The key to appreciating the music of Hawaii? Ignore the kitsch album covers. Pay no attention to the palm trees, hula girls, frangipani and bright shirts. As Hawaiian LPs go, this one actually isn’t too bad: just a murky sunset. Lame, rather than loud.
Even more important: do not read the sleeve notes, which belong to the same genre as try-hard travel brochures.
I did tell you not to read it.
Ignore all that. Just listen.
This record is cocktail-hour, hammock-sway stuff, skillful and restrained mood music by the Maile Serenaders, which was a floating collective of some of Hawaii’s best musicians of the 1950s. On Evening in the Islands they do laid-back versions of island standards, including this one, “White Ginger Blossoms”.
It is actually a bit hard for an Australian to get misty-eyed about White Ginger, which is listed under the Biosecurity Act (2014) as “a restricted invasive plant”. It is, in other words, a declared noxious weed. You might as well sing romantically about Kudzu Vine, or Prickly Pear. But a lovely tune, even if it is about a weed.
Artist: The Maile Serenaders
LP Title: Evening in the Islands
Side 1, Track 5 “White Ginger Blossoms”
Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
Catalogue number: WS 1584
Manufactured in: Australia
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It would have been about 1985. I clearly remember that it was Anzac Day, 25 August. This is a solemn public holiday in Australia, our annual commemoration for fallen soldiers. The weather was lousy and everything was closed, and I was in my bedroom doing schoolwork. The radio was on, tuned into EON FM.
Eons ago it seems, but EON was then the cool young person’s rock radio station in my part of the world. It was one of the first commercial radio stations broadcasting on the FM band, and it made much of being in stereo. One station jingle had exaggerated stereo separation.
It’s on the LEFT,
It’s on the RIGHT
It’s got the BEAT
Day and night
It seemed impressive at the time. Anyway, back to this slightly dreary Anzac Day. James Reyne, an Australian rock musician who was big then (and still is) was being interviewed on EON. Actually interview isn’t quite the word – the regular DJ was there, but he had almost lost his voice, and so just let Reyne talk and play music for the best part of two hours. Given time and space to chat he showed himself to be unexpectedly thoughtful and interesting. He had just returned from a trip to America, and he spoke having been to see a Van Halen concert. Van Halen, still fronted by David Lee Roth at this time, were in their pomp, but I could not really see what the excitement was about. Roth was a clown, and the music didn’t really grab me. But Reyne said something which has stuck with me. “They don’t have many songs,” he said, “but they don’t need them”. It was all in the show, the theatre, the stadium spectacular.
Something must explain their popularity. One of their few “songs” came out a bit later, post Roth, with Sam Hagar on vocals: “Why Can’t This Be Love” is good pop rock, but not really what Van Halen were about.
The B-side to that single is more representative. “Get Up” seems to be about nothing in particular, although Hagar mostly screams so it is hard to tell. It is the sound, the noise, the vibe, the aural assault that matters. This kind of thing: It doesn’t do much for me listening to the recorded version, but I kinda see that it would be fun to jump along to in a big sweaty stadium, with lights and lasers and dry ice and the volume at eleven. Better live.
Artist: Van Halen
Single Title: Why Can’t His Be Love
Track: Side B “Get Up”
Format: 7”, 45 rpm
Label: Warner, 7-28740
Manufactured in: Australia
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If you have listened to Emmylou Harris’s albums, Luxury Liner and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, or Neil Young’s Comes a Time, American Stars and Bars and Rust Never Sleeps, or the Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute, or a whole stack of albums and singles by Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Christopher Cross and other luminaries of country-rock-pop in the 1970s, then you know her voice.
Nicolette Larson was an aspiring folk singer in San Francisco who got some singing work which lead to other work, and in time she attracted the attention of Neil Young, and from that became a star backing vocalist. On everyone’s records. Which is nice – hey, I’d take it – but of course she wanted a solo career.
It started well, with this album.
The first single from it, the Neil Young composition “Lotta Love”, was a huge hit, a soft rock masterpiece. (Yes, oh sneering trendoids, there is such a thing. On Planet Vinyl at any rate.) Larson’s version of “You Send Me” also did well. But if you were expecting, and I admit that I was, an LP full of the same kind of thing – well it isn’t. It is an eclectic mix. A bit of soft rock, a bit of R’n’B, a song in French in waltz time, and some hardcore bluegrass gospel.
Larson’s story, at least from this album on, is a sad one. After her initial success with this record, she never quite caught the flame again. Continued singing, alone and behind others, but she was on a downward path. She died of liver failure in 1997, aged only 45. Fair to suggest, I think, that liver failure so young suggests a lifestyle neither happy nor healthy.
I knew nothing of any of this. I remembered “Lotta Love” from the radio in the 1970s. I did not remember the name, but I do remember seeing her on television and thinking that she had an awful lotta hair.
This album is not a masterpiece. It’s good, sometimes brilliant, but like Larson’s musical journey more generally, it somehow falls just a little sort of its promise. I can relate to that. So can most of us. None of that changes two core truths.
First, Nicolette Larson had the voice of an angel. Second, she was brave. It is precisely that much of this LP sounds nothing like “Lotta Love” which I admire. This track, “Angels Rejoiced” is a hokey bluegrass gospel number first released in 1957. Larson performs it as a duet with Herb Pederson, and somehow this temperance-pamphlet morality play of a song acquires a delicate magic. Just imagine a coked-up Warner Bros exec railing against including this track on the album of a singer they hoped would be major star.