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Heavy on the Lite 

Wednesday, May 28 1997
Ultra Lounge: The Lexicon of Easy Listening
By Dylan Jones
Universe Publishing
144 pages, $19.95

"Easycore" is what he calls it -- see him there, present day, still staggering around in last night's rumpled sharkskin. Another lukewarm martini, one more spin of Burt Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers." Known as MOR (Middle of the Road), this sort of music enables this swinger's lifestyle -- and, according to Ultra Lounge's well-informed and decidedly witty author/editor, Dylan Jones, it is "the most critically neglected music in the world, a music so maligned you could have been forgiven for assuming it had been responsible for some form of global genocide." "Put on something Brazilian," she slurs from where she slumps on the couch, clad in a little black dress. He winks. A bit of Walter Wanderley's rain forest organ comes on. They talk of taking the imaginary Caddy to Vegas, for a re-enactment of Kennedy's inauguration and a game of roulette. Hot buttered Isaac Hayes purrs from the speakers. They'll forget the Cold War has ended in order to "forget the Cold War" the way people forgot about it back when it had import.

Has the lounge movement ensnared you like the couple above? The easy-listening trap -- does it coat you in syrupy strings, wrap you in a crooner's promise? Do you find yourself feeling like a married white man needing a breather (i.e., sepia-toned lover), or like a white wife wanting to reach out and embrace the Stepford -- er -- community? Have all those unsightly existential questions been replaced with the gauzy dream of a '50s ranch house, hovercraft in the garage? Or maybe you take the longer view, and see lounge music retro as a passing fad -- a tiresome, pop cultural moment that encourages certain friends to spend too much free time rooting through thrift store record bins, returning with platters by Richard Harris, Francoise Hardy, the soundtrack to Goldfinger. A "kitsch thing," smarmy and ultimately shallow (sort of like disco), barely worth a drink or two. Whatever one's take on easycore -- as a subject of veneration or even vilification -- Ultra Lounge: The Lexicon of Easy Listening will help you prove your point. An A-to-Z compendium of "easy" from Herb Albert to the zither, it documents the '90s schmaltz phenomenon with a decidedly British slant. British in its subtle, often downright elusive sense of irony, and British in its repeated proclamation/reclamation of the genius of Bacharach, Bacharach, Bacharach.

An excerpt from the Bill DeMain essay, first published in Mojo in '96 (much of Ultra Lounge is culled from recent easycore writings/reissue liner notes): "Bacharach looks over at Gary Chester, nods, swings his right arm and clicks his fingers in a count-off. Bassist Russ Savakus falls in. This time the groove locks. Everyone -- eighteen musicians, four singers and Dionne [Warwick] -- responds to Burt's galvanizing presence in the room. He stands behind the keys. He karate chops the air, raises his chin and purses his lips. He emphasizes every dynamic shift by doing a deep knee bend at the piano." Geez, you would think this was at least Elvis "Kung Fu" Presley doing "Suspicious Minds." If you didn't know any better, you might be convinced the music being made here actually had some vim, that the word "groove" was accurate.

This happens frequently in Ultra Lounge. The writing is high camp, cliche-free, and hilariously misrepresentational. Jones' (and a few of his cronies') zest for easycore extends so far beyond the ironic that one's initial confusion and bouts of nausea usually give way to a snicker and a head shake. To put it another way, it's far more enjoyable to read about Percy Faith's "carnivorous brass," or the Swingle Singers' "brunch baroque" than to be subjected to it. But why so much Bacharach? you ask. Why not the exotic Martin Denny or the lizard of cool himself, Dean Martin? Why not the wispy Brazilian sylph Astrud Gilberto or Mexican space-pop maestro Juan Esquivel? Only a Brit loungecore aficionado can satisfactorily answer this question. Maybe it's the gooey MOR quality of Bacharach's music (along with the fact he was once quite the hunk). His pop compositions aren't weird as much as they are lush. Maybe British "easy" fans prefer canned lushness -- that saccharine, overorchestrated style of arrangement -- to MOR's more striking, sometimes even listenable, oddities. Jones' inclusion of and obeisance to Jimmy Webb -- the man who wrote one of the most dreadful songs ever, "Up, Up and Away (In a Beautiful Balloon)" -- seems to lend credence to this theory. And then there're the large Carpenters and Dionne Warwick sections (both of whom won their many "accolades" interpreting Bacharach compositions). And the first Oasis album, Definitely Maybe, with the picture of Bacharach on the cover. And let's not mention the Bacharach/Elvis Costello thing. When the Brits say "middle of the road," they must mean it: a bourgie "domestica" over the colonial "exotica," the suburban American wet bar to the thatched and air-conditioned tiki lounge.

