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By Derek Askey
Shots in the Dark
Oranj Symphonette Plays Mancini
Inspector Clouseau may still be the anti-Bond, but the man who wrote his theme song has become the very epitome of stereophonic savoir-faire. Henry Mancini, the posthumous commander in chief of cocktail nation, won 20 Grammys for his prolific, often sinister, always suave film and TV scores.
Mancini's instrumentals ranged from the hard-driving, reverb-laced "Peter Gunn Theme," which more or less defined postnuclear-espionage theme music and laid a path for surf guitar to follow, to the armchair exotica of "Charade," a tiki-toned atmospheric number for Kennedy-era backyard barbecues gone native.
Both numbers are included on two recent Mancini-tribute compilations--Shots in the Dark, a various artists' effort whose talent roster reads like a who's who of neo-surf and lounge-music revivalists, and Oranj Symphonette Plays Mancini, a release by four Bay Area rock-and-jazz hepcats who met as studio musicians recording Tom Waits' Night on Earth soundtrack.
With two members each from the Charlie Hunter Quintet and P.J. Harvey's touring band, the Oranj Symphonette recasts 12 of Mancini's best-known numbers in a reverent mold, the arrangements playing it somewhere between tried 'n' true and fast 'n' loose.
The sharpest cut here is "Shot in the Dark," the high-octane theme song for the first sequel to the original Pink Panther movie. It's also the first song on Plays Mancini, and Oranj Symphonette comes hard off the line. Ralph Carney rips and roars on his tenor sax, doubling the hyped-up melody line with Pete Scaturro on Hammond organ, both jamming over Joe Gore's tasty rhythm-guitar surf licks.
Whiskey Biscuit's take on the same song on Shots in the Dark is a 180-degree turn, with a slacked-out organ and guitar-feedback intro that gradually rises and drops into the song's melodic groove at roughly half the tempo Oranj Symphonette attacks with. Different as they are, both interpretations are valid and compelling--Symphonette's takes you on a high-speed car chase, Biscuit's slouches you in a corner booth with a discolored olive in your martini glass and a long-ashed cigarette stuck to your lower lip--but if you have to make a call, the sheer ferocity of Carney's sax playing gets OS the nod.
B-movie biker-flick-score veterans Davie Allan and the Arrows nicely spice up "Experiment in Terror" with a slicing, wah-wah-guitar and Star Trek-y sound effects on Shots, where Oranj Symphonette aims to retain more of the original 1962 suspense-film theme's sinister edge by treating the melody with a somber violin instead.
Oranj Symphonette falters twice on Plays Mancini--with a shrill, choppy rethinking of "Mr. Yunioshi" that sounds more like a first draft of music for the Psycho shower scene than anything resembling Mancini's character theme song for Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Holly Golightly's landlord of undiscernible Asian descent in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Much better is the Insect Surfers' version on Shots in the Dark, which plinks and plucks through the chop-suey-house intro before easing into the sinuous, faux-exotic countermelodies. Symphonette also blows it with a boppy, bright, at-times-carnivalesque version of "Charade" that smothers the South Pacific flavor in Mancini's original 1963 waltz. The Blue Hawaiians do the song more justice, seguing the "James Bond Theme" into an aural landscape of tiki torches and mai-tai melodies. Bron Tieman's Hawaiian steel guitar on this track is pure schmaltzy brilliance.
The rest of Oranj Symphonette is mostly workmanlike orchestral covers of Mancini standards like "Moon River" and "Days of Wine and Roses." They're fine, but not much better than you'll find on other contemporary cocktail compilations, not to mention (dare we suggest it) Mancini's original albums. The exception is a killer version of "The Pink Panther Theme" that shows off the considerable talents of the Symphonette players, from Matt Brubeck's cat-burglar bass line to Carney's crisp, sultry sax and Matt Amendola's achingly subtle percussion.
Not too surprisingly, Oranj's "Pink Panther Theme" also appears on Shots in the Dark, one song before Tucson's own Friends of Dean Martinez take a crack at "Lonesome," one of Mancini's "Cowboy Exotica" instrumentals, which lets Bill Elm take his pedal steel for a long ride on the lonely range.
Other highlights on Shots in the Dark include the Wondermints doing the psychedelic dance extravaganza theme from The Party, Mancini's last in a long line of collaborations with filmmaker Blake Edwards, and new-school torch-song temptress Nan Vernon's breathless rendering of "Moon River" (in English first, then French), backed by an Optagon, a '60s-era toy organ made by Mattel, patched through lo-fi effects to get that warm, scratchy sound of nostalgia. Ah, just like Mom used to make it to.