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V/A - Waves in the Ether: The Magical World of the Theremin

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Artist: V/A

Album: Waves in the Ether: The Magical World of the Theremin

Label: Rev-Ola

Review date: May. 26, 2004

If Adolphe Sax were alive today, how would he react to the directions folks like John Butcher and Bhob Rainey have taken his now ubiquitous invention? Detractors of the so-called avant-garde often bandy about such rhetorical questions. I have to admit to hatching a similar hypothetical myself in the case of another instrument, the Theremin.

It’s easy to imagine Russian tone scientist Leon Theremin cringing at how guys like the caterwauling blues primitivist Jon Spencer continue to use and abuse his contraption. The three 10-inch platters collected on Waves in the Ether, a new compendium from the kitsch mavens across the pond at Rev-Ola, seem more in line with his sensibilities. The sounds here are awash in cloying melodic syrup and plush orchestrations popular in the mood music of the era, but still manage to skirt the fringes of the eccentric and far out. Labyrinthine foldout liner notes lay out all the details in a back-story that is arguably as entertaining and illuminating as the music.

Dr. Samuel Hoffman, a podiatrist and part-time society band musician by trade, serves as common denominator in the collected trilogy. Fresh from a regular diet of Hollywood studio gigs playing on soundtracks for flicks like Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hoffman’s Theremin chops were in well-oiled form for the waxing of Music Out of the Moon (1947). Composer Harry Revel, working in collusion with Exotica kingpin Les Baxter, supplies the charts for this album and the next Perfume Set to Music (1950), a platter commissioned by the Corday Perfume Company to promote a line of fragrances eponymous to the tracks (a composerly coup echoing Ken Nordine’s later ’60s work for the Fuller Paint Company on Colors.).

Both employ Baxter’s big band, augmented on the second session by a plush string section and errant tonalities of the Hammond Novachord, a proto-organ Space Age instrumental artifact. Mantovani piano, swirling harp and angelic choir of voices augmented by Hoffman’s aforementioned axe, blend in a heady aural brew designed to placate and stimulate the senses. Electric guitar, vibraphone, tympani also add texture and hue to the simple, inflatable charts on pieces like the jaunty “Mist O’ the Moon” and “Celestial Nocturne”, where soporific strings stitch a demulcent harmonic fabric in league with the palpitating voices.

The Theremin proves an element integral to each setting. It’s twining sonic frequencies create a shimmering aural glow – at once perplexing and enticing – that acts as counter-agent to the more saccharine sides of various arrangements. Baxter’s busy schedule precluded his participation on the third and final slice of vinyl represented, so the Billy May Orchestra takes over musical duties for Music for Peace of Mind, which wins the crown for best cover art (pictured) with a Martin Denny-worthy model wrapped in gossamer Saranwrap™ reclining on a mattress of watercolor clouds.

The sounds here are definitely dated. Saturated as they are with a glossy ’50s studio finish, the lilting ululations and lush orchestrations would wear wafer-thin over the haul of a long-playing album. But there’s a Cold War queerness underlying many of the tunes too. Tracks like “Tzigane,” “Jet” and “This Room is My Castle of Quiet” carry peculiar detours into dissonance and rhythms that hint at darker, far less caramel-coated regions. In the years since these pivotal records, the Theremin has cropped up in some of the oddest places, from The Beach Boys Pet Sounds to Portishead’s Dummy. The roots of those later pop applications are right here and fans of oddball exotica will likely find this earlier context just as pleasing to the ears.

By Derek Taylor

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