From egg-shaped plush chairs or towering cabinets carved like totem poles, hi-fi sound once poured over the conversation pits and cocktail hours of yesteryear. The warm tone and stop-and-listen vibe continue with exotica innovators WAITIKI 7’s latest venture, WAITIKI in Hi-Fi (Pass Out Records 7223; April 12, 2011). The vinyl-only release of new material finally gives listeners—die-hard exotica connoisseurs, record collectors, or the merely tiki-curious—a chance to sit back and savor the group’s fresh look at a midcentury music in clear, rich analog.
Timed to honor the 100th anniversary of Martin Denny’s birth, the record pays homage to the exotica pioneer with whom several band members had the privilege to work with before his death. Thanks to Denny and many other highly skilled musicians, exotica’s tropical soundscapes, Latin dance grooves, and potent jazz chops became mainstays on turntables around the world. Often misunderstood as kitsch, exotica was born in Hawaii’s vibrant postwar music scene and went mainstream when musicians like Martin Denny performed on national television shows like American Bandstand, Andy Williams, and Steve Allen. (Denny’s ’59 hit single “Quiet Village” reached #4 on Billboard’s charts, with his Exotica album eventually reaching #1).
The scene Denny helped spark found new life in the 1990s when groups like Combustible Edison took a serious new look at a funky old art form. Part of the lounge revival, which included renewed interest in neglected cocktail recipes, vintage technology, and midcentury pop design, the band spearheaded a movement that continues to flourish, thanks to a new generation of dedicated ensembles like WAITIKI.
A major figure on the East Coast exotica scene was (and is) Jack Fetterman, an architect with an ear for vintage sounds who hosted a legendary New York lounge party in the 1990s and still does cunning retro remixes, like his take on WAITIKI’s arrangement of the Denny classic “Similau,” exclusively available on vinyl. Fetterman, a long-time WAITIKI fan, approached the group about creating a hi-fi vinyl release, something exotica aficionados had been requesting for years.
The project was about more than retro recreation and pure nostalgia for the bygone days of LPs, however. Vinyl can capture the imagination, create a new kind of listening experience, and, under the right conditions, blow iPod addicts away with its warm, full sound.
Fetterman’s hi-fi system reflects how vinyl and analog systems can work their magic. “My set up has an elegance that you just can’t feel with something wireless, with a little box in the middle of the room,” Fetterman explains. “It doesn’t conceal what it’s doing, that sound is being pumped through these garden hose-shaped cables into the speakers. The pre-amp tubes glow and have to be replaced every couple years. But it sounds like nothing else.”
The sound and visual presence of a hi-fi still packs a punch, as do 12” records, with their big-format, bold artwork and potentially better sound quality. “You know when you listen to or look at a record that you are enjoying it exactly the way the artists meant it to be,” reflects WAITIKI bandleader Randy Wong. “Everything about this album is produced in super hi-fi fashion. I was surprised how much things opened up when I heard it. This is WAITIKI like you’ve never heard before.”
Supervised in part by Combustible Edison’s Brother Cleve, In Hi-Fi features alternate studio takes of rolling, lush tracks like “Flower Humming,” with all the sparkling color and depth of the vibes, flute, and Latin-infused percussion. A special live version of the Denny hit “Quiet Village” does beautiful justice to the piece’s animal calls and graceful melody, and brings out WAITIKI’s approach, which focuses on the bass line’s subtle drive.
While giving listeners a chance to hear WAITIKI’s exotica in all its glory, vinyl also encourages more relaxed way of listening, recalling the days when music formed the centerpiece of many a living room dance or cocktail party. “Man cannot live by earbuds or WiFi alone,” muses WAITIKI’s Tim Mayer, who plays reeds and flute with the group. “Here’s an example: There was as junk shop around corner from my house years ago, run by a guy who was a huge vinyl collector. In the summer, he would drag out sofas, lamps, and a 78 player from late ‘50s. Neighborhood people would stop by, listen for a while, and chat. That’s the irresistible allure of vinyl.”