Narco Lounge Combo
A Girl Called Jazz






The third time's the charm. The Bristol-based duo Narco Lounge Combo delivered their sophomore – read: second – album in February 2013 and are henceforth not charming at all. However, guitarist and knob fiddler Mr. Thomas and his drumming companion Captain Richie Paradise float way above such denominations and concoct a highly cohesive and dark digital-only eleven-track release titled A Girl Called Jazz, available to purchase and listen to in full at Bandcamp. In comparison to their shadowy 2011 debut Music For Ice Rinks, not much has changed at first sight. The band meshes Lounge, Exotica and Space-Age, visits forlorn places, moon-lit islands and smoke-filled bars. At second sight though, everything changed! Without giving away the essence or too many seemingly picayune ornaments, I will pinpoint four very interesting strata that have not been carved out in such a glaring fashion before, if at all. Firstly, there is an overarching concept of light, as depicted in the upper (!) half of the front cover, people.


Light, fire, illumination and brightness are thematic elements that are featured time and again, be it in Mr. Thomas' lyrics or via music-related indications. The duo's album is covered in the same darkness as their debut, so such allusions are important markers, even though they should of course not get overanalyzed. Secondly, the instrumental pool is widened, if often in the form of synthesized presets. Sitars, claves, xylophones, accordions, the occasional birdcalls and shedloads of organs roll over the listener. Thirdly, there is a mysterious woman involved for the first time. She appears on many tunes, and neither is she mentioned in the liner notes on the band's Bandcamp section, nor did I ask the gentlemen about her role in the process of creation. Whether she is a figment and is based on samples taken off other tunes, a perfectly real performer at the band's live gigs or even the hidden affiliated third member, she is a boon and splendidly supports the Narco Lounge Combo. Fourthly and finally, there is a scheme that is implicitly attached to the topic of light: it is the liquedous droplets that appear on all tracks. Many legato streams fill the room, but on every single tune, there are staccato sequences and melodies that are in a constant dialog with the ubiquitous darkness. Organ drops, synth driblets, marimba dew… our king is called pizzicato. But enough of these academic debates which I actually promised to neglect in my 5 Golden Rules, let me introduce you to all eleven songs off A Girl Called Jazz


An Oriental sleaziness named Beautiful Losers kicks off the many-faceted journey of the Narco Lounge Combo. Right from the get-go a stomping beat is intertwined with crunchy Reggae guitars and a duskily shimmering sitar-esque string instrument whose characteristic traits actually encapsulate larger doses of Asian climes, but mind you, the tone sequences are snarky, mystical and malevolent, altogether particularities which are not linked to the stereotyped Far Eastern arrangements of the Exotica genre. This is the instrumental base frame of the prelude, Mr. Thomas soon joins the fun and unleashes a silky-lamenting duality in his vocals about dreamlike states (how fitting!) and bringing the houselights down. It is after these stanzas that the album kicks loose thanks to Richie Paradise’s classic drum kit and its piercing cymbals as well as the joining electric organ droplets and, err, a dirty saxophone’s dirty saxophone. The interplay between silence, sound and sustain is starkly apparent, a welcome Lounge-boosting peculiarity I also noticed on the debut Music For Ice Rinks. The comprehensive darkness allows the guitars and organs to illuminate the scenery in a neon-colored fashion, and a delicately tacky electric guitar riff in the right moment boosts the savage doom and bodacious wilderness of this aural construction. An nicely disreputable tongue-in-cheek opener camouflaged as a dead-serious harbinger of the things to come.


Squeezy Tahini, the second tune, does not hide its true shape and comes along in the way the duo envisioned it, a cheerful pandemonium loaded with clicking claves, Hillbilly guitar licks, raunchy organs and incomprehensibly rambunctious lyrics in the veins of ba-ba-hoo. Distantly harking back to such Billboard smashers like Don Tiki’s The Natives Are Restless off 2001’s Skinny Dip With Don Tiki, the soundscape is more flamboyant, less faux-Polynesian, and blimey, the Narco Lounge Combo is entangled with a supercilious-contemptuous lady whose voice is carefully filtered and blurred. The permanent oscillation between sizzling-hot organ mirages and monotonous slivers of indigenous chants make Squeezy Tahini a vortex that leads to the state of deliriousness… aka a perfectly bog standard visit to a bar.


