Graded on a Curve:
Esquivel, Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music

It’s not often that a compilation of thirty-year old music is almost as representative of the time of its issue as it is of the artist that originally made it, but that’s the case with Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music from the always suave and ever distinctive musician known to many as simply Esquivel. If the ‘90s fad for lounge and exotica sounds is often perceived as an unfortunate occurrence, it did hold a few pleasant twists and turns. This is one of them.

When Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, a quite unexpected compilation of material by one-of-a-kind Mexican band leader/composer Juan García Esquivel first hit the racks back in 1994 via Bar/None Records, it was a welcome curveball of smooth lounge/exotica strangeness and a dish unspoiled by the potential taint of contemporary approximation. For outside of Combustible Edison I consider the ‘90s retro-lounge field to be a rather dismal bunch of pikers, and while I do enjoy them in doses I’m not even all that bonkers over Edison (though I am rather taken with Edison members Michael Cudahy and Elizabeth Cox’s non-retro inclined previous group Christmas). For the record I consider the excellent Chicago band Coctails to fall outside the genre.

The only sticky thing about Esquivel’s unlikely rise from obscurity was pondering if people were sincerely digging him (or fellow exotica specialists Martin Denny or Les Baxter); it was always possible they were just being infuriatingly ironic. This situation was sorta similar to the ebbing and flowing penchant of folks attaching themselves to Z-grade movies, but different in that nobody would actually fess up to believing it was “so bad its good.” However, spending too much time wondering about the ultimately innocuous motives of others is a surefire way to end up in a straightjacket. And whenever I would listen to Esquivel’s stuff my concern just evaporated anyway, for it’s a truly inspired and loony trip.

The relative popularity of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music (not to be confused with a similarly titled roughly concurrent LP by UK band Stereolab) led to a handful of additional reissues (even including a Christmas themed album), but I tend to think the first was the best and it serves as a natural indication to why Bar/None felt the need to resuscitate the man’s work. Cherry-picked from albums released by RCA between 1958 and 1967 and produced by longtime WFMU DJ and Songs in the Key of Z author Irwin Chusid (he also penned the disc’s informative notes), Space-Age’s 14 tracks stand tall not only through the bluntly oddball yet brilliantly controlled and grandly conceived nature of Esquivel’s creation, but also due to the shrewd, expert guidance of selection and sequencing.

It all opens with a truly zonked rendering of Les Brown’s big-band standard “Sentimental Journey” replete with low-register horn grumbling, dapper whistling, truly bent Hawaiian steel guitar, overblown explosions of brass, slinky and kooky vocalizing, abrupt yet non-dissonant clanks, and a complete abandonment of the standards of highbrow taste. Yes, this stuff is kitsch, but it’s built with such obvious care and delivered so deliriously that it overpowers any temptation to dismiss the music as shallow or trite.

And his original compositions display a warmly warped sensibility that matches his gift for twisted arranging, the two coming together exquisitely on “Whatchamacallit,” the cut strategically placed right at the end of side one. That tune made appearances on at least a dozen of my homemade mix-tapes (remember those?) from between ’94 and ’97, and if forced to explain the appeal of the whole exotica phenomenon through non-verbal or unwritten means it might just be the one song I’d pick for the exercise; everything I’d detail in words is there in spades.

It’s true that Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music is solidly on the “single man with a Hi-Fi” end of the exotica spectrum, with the “animal sounds and Tiki-torch ambiance” being more the specialty of one Martin Denny. And I’ll add that Bar/None didn’t screw the pooch by skimping on vinyl pressings of either this record or its follow-up, Music From a Sparkling Planet. Stereo separation is a big part of the equation with Esquivel’s work, as is a tweaked take on the lush large-band pop arranging (Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Neal Hefti) that was so commercially successful in the 1950s. So it’ll sound magnificent coming from the speakers of your deluxe system whilst hopefully snuggling with a special someone on that snazzy bearskin rug.

By the point of The British Invasion the sheer boldness of this sound was largely gone from the pop charts and was subsequently far less prevalent on LP (it was expensive to produce after all), but it lingered on for years not only in the castoff LPs found in antique shops and thrift stores, but also in some of the aggressively zanier ‘60s television themes propped up through constant reruns: think Billy Ver Planck’s work for the Flintstones or Vic Mizzy’s intro to Green Acres for two primo examples.

The controlled lunacy of those pieces contrasts quite well with over-the-top aspects of Esquivel’s work, and it’s no surprise that he also composed for TV, though in my estimation Esquivel is a much more estimable artist than either Ver Planck or Mizzy, possessing if not subtlety than an extremely impressive range and an acute ability to know just how far to push, which was often to the very brink of absurdity. To wit; trailblazing ‘50s comedian Ernie Kovacs used a medley of this album’s “Jalousie” and “Sentimental Journey” in his killer short film Musical Office. And Esquivel’s sustained range and nerve not only makes his material rather foolproof against parody but also quite resistant to stylistic extension. Imitators might as well forget it.

At its best the ‘90s lounge-wave rekindled interest in a rather cast-off portion of mid-20th century music. Serious belated consideration was given to not only Esquivel and Denny, whose debut album Exotica from ’57 gave a name to the whole genre (topping Billboard’s Album Chart for good measure), but light was also shed upon Peruvian vocalist Yma Sumac (Voice of the Xtabay, with Baxter composing) and electronic pop pioneers Perrey and Kingsley (The In Sound From Way Out).

Perhaps the best thing to come out of this temporary vogue for the nattily-dressed and the highly swingin’ was the fringe benefit of fresh ears getting turned on to older instrumental music of all stripes; Looney Tunes-composer Carl Stalling, bandleader/composer/pianist/inventor Raymond Scott, theremin player Clara Rockmore, electronic innovators Louis and Bebe Barron, and soundtrack maestros like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, Bernard Herrmann, and David Shire all benefited from increased interest in their work circa the ‘90s.

Flash forward a couple years and it wouldn’t be a bit difficult to find listeners that began with Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music or Denny’s Quiet Village branching out into much wider aural waters, possibly soaking up Mancini’s massive soundtrack for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or dipping into Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, the Italian avant-garde composers collective that included both Morricone and Frederic Rzewski. And it’s a smart bet that they were interested in contemporary sounds like Stereolab, Tortoise, and Labradford as well. So if the Cocktail Nation was surely a fad, not everyone that intersected with it was only trying to stand apart from the period’s surface mode of grungy slackerdom.

In pure exotica terms, Juan García Esquivel just might be the greatest of the whole bizzaro handful of original loungers. When listening to him, it never feels like he’s capitalizing on a trend with the intention of siphoning disposable income from the affluent or the easily led. Instead, it’s like he was just creating his own weird, grand, irresistible thing. Good for him.

Graded on a Curve: A

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