Saturday, February 24, 2007

C.D. Review; Intoxica! Strange and Sleazy Instrumental Sounds From the SoCal Suburbs (Ace)

The English label Ace Records have undertaken an intriguing project for fans of 1960's instrumental rock; reissuing long lost singles and previously unreleased gems from the obscure 1960's Downey label's recording studio.On top of that, the sounds on Intoxica! travel well beyond the scope of surf music, which traditionally dominates compilations of 1960's rock instrumentals. The small, family run record label's master tapes collected for this series of reissues, starting with Intoxica! is Downey Records, based in the back of a record store in the L.A. suburb of Downey. Once upon a time, America was full of such tiny, independent labels. Few of these labels were especially profitable, but they seemed to be an efficient meeting point for creative entrepreneurs and unknown musicians. Regional sounds flourished in this atmosphere, before consolidation of the radio and recording businesses led to fewer, more homogenized music trends, like California soft rock in the seventies.

As compiler Brian Nevill describes in the liner notes, the store in question, Wenzel's Music Town, was in operation long after the Downey label stopped releasing records. A 1978 visit to the store revealed the master tapes were being stored in a bathroom in the record store. Some 13 years later, Brian Nevill interviewed the record store's proprietors for Goldmine Magazine and now, fifteen years after that interview, the bathroom-vault of Downey Records can at last be enjoyed by anyone with the inclination to dig into these instrumental romps.

Although Downey's biggest hit record was the surf hit "Pipeline", R&B and Latin tinged jams were popular among these musicians, too. This first installment of the Downey Records story affirms this notion with its emphasis on some unusual sounding instrumentals. Some of these would fit in on one of the "Incredibly Strange Music" volumes, but the tunes are always approachable if not easily danceable. While Brian Nevil stresses surf was not the beginning and end of California sixties instrumentals, that is still the most prevalent sound on Intoxica. The best known track on here the Revels' "Comanche", revived for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994. One hint as to how ubiquitous surf music was in this milieu is in the bands' names and the titles of their instrumentals; the Revels, Rumblers, Hustlers, Hindus and Blazers have tracks with names like "Intoxica", "Eight Ball", "Bandido", "Frenzy" and "Comanche". Fasten your seat belts.

The killer opening cut and title tracks from the Revels is a hard surf number, which sets the tone for Intoxica! with the sound of drinks being poured. We hear a a girl's laughter before a male voice solemnly declares "Intoxica". The sounds of laughter cut in between horn leads over a solid rhythm.Many of the quintessentially Surf Music tracks on this collection employ a few weird elements besides the popular sound effects. There are early forays into guitar effects enabled by novel (in these early days) devices like the fuzz box and various keyboard effects, as well. A great example of these fuzz-boxed guitars comes from one of Ed Burkey's cuts on here, "Night Rider".

Not all the guitar playing on here is aggressive. There are a few jams on here like the Hustlers' "Inertia" which feature another side of surf guitar, that high pitched, gentle poking pioneered by Les Paul.

"Sa Acabo" by the Del Rio Brothers is an upbeat instrumental that wouldn't have been out of place on one of the more soul-laden Fania albums from the late 60's by the likes of Johnny Pacheco or Joe Bataan.

The R&B influence on these musicians is most apparent in the horn playing. Junior Walker must have been a huge inspiration when songs like "Shotgun" and "Cleo's Mood" topped the charts in 1965. The Chuck Higgins tracks are probably the most soulful sounding cuts on Intoxica! with "Water Wheel" and "Night Scene", with its jazzy piano leads.

A suburban Californian take on the exotic Middle East is represented with a couple of exciting numbers, like the tingling slow burner "Sound of Mecca" from the Blazers, and Ginny and the Gallions' "Hava Nagila" recalling a B-movie scene complete with belly dancers and a barbecue in the Sultan's tent. Ginny and the Gallions actually made the trip to Downey's studios from their Las Vegas base.

There are a few other tracks that stand out for their sense of adventure. The percussion playing on the Hindus' "Theme of Etiquette" and the string arrangement on "The Ghost of Mary Meade Part 2" both come to mind. On the latter tune, the strings push the Muzak-envelope for their syrupy, ephemeral sound, but the horn playing lends a jazzy, punchier counterpoint that makes this an interesting contribution from Little Caesar and the Ark Angels. The closing track on Intoxica! concludes the collection with a classic, special effects laden (think "Lost In Space") 1960's take on the Space Age. "Space Battle" is credited to Stories In Sound, whose straight-forward rhythm section and boogie piano is "modernized" with what could be a theremin,* ending this compilation on an optimistic, experimental note.

Intoxica! is a fun collection, and one which is both easily enjoyed by casual fans of (predominantly Surf) sixties instrumentals and serious collectors alike. The material is strong throughout, six previously unreleased songs do not stand out as obvious outtakes. One cut, Ginny and the Gallions' take of the "Third Man Theme" sounds like a live recording which leaves one curious as to what other live recordings, if any, exist among the Downey Records tape reels used to create this series from Ace Records. Using original studio tapes is always preferable when possible, and Intoxica! is no exception; the sound quality is terrific. At almost seventy minutes, there was certainly room for a little more music on this compilation, but the running time is respectable for a c.d. and on the lean side for a double record. The material is strong throughout, so cutting the release off at 26 tracks is hardly an egregious shortfall.

*- The Theremin is an early electronic instrument whose eerie tone was popular in horror movies and some rather experimental music in the early twentieth century, before falling out of popularity. Its last use in an international hit song must have been the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations".

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