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Arthur LymanDuring the 1950's and early 60's, "exotica" carved out a significant niche in the genre we think of now as lounge music. Characterized by dark and moody melodies, unusual instrumentation, and a fascination with all things Polynesian, exotica was dominated by the troika of Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Arthur Lyman. Among those three, only Lyman recorded a Christmas album. Called Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas), the record was released in 1963 on a little label called Hi Fi under their "Life" imprint, and it's exactly what one would hope for and expect. Lyman deploys his trademark vibes and marimba, plus Hawaiian axes (ukulele, steel guitar) and (in a later version) colorful sound effects (shrieking macaws, rolling surf), in creating a genuinely exotic album - one that sensuously evokes Christmas in America's lovely 50th state.

Of course, this was a reality that existed only in Lyman's head (and, perhaps, in the Trader Vic's restaurants that sprung up during the exotica craze). But, that's the beauty of exotica. Through this ephemeral music, swingers all over the globe experienced things they might never witness first-hand - savage tribal dances, snowy peaks in the Andes, the moon over Bali. In the case of Mele Kalikimaka, Lyman imports reindeer, evergreens, and jolly old elves into a lush tropical paradise, and somehow made it all make sense.

Arthur LymanAn Hawaiian native, Arthur Lyman got his first big break when Martin Denny hired him in 1951. On his own, Lyman released dozens of LP's (see Varese's Very Best of Arthur Lyman for highlights), first succeeding with Taboo (1959) and peaking on Yellow Bird (1961). When Mele Kalikimaka was released a couple of years later, the popularity of exotica was waning, and Lyman was covering familiar turf, musically speaking. He interprets well-known holiday standards in his now-familiar style, but that doesn't mean the album isn't a delight. Among the highlights: Arthur and his band recreating "Winter Wonderland" in full-on exotic mode, or giving "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" the Latin treatment. And, their quirky "Sleigh Ride" resembles space-age pop icon Esquivel, minus his notoriously extreme dynamics. In general, Mele Kalikimaka adheres to the standard to which all Christmas albums should aspire - it's an excellent example of the artist (Lyman) and the genre (exotica), in addition to being a wonderful celebration of the season.

Not surprisingly, though, the highest points on Mele Kalikimaka occur during the two least traditional numbers. The first is Lyman's quiet, faithful rendition of calypso singer Harry Belafonte's 1956 holiday hit, "Mary's Boy Child" - truly, a match made in heaven. Then, on the title cut, Lyman combines his patented sound with his wry sense of humor, segueing from a lush, exotic introduction into a bouncy vocal arrangement of "the Hawaiian Christmas song" before concluding with a frenzied, mallet-driven workout. "Mele Kalikimaka," it's worth noting, is hardly a traditional island song. Rather, it's a modern composition by Hawaiian-born R. Alex Anderson, first recorded (to the best of my knowledge) by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters in 1950. That makes it the perfect Lyman vehicle - exotic and artificial all at once.

Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas) was first reissued on CD as With A Christmas Vibe (Rykodisc, 1996) during the height of the lounge music revival. Though brilliantly mastered, the album was remixed, including some kitschy tropical sound effects - fun, but not very faithful to Lyman's vision. Featuring a sexy model on the cover, the package was generously annotated with Hawaiian history and pictures - even recipes - but barely a scrap of information about Lyman or the original album.

Ten years later, Empire Musicwerks released a more faithful version, including restored cover art (sans the original LP's shiny, foil-wrapped paperboard). Amazingly, the CD seems to have been mastered from vinyl - surface noise, pops, and clicks are clearly audible. No explanation is given, though the liner notes take pains to mention the legendary quality of Lyman's stereo LP's. To my ears, however, the Rykodisc remix (With A Christmas Vibe) sounds better. This time, at least, Empire includes a gushing essay about Lyman and his legacy, but still nary a word about Mele Kalikimaka itself. Odd. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Mary's Boy Child
  • Mele Kalikimaka
  • Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Sleigh Ride
  • Winter Wonderland

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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