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Stardust memories
Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
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Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' official Web site

It seems strange that one of most popular acts of the ’60s would only now be releasing most of his catalogue on CD for the first time. But Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass haven’t just been out of print for the past 30 years: they’ve been wiped from the collective memory banks, even though statistics say they were the fourth-best-selling act of the decade, behind the Beatles, Sinatra, and Elvis.

Some would say that's no tragedy. Alpert was perhaps the one truly square ’60s artist to have regular hits. He got more airplay on "beautiful music" stations than on Top 40. Even now, he seems an unlikely candidate for the after-the-fact hipness accorded Burt Bacharach. One could go on about everything his music wasn’t. It seldom approached jazz, even though the Tijuana Brass were an instrumental group led by a trumpet player. It never sound much like authentic mariachi — indeed, the credits reveal the group never had a single Hispanic member. And they were absolutely untouched by ’60s counterculture. Among Shout Factory’s current reissue series are the group’s eighth and ninth albums, Sounds Like . . . and Ninth, released in March and November 1967, before and after the Summer of Love. The two sound identical.

So, for that matter, do most of the 11 albums in Shout Factory’s reissue series, which runs from the 1962 debut, The Lonely Bull, to ’68’s Christmas Album, adding a new rarities disc, Lost Treasures, but skipping over ’63’s Tijuana Brass Volume 2. The sound over those six years changed only in that it grew more homogenized: by album #10, The Beat of the Brass (which included the one vocal hit, "This Guy’s in Love with You"), Alpert had stopped even trying to sound Mexican. The early albums are full of campy moments like "Tijuana Taxi" (with its "beep-beep" instrumental hook) and, on 1963’s South of the Border, a politically incorrect take on "Hello, Dolly!" with its "nice to have joo back where joo belong" group vocal. The early albums are the silliest, most dated, and, well, most fun to hear again.

But the whole series is a kick, in its proudly unhip way. In the post-Ramones world, it’s no shame to hear an act sticking with the same formula for a dozen albums. And Alpert’s formula was a sturdy one: the songs were short, the tunes snappy. He was usually too straight-faced to fall into the Esquerita/Three Suns school of percussion madness, but his marimba player, Julius Wechter, always added some exotica to the mix. The arrangements are quirkier than you might remember: Alpert’s MO seemed to involve forgetting about any better-known versions of a song. His take on "The Trolley Song" (popularized by Judy Garland) is a near-ballad, and "The Happening" is arranged as a big-band standard rather than as the Supremes hit it was.

The Tijuana’s one great, unified album is 1965’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights. Common wisdom says it was his best-selling because of its cover photo of a model covered in whipped cream. (The CD reissue has a poster-sized reproduction that, alas, makes it clear she had a dress on underneath.) But behind the cover, Whipped Cream is the one that feels like the swinging ’60s. Credit that to some awareness of rock (their "A Taste of Honey" is livelier than the Beatles version and was a bigger hit) and to the finger-snapping breeziness. And most of all to a slightly decadent romantic mood: when Alpert evokes mariachi here, it’s through a drunken haze. After doing New Orleans straight up on the Allen Toussaint–penned title track, the Brass turn "Love Potion No. 9" into stripper music, lascivious slide trombones and all.

Alpert tried to transcend kitsch on his more subdued later work; Whipped Cream works so well because it doesn’t. Even at their kitschiest, though, the Tijuana Brass were simply selling an idealized vision of a sunny vacation spot. Throw in a parrot and a few margaritas and you’ll still find that formula on the pop charts today.

Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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