That's not to say the exotica gets entirely short-shrifted, or that (once) totally unconnected forms of music aren't properly historicized before they're all lumped together in this MOR miniencyclopedia. The essay on space-age pop, by Irwin Chusid (taken from the Space-Age Pop compilations), is well-written, and, well, yes, fascinating. Here we learn that RCA's space-age sounds (Bernie Green's Furtura and Esquivel's Latin-Esque to name but two) were composed in part to help sell the latest of the late-'50s technological advancements -- namely, stereo. That Esquivel and his colleague Stanley Wilson, in order to properly show off the advantages of two-channel separation, simultaneously conducted two symphonies in two separate warehouses nearly a block apart. (They shared a click track to keep in sync.) In Sally Holloway's essay on Martin Denny, we discover that the tropical jungle sounds one usually associates with exotica were actually the result of loud frogs that interrupted a show one night back in 1955 at the open-air Shell Bar at the Hawaiian Village nightclub in Waikiki. We also learn that John Barry, in spite of never getting credit for it, really did compose the James Bond theme, that Astrud Gilberto really did hail from Ipanema, and that Liberace really did pay a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon to alter the face of his younger companion, Scott Thorson, to look exactly like his own. My favorite essay in the book, "Muzak," by Tony Parsons is an expose on the business of background music. "Muzak's music [?] travels from its Seattle headquarters via satellite to receivers in 200,000 businesses across America. Each site has its own receiving code so that Muzak's twelve channels can be geared to a specific audience, ethnic community, geographic area -- even the time of day." Creepy. Parsons then explains the background-music industry's " 'lifestyle marketing' (music that makes an image statement) and 'stimulus progression' (music that plots the fatigue cycles of a working day, picking up the tempo just when worker's droop sets in)." Wow. Mall shopping with Orwell; it can never be the same. And thank god for Ted Nugent (though I'd never say that aloud), who at one point offered Muzak a $10 million buyout, just so he could have the pleasure of destroying the master tapes.

If Ultra Lounge is to be critiqued, one might note the rather hefty sticker price for an offering so decidedly lite. A hundred pages could have been added without disrupting the campy tone at all. (Claudine Longet is missing, for example, and Frank Sinatra is only mentioned in passing! And what about surf instrumentals? Or Don Ho? And all those cheeseball conductors like Hugo Montenegro and Jackie Gleason -- how might one make some value judgments there? And what about a decent discography?) Jones' ability to toss around terms like "pomo" (postmodern) and the very clever "white man's blues" hints at a deeper understanding of the loungecore phenomena, but he never really addresses why so many Caucasoid young folks -- both here and over there in England -- want to frolic in the ideologically heinous music of their parents and grandparents. Nor does he delve far past the obvious when discussing how lounge affects the contemporary scenes: from Blur to Eric Matthews to trip hop. Then again, we're talking about easy listening -- "sophisticated schmaltz" that, whether you envision yourself in Paris or in Tahiti or in the living room of your ranch home reclining next to your "open plan hi-fi" with a martini, was created to keep you from doing exactly that: thinking too much.

About The Author

Curtis Bonney


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