Mike Cooper sells his music as exotica, which is either a knowing joke or a springboard for an active subversion.
Easy-listening genres are having a hell of a time right now. New age, long maligned, is now seen as a scene that produces good and bad music just like any other. Astral cats like Laraaji and Iasos get loving box-set treatments. The chill-out music of Balearic cafe mixes is being brought to an appreciative global audience by the International Feel Label. And young guns like CFCF and Matthewdavid, no longer ashamed of their love of this stuff, are free to make music as good or better than that of their forebears—in the process correcting the flaws that have long dogged these genres, like reliance on pseudoscientific concepts and armchair ethnography.
The one genre that’s been left in the dust, appropriately enough, is exotica—music made mostly in the ‘50s to evoke the colonial paradise of the listener’s choice. It was inevitably made by and for people who’d never been abroad and had little clue what the Andes sounded like beyond cartoon cues like panflutes. The white dream of exotic music, it implied, was more desirable than the real thing. It was racist by nature and thus incompatible with the new wave of new age.
Seventy-four-year-old British guitarist Mike Cooper sells his music as exotica, which is either a knowing joke or a springboard for an active subversion. His music includes bits of Hawaiian steel and slack-key guitar, but they’re not employed to invoke images of dancing hula girls but in the service of something more abstract. Cooper’s less interested in cultural cues than primal ones, and Raft—his latest and best album since laying down his new approach on 2004’s Rayon Hula—evokes something bigger: the ocean, the world’s last truly unspoiled wilderness.
In divorcing itself from easy cultural cues, Raft puts an extra step between itself and the listener. It helps with this music to have an visual brain, one that instantly identifies phased guitars with waves and distant bells with ships at berth. It might not be immediately pleasurable otherwise. This is an unusually rugged ambient album; the watery guitars feel close enough to the ear that you might get splashed, and field recordings of bugs sound like they might bite. There’s a reason it’s named after the flimsiest of all seafaring craft: instead of giving you a nice distance from the sun and surf, as a cruise ship might, it exposes you to the elements.
Cooper’s logged many miles on the open sea himself, and though his guitar hearkens back to blues and Hawaiian greats like Gabby Pahinui, his main inspiration for the record is the idea of the “solo traveler,” particularly Vital Alsar, the Spanish seafarer who completed the two longest raft voyages in history in the early 1970s. And it shows. This is an album that could have only been made by someone with a deep connection to the sea. It’s not too far removed from the best International Feel release, Mark Barrott’s Sketches from an Island 2 from last year, which documented a day in Ibiza. Like that album, it tells a personal tale in the language of paradise.
So why call it exotica? Cooper seems knowledgeable about the South Pacific and resentful of the ravages of colonialism. Could this be a conscious attempt at overturning the racism inherent in the exotica genre by using the “ethnic” sounds of Hawaiian guitar to evoke something more abstract than Hawaii itself? It’s a good idea—anti-imperialist exotica—even if perhaps Cooper, a well-off British seafarer who might not think of his favorite islands as paradises if other white folks hadn’t called them that first—isn’t the best candidate to pull off this kind of subversion.
Perhaps it’s better to simply give Raft credit as a great entry in a modern canon dedicated to scrubbing out the sketchier aspects of easy-listening music. It’s an intensely evocative and pleasurable listen, even if it’s a bit short. The opening three tracks run together in an impressive 20-minute suite, and the rest of the album seems a bit slight coming after it, especially when it fades out without warning. It also has a clarity of sound missing on previous Cooper records in this vein, which were sometimes fuzzy and indistinct. The production is crisp and trebly, and the melodic and harmonic elements aren’t buried in the noise but swim happily alongside it.
Cooper’s had an astonishing career. As a young club owner during the ‘60s British blues boom, he turned down an offer to join the Rolling Stones; Brian Jones took the spot he would have occupied. He went on to make a few good, laid-back folk-rock records in the ‘70s before dabbling in the avant-garde and perfecting his current approach with Rayon Hula.
Had Cooper joined that band, it’s possible he would have never had the freedom to make music like this. Consumers expect a certain thing from an act affiliated with a band as big as the Stones, and he’d probably be making blooze records with T-Bone Burnett had he taken them up on their offer. Could you imagine Keith Richards making a record like this? Cooper’s is the kind of career music fans can usually only dream of in alternate histories. He’s one of the most singular artists working right now, and the time is ripe for us to hear a lot more from him.