Penthouse Playboys
Casino Lounge






Casino Lounge is the second album by the septet Penthouse Playboys from Chicago, Illinois, but one would not even sense their Chicagoan heritage if one listens to their complete body of works, as the seven men come up with entertaining titles that are much more fitting in the beautiful vistas of the Golden Islands or the scattered oases of Nevada. What a coincidence, as Tiki Exotica (2009) targets the first destination, with Casino Lounge being tailored to the latter one. Released in June 2002 on the fittingly named Casino Records, the band spawns 12 unique concoctions which pinpoint a life that is constantly illumined by neon lights and then veiled by shadowy back alleys and crepuscular moments of loneliness. Shuttling between big band settings, Monday blues, euphoric elations and gossamer Disco scents, Casino Lounge is first and foremost brought to live by lead singer and guitarist Scat, but he alone does not make a band and is therefore accompanied by trumpeters and trombonists Sweet Pete and Mike, saxophonist Dennis, pianist and keyboarder Digits Dobie, drummer Shorty and bassist Dino. These guys are able to run the illusion of a proper big band, even if guest musicians or dubbed layering techniques must help out. Can the album win Exotica fans over? And if not, are there at least Space-Age timbres embroidered?


That the opener of a Casino album has to be a Blues – of all things – is potentially risky, as it may well spoil the fun before it actually starts, but rest assured that the Penthouse Playboys create a particularly glitzy and wide tune with Piano Bar Blues. The Honky Tonk atmosphere is striking, for pianist Digits Dobie plays slightly off-key, but always wittily so. The best part, however, are the brass eruptions next to the cautious guitar accents. Lead singer Scat at first hints at the climax with lines such as “anything can happen when the cat’s on the prowl,” and only a few moments later, he literally screams his joy away in a truculent kind of way. Honky Tonk meets big band. Abrupt brass layers swell and ebb down again, making Piano Bar Blues a superb show tune. The title track Casino Lounge is a bit paler in this regard, sporting a prominent bass guitar backup, marries it with crunchy acoustic brethren as well as glistening vibraphone sprinkles. Once Shorty’s piercing cymbals and hi-hats clash into the scenery, the atmosphere becomes sulfurous. The piano only plays an accentuating role, but the brass layers continue to gleam. The following Dry is a slow critter for a change and schleps itself forward. Dennis’ muted saxophone takes over the lead in this crushing Blues atmosphere. Someone’s throat is indeed dry, so bring in the Martinis.


Up next is Night Crawler which unleashes a rural bonfire atmosphere due to its upfront acoustic guitar rhythms. It soon enough grows into a fully fleshed-out piece loaded with vibes and euphonious trumpets and saxes. Drink It Dry then seems to be written with Joe Cocker in mind, as it would profit from a particularly raspy-raucous voice, one which lead singer Scat does not have. The overachiever still manages to fight through the majesty and euphoria this tune provides. The backing brass layers, in the end, make it bigger than the sum of its parts. Dennis’ dirty, rotatory muted sax rounds off the dusty diorama. Don’t Turn Me Out To The Road is a ballad-like intermission, with its guitars being extremely silken and aqueous; a blue feeling is in the air, but if there is one thing to ennoble the arrangement, it has to be the synthetic strings which waft vivaciously in the background. Black Out then comes along with the rhythmical physiognomy of a breakneck Crime Jazz theme with pushing formations of cymbals, screeching alto flutes and humongous brass walls which unleash the very dark driving factor that is so typical for those jazzy themes. Dubious vibes refine the twilight atmosphere. A stunning piece, this one truly is a corker!


What happens when the tempo of Black Out is used for a more amicable and less danger-evoking tune? Well, it is then called Jet Set, another magnificent shanty which is ameliorated with Pagan Flutes, emanates a much warmer atmosphere and emits siren-like droning bass runlets. The textural variety of the horns is astonishing, it contains many segues and freely flowing counterparts. Night Cap turns out to be a bluer tune with a Latin polyphony on the horns, heavily echoey vibe reverberations and a partly shady atmosphere. This one is for fans of dun-colored and opaque compositions without the acidic bile and tension of Crime Jazz. The remaining three tracks are all very peculiar but successfully add new styles to the Vegas cocktail. Follow-up My Eye’s On You adds another style to the album thanks to its infinitesimal Disco feeling. Luminescent and heavily reverberated synth strings work in tandem with the brass helixes and make this a lewd song of devotion and stalking procedures. Be careful out there, Scat has “got my mind on you,” and this is just the beginning! Tony


The Tuna is an unsurprisingly bucolic air for comic relief. “Tony The Tuna is back in town,” Scat sings and lists various other attributes: sporting a busted nose, smoking Cuban cigars etc., thus making this a tune about a stereotyped penthouse playboy. This acoustic guitar-driven tune is cheeky and good-natured with a nice dose of Honky Tonk goodness. The album ends how it began, namely with another blues: Chinatown Blues sports a real bluesy atmosphere mixed with a gorgeous pentatonicism on the marimba and guitars. Arcane steel guitars and dark brass impositions create a cinematic atmosphere. Texturally highly varied, it ends the album with a bang.


Casino Lounge is about the concrete jungle rather than the tropical one, but since casinos are oases of adventures, enormous entertainment, luxurious suites and money-demanding attractions, the step from Las Vegas-centric Lounge music to Exotica is smaller than it may seem at first. The Penthouse Playboys may not have the means and backers to record their unique compositions with a large orchestra – the adage “they don’t produce music like they used to” is incessantly applicable – but are willed to use their manpower in a deceptive, skillfully masked way by letting their status and arrangements seem bigger than they actually are; here, the Vegas tactics are transformed into music, and successfully so. Even though synth strings replace their real-world next of kin, the band is able to glaringly shine on the brass side and in the guitar spectrum.


Tracks like Piano Bar Blues, Night Crawler and Black Out make this a feast for fans of brazen instruments and evoke the towering cornucopias of Chaquito, Moisés Vivanco, Big Kahuna And The Copa Cat Pack or the Nettai Tropical Jazz Big Band, if of course to a lesser degree; something has to give. Lead vocalist Scat masters every scene, but Drink It Dry shows the limits of his vocal talent, as it demands an incredibly powerful singer to tame it. Be that as it may, the ongoing gyration around show tunes, Honky Tonk filth, Lounge lands and Crime Jazz arabesques make Casino Lounge a splendid album even for Exotica fans who shy away from overcrowded temples of consumerism and gambling. Available digitally on iTunes, Amazon MP3 and streaming radio websites.


Exotica Review 455: Penthouse Playboys – Casino Lounge (2002). Originally published on Oct. 17, 2015 at