To the best of my knowledge, I have never within my lifetime listened to exotica—save, perhaps, during a brief and unremarkable visit to The Tiki Room at Disneyland. Strangely enough, however, I have developed a passing knowledge of it, thanks to a stray chapter on its history that I encountered within a book that was about another topic entirely.
I read about the increasing accessibility of home stereo systems in the late 50s, and the novel sense of luxury that came from listening to high-quality recorded music without ever leaving the cozy privacy of one’s living room. I read about the way that the music of exotica sought to heighten the thrill of this new listening experience by evoking, through its sounds, a fantasy of trekking through some dank tropical rainforest or meeting the inhabitants of a distant Polynesian village. To experience adventure in a clean and comfortable fashion, to encounter strange birdcalls and diverse flora without getting any dirt between one’s toes or contracting malaria—that was the goal of exotica.
I found the whole thing so fascinating—but for some reason I never actually checked out any of the seminal exotica records that were mentioned in the writing. Perhaps it seemed too anachronistic. Perhaps, on some level, I was afraid that if I indulged in this strange pocket of the past, I would transform into the form of its original listener, some pudgy postwar yuppie drinking a whiskey scotch in his apartment after work, some odd mutation of Don Draper who lacks his redeeming sexiness and hard-boiled self-awareness. But now arrives Monster Rally’s new album Return to Paradise, in which Ted Feighan caters these vague imaginings of the faraway to our contemporary ears and tastes.
Feighan, with a diverse sprawl of collected samples, patches together the sense of a world that is both twenty places at once and no particular place at all. There are Django-esque guitar riffs, the trills of jubilant flutes, tinkling bells mixed with jungle sounds, güiros, marimbas, string ensembles, and, at one point, the eerily sweet “oohings” of four men that seem to be emanating from an old Depression-era radio. There is no way of knowing where we really are. But we don’t feel lost—rather, we feel guided through our disorientation.
There are many reasons for this sense of assuredness. First, there is the layout of the work as a whole. The order of the songs flow smoothly forward through space and time—this is not a sputtering riverboat we are riding on, but a sleek and silent private jet. Feighan is also a talented collagist (more of his work can be viewed here), and the album cover he has created offers a beautiful display of pink and orange flowers superimposed over the backdrop of a mossy forest. It is a visual that both entices and grounds the senses, giving a sense of space to this ethereal dreamland.
But then there is the element that really gives the album its punch—that is, the muffled force of the beats from Feighan’s 404. Sure, many tracks begin with the samples presented in their pure form, without embellishments, immersing us into their past. But after twenty seconds or so Feighan yanks us out of our reverie with hip-hop’s kicks and snares, pulling us back into the present. Our ears and minds wander into the distance, but part of us always remains aware of where our bodies really are—the year 2013, with our butts rooted on the couch, in a world where it is not the tropical but the urban that waits outside our doors. Feighan invites us to travel, but he also makes sure we know how to get back home.
Return to Paradise is available now via Gold Robot Records.