Sunday, May 24, 2015

Moonside by Riverlight I

"Far Beyond the Stars"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  You may wish to read the introduction so that you understand some of the terms I use.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]



Retro-swing is all about recreating the big-band sound, but that means more than just swing.  Swing songs are the fast songs, the upbeat ones, the ones that make you want to move your body.  But of course any band has to have at least a few slow songs, and many have more slow than fast.  The big bands were no different, and the retro-swing bands follow suit.  This slower music, typically performed by the same bands doing the more upbeat swing, is itself sometimes lumped in with swing.  But in my view it’s more correctly referred to as lounge.

Frank Sinatra is of course the godfather of lounge, but his compatriots Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as other greats such as Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach are equally famous for this style.  The “lounge” of the name is undoubtedly referring to a lounge in Vegas, where most of these fellows became famous.  In contrast to proper swing music, lounge is smooth, usually with a slower tempo, inspiring one to slow-dance rather than jitterbug.  The vocals are crooned, and while the instrumentation is still brass heavy, it’s more likely to be one lonely saxophone than an insistent horn section.  Even when the tempo is faster, it’s more likely to make you want to snap your fingers and bob your head in your seat than to get up and dance.  It’s the type of music you might expect to hear while sitting in an outdoor cafĂ©, with a huge full moon in the background, the sound of the river closeby, the house band playing, the singer singing directly to you and your date ...

Several of the same bands we’ve grown familiar with from the various volumes of Salsatic Vibrato can be found here as well.  In fact, it was Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ excellent “Come Back to Me” that inspired this mix in the first place, and it kicks off the festivities here on volume I.  It’s a fairly upbeat tune for lounge, but it still has that smooth, romantic quality that defines the genre.  The Brian Setzer Orchestra is back as well, with two more cuts off The Dirty Boogie—including an excellent duet with Gwen Stefani (“You’re the Boss”), and a rich, smooth ballad that really epitomizes the sound (“Hollywood Nocturne”)—as is Lee Press-On and the Nails with another excellent track off El Bando en Fuego!.  Koop and the Honeydrippers are actually even better suited to this mix than Salsatic Vibrato, and both contribute two tracks here.  For Koop the standout is another Yukimi Nagano track (“Come to Me”), which is probably the least electro- this electro-swing band has ever done.  For the Honeydrippers it’s their hit “Sea of Love,” which is of course a song from way back in 1959.  We also have what is likely Pink Martini’s best song ever (“Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”); they too are a band whose ouevre falls more into lounge than swing.  And, finally for the Salsatic Vibrato crew, we return to the soundtrack for Swing, for the rare track not sung by Lisa Stansfield, Georgie Fame’s playful “I Thought That’s What You Liked About Me.”

The most prevalent newcomer is, indirectly, Bobby Darin.  Now, remembering that my father is an avid collector of early rock-n-roll 45’s, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I always thought of Bobby Darin as “that guy who sang that silly song about taking a bath.”  That is, until I saw the fascinating biopic Beyond the Sea.  It turns out Darin had like 3 totally different careers: the first with straight pop/rock like “Splish Splash,” and the final one drifting more into country/folk.  But that middle one ... pure lounge, baby.  Kevin Spacey plays Darin, and Kevin Spacey can sing.  I picked up the soundtrack pretty quickly after seeing the movie, and I found that I enjoyed Spacey’s versions even more than Darin’s originals.  So we have 3 tracks off of that album here, all great, but the title track being the greatest.  There’s something about that song that really makes my blood sing.  It also provides our volume title this time out.

Of course, while most of the artists we associate with lounge are men, the truth is there are some great female vocalists in the genre as well.  Besides the Pink Martini track, and the aforementioned Koop track, I use the Brian Setzer/Gwen Stefani duet to springboard into a female-dominated section which takes us to the center of the mix.  And that stretch kicks off with Sarah Vaughan.

Now, I have to confess that I never even heard of Vaughan before accidentally stumbling across “Whatever Lola Wants” (and I can’t even remember how that happened).  I was blown away.  Now, often when I hear an older track like this, I immediately start hunting around for more modern versions, to see if anyone has done anything exciting with the tune that might strike my fancy more than the original.1  But the simple truth is that no one else can sing this song the way Vaughan can.  Her voice just oozes sexy, and it traipses up and down scales in a way that makes you shiver.  When she sings

I’m irresistable you fool


you fucking well believe it.  And the arrangement (by lesser-known bandleader Hugo Peretti) is strongly rhythmic, containing just a touch of the exotica sound that will be more featured on another mix.2  Like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Sarah Vaughan’s “Lola” isn’t the original version, but it’s the definitive one.

“Lola” blasts right into “Heartbroken” by Meaghan Smith.  The Mother heard Smith’s version of “Silver Bells” sometime around last Christmas and asked me to download it for her.  Since I’d never heard of her before, I decided to see what else she’d done, and discovered The Cricket’s Orchestra.  This album is a little bit lounge, a little bit pop, and a little bit country, which means that it has two songs on it that I have to skip every time I listen to it.  But the rest of the album is crazy good, and “Heartbroken” is probably the best.

