Randy Armstrong’s Dinner On The Diner

armstrong_diningonthe dinerBig Earl Sellar wrote this review

By way of introduction, here’s an insight as to how Green Man Review works. About once a week, an e-mail gets sent to the reviewers with a list of review materials to be doled out. Then comes the mad scramble to pick what each person wants. That decision is based on familiarity with the artist, or musical genre, and a great deal of, “hmmm, that sounds interesting…”

Dinner On The Diner is definitely a “hmmm” choice for me, and a “hmmm” sort of disc overall.A soundtrack to a PBS television cooking/travel series (!), this 2-CD plus booklet set is to reflect the journey of train trips through four different regions: southern Spain, South Africa, Scotland, and Thailand/Malaysia. Randy Armstrong, the soundtrack scorer and featured performer, is a member of the Do’a World Music Ensemble. This is a daunting project: to create background music evocative of four very different musical traditions. The fact that Armstrong played the majority of instruments himself (28 in total!) is the most inspiring aspect to this set..

The first disc covers the Spanish- and South African- inspired music. The Spanish tracks, though not entirely evocative of the southern Spanish tradition (with it’s Moor and Arabic influences), are quite good, if a tad stilted. Although there are some quite silly clichés riddle this section (Miles Davis’ “Spanish Skies,” or “Al Andalus,” a track that sounds to me like an Ennio Morricone rip-off), these tracks flow the smoothest on the disc, and are probably the best realized, in musical terms. The South African tracks rely mostly on guest musicians, chiefly the West African Drumming Ensemble and the Phillips Exeter Concert Choir. Both American in origin, they never quite get the right feel of the music; the Choir, in particular, doesn’t “swing” nearly enough. (They remind me of the SCTV sketch of the white Gospel Doo-Wop group.) With synth chord pads aplenty, the tracks mire themselves in that everpresent sea of “New Age World,” and many tracks (such as “South African Sunrise”) simply drown there, to stretch a metaphor.

Disc two begins with the Celtic-influenced tracks. Performed rather pedestrianly, without much fire or bite, these also make up the most muddled section of the set. Many short songs are included (two differing arrangements of “I’m O’er Young” are presented back to back), and there is an overall feel that screams “soundtrack music.” I did rather like guest piper Brian Yates’ take on “In And Out The Harbour/Devil In The Kitchen,” and Kenny Butler’s fiddle tracks are rather interesting as well.

The Malaysian peninsula section, however, falls flattest of all. To his credit, Armstrong admits in the liner notes that Thai music “is not my specialty”; why he wastes so much time proving it is beyond me. Synthesizer pads with Asian instruments playing western style melodies comprise the entirety of the tracks. “Kaen” especially falls short, turning some fiddling around with a Thai mouth organ into a track that sounds more Andean than anything else. I would never have taken on the task of scoring such a series myself; however, I would have recognized my limitations and farmed out the sections that presented the most difficulty, instead of coming up with something not that much removed from 1940’s movie soundtracks.

The booklet, while rather long, is an empty read. There is a chronicle of the trips made by each chef, with an accompanying recipe (although I laughed that for Thailand the recipe is a risotto!). There’s a fair amount of liner notes by Armstrong himself, as well as notes about Armstrong’s contribution to the project, and some long winded background about the series producer/director/cinematographer Johnathan Guilbert. But overall the booklet is a complete waste of paper, containing no real insight or interest, save for a few nice photos.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on this set. Series scoring is a very difficult task, and save for such musical geniuses as Ry Cooder, they rarely work well without the accompanying video. The fact that this set is spread over two discs, with a useless booklet added (and poor recipes: Yorkshire Pudding made with nonfat milk! Sacrilege!), only adds to the general distaste. Dinner On The Diner is a rather bland set, holding excitement for the very uninitiated World Music novice only.

(Ellipsis Arts/PBS, 2000)

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