David Browne
January 19, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Bachelor’s Guide to the Galaxy;Martini Madness;Swingin’ Singles;Foor Rooms

JUST WHEN you thought the air of campiness in pop couldn’t get any thicker (think RuPaul or the renewed fascination with ABBA and Saturday Night Fever), a new cloud of smoke has blown in. A cult has developed around lounge and instrumental music of the ’50s and ’60s — you know, albums with titles like Living Strings Play Music for Romance that had been relegated to the vinyl-meltdown pile in used-record stores. A devout group, many of them Gen Xers, have begun sipping martinis and resurrecting those records, as an antidote to all that supposedly monotonous, downer alterna-rock. The scene has become enough of a mini-phenomenon that record companies have started reissuing old LPs and new compilations, the latest being three separate volumes called COCKTAIL MIX (Rhino, in stores Jan. 23). As Sammy Davis Jr. sings on one of them, ”If you can’t dig it, you’re square!”

The music that falls under the ”cocktail” banner is hard to categorize, as the Rhino series demonstrates. Volume one, Bachelor’s Guide to the Galaxy, focuses on quirky mood instrumentals from the Eisenhower era. Even at an overkill of 18 songs, it’s easily the most intriguing and educational of the volumes. Called space-age bachelor-pad music because it emerged at a time when Americans were reveling in postwar electronics, the music often comes across as a collection of sound effects set to sophisticated big-band rhythms. It’s easy to imagine hearing these songs as jaunty accompaniment for home movies were it not for bandleaders like Dean Elliott and Les Baxter who mixed in exotic, left-field elements like space-warp bleeps and tribal drums. What you get instead is background music as devilish foreground music.

Volumes two and three concentrate more on vocals, with the former, Martini Madness, having a distinct Rat Pack feel. Music for parties at which hepcats form conga lines and women are called ”kitten,” it opens with a young, lusty Ann-Margret singing ”Thirteen Men” (”…and me the only gal in town!”) and offers up a horny-sounding Mel Torme and a frisky Quincy Jones instrumental. With their strip-club saxes and bongos, the songs re-create the feel of a dank, seedy nightclub and ooze lust and passion, if not love. It’s a soundtrack for one-night stands, all the more quaint in the safe-sex era.

Swingin’ Singles, volume three, continues that mood, but with a bit more subtlety. A collection of finger-snapping nightclub serenades, it features Rosemary Clooney’s innocent seduction romp ”Come On-A My House,” Sarah Vaughan telling us how ”One Mint Julep” in a bar led to romance, plus contributions from Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bobby Darin. More than either of its companions, the set is meant to remind us of a simpler time. We’re supposed to hear the coy or double-entendre sexuality — like Dean Martin bubbling ”She’s telling me we’ll be wed/She’s picked out a king-size bed!” — and think what crass boors we’ve become. Still, the compilers can’t seem to decide between showcasing sly candlelight seduction and banal crooning (Mel Torme’s ”Forty Second Street”).

It isn’t just a new generation that’s, er, digging these tunes; some of them are also playing them; such is the case with Providence-based Combustible Edison, who perform almost the entire score of FOUR ROOMS (Elektra). As they demonstrated on a previous disc for Sub Pop, they know their old-school mood music: The tracks are immersed in the same type of vibraphones, surf guitar, clanking percussion accents, smooth lounge piano, and crooning, wordless vocals heard on Rhino’s Bachelor’s Guide set. A solid set of quality soundtrack music, Four Rooms also includes two tracks by Esquivel, the Mexican bandleader who pioneered the genre (see box, right), and it’s telling that his three-decades-old numbers sound wilder than Combustible’s.

Clearly, these packages were compiled with love and affection, and they’re annotated with scholarly attention to detail. (Lounge pianists Ferrante & Teicher had a connection to minimalist composer John Cage — they used the ”prepared piano” he invented.) But the very idea that gin-soaked standards sung by lounge lizards could now be considered the height of class is kind of depressing. And as with the renewed interest in Bennett and Frank Sinatra, it’s hard to tell where genuine admiration ends and the winking begins. There’s only so much kitschiness one can take before a wave of sincerity sets in — hence the rise of the wide-eyed pop of the Hootie brigade. Ultimately, that may be what these collections represent: the last collective gasp of irony in pop. The ”cocktail” fad makes for some amusing, offbeat listening, but only if sipped in small doses — like the martini itself. Bachelor’s Guide to the Galaxy: B+ Martini Madness: B Swingin’ Singles : B- Four Rooms: B

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