Then we hit “Coax Me a Little Bit,” another fine Lee Press-On tune sung by Lee’s lovely wife.3  And we wrap up this stretch of songs devoted to crooners of the fairer sex with Devil Doll.  Another of my Pandora finds,4 Devil Doll is the ultimate purveyor of that style I keep threatening to make up a name for.5  Wikipedia calls DD’s music “rockabilly,” but it isn’t.  Nor is it neo-rockabilly, like the Stray Cats or Dave Edmunds, nor is it psychobilly like the Cramps or the Reverend Horton Heat.  Although that last is much closer: it’s fast, and vaguely punky, like psychobilly, but it’s not punky enough, plus it lacks the camp so often associated with true psychobilly acts.  And it has brass, which destroys the basic rockabilly simplicity of guitar + bass + drums.  All the other bands I’ve mentioned as examples of this style also do retro-swing, so of course it has brass, and the 50’s songs it harkens back to (without ever truly imitating) often had some brass in them as well, or at least a single saxophone.  While Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Eight to the Bar are about half-and-half between this and retro-swing, Imelda May is closer to 70/30, and Devil Doll is all the way, baby.  It’s a rich, diverse style6 that allows for some rollicking tunes, some dancy tunes, and the occasional slow ballad ... such as might fit on this mix.  “Bourbon in Your Eyes” is a smoky, sultry track that fits in perfectly here.

And, speaking of psychobilly and the Reverend Horton Heat, he has a track here as well: “In Your Wildest Dreams,” one of the rare serious moments from the good Reverend.  Not that serious is a requirement here: both the Jane’s Addiction track and the one from the Circle Jerks are examples of the respective bands just goofing around.  Although they’re fine tracks: “Thank You Boys” is a lovely bridge into our first Kevin Spacey/Bobby Darin tune, while “When the Shit Hits the Fan” provides one of many amusing moments in Repo Man (“I can’t believe I used to like these guys ...”).


Moonside by Riverlight I
    [Far Beyond the Stars]


        “Come Back to Me” by Cherry Poppin' Daddies, off Zoot Suit Riot
        “In Your Wildest Dreams” by Reverend Horton Heat, off Liquor in the Front
        “Let's Elope” by Koop, off Koop Islands
        “Let's Never Stop Falling In Love” by Pink Martini, off Hang on Little Tomato
        “Thank You Boys” by Jane's Addiction, off Nothing's Shocking
        “Hello Young Lovers” by Kevin Spacey, off Beyond the Sea [Soundtrack]
        “You're the Boss” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off The Dirty Boogie
        “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughan [Single]
        “Heartbroken” by Meaghan Smith, off The Cricket's Orchestra
        “Coax Me a Little Bit” by Lee Press-On and the Nails, off El Bando en Fuego!
        “Bourbon in Your Eyes” by Devil Doll, off Queen of Pain
        “Young Boy Blues” by The Honeydrippers, off Volume One
        “Beyond the Sea” by Kevin Spacey, off Beyond the Sea [Soundtrack]
        “I Thought That's What You Liked about Me” by Georgie Fame, off Swing [Soundtrack]
        “Flake” by Jack Johnson, off Brushfire Fairytales
        “Wedding Vows in Vegas” by Was (Not Was), off What Up, Dog?
        “Sea of Love” by The Honeydrippers, off Volume One
        “Hollywood Nocturne” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra, off The Dirty Boogie
        “Wicked Ways” by Blow Monkeys, off Animal Magic
        “Come to Me” by Koop, off Koop Islands
        “When the Shit Hits the Fan” by Circle Jerks, off Repo Man [Soundtrack]
        “That's All” by Kevin Spacey, off Beyond the Sea [Soundtrack]
   
Total:  22 tracks,  72:19


The other 3 tracks here are a mixed bag.  First we have Jack Johnson’s first hit, “Flake.”  Johnson can’t really be described as lounge, but there’s something polished and laid back about this tune that’s always put me in the same headspace as the true lounge songs.  Towards the end, a reminder that the 80’s weren’t composed entirely of new wave and synth-pop; occasionally there was a band that hit a mood I usually describe as “alternative smooth jazz.”  Most of those tunes will have to wait for another mix,7 but the Blow Monkeys often blew well past smooth jazz territory into lounge-land.  “Wicked Ways” wasn’t the hit off this album,8 but it’s a smooth track that slots in nicely here.  And, finally, a true gem of a song, Was (Not Was)‘s offbeat track “Wedding Vows in Vegas.”  WNW is one of those bands that’s very hard to pin down: much of their output was powerfully soul and R&B infused alternative tracks such as “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love,” but every once in a while they would just go off the map the map entirely and do something really out there.  This is a true lounge tune with a wry lyrical twist, sung by no less than Frank Sinatra Jr, giving this volume a real touch of authenticity and respect for its roots.

There’s another volume of Moonside by Riverlight in the works, but it’s not yet ready for primetime.  Instead, next time, I think we’ll see what happens when the music from a video game gets under your skin.


1 Although the Vaughan version in this case is not the original.  Much like the situation with “Sing, Sing, Sing” from Salsatic Vibrato III.

2 Which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

3 LPN vocals tend to be split about 50/50 between Lee and his wife Leslie Presley.

4 Along with Caro Emerald, Imelda May, and Eight to the Bar, as we discussed back on Salsatic Vibrato III.

5 Recall that I brought it up in both Salsatic Vibrato II and Salsatic Vibrato III, in connection with Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Imelda May, and Eight to the Bar.

6 In fact, I note that, of the five Devil Doll tracks that I’ve put on mixes not a single one shares a mix with any other.  That’s pretty unusual for an artist.

7 Which we shall come to in, you guessed it: the fullness of time.

8 That would be “Digging Your Scene,” which ... well, refer to previous footnote.