Marty Robbins
Song Of The Islands






Marty Robbins (1925–1982) is one of Capitol Records’ hottest stallions when you consider his looks, talent and quality of his voice in the 50’s. Only consequentially so, said record label pushes the country singer and soon-to-be NASCAR fanatic to sing a bunch of Hawaiian gold standards in order to race the tide and cash in on the Hawaiian craze that befell the USA like a wonderfully vivacious curse. Hundreds of different Hawaiian artifacts were released in that time frame, be they stereophonic, symphonic or… phony. Marty Robbins’ Song Of The Islands, released in 1958 to great success, unfortunately belongs to the latter category, its archetypical but somewhat tasteful fromt artwork notwithstanding. Robbins grabs a ukulele and sings along amid one of the sparsest possible arrangements, with only a ukulele and steel guitar to accompany him.


No drum kit, no choir, nothing else is on board. This isn’t bad news after all rather than a potentially delightful genuflection before the humble origin of Hapa Haole music. The different tempos and tonalities are of equal delight, as is the ever-coruscating variety of the steel guitar. Glendale, Arizona’s darling however tries so hard to not miss the opportunity to cash in on the craze that he misses something else: tones and notes. Read on to know more about the discrepancy between the arrangement and a singer who encounters this Hawaiian material for the first time on an blockbuster release.


No experiments, no surprise: Song Of The Islands kicks off with Charles E. King‘s eponymous hula ditty and sees Marty Robbins in the limelight immediately, playing his ukulele next to a steel guiarist’s auroral luminosity. The immediacy of his voice does not fit entirely with the dreamy material, but this is the price to pay as an Exotica listener and fan of instrumentals. Walter Blaufuss’ and Gus Kahn’s Don’t Sing Aloha When I Go offers a far better mélange though. Uplifting, cautiously countrified and surprisingly fast-paced, this Pop-compatible remark turns out to be an unexpectedly great tune, mountainous and fast to a point that it comes close to a tunnel vision.


While Jack Pitman‘s gold standard Beyond The Reef uncovers the occasional weakness of Robbins’ voice that shifts and quivers during higher notes, Shorty Long’s Crying Steel Guitar Waltz lives up to the titular promise by offering slapped argentine strings whose luminescence oscillates next to the granular rusticity of the ukulele before Buddy Black’s and Warren Smith’s My Isle Of Golden Dreams shimmers in golden colors and evokes a hammock-friendly aura augmented by hot aural sunrays that works really well. Maewa Kaihan’s, Clement Scott’s and Dorothy Stewart’s Now Is The Hour, often nocturnal and moonlit, is a trip to sunnier climes as Robbins sails across the shore.


The ultimate classic of Harry Owens greets the listener on side B: Sweet Leilani is keen on boosting the laid-back aura of the ukulele, itself not necessarily the most blissful cataract, but a mellow counterpoint to Marty Robbins and his yearning yarn. Mr. Owens is once more considered as the adjacent Down Where The Trade Winds Blow shows. The upper midtempo range shakes off the – otherwise welcome – drowsiness, as do the occasional interstices in minor that evoke trouble in paradise. When Marty Robbins’ vocals conflate with these instances, a kind of horrifying simultaneity ensues that has definitely not aged well. Maybe Constancy can alter the perception? It does indeed work for the better once its aureate shimmer is considered a vivid marker, but the higher vocal range is yet again responsible for a few mediocre tone sequences; the polyphony of the steel guitar licks, however, once again emits a verdured gleam.


Seemingly juxtaposed with this diorama is Stan Kessler’s Island Echoes, comprising a comparatively long performance of three and a half minutes supercharged with spacy steel guitar prowess, earthbound ukulele rhizomes and vocals made of velvet. The latter attribute may be wrong after all. Whereas Jerry Byrd’s Moonland is yet another limewashed effort that feigns variety but offers more of the same textural array, Queen Lydia Lili’uokalani’s Aloha Oe sees Marty Robbins skyrocket into high-rise chords where he usually should not reside all too regularly. The instrumental bridges, though bog-standard, put the finishing touches on an album that only knows one raison d’être: money.


This review contains much vitriolic acid, fair enough if you think so. But my criticism should warm the hearts of those whose sarcasm is equally balanced… or far off. For instance, there is anything wrong with Marty Robbins visiting and revisiting Hawaiian material, and he has done so throughout his career. However, it is the stench of dollars all over this album that causes an amplification of my bad attitude. As usual, this review comes decades too late, targeting a small work whose importance has decreased over the years despite its frequent reissues and the manifold labels that partake in the release cycle. As such, Song Of The Islands is still somewhat valuable in carving out the humble beginnings of Marty Robbins, himself a clear-cut star, but not yet all too familiar with the material that is based on mangolicious Hapa Haole.


One can laugh away the high tones that Robbins seems to miss on a regular basis. But one cannot deny the frequent lure of the cosmic steel guitar and the warm hue its is emanating. The ukulele is similarly precious, residing in a different stratum of this polylayered entanglement. Finally, one can only hope that Marty Robbins plays the ukulele himself as he does on the front artwork. It would explain the lack of heartfelt verve in his vocals. This flimflam left aside, the album once was a smash hit and is therefore available on all possible formats, including download versions and its appearance of music streaming services. Carefully listen if you so desire.


Exotica Review 433: Marty Robbins – Song Of The Islands (1958). Originally published on May 23, 2015 at