"If you wanna sex me, give it up," sings esteemed Muppets bandleader Dr. Teeth in a rare uncouth moment, a plume of smoke billowing behind him as he ribaldly bashes his keyboard. Members of his backing band, the Electric Mayhem, join forces with Miss Piggy and several other slow-dancers (some human, some mutant, one a half-peeled banana) to flesh out the sentiment: "When you wanna sex me/Give it up/If you wanna freak me/Give it up/You don't have to take me out/Just pick me up and turn me out/Give it up."
Jim Henson is doing the Hustle in his grave. For the finest collision of infectious disco and Muppet exuberance known to man, avail thyself of Escort's video for "All Through the Night," the zenith of a truly splendid couple of weeks at the end of this past summer as far as YouTube is concerned. (Its partner in dominance was that bewildering clip of Filipino prison inmates re-enacting the "Thriller" video.) For three and a half mesmerizing minutes, Rolf, Animal, Sam the Eagle, the Pigs in Space, and various other furry personages are expertly synched to the Brooklyn disco orchestra's single, a Technicolor blast of dancefloor dynamite propelled by a helium-huffing, syllable-stuffing chorus of "Giveittomesayittome
/workitwithmeifyou'reready/I'mabouttopop." Given the relatively basic mechanics of Muppet speech — few teeth, fewer tongues, mouths just clamping open and shut — they are credibly edited so as to espouse more erotic commentary than you have perhaps grown accustomed to; it's amazing. Irvin Coffee, a jovial filmmaking friend of the band who has worked on Chappelle's Show and a documentary called The Beauty Academy of Kabul, sat down with eight DVDs' worth of raw Muppet material and bashed it out. "Discounting all the technological bullshit, it took three days," he recalls.
Coffee is relaxing in the "green room" after a summer show in New York, where Escort has just performed for a crowd of children with balloons. Thankfully, the kids' parents are either ignorant of or amused by the band's lyrical lasciviousness. "'Pick me up and turn me out' could mean, like, 'Change my diaper,'" reasons keyboardist Eugene Cho, an Escort core member and producer along with keys and guitar maestro Dan Balis. Onstage, the crew swells to 13 large (in San Francisco they'll be 18 strong), a maelstrom of congas, bongos, timbales, and cowbells of various pitches alongside two guitars, a three-man horn backline, two folks each in the rhythm and string sections, and Eugene in the Dr. Teeth role, blipping out cool Kraftwerk pocket-calculator riffs on a synthesizer. And then, of course, there's lead singer Zena Kitt, resplendent in a red dress. She's a belter, whether thundering through Escort's own cowbell-saturated "Starlight" or reprising a period gem like Roundtree's "Get on Up (Get on Down)."
World domination would seem imminent, but Escort is invading slowly. "All Through the Night" follows "A Bright New Life," "Love in Indigo," and "Starlight" in the band's cache of singles since Escort coalesced loosely around Eugene and Dan's production and DJ work in 2005. Their sudden Muppet-abetted ascension has raised their profile, but achieving abrupt Internet fame has to be the most surreal experience. It's hard to know how to even talk about it.
So, uh, what's it like, being a sort of, uh ...
" ... an ephemeral YouTube phenomenon?" Dan finishes, bemused. He gives all the credit to Irvin, who demurs, saying that it was Dan's idea. In any event, the Muppet motif is certainly apt, given Escort's unabashedly retro sound: It's a genuine shock when you're so busy gawking at Fozzie that you don't realize "All Through the Night" was released in 2007, not 1977. Their influences are not covert. "I remember Donna Summer," Zena says. "I remember Chic. I remember, uh, something train — B.T. Express! All of those. But what stimulates me is Donna Summer. I like her style. I like how she handles herself when she's up onstage."
"For a lot of people who do production, when you're digging for samples on disco records, you're like, 'Oh, I actually like this better than the stuff that's coming out now,'" Dan explains. "The engineering's better, the production's better — and, oh my God, it's actually musical." Only Zena's experiences in the actual disco era are really visceral, though; as Eugene and Dan are "circa 30," they're not exactly painting from memory. "You can't really be nostalgic for something you didn't experience the first time around," Dan says.
Perhaps that's why Escort sounds so fresh and vibrant — for most of the members, it really is the first time around. On stage, the band's newly minted originals bleed seamlessly into some of the three-decades-old tracks that inspired them. Zena is particularly dominant on a thundering cover of Geraldine Hunt's "Can't Fake the Feeling," disco's very own "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." It all sounds vintage without devolving into nostalgia — no mere puppets of retro chic, they're instead a fully formed instrument of Electric Mayhem, crafting vaguely pornographic odes to sexing and freaking you. Give it up.