Combustible Edison

  • Combustible Edison
  • I, Swinger (Sub Pop) 1994 
  • Four Rooms: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Elektra) 1995 
  • Schizophonic! (Sub Pop) 1996 
  • Christmas
  • In Excelsior Dayglo (Big Time) 1986 
  • Ultraprophets of Thee Psykick Revolution (IRS) 1989 
  • Vortex (Matador) 1993 

As the band that poured the first shot in the Cocktail Revolution, this Boston-area combo brought lounge music into the ’90s — or, more accurately, transported tastemakers back to the suburbia of the ’50s — with strikingly authentic interpretations of some of the most unauthentic sounds known to mankind. Gleefully embracing the ersatz ethnicity and sybaritic sophistication of spiritual forefathers like Martin Denny and Esquivel, the quintet slinks into its easy listening groove with martinis in hand and tongues in cheek, proving once and for all that trend-chasers will swallow absolutely any next big thing served to them.

I, Swinger is a faithful replication of bargain-bin exotica, right down to a sleeve festooned with cocktail recipes and calculatedly dated hep-cat liner notes. Majordomo Michael Cudahy (aka “The Millionaire”) puts the band through paces as varied as bossa nova (“Breakfast at Denny’s”) and retro-futuristic space-pop (“Carnival of Souls”) with deadpan precision, exploiting the “possibilities” of stereophonic sound via the panning, phasing and soundplay excess of the composer/performers who ushered in the hi-fi era. Armed with all manner of ancillary percussion, drummer Liz “Miss Lily Banquette” Cox and vibraphonist Aaron Oppenheimer craft supremely tacky travelogues that transport listeners from Gay Paree to the Amazon River basin — while Peter Dixon’s dairy-state organ trills make it clear they’ve never actually left the shopping mall. To give credit where credit is due, Combustible Edison does a credible job when tackling covers like “Cry Me a River” (sung, like all the band’s non-instrumentals, by the agreeably brandy-voiced Cox) and Nino Rota’s “Cadillac.”

Considering the degree to which the band has conceptualized its own songs as soundtracks for non-existent films (I, Swinger ends with a track called “Theme from ‘The Tiki Wonder Hour’ “), it’s hardly surprising that they’d link with fellow vulture of trash culture Quentin Tarantino to create a real soundtrack — particularly one for a film set in their spiritual homeland of Las Vegas. Since the music on Four Rooms is primarily incidental in nature, most of it doesn’t hold up to careful scrutiny without the visual accompaniment, but there are revelatory moments: Cox’s giddy scat-singing on the “Vertigogo” theme is positively intoxicating; “Four Rooms Swing” melts into a sensual love-puddle right before your ears. Elsewhere, the charm wears thin: a decontextualized (if faithful) remake of the theme from Bewitched triggers involuntary eye-rolling. Exotica aficionados will no doubt be pleased to note that genre pioneer Esquivel looms not only in spirit, but in the flesh: his smashing renditions of “Harlem Nocturne” and “Sentimental Journey” are among the soundtrack’s high points.

Since progress is obviously not an option for Combustible Edison, the stasis of Schizophonic! can’t really be called a disappointment. The album can’t be called remotely interesting, either. Yes, the combo delivers the obligatory exotica (“One Eyed Monkey”) and Cox her required torch songs (“Bluebeard”), but having painted itself into a stylistic corner, Combustible Edison seems content to simply stand around and watch that paint dry.

Before their rebirth as lounge lizards, Cox and Cudahy were two-thirds of the Christmas, an absurdist folk-pop combo with a flair for trippy concepts often hamstrung by an affinity for too-straightforward songwriting. The fragile-sounding debut doesn’t hold up particularly well, although a paean to Pee-wee Herman should elicit a chuckle or two. The band relocated to Las Vegas in the late ’80s (a harbinger of things to come) and released Ultraprophets of Thee Psykick Revolution, which rocks quite a bit harder and takes fuller advantage of the creamy harmonies Cox and Cudahy can conjure up.

Vortex was recorded in 1990 but rejected by IRS; by the time Matador licensed and released it, Christmas was over. Too bad, since the band (by this point containing bassist James McNew, soon to join Yo La Tengo) had begun to match its considerable verbal skills with equal melodic invention, particularly on the tribal “Painted Savages,” the X-styled “Jupiter, Florida” and the goofball country-raga “Medicine.”

[Deborah Sprague]

See also: Yo La Tengo