Penthouse Playboys
Tiki Exotica





When an album is named Tiki Exotica, it is only natural to think of a marketing ploy, for example a record label which puts together a compilation of various tunes that more or less fall into the category according to the curator’s humble – and sometimes charmingly dim-witted – mind. The title is simply too descriptive and self-explanatory. Luckily, the title is not even a problem per se, as it is an astute description for the short trip of the Chicagoan big band septet called the Penthouse Playboys, not to be mixed up with the Norse band of the same name. The Penthouse Playboys usually reside in tasteful Lounge territories and bring to life the neon-lit temples of consumerism, adventure and gambling, for instance in this album’s predecessor Casino Lounge (2002).


On Tiki Exotica, released in July 2009 on Casino Records, the band unleashes eight unique compositions and one two-part medley, stresses the use of steel guitars and ukuleles, revs up the Latin percussion thicket a little bit and, last but not least, keeps the successful mélange of vibraphone tones, brass inceptions and observatory lyrics intact, even though the album bursts at the seams due to its different styles, but more about them in the following paragraphs. The Penthouse Playboys sport the talents of lead singer and guitarist Scat, trumpeters and trombonists Sweet Pete and Mike, saxophonist Dennis, pianist and keyboarder Digits Dobie, drummer Shorty and bassist Dino.


A classic mixed bag, the band tries to cater to every listener who is fond of the very genre which, I am never tired to state, means many things to multitudinous people (or vice versa), and all of them do rightfully find and vindicate their niches: there are Exotica fans who only favor the golden material of the late 50’s and early 60’s, those who despise electric guitars altogether, people who prefer symphonic structures in their arrangements, experts who neglect the 90’s resurrection, and others who insist on instrumentals loaded with birdcalls, bongos and that certain quartet sound, or else a respective work does not belong to the realms of Exotica. What can all of these devoted if also adamant Exotica fans expect from this record? I carve out a few of its particularities below.


Records that advertise the synergy of Rock, Surf Rock, Rockabilly and Lounge need to depict this very balance right from the get-go in the opener if the band does not want to risk the danger of sad faces as the aficionado of the respective genre fails to absorb the loveable things and misses crucial ingredients. These are the cold surroundings Twilight In Havana has to turn into excitement, and the Penthouse Playboys are able to poise and maintain the equilibrium between yearning guitar aortas which traverse near a surfer’s beach and a lonesome stroller’s highway. Exotic ingredients are also injected, be it in the shape of glacial vibraphone glints or clicking wood sticks. Latinisms burst into the scene via euphonious horn eruptions and coruscating cowbells. Scat’s vocals inherit melancholia and awe and work well with every instrumental backdrop the fellow band members prepare. Surprisingly streamlined and direct despite the various textures, Twilight In Havana is one of those enchanting earwigs charged with silkened structures and no aggression at all, astutely pointing to the album title.


The following Exotic Isle is more of a Dream Rock anthem than a Surf Rock critter due to the heavy amounts of reverb and echo that make both vocals and guitars seem drugged, dizzy and languorous. Dino’s basslines are oftentimes the only clear thing upfront, and that says something. Hypnotically chirping birds, quieter and almost fragile passages and polyphonic vocal structures make this tune one of a kind in the given genre conventions and endemic structures. In stark contrast, Palm Beach is an incisive technicolor piece of faux-Hapa Haole with crisp steel guitars, rhythm ukuleles and vibraphone droplets. Everything gleams and sparkles in iridescent colors, the sky is deep-blue, and it seems as if the Chicagoan rockers have lived in Hawaii for decades.


Up next is Enchanted Oasis, with its enthralling factor being the conflation of mystical glissandos as played on the vibraphone with contravening sun-soaked guitar coils which inherit that typically Hawaiian tonality of warped, elasticized strings. Drummer shorty erects a comparably staggering 4/4 beat which naturally decreases the magic of said oasis, but allows the arrangement to gain traction rhythm-wise. Whereas Tropical Sunshine surprises with a downwards spiraling pointillistic eight-note Pop motif supercharged with translucency and sports prominent acoustic guitar thickets as well as haunting steel guitar runlets, Baracka Hula is an uplifting Rockabilly hymn with all archetypical but welcome particularities one might think of: ba-ba-ba lyrics, the stop-and-go motion of cracking chords and short pauses as well freedom-evoking timbres on the guitars and their bass brethren.


Can’t Remember then sees trumpeter Mike in the spotlight who augments the band’s almost desperate attempt of remembering the last evening. "I saw stars, and out went the lights" is only one tiny portion of the lyrical topic. A second movement is superbly tropicalized via vitreous cowbells and wondrous flute tones which form a great counterpart to the desperation and suggest a laissez-faire countenance which is not unusual in Hawaii, one tends to think. A medley follows, comprising Edgar Leslie’s and Joe Burke’s Moon Over Miami and places it next to the Penthouse Playboys’ own Off The Beach Of Wakakee, making a curiously acoustic guitar-focused brute of incandescence and daylight (!) out of the material. The finale Grass Skirt Girl links to the front artwork and glorifies the Hapa Haole underbrush with Caribbean flavors such as vibratofied marimbas, for instance. On top of this, exotic vibraphones, Hawaiian steel guitars, the warmest overall hammock atmosphere as well as the most embraceable lyrical line "I leave behind the problems of my mind" make this a poignant apotheosis to the album… and the band’s overly prolonged hiatus.


At the publishing date of this review, I do not know what happens next with the band, whether there is some sort of resurrection or reshaped formation about to come in a few years, but if this were indeed the last album the Chicagoan septet ever recorded under this moniker, it is a great closure. Tiki Exotica may sport a formulaic title, but outshines the stereotyped clichés while living up to the implications of the tiki movement all at the same time! Short and sweet, it manages to respect the music-related clichés and expectancies regarding Hawaii. Granted, steel guitar twangs and ukulele strumming are viewed through North American glasses, there is anything real or traditional on here, but this is totally fine and already revealed by the title.


Be it the silky veils of soothingness in the opener Twilight In Havana, the Dream Rock atmosphere in Exotic Isle with its helical spheres of elysian fluffiness, or the pumping Rockabilly beast called Baracka Hula, the whole album is carried by several styles and yet feels strongly coherent. In comparison to the Penthouse Playboys’ earlier records, the amount of polyphonic vocals has dramatically increased and depicts a bond of togetherness and camaraderie that would not only make James Last proud, but which is amiss in similarly guitar- and vocal-driven albums such as The Hula GirlsThe Curse Of The Tiki (2010). Granted, Exotica fans ought to have a thing for lyrics and traditionally structured Rock tunes, for this is no album of the vintage kind, but once this is a given, one’s attributes allow to enjoy this shorty of less than half an hour. Tiki Exotica is available in digital form on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and streaming radio websites. 


Exotica Review 303: Penthouse Playboys – Tiki Exotica (2009). Originally published on Jan. 4, 2014 at