Around the World in Stereo With Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica

Brian O'Neill
Brian O'Neill, better known as Mr. Ho.

The 'vintage' label often applied to Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica has always come with a caveat: they play a cerebral yet recognizable mid-century style—exotica in the school of Les Baxter and Juan Garcia Esquivel—but have always given themselves permission to bring in new elements. Their tunes compile world music, classical, modern jazz, and whatever else they feel like, really.

The new album, Where Here Meets There, continues that ambition, departing even further from the 'traditional' exotica sound (though exotica, by definition, brings in new and different effects). "I think the older albums had more stuff that looked a little bit at the past. There was more material related to stuff that's been done. I think the newer stuff is focused on ground I don't think has been covered as much," says Brian O'Neill, the band leader who goes by Mr. Ho.

Here Meets There
The new album cover.

Slated for release on Nov. 19, Where Here Meets There includes a batch of new compositions (Here) on Side A, followed by a collection of O'Neill's unique cover arrangements of classical and orchestral works (There).

O'Neill still kills on the vibraphone, and Geni Skendo on the bass flute, with percussionist Shane Shanahan bassist Jason Davis. Part of this album's distinct flavor comes from the orchestrotica's new member, Tev Stevig, who brings a large collection of plucked string instruments from all over the world. "I look at him as almost like a percussionist in the sense that they have lots of sounds up their sleeve," O'Neill says.

Those new instruments, combined with O'Neill's rambunctious riffs on familiar tunes, fill this album with Easter eggs that the careful listener can discover. In the first two tracks of the Here side, for example, a sort of low-pitched banjo sound underlies the arrangement. That's a tanbur, O'Neill explained, a sort of long-necked lute traditionally played in Turkish classical music.

Here Meets There
The Orchestrotica; photo by Richard Gastwirt.

Later in the album, on the cover of Gerswin's 'Prelude for Piano II,' listen out for another familiar tune, the 'Siamese Cat Song' from Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp,' which makes an appearance four minutes in. The familiar tune gives way to a cacophonous romp, which O'Neill says represents the cats' mischief.

"You're supposed to imagine these cats running around on the piano," O'Neill says. "It's this whole free-jazz improvisation by the whole band. You may not pick that up at a party or whatever but you'd notice it at home."

And that's part of the fun of this album. While the exotic sounds, loungey rhythms, and smart melodies make it perfect to throw on at a low-key cocktail party (particularly a tiki-themed one), it's also an extraordinarily enjoyable listen on its own. "I always hope people can get something out of it on a cursory listen, but they can also sit down and pull something deeper out of it," O'Neill says.

I asked him to describe the ideal situation in which to take in the record: "It's the armchair traveler, as they used to say with exotica. The guy who goes into the basement and turns the lights down low. They're there to listen to the album. Not on shuffle or pick out the singles, but to slow down and enjoy music in a quiet setting, maybe have a cocktail or a couple friends over. I like to design for that."