While Hotpants is a synergetic instrumental which is based on a catweasel-esque city-strolling downbeat that is garnished with another pinch of Reggaeisms such as polyphonous organ apparitions, sun-soaked guitar flecks and the essential downwards spiraling trumpet blasts, the following beatless Capri hymn Una Ragazza Di Nome Jazz draws from 80’s dark matter bagpipe synths of the Moog kind, a threnodic-apocalyptic sunset phase as depicted by the echoey guitar twangs and a yearning la-la duet of Mr. Thomas and an enchanting jungle bride. This piece is undoubtedly the crestfallen downer, everything feels shadily moony yet lost. It is a nihilist’s antidote whenever he encounters better times.


Nothing so far could have prepared me for the following gem though: Floating World offers a magnanimously aqueous Space-Age trip of the genuinely soothing kind. This turquoise-tinged greenery is supercharged with mellifluously spiraling synth mallets, 8-bit driblets, cyber birdcalls, reverse glissandos and plinking stylophones. Heck, there are even Glitch particles in here, borrowed from a subgenre that is even exotic to Exotica fans. Everything glints and gleams, the lucency shimmers in a tropical hue. The composition is traversed by holes, crevasses and cracks, a natural state since every element is staccato-like, rotor-resembling and short. Huge bonus points for the distant gamelan preacher that blends well with the mamba-green background and brings in traces of late-70’s New Age. If someone told me that this song derives from the feather of the Narco Lounge Combo, I would not have believed it and shot the messenger. But no, it’s real, enormously luring and liquid. A superb tune and a genre-blasting highlight!


Even Jasmine, the centerpiece of over five minutes, cannot outshine Floating World, but hey, this backhanded girl even re-uses some of that tune's elements. An archetypically diffuse Lounge bassline complete with frizzling lighter-like maracas coalesces with the plinking bluish synth-and-xylophone cascades of the preceding masterpiece. Even the band falls prey to the quality of their own creation, and who can blame them for reusing its characteristics? A further fleeting element of Jasmine are the short organ bursts, but the most interesting tidbit is, I believe, a first in a song by the Narco Lounge Combo: a duet of Mr. Thomas and Captain Paradise, both of them offer accentuations and support each other. Maybe both voices belong to Mr. Thomas and he has simply doubled them during post-processing, I cannot tell. It is a well-known trick from the late 70's. The final minute sees a stronger focus on the xylophone and marimba williwaws which whirr like genteel fireflies in the night. Darkness and fragility, you find them here.


Next stop: the Island Of Women. It is a stop in a neo-Exotica world and continues the tendency of the band to somehow manage to advect moist dew drop ornaments of the marimba or xylophone kind. Floating World and Jasmine have shown this to great success, but even the short organ protuberances in all preceding and subsequent compositions inherit the same feel. But back to the Island Of Women. This enigmatic isle is a gorgeous place that could have been created by longterm Monkey Island composer Michael Land. It is that vivid. Portuguese accordion blebs lighten the night, bamboo rods underpin the aura in tandem with tick-tocking drips, savage oh-oouuh! screams cut through the air, tense pizzicato strings are copulated with jungular marimbas and rounded off by spectral aeolian synth gusts. The atmosphere is a tad frosty but otherwise reciprocates between a warmhearted quirkiness and a tranquilizing darkness. Bad news, though: no woman ever appears in this song. I want my money back! No wait, I want my monkey bag, that’s it!


