Gregg Porter's Music Reviews
Israel Kamakawiwo`ole: “Wonderful World” (Mountain Apple)
“Put shoes on me.” That’s what IZ said to producer/label owner Jon de Mello many years ago. How you interpret that statement (and the entire relationship between IZ and de Mello) will determine what opinion you have in the controversy surrounding this “new” album.
On one side, you have those who say IZ represents a laid-back, unadorned, barefoot style of Hawaiian music; that de Mello is a greedy businessman, milking every drop from his biggest cash-cow. On the other, people say that IZ knew that he would not be around for long, and that he worked out deals with de Mello that would guarantee future earnings for the wife and daughter he would leave behind.
Certainly, de Mello is a wealthy man, and the Mountain Apple label is the biggest name in the Hawaiian record industry, by a big margin. And a healthy chunk of their success has come from the licensing of a certain big man’s music. But IZ was no fool, no country bumpkin stumbling around lost in the industry. Sources close to the family have told me of his faith and trust in de Mello, and of detailed agreements between the two men, outlining future plans and kept quiet until after his passing.
That passing, that loss of a fine musical voice, occurred ten years ago. Even if he was not the greatest Hawaiian musician ever to walk the Islands, you cannot deny that he has been hugely influential in spreading that music worldwide – and largely through a non-Hawaiian song, used extensively in movies, television shows and commercials. And that whole song isn’t even on this album!
So, what about this album? What is it, exactly? Well, de Mello and company have had a dream for several years, to feature IZ’s sweet vocals and gentle `ukulele playing in a new forum – front and center before a symphony orchestra. They accomplished it by taking his vocals and uke tracks (from the available releases, as well as never-before-available recordings) and hiring orchestral arrangers from around the world (who, unfortunately, remain anonymous as far as the liner notes go) to create beautiful new settings around those tracks. It’s something that’s been done before, with artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Hank Williams to Nat King Cole.
Viewed from that perspective, this disc is a smashing success. The arrangements are warm, strong, lush, fun when they need to be, heartstring-tugging at other times. The recordings are bright and crisp, and IZ remains the star throughout. The best moments are when the orchestra “knows” how he will be playing `ukulele, and their accompaniment is appropriate (best example of this comes in the uke break of “Henehene Kou `Aka.”)
Listen to the opening cut ("What A Wonderful World", just part of his most famous recording) at full volume, or on headphones. (Try out the whole album that way, in fact.) The richness of that arrangement --- chicken skin. IZ's vocals throughout the disc are strong, powerful, clear - the way he was at his best; and the vocals are right up front on every track, never lost in the mix. It's clear that they wanted to keep him sounding as if he were being supported by the orchestra, rather than just a featured player. The ballads are where the arrangements are most touching: "White Sandy Beach," " E Ku`u Morning Dew" and "`Opae E" being some of the best examples.
A few flaws, to my ears: having heard most of the original source recordings, I can tell where some of the time-stretching (digitally adjusting the tempo of his vocals, while leaving the pitch intact) takes place, and in a couple of spots, it's slightly disconcerting. There are also tracks that are weak enough that I don't think they fit the overall album as well (like "Ka Huila Wai," where the uke is slightly out-of-tune; that's cool when he's in a solo or smaller setting, but not here), and the synthesized enhancements to the opening brass lines on "Ke Alo O Iesu" hurt to hear.
Plans are in the works for a second album of this sort (to include “Over The Rainbow), as well as a tour of the vocal/uke tracks, along with film footage and photographs, to be featured with orchestras around the globe (again, a concept that was used for Elvis Presley in recent years.)
So if you are a fan of IZ, and curious as to how this new sound will work for you, try looking at this album as a ten-years-on tribute to one of the most influential voices ever to come out of Hawaiian music, rather than an attempt to improve upon or otherwise change the material that's already out there - besides, nothing here takes those sounds away from you, does it? If this is truly what IZ meant long ago, then de Mello and Mountain Apple’s crew did a respectable job with the footwear - and we still get him barefoot or in slippahs the rest of the time.
Almost lost in the attention given to IZ’s CD, released the same day, is the third disc from Moloka`i's youthful sweetheart, Raiatea Helm. Continuing in the same vein as her previous release (“Sweet and Lovely,” released in 2004 and reviewed in this paper in January 2005; archived at http://www.northwesthawaiitimes.com/greggjan05.htm), this is another straight-ahead album of Hawaiian music, new and old.
Working with many of the same musicians as before, with clear direction from her father, Zachary (brother to the late George Helm, musician and Hawaiian activist), classic songs ride alongside newer compositions by the likes of Puakea Nogelmeier, Louis Moon Kauakahi, ‘Obrien `Eselu and Tony Conjugacion.
In addition to her band on this album, which includes familiar names like pianist Aaron J. Salā, Casey Olsen on steel guitar, Bryan Tolentino playing `ukulele, and multi-instrumentalist and rising star Hōkū Zuttermeister, special guests include slack key master Ledward Ka`apana on “E Ku`u Sweet Lei Poina `Ole,” Robert Cazimero sharing duet vocals on a medley of “Ko`ūla/Manowaiopuna,” and Louis Moon Kauakahi (of Mākaha Sons) playing and singing on the song he wrote for Raiatea, “Lei Kukui.”
Much as she did previously, she changes direction for the final track, showcasing a jazz style on the old standard “Taking A Chance On Love.” Since a couple of other tracks here have a gently jazz-inflected performance (Lena Machado’s “Ei Nei” with Salā’s simple electric-piano chording as the only instrument joining her, and the lightly-swinging traditional “My Dede,” featuring a clarinet line and an un-credited accordion sound), the cut is not quite as out-of-place as the previous album’s “At Last.” But I would hope that someday, if she really wishes to emphasize this side of her singing, she will do an entire album of this material, rather than “afterthought-ing” it onto her excellent Hawaiian releases.
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