The hanging-by-a-string lounge revival, which ground into a swing rut, merely hinted at a world of great undiscovered music. Those who stopped at Esquivel, as if he were a musical border crossing through which they couldn't pass, are naturally the same trend chameleons who always swing to the right fad. Esquivel is good -- if less Galloping Gourmet than Taco Bell -- but as in rock & roll, dark horses hide in giant shadows. Hugo Montenegro is best known for reheating spaghetti-Western themes, à la his hit version of Ennio Morricone's "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly." An over-the-top carnival of (what sound like) twangy guitars, safari flutes, nonsensical deep chants and perky harmonies, it was Montenegro's "Good Vibrations" -- a synthesis of everything that made him great, and a defining example of his bright, deceptively arty flair.
On a series of quirky, hard-to-find albums from the '60s and '70s, Montenegro gleefully cut apart some classic pop songs, transposing their innards like a surgeon of melody. For instance, he took only the bridge of "MacArthur Park" for his own iconoclastic version, which Picassofied the much-maligned classic. Montenegro was prone to using synth sounds that out-weirded any prog or New Romantic tones yet to come. And unlike most of his dichotomy-obsessed contemporaries, he used bouncy pop-harmony vocals as just another instrument.
Despite technically cheating the form, somehow Montenegro's vocal-sugared symphonies remained within the realm of the instrumental. In fact, it's time to realize just how instrumental this genius has been in the world of pop-and-Latin-flavored so-called kitsch. Although there have been collections of his work before -- most spotty. Montenegro is long overdue for an even semirepresentative collection. Unfortunately, that's still somewhat the case.
All-Time Greatest Movie Themes and Schemes leans toward the spy music that was everywhere in the 1960s, which means that it still works undercover in your subconscious. You get Montenegro's puffed-up versions of "Thunderball" and "The James Bond Theme," the Austin-Powers-referenced "Our Man Flint" and "The Silencers," from the first of Dean Martin's Matt Helm films. The irony embedded in the case of the latter is that Montenegro didn't write it but did compose the music for the final two Helm flicks, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew. You won't find those here. Nor will you come across the perky theme from Frank Sinatra's Lady in Cement, a swinging '60s tune that should be rescued from the bottom of some river of lost music.
And where are Montenegro's fidgety, psychedelic retoolings of Dylan and Elton John standards? (You haven't heard Elton's melodies the right way until you've heard them Hugofied.) And, perhaps most important, where's "MacArthur Park"? Although you get Montenegro's cheesy, saucy versions of spaghetti-Western themes, this collection only hints at his crazily upbeat talents. And talent is putting it lightly -- literally. Light music, easy-listening, lounge -- call it what you will. Montenegro makes Esquivel look like Ricky Ricardo.