Sound Check

For most pop historians, the 1950s are notable for one thing, and one thing only: the emergence of Elvis Presley and the rise of rock and roll. But while rock was infecting the minds of the kids, their older siblings were paying attention to something else, a cooler-than-cool sound that mixed swing with smooth balladry, exotic rhythms, a touch of serious jazz and more than a dose of schmaltz. It was the soft noise wafting out of the bachelor pad of the newly emergent Playboy playboy, the traveling music of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, the soundtrack of James Bond's life. And at least in its sense of freedom from the gray flannel image of the decade, the music shared something with its more raucous younger relative. It's probably not accidental that Presley, when asked early on who his favorite singer was, cited Dean Martin.

Call it what you will -- space-age bachelor pad, tiki, neo-big band, exotica, mondo-melodica or just plain lounge -- but today there's a whole new generation buying into it. Some 40 years after its inception, this martini-stirring, smoking-jacket genre is making a quiet, but assured, comeback by appealing to retro-sensibilities. That's why some ambitious researcher at Capitol Records has dug into the label's archives and remastered an abundance of vintage '50s and '60s sounds. The result is the Ultra Lounge Collection, 12 discs worth of cocktail kitsch performed by such genre-giants as Martin, Les Baxter and Martin Denny. The CDs, which are sold separately, are broken into a dozen sub-genres, some real, some obviously a marketing creation. Still, if the excess leads to a little confusion, the fact that these discs aren't in a single, pricey box set means you can pick and choose.

The Ultra Lounge CD most worth choosing is the one that starts off the series, Mondo Exotica, a collection of 18 tropical tunes that conjure up a mirage of exotic South Pacific locales. The music itself is a fusion of jazz and classical influenced by the native sounds of the islands. There's the Middle Easternisms of "Miserlou" (performed here by Martin Denny, but later made famous by surf-guitar guru Dick Dale) and the drums in the nocturnal jungle anthem of "Caravan." The classic "Atlantis," performed by Les Baxter, captures all the allure of tiki torches, postcard tropical skies and late night luaus on desolate beaches. (*****)

From there it's best to hop to disc three, Space Capades. Taking the escapist ideals of the genre to the next plateau, how much further could a La-Z-Boy lounging bachelor travel than to the cosmos? Ethereal renditions of tracks such as "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "Sabre Dance" (made famous to Gen Xers as the theme song for the "Scrubbing Bubbles" commercials) reflect a society gone gizmo-mad. Rhapsodesia, disc six in the series, is quintessential lounge, fusing the jazz-heavy sounds of the crooners with the singular strangeness of other bachelor pad fare. The sounds are mellow and innuendo-laden and hypnotic. No song better exemplifies lounge's sexual-trance-like quality than the classic "Sleep Walk," performed by Henri Rene and his Orchestra. While this tune has been covered by many a guitarist since Rene recorded it in 1959, the original rendition on Rhapsodesia is pure heavy-breathing magic. (****, both CDs)

Of similar interest is A Bachelor in Paris, number ten in the series. Paris is about as legitimate as a faux leopard coat and just as cool. As with the entire collection, there is a distinctive Hollywood sound to this CD despite its foreign theme. Indeed, had the music on A Bachelor in Paris been truer to the romance of the City of Lights rather than the glitz of Tinseltown, it might have been even more intriguing. (****)

The series' fourth and seventh discs, Bachelor Pad Royale and The Crime Scene, respectively, drop off slightly in quality, but they do traverse the gaudy-and-bawdy, back-alley-sex-kitten sounds most often associated with cocktail culture. Listening to Bachelor Pad's tracks, you can't help but notice the topnotch musicianship. One listen to the midnight saxophone of Jack Fascinato's "Spring, Sprang, Sprung," and it becomes apparent that this is way more than just novelty music. (*** 1/2)

The Crime Scene has a decidedly more filmic vibe, its music revolving around tunes such as "The James Bond Theme" and "Dragnet/Room 43." The music is pure unbridled masculinity. The melodies speak less of seduction and mysterious locales, and more of danger and intrigue. Darker in theme, the tunes tend to be more obtrusive than on the other volumes. (*** 1/2)

The Ultra Lounge sextet of discs one, three, four, six, seven and ten are probably all anyone would need. But for the true lounge hound, four of the remaining six CDs have some sounds worth sniffing out. The second volume in the series, Mambo Fever, focuses on the sex and sizzle of Latin cabanas with enough cha-cha-chas to make Desi Arnaz sit up and take notice. The leadoff track, a salsa-flavored rendition of "Hooray for Hollywood," steers Ultra Lounge into more rhythmically frenetic, and altogether more cheesy, waters than does Mondo Exotica. However, with the bongos thumping and the trumpets blaring, it captures the mambo movement to the hilt. (***)

Wild, Cool and Swingin', disc five, highlights the crooners. This collection of vintage vocals includes Dean Martin (with "Volare"), Vic Damone and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. Because this music is what most people associate with "lounge music," Wild, Cool and Swingin' is one of the more mainstream of the Ultra Lounge series. Most of its 18 tracks are pop standards, which makes the CD no less entertaining, but a lot more predictable. (***)

Cocktail Capers, disc eight, stirs up a light, whimsical concoction. The music here is packaged for the happy-hour spy -- the gun holstered and replaced by the cummerbund and bow tie. Here, Capitol was reaching to find a theme to tie together a bunch of disparate tunes. Most of the music appears to be extra tracks deemed inappropriate for other volumes. Even so, there's no denying the greatness of David Rose's xylophone mastery in "Like Young" or the New Classic Singers toe-tapping rendition of "Call Me." (***)

Volume nine, the double-disc set Cha-Cha de Amor, is a return to familiar territory. While more subdued than Mambo Fever, the replay of the Havana sound makes one wonder just how much Latin-laced lounge pop Capitol has sitting in the can. A bit bulky, Cha-Cha de Amor is worth a listen mainly because it is less blaring than its sister disc. (** 1/2)

Ultra Lounge's final two CDs, Organs in Orbit and Saxophobia, show how far Capitol had to stretch to make this collection an even dozen. Organs is fun enough, but can anyone explain how a swinging electro-organic rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" fits into the cosmic scheme of things? And while much of the sax playing on Saxophobia is notable, it's obvious Capitol was tying these vastly different tracks together loosely. As a result, Ultra Lounge goes out with a hangover instead of a cool buzz. (**, both CDs)

Still, despite the downer at the end, this is a dandy series. The packaging comes complete with cocktail recipes, directions on how to set up your hi-fi for maximum fidelity and extensive liner notes. All of this makes the Ultra Lounge discs the best of the recent onslaught of bachelor pad reissues. Granted, 12 CDs is a heavy load; try wading through all of this heavily cologned music in one sitting, and you may be ready for a few double martinis. But isn't that the point?

-- Sam Weller

***** Shaken, not stirred
**** A whisper of vermouth
*** Was this chilled?
** A Shirley Temple
* Rotten olive

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sam Weller