Exotica albums carrying the term paradise are constantly produced during the 50’s and 60’s, and if you just search for that term here at AmbientExotica, chances are that you can read yourself into a dreamy delirium. Usually, the common denominator of all human kind is that it has been expelled and ostracized from paradise. Thus it is the task of Exotica bands, arrangers and conductors to bring us closer to that lost state, right? It must be, as you will find over a dozen albums reviewed by yours truly that contain this most perfect state in their title. Think of Phil Moore's Polynesian Paradise (1959); Andre Kostelanetz entraps the Lure Of Paradise (1959). Then there's Alfred Newman & Ken Darby's Ports Of Paradise (1960) while Leo Addeo makes an all too bold statement with Paradise Regained (1961), et voilà, right in the middle between these albums is violinist and conductor Felix Slatkin (1915–1963) with his 12-track LP Paradise Found.
Released in 1960 on Liberty Records, Slatkin sure knows to exaggerate the hell out of this success, or rather the writer of the liner notes wants you to believe so, stating that “it was during one of his recent trips through the Pacific Islands that this revolutionary musical idea was conceived: real Hawaiian music with lush string backgrounds.” What? You’re selling us this as news? That's bog-standard escapism! Okay, away with the hate. It is true that the majority of orchestral albums which target Hawaiian titles are keen on delineating the synergetic forces between steel guitars and ukuleles on the one hand and violins and harps on the other, but Felix Slatkin’s work is still a worthy contender in this competitive field. With a bunch of mallet instruments, the mandatory steel guitar and humongous amounts of strings, his orchestra is keen on keeping the paradisiac state intact. What a surprise, for here is a closer inspection of that very paradise.
Not much beats Andre Kostalentz’s rendition of Moon Of Manakoora as found on the 1954 pre-Exotica classic Lure Of The Tropics, but Felix Slatkin’s take is definitely alluring throughout its runtime of over four minutes. Originally envisioned by Frank Loesser and Alfred Newman, their Exotica gold standard is carried here by an aqueous steel guitar as expected. However, the whirling string sinews and polished harp cataracts do indeed offer a lush and verdured backdrop to the scenery. It is one’s archetypical symphonic take, I have to admit, but the different volume levels, the augmentation of horticultural abundance and welcome interstices of reflection and quiescence let this take stay close to the moonlit isle.
Meanwhile, it is time for a famous ditty by Johnny Noble, Bill Cogswell and Tommy Harrison, and whenever these three names appear in this sequence, this can only mean one thing: My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii. Written for the boat races that coincidentally take place on Independence Day long before Hawaii was even annexed by the United States, its uplifting, quirky spirit is perfectly encaptured by Felix Slatkin who unites orchestral pizzicato strings and moist harp glissandos with large-grained maraca shakers and steel guitar prowess of Hapa Haole origin. And yet does this transition not work overly well, for the constancy of said strings makes this a fairy tale sparkler that is strangely detached from the islands.
My Isle Of Golden Dreams by Walter Blaufuss and Gus Kahn however survives the alteration and remains in pretty good shape. The slowly wafting Space-Age strings shimmer in all colors, and though they cross the boundaries to chintzy outskirts, the crunchy steel guitar as the front line instrument carries the ties of Hawaiiana and lets this version appear as vanillarific as possible. Meanwhile, Charles E. King’s Hawaiian Wedding Song is a gorgeous Exotica gem, once more mostly due to its delicately sumptuous walls of strings. The steel guitar resembles a theremin, wobbles and quavers its way to the hearts of the Space-Age fans all the while the backdrop is sure enough reaching for a harmonious consensus. The result, for now, is a curious twilight, a purgatory of Hawaiian density and spacy shortage of air.
