Russ Garcia and His Vocal Choir & Orchestra
Sounds in the Night
Bethlehem – 1957
Russ Garcia’s genre-defying 1957 release Sounds of the Night is an enveloping classic; one begging for rediscovery, but also content to stand alone in its own intriguing half-light.
The journey into mid-century kitsch music can be a daunting task. Between exotica, space-age pop, lounge, and western there can be quite a few great records surrounded by a lot of, well, albums that make digging through discount record bins feel more like a chore than a hobby. But when you finally find that copy of Exotica or Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, it becomes clear just how great some of the hidden gems that reside in this little corner of musical history can really be. Yet, while the aforementioned albums have started to enter into the music nerd limelight, many neglected masterpieces still hide from the view of even the most dedicated record shoppers. Then again, Russ Garcia’s Sounds in the Night sounds as if it is okay with staying in its own half-light.
Recorded and released in 1957, Sounds in the Night was the 14th project that Russ Garcia had a part in since breaking into the Hollywood soundtrack scene in 1950. Known for his unique arrangement abilities, Garcia already had worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Julie London before assembling his very own vocal choir that he would use in his recordings. Unfortunately, most of his solo work isn’t presently available on streaming services, but the few albums that are show just how talented an arranger Garcia was. Sounds in the Night is no exception to this rule.
The title track, as well as songs like “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Sweet and Lovely” sound like summer nights spent restless in bed, listening to the noise outside of an open window; the kind of nights where you can’t decipher what was a dream and what was reality the morning after. Songs like “Wow,” “Music City,” and “I Lead a Charmed Life” are decidedly more upbeat, yet they don’t take away from the overall experience of the album. In fact, the dissonance created from song-to-song works to build an auditory world that can show a sort of set-piece in each song. On one track, you could be spending a quiet night driving down a rainy tropical highway, while the next puts you in a hole-in-the-wall bar in the middle of the big city. Because of this musical world building, Sounds in the Night can easily be compared to a film noir soundtrack or more modern dark jazz.
Yet, Sounds in the Night has something that a noir soundtrack like Miles Davis’ 1959 classic Ascenseur pour L’échafaud doesn’t. Much like Sounds in the Night, Ascenseur pour L’échafaud has quite a few bounces back-and-forth between moody ballads and fast tempo bop songs, but the transitions between the two types aren’t as smooth as they are on Sounds of the Night. While the “big” moments seen in the aforementioned songs “Wow” and “Music City” certainly change the listening experience, they maintain a sonic consistency that gives the album a truly immersive feel. The effect is maximized by a heavy reverb that leaves every swooping “ooh” and “ahh” hanging around, creating a wall-of-sound-like effect that would give Phil Spector and Brian Wilson a run for their money.
While lesser arrangements would let the reverb muddy the sound of the recording, Garcia’s are seemingly built around it. Each chord feels like it was being built up to, and each voice that hangs around just for a split second perfectly falls into each of the following lines. Going back to the Miles Davis comparison, the best songs on Ascenseur pour L’échafaud have a unique quality to them that can transport the listener to a different place, while the lesser parts of that album takes the listener out of the experience. Even in its least impressive moments, Sounds in the Night never lets its listeners leave the world it’s created during the run-time of the album.
I’ve talked a lot about the “world building” of this album, but it can’t be overstated just how impressive it really is. Something about it goes beyond the musical wallpaper quality that contemporary exotica albums had at the time. While Martin Denny’s work is engaging in its own right, it doesn’t quite transport you the way that Sounds in the Night can in its best moments. For that fact alone, it’s surprising to me that Sounds in the Night wasn’t an even bigger hit in the escapist-minded American pop-culture of the time, and was instead given the dreaded “easy listening” label that turns away so many of the people who would enjoy it the most. Yet, it still sits in discount bins and attics everywhere, just waiting for you to discover it.