So, who was Les Baxter, you ask. Well, I didn't know him until I got these cds, but you've probably heard his music somewhere in the background of your life. Here's a quote from the liner notes that helps put him into perspective:
"Even in an age of electronic media, some historic moments go unrecorded. Such a turning point occurred in early 1956, when Les Baxter shared a TV variety show billing with a young Elvis Presley. Here was the immovable object meeting the irresistible force. Ultimately, the irresistible force won out. Today we know all about Elvis.... But we don't much know about Baxter, who in the mid-fifties was a pop sensation, bigger than Elvis and peering straight through this world into places far-away. And then -- boom -- Baxter met Elvis, and Elvis extinguished everything that came before him...
"Baxter's was leisure-time music for adults... This stuff is wonderfully batty. If Baxter's oeuver was wildly commercial then, now it seems wildly experimental, so serious it's funny and so funny it's John Cage [very experimental musician, I had to look him up]. This was the mainstream that time forgot..."
So what is his music like? Well, it's called 'exotica' and it's what you would hear in a tiki bar. It's the kind of music you can imagine in the soundtrack of a movie about some romantized, far-off, exotic locale, maybe somewhere in Polynesia or Africa or India or South America. The songs have titles like "Taboo" and "Temple of Gold" and "Jungle Flower" and "Voodoo Dreams." You get the idea. This is the music that brings fantasies of Indiana Jones adventures or maybe even the voyages of Sinbad, and I'm not talking about the comedian or the Disney animation. This is escapist music that has "... little or nothing to do with the genuine music of those places. They are Cold War fantasies of otherness... of a place where everywhere Americans go, they are liked. Loved -- these songs are hymns to Eros" (liner notes). Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa with its descriptions of the pagan and freely expressed sexuality of the 'primitives' had a big influence on Baxter's musical development. He "... understood, and wrote music for, the primitives filling up the American suburbs" (liner notes).
When I listen to this music I think about the contrast of our contemporary image of people in the 1950s with the image that this music inspires. "This was sensuousness devised to overwhelm the senses, to make commuter man lose all control" (liner notes). I wonder how many future hippies were conceived to this music. This wasn't the music of Ward and June Cleaver, or was it? It makes you wonder. It seems so avant-garde today that it's hard to imagine that so many of those suburban primitives might have been listening and doing other things to it. I can envision that some of the artists of the 1950s listened to it and that it somehow influenced their abstract expressionism. I can see the artistic gatherings where they smoked their dope and dreamed these exotic dreams. And people most certainly did smoke their dope back then too. As wonderful and beautiful as this music is under 'normal' conditions it truly shines when you listen in an altered state. However exotic this music is though, it is meticulous and impeccably recorded which only adds to its quirkiness. Sometimes I wonder how the musicians were able to keep straight faces while recording such odd music. And the 'aaahhhhing' and 'oooohhhhing' of the spare vocals makes me wonder what these people were thinking as they were performing. Were they thinking of technical issues such as breath control or were they carried away and fantasizing along with the music?