Johnny Aloha (Coverage)
Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine have enjoyed at least a decade of success reworking pop and hip-hop hits as cocktail lounge music — imagine how, say, "Me So Horny," "She Hates Me" and "Smoke Two Joints" would have sounded if recorded by Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. As one decade nears its end and another is but weeks away, Cheese is now introducing a protege "tiki culture" entertainer Johnny Aloha, who plans to do to hapa-haole music what Lounge Against the Machine has been doing to mainstream pop.
Aloha’s vision of "tiki culture" music is ukulele, bongos and steel guitar rather than the complex "exotica" arrangements of Martin Denny, but the concept is an imaginative alternative to Denny tribute bands. His best choices are songs that somehow fit a tropical resort context — "Vacation" (Go-Go’s), "Cruel Summer" (Bananarama) and "Paradise City" (Gun ‘N’ Roses) are three. All fit surprisingly well and are much more interesting than straight remakes would be.
There are other good ideas. Bongo drumming and a chorus of faux-Hawaiian chanting add a frenetic "exotic" edge to "Last Resort." Steel guitar, ukulele, percussion and "hula narrator" Olena Hsu are the keys to an imaginative makeover of Will Smith’s "Summertime" that owes nothing to the original hit but the lyrics. "Gangsta’s Paradise" worked well for Cheese, and it works well for Aloha, too.
There is one new song, "Drink to Hawaii." Written by producer Mark Jonathan Davis and project musician Sage Guyton, it’s an imaginative hapa-haole number that mixes and matches the names of exotic drinks with Hawaiian place names — "I’ll take a Chi Chi to Waikiki/And a Zombie to Ka’anapali" is a verse that actually rhymes reasonably well. Some of the other pairings don’t rhyme, but the idea carries them through.
Two other ideas should not be repeated. Adding stereotypical dialect bits to Cisqo’s "Thong Song" doesn’t improve on the song or the Johnny Aloha "tiki culture" format. Having Richard Cheese and Corey Taylor sing "Almost Paradise" to each other is silly at best.
Ukulele, falsetto elevate hymns
"Somewhere Up Ahead: Gospel Hymns Hawaii Vol. II"
Ata Damasco (Ululoa Productions)
Christianity has been an important part of Hawaiian culture for almost two centuries. The Hawaiian tradition of choral singing began with the early missionaries, and within a few decades Hawaiians were writing hymns as well as singing them. Maui resident Ata Damasco celebrates that cultural legacy with this collection of 16 Christian hymns he grew up with. Some are sung in Hawaiian, others in English, but all are unmistakably Hawaiian in style.
Damasco sings primarily as a falsetto vocalist; "Ua Mau" and "It’s in My Heart" are exceptions. Several friends — Liz Morales, Joni DeMello, Kaiolohia Funes Smith and Cody Pueo Pata — contribute backing vocals and help out with the instrumentation. Damasco’s arrangements are impeccably Hawaiian in style; ukulele and guitar predominate. Violin and cello, more prominent in Hawaiian music a century ago than now, add distinct textures elsewhere. Damasco plays ukulele on most selections and guitar on several, but his work on piano increases the feel of "church" to a medley blending "Ship Without a Sail" and "Room at the Cross."
Damasco brings the Hawaiian hymn tradition to mainstream audiences with his arrangements of several gospel standards — "It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" to name two. Damasco closes with "Sparrow" and sings beautifully. With luck, that song will introduce him to Christian-music fans outside Hawaii.
‘Wonderland’ worthy of a Hoku
Willie K (Island Soul Entertainment)
Willie K won the Na Hoku Hanohano Award for best Christmas album for "Willie Kalikimaka" in 2000. His new full-length Christmas project puts him on track to win a second time in the category.
He opens on a swinging pop note with back-to-back, up-tempo arrangements of "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and "Winter Wonderland." Alaka’i Paleka joins him on the opener and shows that she should record more often. Willie features studio musicians Brian Cuomo (piano), Bob Harrison (acoustic bass) and Paul Marchetti (drums) on "Wonderland" — and calls on each by name for a well-deserved solo.
Willie puts such a fresh and soulful spin on "Silver Bells" that it stands out as the most impressive song on the album.
Fans of "Baby, It’s Cold Outside," best known to many as a Ray Charles-Betty Carter duet from 1961, will find Willie taking a fresh approach here, too.
Lehua Kalima joins him for a tongue-in-cheek take on attempted seduction. Kalima sings "Where is my drink" instead of "Say, what’s in this drink?" In short, they’re having fun with the song from start to finish, but without mocking the original intent.
CD buyers will find three of the four songs Willie released last month on his Hawaiian Host "Christmas Medley" project: "Ave Maria," "One for the Troops" and "Jingle Bells/Kani Kani Pele." That still leaves fans who jumped on the "macadamia & music" package 10 additional songs for the holiday and an unlisted "ghost track" as well.
Only one of Willie’s choices exceeds his talents as an imaginative arranger. Several local artists have recorded "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" in recent years, and none have come close to the perfection of Brenda Lee’s 1960 hit — let alone brought any new interesting ideas to the song. Willie probably could — and maybe he will at some point in the future. This version features Na Wai Ho’olu’u o ke Anuenue on a frenetic arrangement that lacks the unaffected charm Lee brought to the original hit 50 years ago.