Narco Lounge Combo
Music For Ice Rinks
Whether I’m reviewing Ambient or Exotica albums, there is a huge market for the darker realms in both genres. In terms of the latter genre, the needed dose of gloominess is delivered by The Vanduras with their steel guitar-laden compositions for lonesome city strollers or car drivers, and by the electronic music duo Kava Kon who depict melancholia in a post-apocalyptic Atomic age. Both groups have in common that the term darkness cannot be applied half-heartedly, for the definitions and expectations that this term evokes vary wildly from one listener to the other. Enter the Bristol-based act Narco Lounge Combo and their 2011 debut Music For Ice Rinks. Band members Mr. David Thomas and Richie Paradise shuttle permanently between Space-Age arrangements and jazzy compositions, but their boldest trademark is surely the loop-based Lounge style. As their use of the iconographic Los Angeles-based architectural hallmark of John Rex and Sumner Spaulding, the Case Study House #2 shows, the album is firmly rooted in the original vision of the North American take on Exotica. However, Bristol’s self-titled handsomest band uses the typical instruments, among them vibraphones and steel guitars, and puts them into new, rather grim and mystical contexts. Being torn between a classic bedroom-produced album and the mimicry of larger Hollywood productions, you only need to add a few female dancers and tiki torch bearers to the album and the various gigs the band does in the U.K., and you get a pretty good idea of what the Narco Lounge Combo is all about. Thirteen short tracks – i.e. of typical Exotica duration near the three-minute mark – are presented on here, ranging from classic crowd pleasers à la Miserlou to postmodern Jazz numbers and neo-exotic novelties. Prepare for one of Exotica’s darkest albums. Whatever your definition of this very term is, the band surely has the right answer to your standards. Allow me one spoiler before I head into an in-depth analysis: there are two utterly great compositions scattered on this album that cater exactly to my taste, while a third skit even tops these off and presents beautiful Ambient structures in an Exotica setting, giving me yet another reason for the existence of this very website. Anyway, off we go…
Dirty Martini starts in an unvarnished rustic way with fuzzy grunge guitars, acidy Space-Age buzzes that are indeed as dry as a Martini, and suggestive reverberated dream girl lyrics. Once a shimmering backing surf guitar and a sizzling-hot Hammond B3 organ fill in the few gaps this song had, it has become a razor-sharp Rock beast that tends more to the Rockabilly side of the Exotica spectrum than on the lounge realms the band name proposes. This remark, however, is rectified by the band with The Seduction, a tremendously sleazy and catchy loop-fueled downbeat song full of enigmatic vibraphone droplets and chinking bells, mellow bass lines and a few scattered guitar notes that are so perfectly interwoven into the dim atmosphere that they aren’t noticeable. I love vibraphone sounds very much, but it’s the reduced approach and the careful allocation of the instruments that make this track so relaxing and melancholic. The reverberation of each instrument is huge due to the constant placidity and calmness in the background. Milliseconds of silence fill each alcove of this song. If anyone told me that this was a new song by Kava Kon, I would’ve believed this statement, for the melancholia, the dogtrot rhythm and the vibraphones altogether suggest this. It’s a marvelous track despite – or rather because of – the deliberate reduction and insistence of loops. This could go on for ten minutes without getting boring, and that's what a catchy loop is all about, enchanting the listener to the max. I dig it very, very much! Up next is Bright Lights, Big City which continues the oxymoronic theme of illuminated darkness with jazzy bass accentuations, a quirky six-note melody full of gloom on an electric piano and the occasional funk guitar in the background. As the hollow-filling depreciatory lyrics suggest, this skit is about the "city of sin" aka Las Vegas. Yet again, there are no pumping beats. Instead, howling guitars and their silken polyphony are the only elements of plasticity, making this another sneaky, rather dark track that captures the mood from a sky-high overlook on this particular city flawlessly.
While the mysterious interlude Aztec West juxtaposes vibrating nasty guitar strings to synthetic glacial bells, exotic claves and faux-Polynesian rods, the matutinal The Island Awakens successfully seduces bird-loving fans of field recordings with its vividly chirping fellows, the exotic bongo downbeat and zipper-like Microhouse remnants. The steel guitars are especially noteworthy on this track, for their warped twangs fade out in a drugged, galactic fashion and at times mimic Far Eastern keys to augment the off-wall factor; occasionally, the guitars even sound like a shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese banjo. This is the most exotic song so far, and it is up to The Boom Boom Room to take us back into the lizard-filled night club lands with its 6/8 rhythm, quavering organ accompaniment, jazzy acoustic guitar licks and electric brethren. This atmosphere of an enchanted evening is bolstered by a fake live situation with a clapping audience and introductory words by the band, successfully injecting the reminiscence of the live albums by The Blue Hawaiians. The next track is a deliciously eerie and cinematic interpretation of the Greek folk dance-inspired Miserlou with icy synth strings, an echoey bongo groove and another splendid shamisen-like performance on the steel guitar. The heavy reverb suggests a wideness and emptiness in the background that adds much to the dusky ambience. This version isn’t particularly exotic, but even though I’m no expert in regard to synesthesia, at least not before my late night swim in the rum barrel, I link the colors blue and purple to the sound spectrum that the band’s rendition creates. A heavy interpretation that comes up with pictures of majesty and loneliness and fits perfectly in the overall darksome theme of Music For Ice Rinks. Coming up next is another huge favorite of mine – and I ask you not to link the following track title to any odd preferences whatsoever – is Sex On Fur. Launching off with blurry bass guitar melodies and unexpectedly eupeptic synth glints, the song skillfully oscillates between guitar-laden lounge claustrophobia and the technicolored shimmers of Disco nights. What works so well is the purposeful fuzziness of the song, it’s like having absorbent cotton in your ears. The muffled sound washes cause nostalgia and an overall good feeling, making this a very strong skit that conciliates between Disco and Exotica with great success. A killer track with memorable loops that remain stuck in my head hours later!
