Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World

by David Toop

(Serpent’s Tail)

By Michaelangelo Matos

Every year brings one great pop disappointment, and in 1999 it’s the nonappearance of the CD companion for David Toop’s new book, Exotica: Fabricated Soundscapes in a Real World. Even if it had come out, it would barely have registered as a blip on the pop-culture radar: highbrow art-school theorist culls his favorite tiki tracks in a probably vain attempt to legitimize an often (and often rightly) dismissed genre, yawn. Besides, didn’t the lounge revival crest four years ago? But the crucial difference between, say, DCC’s Music for a Bachelor’s Den releases and the Exotica disc would have been Toop himself. Toop, a British critic and musician, also may be the most important music anthologist working today.

As a writer, his legacy has already begun to solidify. His 1996 book, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, which Toop describes as “a collection of diverse views, thoughts, [and] experiences [that] trace an expansiveness, an opening out of music during the past one hundred years,” has gained a fervent cult audience, and just as Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train inspired a rash of historical contextualizing, Ocean’s aesthetic–based on sound rather than sense, built around jump cuts and fanciful segues between historical eras and styles, the print equivalent of a mix tape–will doubtless be copied for years to come. Kodwo Eshun christened the bandwagon last year with More Brilliant Than the Sun.

But as good a book as Ocean is (and in my opinion it’s the best music-related book of the 90s), the sound track Toop compiled for it is even more valuable. Only Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music–which catalyzed the 60s folk revival and now, almost every time it’s discussed, is still referred to as “Smith’s Anthology,” as if he had somehow conjured it out of thin air–can truly compare to it. Like Smith, Toop’s something of a renaissance man, an artist as well as a historian: Smith recorded the Kiowa in Oklahoma, Toop recorded the Yanomami in Brazil; Smith painted and made animated films, Toop is responsible for several albums of his own “ambient” music, including this year’s Museum of Fruit. His Ocean of Sound disc is a dream mix: not only do the individual selections range from intriguing to great, but every one connects effortlessly to the next under the magic combination of taste and knowledge.

Ocean of Sound is one of those records that have something to teach even the most jaded music fan about how to listen to music. Opening with a classic trifecta–King Tubby into Herbie Hancock into Aphex Twin–it makes room for everything from the perfumed air of Debussy to Peter Brotzmann’s all-acoustic free jazz (positioned here as proto-grind-core), from Buddhist monks to the Beach Boys and John Cage. The 90s will be remembered as the decade the cut-and-paste aesthetic took its place at pop’s center, and Ocean features what’s possibly the decade’s most mind-blowing segue: the anemic feedback howl of the Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name” crashing into the eerie underwater barks of bearded seals.

After Ocean, Toop compiled several more collections (available as imports on Virgin), and while none is quite as transcendent as the original, the otherworldly Crooning on Venus (which includes Julee Cruse, Tim Buckley, and Brian Eno’s remix of Massive Attack’s “Protection”), the tch-tch-tch-BOOM!ing Booming on Pluto: Electro for Droids (which features Afrika Bambaataa, Cabaret Voltaire, Hashim, To Rococo Rot, George Clinton, and–no shit–Cat Stevens), and Guitars on Mars (which collects Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, the MC5, Lee Ranaldo, and Link Wray) are all enormously satisfying collections. So ever since Exotica was published this summer, I’ve been ready for Toop to redefine “exotica” for my ears as well as my eyes, but it’s not to be: due to licensing problems, the disc–slated for release on Palm Pictures/Rykodisc, according to the back of the book–has been indefinitely shelved.

Exotica, the book, reads like a chapter of Ocean writ large–and in fact exotica is one of the styles that figure into Toop’s Ocean-ic taxonomy. The term usually refers strictly to Hollywood’s chintzy misappropriations of African, Asian, and Latin music in the 50s and 60s via bandleaders like Les Baxter, Esquivel, and Martin Denny (whose 1958 album gave the genre its name), but just as Ocean’s survey of ambient music didn’t begin or end with what the industry sells under the label “ambient,” Toop’s new work defines “exotica” merely as music whose primary appeal is its otherness.

His treatment of Baxter and his ilk is neither kitsch blind nor mockingly dismissive: “[Les] Baxter’s music was visionary without being revolutionary,” he writes, “as if he had consciously seeded the future with daring ideas disguised as cocktail froth…his work was a crucible for unique skills, fabulous inventions and chronic lapses of judgment.” Toop paints vivid portraits of some of the storied exotics of the 20th century, including Josephine Baker, who walked her pet leopard along the Champs-Elysees but scrubbed her dark skin with lemon juice at night, and Carmen Miranda, whose bananas eventually drove her nuts. But he also finds a way to extend the discussion to surf instrumentals (“his approach to the electric guitar,” he writes of Link Wray, “seemed unfettered by precedent”), the self-conscious New Orleans hoodoo of early Dr. John, and the raga-influenced space jazz of Alice Coltrane.

That said, the book has its weaknesses: in particular, though readers familiar with Toop’s style will be prepared for the way he peppers his painstaking research with tongue-in-cheek fictional snippets (such as the brief history of bioacoustic music co-narrated by Lassie), they feel more intrusive this time. It’s not that there are more of them; it’s that you’ve come to expect them–and that points to a larger problem.

Toop has admirably refused to adhere to the rockcrit and jazzcrit canons–though his anticanon, shared by many of his colleagues and peers who write for the British experimental-music magazine the Wire and most persuasively argued by his compilations, is fast becoming as rigid as the Beatles-Dylan-Stones trinity it’s meant to supplant. And though some of the specifics are new, Exotica is less an extension of Toop’s worldview than a reiteration of it. The same thing applies to his Museum of Fruit, which mines the same territory as previous, superior works like 1995’s Screen Ceremonies and 1996’s Pink Noir with diminishing returns. Even repeating himself, Toop’s a more interesting read than almost anyone else writing about music today. But if his groove winds up turning into a rut, it’ll be the pop disappointment of the decade.