Exotica Is Where You Find It

I'm a sucker for exotica. Not just the "fabricated soundscapes in a real world" that form the ostensible subject of David Toop's 1999 book about the stuff, although I've spent entire afternoons inhaling record dust in search of albums by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Les Baxter, and kindred souls. Funeral music from Ghana, the Bauls of Bengal's messily ecstatic singing, penguins, flying saucer ring tones—any configuration of sound that hints at romance, intrigue, mystery, and adventure is water to my parched eustachian tubes, especially if it carries a hint or two of new realities just waiting to be broached. Hell, not only does my urethra still quiver a bit when I hear "Milkshake," but Soviet-era Armenian composer Aram Khatchaturian's score for the ballet Gayne once brought me to tears.

Mose Allison's "Hello There, Universe" did the same first time I heard it, with slightly different components—a combination of ambivalently hymnlike lyrics, a melodic devil's-advocate-food cake as big as the song's titular object, and the way he romanced his piano as though it were a harp conveniently capsized in space. Maybe a similar sentiment moved the Pixies to end "Allison" with, "And when the planet hit the sun/I saw the face of Allison/Allison/Allison." While nowhere near as lucrative as the Who's cover of his "Young Man's Blues," the 1990 ode was a far more cogent tribute, second only to Richard Farina's prescient nod in mid-'60s cult novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.

The 78-year-old singer-songwriter got off to a down-home enough start, on a tiny island near Tippo, Miss., working his grandfather's cotton fields by hand and mule while learning piano by ear. "The blues were in the air," Allison told an interviewer a few years back; slightly later influences Louis Jordan, Duke Ellington, and Al Haig flowed freely from the radio. Hardly one to stop at simple country blues/R&B/New Orleans jazz/bebop/post-bop fusion, he's never managed to stop soaking up all the commotion around him; the aforementioned 1970 tear-jerker drinks from the very pancultural springs that nourished John and Alice Coltrane. Even as early as Back Country Suite, the budding syncretist was plundering the planet for concepts; Bela Bartok's Hungarian Sketches inspired his 1957 debut's structure and sequencing.

Electrelane's everyday components are heady enough: eau de Neu!, tincture of Stereolab, lucky Sonic Youth dust, multilingual lyrics, and genteel European acoustica, all mingled in a consistently shifting admixture of sweetness and power. But as with their newly released fourth album, Axes (Too Pure), 2003's The Power Out finds the Brixton-based quartet pursuing the sublime with the assistance of the Chicago A Capella Choir for a song. "The Valleys" is redolent with the essence of early-mid-20th-century chromatist Ralph (pronounced "rafe") Vaughn Williams, whose Serenade to Music elicited tears from fuck music supremo Sergei Rachmaninoff at its 1917 premiere. Even with elevated harmonies and lofty lyrics lifted from a 1918 piece by WWI poetry ace Siefried Sassoon, "The Valleys" avoids corniness; the track's midtempo throb makes it perfect human sacrifice soundtrack music for an England with volcanoes.

On The Getty Address (Western Vinyl), 23-year-old New Haven resident Dave Longstreth sees Electrelane's bet and raises it considerably. The story behind his third release under the Dirty Projectors aegis is fascinating in itself, way too long to recount in detail, and free for the taking at www.westernvinyl.com. Suffice it to say that The Getty Address probably turned out better for all the delays that plagued it. Even with the aid of a wind septet, cello octet, and women's choir, a cut-up opera about Hernan Cortes, the conquest of the Aztec Nation, imperialism, environmental devastation, and Don Henley is not the sort of thing one builds in a week.

Considering its weighty subject matter, the album stays surprisingly juicy—mostly because its creator never lets his brow assume one position for long. Longstreth festoons opener "I Sit on the Ridge at Dusk" with swooping, vowel-and-labial-intensive choral acrobatics reminiscent of Les Baxter's arrangements for Yma Sumac's Voice of the Xtabay, drives "Warholian Wigs" with a stuttering parasamba cowbell, and punctuates "D. Henley's Dream" with guitar dizzy from a ride on the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster." But it's his vocal style—an amalgam of Prince and Jeff Buckley so thoroughly, er, thought-out, it makes Xiu Xiu seem like David Allen Coe—that gives the Address 12 hotels on Marvin Gardens. Shades of Mose seep out of Longstreth's golden piehole as well—first on "Gilt Gold Scabs," more resolutely throughout "Tour Along the Potomac," a fruity, finger-popping confection that recalls Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band in their gentler moments, complete with boy-girl duet.

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Mose Allison plays Dimitriou's Jazz Alley at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Thurs., June 16–Sat., June 18, and at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sun., June 19. $21.50–$23.50. Electrelane play Neumo's with Shoplifting and Sick Bees. at 8 p.m. Mon., June 13. $10. They also play an in-store at Easy Street Records Queen Anne, 20 Mercer St., 206-691-3279, at 4 p.m. Free. Dirty Projectors play Gallery 1412 with the Dead Science and Windupbird at 8 p.m. Wed., June 15. $5–$15.

 
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