The titular Music For Ice Rinks is a very quick intermission track that scrapes the one-minute mark. Its frosty electric pianos, warbling organs and tipsy melodies make this the perfect song to underline home videos of clumsy or ponderous people. There’s not much else to it, I’m afraid. The next song, however, is the third big hit in my book. The nocturnal Voodoo Moon merges delicately attenuated vibraphone melodies with rumbling bass drones and exquisitely clangorous scattered drums. The Italo piano backings are top-notch as well, and the atmosphere is loaded with mystique and playfulness. It’s actually an Ambient track, but even if it wasn’t, it would be close to my heart due to the relaxation it depicts. What the heck, I’ll make Voodoo Moon my top pick. Its etiolated light and solemn lushness outshine every other track on this album! While the druggy guitar strings and galloping bongo drums of Taboo have nothing to do with Margarita Lecuona’s classic of the same name, the track consists of a similarly lamenting theme, and it is only due to the golden-gleaming steel guitar euphony that moments of contentment and pompousness traverse the usual lounge murkiness. Live At The Women’s Prison finds the Narco Lounge Combo back in Space-Age territory, and this longest song of the album is at least as harsh as the opening track. A classic drum kit-laden Rock beat is enhanced by bass guitar sprinkles, terrifically frightening dark synth pads, extracted laser-like sounds that could derive from the C64 classic Arkanoid, and cinematic synth strings. This track leads far away from classic Exotica paths, and yet it belongs to the genre due to its spacey qualities. But still, it is hard to grasp and way too dark and threatening when compared to the material the combo presented thus far. But this doesn’t destroy the overall aura of the album, it’s just a minor quibble I have. The outro Blue Prelude lets me smile again: blurry Dixieland horns and kitschy brass ensembles are tied to a pumping breakbeat which itself is completed by high-voltage scratchiness and deep shakers. The tune ends rather abruptly, the lights go on, the lounge is now closed.
Mr. Thomas and Richie Paradise create an Exotica album that is blue, nocturnal and eerie, but luckily enough tremendously cozy in its best moments. It’s crystal clear from the get-go that this is an electronic album with several loop-based structures. This is no flaw! StereoExotique by The Tikiyaki Orchestra relied heavily on loops as well, as do the works by the aforementioned duo Kava Kon. The Karminsky Experience and Tipsy are further Exotica-related duos whose music is strictly loop-based and hence distantly similar in style. There are tracks where the Narco Lounge Combo can camouflage the bedroom production limits and turn tracks into something bigger, for instance on the opener Dirty Martini or Bright Lights, Big City, both of which are not coincidentally vocal tracks. On the other hand, the combo doesn’t want to hide the reduction, but uses the loops to their advantage on the superb The Seduction. The great Voodoo Moon with its spiraling vibraphone notes scattered all over the place can mask any limit whatsoever perfectly. Be prepared that Music For Ice Rinks, in the end, is an almost intimidatingly dark album with only occasional washes of glee and comforting mystique. The darkness doesn’t crush the good mood, but it puts the listener into a world of loneliness – despite the lounge setting – and reflection. This vault-like aura is furthermore nurtured by the heavy reverb and the manifold echoes. All of the thirteen tracks are downbeat compositions, a stylistic particularity which expands the gloominess boldly. However, dark tiki music has a huge fan base, and the depicted spectral moods, coupled with the lounge context, make this an utterly consistent and coherent album full of unique ditties and pale colors. When unexpected curlicues of auroral vivacity turn up, for example the Disco mélange of Sex On Fur or the chirping birds on The Island Awakens, their effect is even greater than in-between the syrupy superstructure of sumptuously soporific Exotica albums. If you know the limits of Music For Ice Rinks, you can enjoy its various strengths all the more. Recommended for fans of dark Exotica music, except Voodoo Moon which I wholeheartedly commend to virtually every listener, deceased or alive!
You can and should listen to each and every track off Music For Ice Rinks on the Narco Lounge Combo’s Bandcamp site.
[Update Jul. 21, 2012: The band contacted me recently via Twitter and gave the final piece of the puzzle away that caused me a headache and which is thus completely unmentioned in my review: one of my favorites Sex On Fur interweaves remnants of Lalo Schifrin's Theme From Bullitt of 1968. I was so close to mention the later film Boogie Nights, for its depiction of the rising Disco craze is quite similar and fully compatible to the lounge sleaziness as depicted in Sex On Fur. The Narco Lounge Combo answered my question that was never asked in the first place. So there, they're mindreaders as well.]
Exotica Review 089: Narco Lounge Combo – Music For Ice Rinks (2011). Originally published on Jun. 30, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.