Side A closes with a two-track diorama of Jack Owens’ most famous pieces: The Hukilau Song is everyone’s favorite wherever it appears (even if this includes South Park). Felix Slatkin’s version obviously neglects the inclusion of a choir but sees the melody intact, and more. Here, the dichotomy is elbowed away in favor of cohesion, for the steel guitar is much more velvet. The strings are superb as well, shimmering in lilac colors of vivacity. A great piece, mellow to the max. To You Sweetheart, Aloha is the interim goodbye and sees Slatkin’s orchestra unleash equally iridescent harp helixes and string illuminants but revs up the granular photometry of the steel guitar a bit more. This one remains for lovers though and is deeply immersive.
Side B does not show any sign of specific progression. And why should it, given that Felix Slatkin has already found paradise? After featuring Jack Owens, one Harry Owens is given the spotlight with the Hawaiiana classic Sweet Leilani. After a prelude of phantasmagoric violins, this long piece of five minutes ventures into the benthic pericarp of crisp steel guitar chords, whitewashed string counterparts and a wonderful sequence of voluminous segues and softer spots of contemplation fueled by glockenspiel blips. Maybe this takes the idea of Easy Listening too far length-wise, but it enchants regardless. Don McDiarmid’s, Lee Wood’s and Johnny Noble’s Little Brown Gal mirrors the mistake of side A’s My Little Grass Shack by being overly reliant on pizzicato strings and a curious mélange of hillbilly guitar riffs, but Don McDiarmid’s encore Paradise Found is an epiphany! Not only is a reverie-friendly bongo coppice planted near the scenery, the strings are also crazily beautiful and multi-layered, unfurling cavalcades of syringa scents and nutritious superfluids in sound form. This one is undoubtedly the greatest piece of side B and the whole album.
While John Kalapana’s Hilawe sees shakers and hand claps juxtaposed to a strange but certainly languorous hybrid haze of vitreous glockenspiel plinks and faux-Baroque warmth, Jack Pitman’s Beyond The Reef relies more heavily on the steel guitar which is solely responsible for the main melody that is surrounded by the expected string granuloma, and all of this naturally happens before Queen Liliuokalani’s mandatory Aloha Oe kisses the listener goodbye with an interesting arrangement – endemically speaking – by admixing marimba droplets and ukulele backings to the steel guitar/string dialogue. These devices would have been welcome throughout the album, but only bring the most saccharified of all Hawaiian classics to life. A missed opportunity.
Felix Slatkin’s Paradise Found is a good album that probably cannot live up to its bold title, especially not if one considers the equally exaggerated marketing statements in the liner notes that do not necessarily bewilder qua their prosaic nature, but rather due to the blatant use of euphemisms. But what the heck I say, since when are such liner notes of particular importance in the dense genre-spanning realms of Easy Listening records? So on the plus side, Paradise Found does indeed work as a charming artifact blending Hapa Haole with Exotica and strings on steroids. It is the latter that make this album rather than break it. While Slatkin’s orchestra cannot possibly deliver the, er, dopemost levels of excitement that are found in one of the best string-focused Exotica albums ever created, everyone’s darling Les Baxter’s Caribbean Moonlight (1956), the players still know to impress when they are not succumbing to the pizzicato way of life.
Once the strings build a dense reticulation, sheer beauty unfolds. In these moments – and there are plenty of them – the listener might observe something strange: suddenly, the omnipresence of the twisted steel guitar becomes out of place and is perceived as a possible aggressor, decreasing (instead of easing) the magnanimous magic that encapsulates the bystander. But this is anything but a vague possibility and by no means a scientifically backed offspring. Listeners who embrace Hapa Haole in its original form will either shake their head due to the string backgrounds or happily embrace the dualistic forces. It is moments such as the title track by Don McDiarmid that showcase the possibility of a near perfect blending of a steel guitar with dozens of strings. Luckily, this blending is easy to absorb, for Paradise Found is both available on vinyl and a remastered download on Amazon MP3, iTunes and cohorts.
Exotica Review 479: Felix Slatkin – Paradise Found (1960). Originally published on Jan. 13, 2017 at AmbientExotica.com.