In an interview, black Bronxite August “Kid Creole” Darnell — writer, singer, producer — once alluded to not being able to play reggae as well as Bob Marley or salsa as well as Tito Puente, but possibly being able to combine the two styles better than anyone else. Darnell’s internationalist fusion was one of the freshest new sounds of the ’80s, drawing together strains of Latin, reggae, calypso, disco, rap and rock into a unique sound. Add to his vision and smarts an amiable partner in “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez (aka Coati Mundi), the singing/dancing Coconuts and a medley of talented sidepeople, and you have one of the most formidable bands around.
Off the Coast of Me introduces Darnell and company’s unusual sound (more Latin-tinged here than on later records). Although the material isn’t strong enough to make this more than adequate, its uniqueness and danceability, along with the Kid’s occasionally risqué wordplay, are enough to suggest the band’s potential.
Launching a conceptual album trilogy, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places stands as Kid Creole’s tour de force, a musical odyssey in which the Kid and the Coconuts set off from New York in search of the elusive Mimi. The flavor of the music changes with each stop on the journey, providing a perfect setting for the band to display its mastery of intercontinental bop. Each cut is an adventure, and the album works as well as any rock concept LP. A major achievement.
After the perfect realization of Fresh Fruit, nearly anything would have been a letdown. Wise Guy (entitled Tropical Gangsters outside the US) follows the concept, but much more loosely. The material is far less adventurous, with Fresh Fruit‘s wonderful diversity toned down in favor of a straighter dance music approach. As a commercial move it worked, at least in Europe, where two tracks (“Stool Pigeon” and “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby”) became hit singles and elevated Darnell to stardom.
Doppelganger is posited as the continuation of “the saga.” In this installment, the Kid is cloned by King Nignat’s evil scientist. The songs don’t all move the story along in narrative fashion — they sound more like the disjunct score of a Broadway musical — but that’s fine, since each stands as a marvelous example of Darnell’s multifarious brilliance. Mixing ’40s be-bop with Carib-beat, reggae, country, funk, salsa and something like highlife, the record sparkles with a cover of “If You Wanna Be Happy” (a 1966 American hit for the Jimmy Castor bunch as “Hey Leroy”) as well as such original frolics as “The Lifeboat Party” and “Bongo Eddie’s Lament.” Sung partially in Spanish, “Survivors” laments the death of rockers from Frankie Lymon to Sid Vicious.
In Praise of Older Women, while less spectacular, is still another (ca)rousing success, a collection of wittily written, sublimely arranged, energetically performed songs. “Endicott” (cleverly verbose), “Caroline Was a Drop-Out” (a nasty character study), “Particul’y Int’rested” (exaggerated, showy torch song) — to name but three — all reflect the Kid’s wonderful attitude and outlook. With Coati Mundi and the Coconuts, plus a stageful of sidemen, King (“self-appointed in Feb. this year”) Creole demonstrates his stylistic transcendence by making every track different but identifiable; no longer a mere genre dabbler, he’s developed the Kid Creole format.
On I, Too, Have Seen the Woods, Darnell seems to be treading water a bit within that format. Although he introduces female singer Haitia Fuller to share lead vocals with him, her overall impact is fairly negligible. As always, there are some very good tunes (especially “Dancin’ at the Bains Douches” and “Call It a Day”); Darnell’s words are typically clever and insightful. On the whole, though, the music seems less innovative, succumbing to repetition of previously charted lands. (Hernandez’s “El Hijo” is a near carbon-copy of his 1980 dance hit “Me No Pop I.”) Good, but hardly top-notch.
Showing tons more imagination and inspiration, Darnell bounced back to full artistic strength with the marvelously entertaining Private Waters in the Great Divide, a diverse party of singular wit and intelligence. While the lyrics of songs like “(No More) Casual Sex” and “He’s Takin’ the Rap” demonstrate an awareness of changing times, the music still comes in time-warped from a tropical dance-happy era somewhere around 1940; the only track that even acknowledges rap bends it all out of shape. (How many other hip dance records released in 1990 can claim such stylistic nonconformity?) There is a reggae-styled love song, however, a surf-pop harmony exhibition and “Lambada,” the intent and irony of which is unclear. Mundi is only a minor player here (Darnell acknowledges his departure in the self-referential “Funky Audrey and the Coconut Rag,” which Hernandez co-wrote), but the Coconuts are in full effect, providing a campy foil in such fizzy delights as “Laughing with Our Backs Against the Wall” and “Funky Audrey.” Not a bad banana in this bunch.
The UK-only Cre-Ole compilation includes all the band’s 1981-’83 British hits (and then some), with such classic Darnellisms as “Stool Pigeon,” “I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby” and “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy,” as well as “Me No Pop I.”
The Coconuts’ solo album, produced by Darnell to resemble a stage revue (complete with crowd sounds and stage introductions), is rife with innuendo and apparent internecine squabbling. Despite the billing, Darnell sings the introductory title track without the three ladies; the inclusion of “If I Only Had a Brain” (from The Wizard of Oz) might be someone’s idea of an editorial comment. Otherwise, it’s a typically rich, clever dance-funk-Carib-salsa-tango stew, and the Coconuts’ smooth harmony vocals are as appealing as ever.
Coati Mundi has done some odd musical projects in his time (including a production job for Germany’s Palais Schaumburg!), and the singing vibraphone/keyboard player’s solo album is no less idiosyncratic in lyrical outlook. In addition to the clever title reference to Stevie Wonder, the irrepressibly funny Hernandez also parodies “Grand Master Flush and the Fluffy Five” and “Kurtis Bluff” on the rap jape “Everybody’s on an Ego Trip.” While the album cleverly — and occasionally buoyantly — mixes soul, salsa and disco, it also suffers from Hernandez’s simply trying too hard.