The Palms appears and is presented in the well-known sleazy way, but ennobled by hugely melancholic guitar strums whose delicious strings are warped in a Hapa Haole way. The spiraling bass carpet reminds of classic Crime Jazz works, quick organ splinters underpin the languorous snugness of this nighttime scenery. The tone sequences of the blazingly bright guitars are rooted in Surf Rock climes whereas the backing constituents gather in order to form the Lounge trade union. The ensuing clash is won by the Surf Rock insinuations, The Palms is hyper-mellow! Afterwards, it’s time for Play With Fire, an organorama of manifold textures of varying temperatures, but note that all of them glow in red timbres. The organs are the actual stars, the bongo percussion and silky maracas are of second importance, as are the cleverly worked out guitar riffs in the second half of the song. And yet are there title-oriented vocals by Mr. Thomas which boost the impetus of the haaawt situation. These vocals only make up a minority of the runtime, Play With Fire largely remains in an instrumental state.


The auspiciously titled White Rum leads to a Honky Tonk bar with the respective piano strumming, Richie Paradise’s smoking cymbals and bass vesicles as well as slightly acidic but melodious electric guitars. Programmed congas or goblet drums finish the percussive prowess. This tune is the most eclectic yet accessible one with the greatest focus on actual melodies with many tones and the interplay thereof. The closer Caravan is the final treat for vintage Exotica fans and a faithful rendition of Duke Ellington’s eternal classic. Sunny rhythm guitars and backing organs accompany the elastically bouncing lead melody on the electric guitar. Or is it a cleverly tweaked synth? It is masterfully injected, that is for sure, always on the brink of sounding cacophonous and adamantly Oriental, but then fathoming out the Occidental traditions. The comparably laid-back tempo makes it a great finale that does end things with a bang, but not an imbalanced big bang… the Narco Lounge Combo maintain the coherence until the end.


A Girl Called Jazz outshines Music For Ice Rinks in many regards and still feels more of a great addendum than a successor to the debut's grandiloquence. The Narco Lounge Combo comes up with a concept of Neo-Exotica that is really unique. Right, there are instances of birdcalls, dreamy guitars in Hawaiian style and prominent xylophone spirals, but Mr. Thomas and Richie Paradise do not forcefully try to smarm their way to vintage Exotica fans. Instead, a creative hodgepodge is served that is as keen on the Space-Age side than on classic Rock organs and surprisingly sadness-evoking timbres which push tomorrow's hangover after last night's party into the limelight. Exotica fans will be delighted to hear a few indecipherable chants and mumblings in the tradition of Juan García Esquivel's doo-doo lyrics or the aforementioned Don Tiki's more savage-fueled ditties. The huge surprise, to my ears at least, is the hymnic Floating World. Never before did the combo depart further from their stylistic trademarks than on this particular emerald. It is strongly electronic, takes the listener to another planet and is less exotic than it is rooted in Space-Age dioramas, encompassing the aural and painted kinds; Syd Mead comes to mind.


From the Oriental stopover and point of departure Beautiful Losers over the lush jungle nights on the Island Of Women with The Palms close at hand to the overall wealthiest arrangement White Rum and the final nod to ye olde times called Caravan, the album bubbles and foams, exposes darkness and neon lights, marries a classic drum kit with programmed goblet drums, emphasizes a distant Honky Tonk dissonance on the one hand and is all of a sudden truly cinematic and bonafide on the other. My remarks in regard to Music For Ice Rinks can certainly be applied to a A Girl Called Jazz as well: if you are a fan of the darker, nocturnal realms of the genre and do not shy away from artificial sound sources and synthetic synergies, I recommend both albums wholeheartedly. The incessant amount of light-suffused staccato dabs and gaseous vesicles makes A Girl Called Jazz much more effervescent and less obviously loop-based than the Narco Lounge Combo's first effort. Thaise goys frawm Brizzle soccaid!


Further listening and reading:

  • Purchase and listen to A Girl Called Jazz in full at Bandcamp.
  • Follow the Narco Lounge Combo on Twitter: @KidNarco


Exotica Review 194: Narco Lounge Combo – A Girl Called Jazz (2013). Originally published on Mar. 16, 2013 at