|Most of us know him from his somewhat bizarre mind expressed in cartoons. In that virtual world of his, minorities and women are exploited, abused, assaulted or at least placed in a heavily oversexed context. But to put things in perspective, Robert Crumb, the subject of this review, caricaturized himself often enough handling his limp member to appease the most vocal critics. Less known is the fact that Robert Crumb is not only a regarded ukulele and banjo player but owns a large collection of historical 78 RPM records. The expatriate Crumb now offers from this collection the CD Hot Women Women Singer From The Torrid Regions as a sneak peek of things to come.
To be sure, the CD doesn't contain any audiophile-rated A-plus material. Don't expect then a completely nuked-to-perfection soundstage of precise instrumental placements. No, the tracks here are plenty noisy and the voices more often than not shrill and harsh. Nevertheless, the 24 songs form a two-fold documentary. First, the project -- and we have to regard it as a project -- offers an insight into Robert Crumb's record cabinet. Second, it is a musical documentary of a trip circumambulating the world as it was many moons ago. The idea for the project originated with Crumb's wife Aline. During one of their many joint listening sessions -- Aline and Robert are a couple after our own hearts! -- Aline espoused the idea to put together a cross section of their record collection that would be based on female vocalists from around the world.
Thus began the hard work of sorting through thousands of shellac recordings to select the best tracks. Aline meanwhile contacted Robert's book publisher Kein & Aber and got them all enthusiastic over the project still in progress. Internet-savvy friends -- Robert is a technological schlemiel in this respect -- assisted in collecting vital information about the singers and the recordings. The odd surviving photos found on the net were transformed to drawings in typical Crumb style, one used for the album's cover.
The recordings proper span the period from the late 1920s to 1950. All of them underwent digitization and, in a very responsible and respectful way, were declicked and cleaned up by Tony Baldwin. Despite this procedure, the tracks still exhibit the underlying noise so typical for 78 records but now lack scratches and other clicks. Listening to them is like being time-warped straight into the heydays of 78 monos when these female vocalists were still young, pretty and very much alive.
The lyrics remain unintelligible, though the music speaks strongly enough for itself, with emotions emotions whether in Turkish, Burmese or Congolese. Our musical tour begins with a Louisiana Cajun Blues before we head for Mexico south-of-the-border, with music exuding the vibrant atmosphere of the streets. More imagery appears to the inner eye with the second Mexican piece, conjuring, for some reason an old animated Max Fleischer film. The next stop is the Caribbean with Cuba and then the French Isles. The music gets hotter and more sizzling despite the recording quality. Back East to Brazil and then the voices of Chilean girls, then down the Panama Canal into Europe and Spain where Flamenco welcomes the weary audio traveler. In Sicily, a larger orchestra then awaits us by playing a melody that works like a brain itch and keeps on running in your head. The Germans call such a brain itch Ohrwurm - earworm, very appropriate.
The Greek contribution calls for some Metaxa or Ouzo before we cross the Mediterranean for Algeria. Here the second Algerian track is suddenly free of all background noise. Via Tunisia we arrive in Turkey where it is hard to believe that this recording is really 60 years old. The next track originates from somewhere in Eastern Africa before we enter the Congo with a balaphon and two voices. Madagascar is the first step enroute to Indian Hindustani music, then onward to Burma and Vietnam. From here we halfway cross the Pacific for a musical visit of Hawaii, with the end of our virtual trip around the world Tahiti; not a bad place to end up at all. Here we can contemplate the experience, realizing that these recordings were made some 54 to 77 years ago, during a period when commercial rule over artistic intention wasn't as dominant as it is today and when the sheer love of music dominated and prevailed.