Two interesting items arrived today.

Compilation - David Whitaker: 'The David Whitaker Songbook' (CD; Tricatel; 1965-1998)
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This is a fascinating compilation of music touched by the hand of David Whitaker, a film composer I discovered completely by accident last year. I bought a Colgems label sampler LP, mainly in order to hear a track or two from Lalo Schifrin’s notoriously rare Murderer’s Row soundtrack. But the track that stuck out was David Whitaker’s ‘Hammerhead’s apartment’ (audio), a beautiful and rich piece from the soundtrack to a 1968 Vince Edwards movie, Hammerhead.

There are 21 tracks on this disc, a mix of pop work for which Whitaker was the arranger and original soundtrack or soundtrack-related work that he has scored.

It turns out that Whitaker also arranged many of my favorite 60s pop songs, including work by Nico (the same early track I recommend at musical taste), Lee Hazlewood, and France Gall. The Hazlewood track is from Cowboy in Sweden; I recall remarking to myself in the past on the incredible richness of the string sound in that song. The France Gall song is an astounding sitar/orchestral pop track called 'Chanson Indienne,' which was new to me.

This compilation also boasts the original track by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra that The Verve sampled for 'Bittersweet Symphony'. I recall that they made a terrible stink at the time about having to sign the composer rights over to someone else, claiming that really they wrote the song, and just borrowed a few notes. Perhaps they didn’t say that—I don’t actually know the details of the case—but I can say that other than the melody (which is pretty obvious anyway), they added nothing to this track! In fact, they left some nice bits out! In his short note, Whitaker says 'bollocks to The Verve!', and listening to this disc, I can’t help agreeing with him.

Other than 'Hood explores the Triton' from Hammerhead, I find the film score work slightly less accessible than the rest of the disc. It's still very good though, and includes recent work (a piano piece from Harry un ami qui vous veut du bien; a cool film, I thought, incidentally) as well as late 60s material from Run wild, run free.

A good proportion of the tracks are from Whitaker's 'fake score' album, Music to Spy By, which I once failed to buy on ebay. All seem to be astoundingly good - soft, stylish orchestral instrumentals in a slightly muted style. Whitaker is apparently good friends with Bertrand Burgalat, and you can definitely hear the influence in Burgalat's work – echoey strings, supplemented occasionally by bouncy basslines.

The most incredible thing that strikes me after hearing this collection is that I had previously been ignorant of Whitaker's involvement in much of my favorite music (I even have the CD single that his version of Air's 'remember' is taken from!). This is a great disc, which I highly recommend to Schifrin and Morricone fans.

Jumping Jacques: 'Avalon' (CD; Petra SRL; 1968)
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What an incredible record! I think if I listened to this every day, I’d go insane, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by it all the same. Jumping Jacques were apparently a vocal group from France. The instrumentation is simple, with drums and bass behind many layers of ludicrously peppy wordless vocals. The most obvious comparisons to make are the Swingle Singers and Les Double Six, but this group is taking the entire ‘percussive wordless harmony vocals’ sound to level beyond that of most groups. For example, their sound is similar to Os 3 Morais, but more extreme.

For a group as obscure and apparently unknown as this (I had heard of them only through a bootleg compilation of a few years ago called ‘Beat Actione’), the singing is remarkably good, with the female singers hitting similar high notes to those of the Gals & Pals. All the tracks are 2 to 3 minutes in length. It’s slightly hard to choose between them. The styles vary slightly – some, such as ‘la terre, le ciel et l’eau’ focus on quirky percussive vocal effects, while others are more straightforward and accessible pop bossa tracks. ‘Just a little midnight swim’ is a nice cut with dense vocals. The effect is like a cross between the Novi Singers and a late-60s Piero Piccioni or Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

Some of the tracks definitely veer into novelty territory. ‘Avalon’ is bizarre. An Al Jolson composition, it features gulping and muppet-style effects. An accordion-type sound continues in the background, and I think this is in fact made up of multiple spliced sections of sped up vocal notes. It sounds like little mice. Bizarre! ‘Chili peppers’ is kind of ridiculous as well.

What I probably haven’t made clear so far is the “hip factor” of these tracks. Not every track is like this, but many tracks are extremely “hip”, like ‘Where flamingos fly’, which has a great, “easy” proto-disco feel to it, with gently funky drums. Of course, the real reason I love it is the faint Edda Dell'Orso-style vocal in the background. ‘Haunted House’ is great as well, with some spooky echoey vocalese effects that I wish I’d had for Halloween.

If I was going to level a complaint about these songs, it would be that while the vocal acrobatics and effects are amazing, the compositions themselves aren’t always that memorable. The final track is therefore especially enjoyable to me, since it’s a cover of ‘whispering,’ an old standard that I’m very fond of. The approach is very different to that taken by Dr. Buzzard, but it’s very cool nevertheless.

I think this record is one that I will dip into for individual tracks rather than listening to the whole thing, but it's wonderful stuff all the same. Being a deeply mean individual, I held out on buying the first Jumping Jacques reissue, ‘sugar and spice’, until they got this one in (so I could save on postage). The first one now seems to be utterly sold out. Damn!

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