Music From a Sparkling Planet

A cocktail nation looking for a forefather to emulate could do no better than Juan Garcia Esquivel. Known simply as Esquivel! in his '50s and '60s heyday, the "Madcap Mexican" cut the swankest of figures, a cool cat attired in exquisitely tailored suits, with impeccable hair, manicured nails, and smoldering bedroom eyes that drove the ladies wild. This is the man who learned how to walk so his shoes wouldn't crease at the toes, who fined his dancing girls $5 for every extra pound they put on, who managed his band with a velveteen fist, all in the name of perfection. Image, as the neo-loungers know, is everything. And with his Latin American background, Esquivel! offers the "exotica"-hungry set ethnicity to fetishize, one more familiar than, say, that of Indian organist Korla Pandit. All this pales, though, next to Esquivel!'s futuristic genius. If Martin Denny created roots music for suburban swingers, Esquivel! molded astral works for hi-fi hounds and saucer people alike.

With interest in Esquivel! growing since his rediscovery in the '80s, Bar/None released Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, an anthology culled from Esquivel! classics like Latin-Esque and Infinity in Sound, to great critical acclaim. Music From a Sparkling Planet presents more of the same: that is, otherworldly arrangements of standards like "All of Me," south-of-the-border traditionals like "La Paloma," and insanely catchy Esquivel! originals like "Question Mark (What Can You Do)."

The band leader calls his arranging style "sonorama": bizarre instrumentation courtesy of gizmos like the buzzimba, the vibraslap, and the mighty theremin; quick-fire tempo switches; creative dissonance; and a barrage of plinks, boings, vocal pow!s, whistling, yodeling -- even the rattle of a human jawbone with teeth (on "La Paloma"). Esquivel! sculpted the oddest effects imaginable in an age before synthesizers made such experimentation easy.

As Esquivel! comments in the liner notes, he "preferred to work with well-known songs" so the listener is likelier to appreciate his arrangements. Indeed, he takes "My Blue Heaven" to another planet, toys with tempo like a kid on a Hammond home organ on "All of Me," and gives "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" a zippy cha-cha-cha feel. Who needs lyrics when choruses of zu-zu-zus and ra-ras speak volumes?

Esquivel! was once called a "pop avant-gardist," which isn't as oxymoronic as it first seems. A child prodigy and virtuoso pianist, Esquivel! was conducting his own 22-piece band by the time he was 18, studied briefly at Juilliard, and earned a degree in engineering, which explains the grounding mathematical precision of his work. Behind the kitschy veneer of Esquivel!'s music and his Don Juan image is a boundless talent for innovation that was never diminished by the confines of his genre. Esquivel! is to the tiki brigade as Brian Wilson is to Michael Bolton. Meaning, in its celebration of swank banality, the have-martini-will-travel crowd actually stumbled upon something great.

-- Sia Michel
A listening party honoring Esquivel! happens Thurs, June 15, at Bimbo's in S.F.; call 474-0365.

Tales From the Punchbowl

Primus has always been a love-'em-or-hate-'em proposition: The Bay Area threesome's off-kilter virtuosity and unabashed goofery either instantly endear them to you or relegate them to the cutout bin in your mind. Tales From the Punchbowl, Primus' fifth offering, won't change matters any. The band remains slap-happy in a variety of ways: Lanky Les Claypool still thumps into oblivion, twanging like an adenoidal Huckleberry Hound, bashmeister "Herb" Alexander still pokes gaping holes into the concept of tempo, six-stringer "Ler" LaLonde still bounces his noodly riffs off of distant satellites and back -- and "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" doesn't score Primus any points for sophistication. As the copy for one Tales ad reads: "If you didn't like Primus before ... you probably won't like them now." True, and always has been.

So why does each Primus record move more units than the one before it, and why will Tales be the biggest seller to date? Because the world gets more Primus-like every day. Even more so than previous releases, Tales is frenetic, fractured, and chaotic -- a familiar sensation, right? The Sousa-esque fanfare that opens the disk promises a carnival, one that this affable crew delivers. But on the Primus midway, the roller coaster careens off the tracks, the fun-house mirror distorts everything, and a childish game of keep-away spurs a deadly knifing on "Mrs. Blaileen."

Is there a more succinct musical metaphor for the center-cannot-hold nature of the modern world than LaLonde's frenzied eruptions of nimble-fingered Frippery on "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats"? Not that I've heard. Then, on "Hellbound 17 1/2 (theme from)," Claypool neatly encapsulates the quiet desperation of contemporary Everyman: "Questions deserving answers/ Answers deserving action/ What am I of the populi/ I am but a fraction." Bleak, yes, but Claypool offers some respite in the next verse: "Is there a heaven, is there a hell/ Is that a tuna melt that I smell?" He's underscoring the essential rule of survival for a tumultuous age: When traditional beliefs prove inadequate, one can only follow one's nose. And Claypool ought to know; he's packing more proboscis than Geddy Lee.

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