Heavy on the Lite
"Easycore" is what he calls it -- see him there, present day, still staggering around in last night's rumpled sharkskin suit. 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 Dylan Jones, the well-informed and decidedly witty author/editor of the new book Ultra Lounge: The Lexicon of Easy Listening, MOR 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 actual importance.
Has the lounge movement ensnared you as it has the couple above? The easy-listening trap -- does it coat you in syrupy strings, wrap you in a crooner's promise? 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 as a passing fad -- a tiresome, pop-cultural moment that encourages certain friends to spend too much of their free time rooting through thrift store record bins, returning with platters by Richard Harris, Francoise Hardy, the soundtrack to Goldfinger. Perhaps you see it as a kitsch thing, smarmy and ultimately shallow (sort of like disco), barely worth a drink or two. Whatever your take on easycore -- whether considering it as a subject of veneration or vilification -- Ultra Lounge will help you prove your point. An A to Z compendium of "easy" from Herb Alpert 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.
Take this excerpt from an essay by Bill DeMain, originally published last year in Mojo (much of Ultra Lounge is culled from recent writings on easycore and liner notes from easycore reissues): "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 -- 18 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'd 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 and vigor, that the word "groove" was accurate.
This happens frequently in Ultra Lounge. The writing is high camp, cliche-free and hilariously misrepresentational. Jones's (and a few of his cronies') zest for easycore extends so far beyond the ironic that the reader's initial confusion and bouts of nausea 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 British easycore aficionado can satisfactorily answer that question. Maybe it's the gooey MOR quality of Bacharach's music (along with the fact that 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 -- saccharine, over-orchestrated arrangements -- to MOR's more striking, sometimes even listenable, oddities. Jones's inclusion of and obeisance to Jimmy Webb -- the man who wrote one of the most dreadful songs ever, "Up, Up and Away (In My Beautiful Balloon)" -- seems to lend credence to this theory. And then there are the large sections of Ultra Lounge given over to musings on the Carpenters and Dionne Warwick (both of whom, of course, won their many "accolades" interpreting Bacharach compositions). And then there's the first Oasis album, Definitely Maybe, with its picture of Bacharach on the cover. And let's not forget the Bacharach/Elvis Costello thing. When the Brits say "middle of the road," they apparently mean it.
That's not to say that in Ultra Lounge exotica gets short shrift entirely, or that (once) totally unconnected forms of music aren't properly historicized before they're all lumped together. Irwin Chusid's essay on space-age pop (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 Futura 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. We also learn 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 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," Parsons writes. "Each site has its own receiving code so that Muzak's 12 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 (never thought I'd write those words), 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, it might be for the rather hefty sticker price -- $19.95 -- put on an offering so decidedly lite -- 144 pages. An extra 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 such as Hugo Montenegro and Jackie Gleason -- how might one make some value judgments there? And what about a decent discography?) Jones's ability to toss around terms like "pomo" (postmodern) and the clever "white man's blues" hints at a deeper understanding of the easycore phenomenon, but he never really addresses why so many Caucasoid young folks -- both here and over 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 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.
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