditional evergreens taken from the realms of Ragtime, Boogie Woogie and other mayhems, Al Caiola goes all-in on the textures and delivers a Space-Age work that is unapologetically accessible, although yet again only in retrospect. The melodies shimmer and are aglow with technicolor, stardust and lactid matter, but remain recognizable throughout the performance. But the subtitle Al Caiola’s Magic Guitars gives a good hint of the true focal point: the bedazzlingly sumptuous mélange of varied guitars. From perfectly earthen campfire lutes over elasticized bass brethren to downright crazy harsichordicious counterpoints, Music For Space Squirrels propagates the heterodyned superimposition and ventures between the different worlds and perceptions. Here, then, is an attempt to grasp some of its unique ingredients.


Earthbound but so uplifting that the tangibility of space is just a matter of perception, Nobody’s Sweetheart kicks off the coruscating journey through magical vestibules. Originally composed by Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel, with lyrics by Gus Kahn and Ernie Erdman, Caiola presents two basic textures here: a comparatively warm bass guitar whose staggering sinews wobble and reticulate through the cosmic ctenidium, and a heavily plinking harpsichord-like surreal oscillation with Hillbilly borrowings. Jack Pettis’, Billy Meyers’ and Elmer Schoebel’s Bugle Call Rag follows suit and unites the two dualistic forces yet again in a revved up tempodrome. Diaphanous backings provide the base for Cool Jazz granulomas, heavy drum cataracts and callisthenic bleepfests, with the traditional When The Saints Go Marching In feigning a military march structure before venturing into plasticizer polyphonies projected onto billow-like bass backings and flute-evoking (!) chords that are positively aquiver.


Arthur Smith’s Guitar Boogie receives the same treatment in diversity when Al Caiola enmeshes Sicilian lutes with hexangular hydrazine punctilios and scrimshaw guitars, all the while Cliff Burwell’s and Mitchell Parish’s Sweet Lorraine succumbs to being the album’s black sheep: languorous, sun-dappled, awash with doldrums and wallowing tumbleweeds, this is one long aureate Blues pushed down to Earth. The traditional Maple Leaf Rag however ends the album with a picayune bang. The tempo is cautiously increased, the guitars are quite a bit wonkier and sufficiently caulk the looming normalcy.


Side A loses a bit of its vibrant energy in the end, but side B is once more polyfoil and versatile without the omission of a little contretemps or two. Jimmy McHugh’s Diga Diga Doo returns to the smoking barrels and evokes a recondite gypsy tonality with hinted oompah basslines that are all held together by Caiola’s caproic cannelure. The adjacent Goofus by Gus Kahn, Wayne King and William Harold is more of a city-strolling slacker than a galactic peritoneum. Crunchy multilayered chords with soft hi-hat appendixes invoke a sunny day in lieu of a dark matter thiazide. Euday L. Bowman’s famous Twelfth Street Rag takes the cake though: a smoking-fast tunnel vision supercharged with powdered guitars of the faux-Baroque kind and their fitting foils that sound like squeaking guitars, it is this particular song that pinpoints the meaning of the album title better than anything.


While Elmer Schoebel’s, Leon Rappolo’s and Paul MaresFarewell Blues presents a particularly saffron-colored fusillade of Western saloons in space and a photometry of joyous dust-covered bustling locales, The Darktown Strutter’s Ball by Shelton Brooks absorbs that photometry and pours it into a midtempo mould of mountainous – and naturally stringed – convulsions, casino streaks and all the glitters in the world before the finale is nigh. It comes in the shape of Dudley Mecum’s, Henry Brunies’ and Jules Cassard’s Angry which, obviously, is unlike its title: a tumular turmoil of cauterized catenae, helical hues and vertiginous veils. Texas Ragtime is back, baby, stronger than ever!


The stylistic twang of Marty Robbins is in the air, though Al Caiola doesn’t sing. A curious remark indeed, but not any stranger than the cohesive concoctions of the latest Rock innovations of the 50’s with well-known standards and new inventions in the realms of stereophonic music. Music For Space Squirrels lacks the true prestidigitation and skill level of Caiola, but what it lacks in these fields, it more than pays back when it is time to distill the varying textures of the guitars. Not only can they be measured in temperature, but even calories, levels of luminosity or other weird scales. Al Caiola crosses the threshold of – or to – Space-Age more than willfully, but at the same time omits the final step into completely otherworldly worlds.


It is true that the harpsichord helixes, the liquid licks and viscid venes are successful iterations of alienating the audience, a spiel that Ferrante & Teicher’s Soundproof (1955) brought to the table a few years prior, although a certain earthbound mellifluousness is still graspable. Music For Space Squirrels is sophisticated and convulsive alright, but it is not particularly eclectic; Caiola remains fond of the original material and tries to capture the melodies, moods and hooks as they were intended. No bewildering segues or amethystine alterations are in place, so the guitarist’s array of a gopher’s next of kin is still enchanting enough for Space-Age fans. The album is available in vinyl and digitally in EP form: only four tunes survived for whatever reason. Well, I know the reason, but it’s superfluous to lament about it time and again.


Exotica Review 407: Al Caiola – Music For Space Squirrels (1958). Originally published on Jan. 17, 2014 at