The Coctails made their debut in Kansas City, wearing matching yellow tuxes with burgundy bowties, quietly butchering a Miles Davis song at an art-gallery opening for the bass player’s girlfriend. The quartet’s initial albums exploited this sense of nerdy, nervy cool, blending the hygienic graphics and sparse black-and-white cover art of ’50s jazz releases with the bewildering musical eclecticism of the ’90s lo-fi underground. The effect was charming if gimmicky, and it brought the band some undue notoriety as avatars of the lounge-rock movement, later popularized by Love Jones and Combustible Edison. By the time that unfortunate revival had become fodder for media trend pieces, the Coctails had set themselves apart with the variety and depth of their songwriting.
The best work from the first two albums and EP is collected on the Early Hi-Ball Years, released after a move to Chicago, where the band established a self-contained music business with two record labels (Carrot Top for CDs and Hi-Ball for vinyl), a pressing plant and a line of handmade merchandise (including the large Coctails dolls which greeted Lounge Ax patrons for the better part of a decade). The music ranges from polkas, doo-wop and klezmer tunes to twisted jazz instrumentals and garage rock, with songs often exploiting one or more of the menagerie of instruments in the quartet’s collection, including tenor saw, vibraphone, saxophone, clarinet, lap steel and trumpet — in addition to keyboards, guitars, drums and bass.
Multi-instrumentalists John Upturch, Mark Greenberg, Archer Prewitt and Barry Phipps developed a sound and a set list for every occasion, playing everything from weddings to club gigs with Shellac, mutant Christmas carols to deceptively simplistic children’s music (the latter two genres documented on the Winter Wonderland and Songs for Children EPs).
Other aspects of that vast repertoire are the focus of the 3/4 Time EP of waltzes and Long Sound, devoted entirely to the group’s jazz-leaning instrumentals. While hardly virtuosos, the Coctails play with low-key humor and create a series of soundscapes — by turns muted and buoyant, lush and fractured — that evoke heroes from Billy Strayhorn to Sun Ra. Lending instrumental sizzle are ringers Ken Vandermark, Poi Dog Pondering’s Dave Crawford and NRG Ensemble founder Hal Russell, in one of the last recording sessions before his death.
Peel is the Coctails’ crowning achievement, a sprawling pop album full of sneaky hooks (“Miss Maple,” “2000,” “Even Time”) and spidery guitar lines, spiked with noisy intrusions and the odd musical saw solo (“Cottonbelt”). In its range and ambition, Peel recalls the best work of another underappreciated Chicago group, Shrimp Boat. Although none of the band members is much of a singer, the tunes are so strong it almost doesn’t matter. (Like Long Sound, the vinyl edition is on Hi-Ball, the CD on Carrot Top.)
The Coctails EP, originally issued on the subscription-only Hello label, is all-instrumental, but considerably different in tone from Long Sound. With wan whistling, a snippet of dialogue, ambling banjo and eerie musical saw, it’s a richly atmospheric soundtrack to an unmade movie and hints at the darker-tinged music to follow.
The Coctails LP was issued to coincide with the group’s farewell concert, on December 31, 1995. The songs are more understated and atmospheric, the album more cohesive — if less buoyant — than Peel. With the exception of the garage-punk clatter of “Cast Stones,” the disc is dominated by brooding instrumentals, sparse ballads and muted vocals. But the melancholy majesty of “So Low” and the rural plaintiveness of “Low Road” and “Hey” reach an emotional depth to which the Coctails only previously hinted.
The farewell concert itself forms the backbone of the posthumous Live at Lounge Ax. Incorporating a few tracks recorded at the same venue seven months earlier (and one or two songs which never made it onto record in any other form), the album is a shambling and engaging tour through the band’s many moods and guises. From the whimsical (“Walkin’ Down the Street”) and loungy (“Wood Bee” or “The Tingler”) right through to the raucously exuberant (“Talkin’ ‘Bout My Baby”), it’s a fitting summation of an imaginative and idiosyncratic career.
Released years later, the three-disc Popcorn Box (the word “box” does not appear on the cover, but even the Carrot Top website calls it that) gathers up a lot of the early Hi-Ball material plus singles, compilation tracks and the Hello Recordings EP. Although a treasure trove for fans, novices would do better to start with one of the original records.
When the Coctails ended, Archer Prewitt (who’d also been moonlighting as a guitarist in the Sea and Cake for several years) embarked on a solo career. His first album takes its cues from the Coctails’ melancholy side (think “When I Come Around” or “Even Time”), but ups the ante considerably in terms of arrangements and production. Recorded with a band featuring former Coctails Mark Greenberg and John Upturch, Poi Dog adjuncts Susan Voelz (violin), Steve Goulding (drums), Paul Mertens (woodwinds) and Dave Max Crawford (keys, trumpet), plus a huge supporting cast of strings and horns, In the Sun is an ambitious record whose compositional inconsistencies are, more often than not, outweighed by their fine execution. Some of the songs are a bit too po-faced for their own good, but the more expansive material (like “City Ride” or “Let Me Fade Away”) is magical.
Prewitt’s quest for pristine arrangements and ’70s radio sheen continues on White Sky, which also reveals a growing Nick Drake fascination. Recorded with only a slightly smaller cast of contributors, the album opens with “Raise on High,” a joyous (if slightly mannered) pop tune complete with harmonies and horns, but soon settles into a mood of autumnal melancholy. The album’s epic tendencies (“Walking on the Farm” is eight minutes of slow building catharsis) often seem in danger of being overshadowed by indie shyness, but “Final Season” and the acoustic “Last Summer Days” are the unmistakable sound of a talented songwriter emerging from the shadows.
Gerroa Songs is a mini-album of semi-improvised material recorded in a big old house on the Australian coast. Given the setup (a living room, some instruments and a tape recorder), the eight tracks are predictably lo-fi and, despite the presence of a few overdubbed strings, feel rough and unfinished, like pages from a sketchbook. Lovely and haunting in many places but also slightly unsatisfying.
Prewitt’s command of formal songwriting reaches new heights on Three, which is bursting with middle eights, bridges, outros and numerous other bits of structural complexity. The songs are possessed with a newfound confidence that allows them to thrive among the dizzying array of strings, harpsichords and backing singers. Epics like “Over the Line” no longer sound ashamed to be epic, while the rockers (“Tear Me All Away”, “Gifts of Love”) are less studied and more exuberant. There are still overtones of acute melancholy (especially near the end), but the emotional gamut of Three is consistently tempered with welcome doses of summery pop.
Huge arrangements are the exception rather than the rule on the understated follow-up, Wilderness. Recorded with a core band of Greenberg, Crawford and drummer Chris Manfrin, the album confines its dramatic outbursts to a handful of moments (“Cheap Rhyme” and the excellent coda of “Without You”), instead favoring quiet elegance in songs that change direction without ever changing gears. At its best, Wilderness evokes the hushed beauty of the final Coctails record, but even at its fullest, it sounds far more spare and forlorn than anything else in the canon.