Surface Noise:
Martin Denny,
Quiet Village

Have you ever discovered a genre of music previously out of your range of musical vision and gotten a bit fixated? This very thing has happened to me on more than one occasion. I’ve gotten on “kicks,” whether it was early country, reggae, or Norwegian black metal. I come across a style of music and become enthralled, and for a while I need to immerse myself in it. Once again, i found myself flipping through records during my weekly pilgrimage to Som Records in DC. I spotted a record, and suddenly it was 1996 all over again.

In 1996, I was working at the gone but not forgotten Tower Records. Capital Records released the first of many highly successful CDs in what was called the Ultra Lounge series. I popped the disc in the store’s stereo system late one night and was amazed at what I had just discovered. Artists like Lex Baxter, Yma Sumac, Martin Denny, and more all finding fascinating ways to invoke a mood.

The timing was right for this release—lounge music was enjoying a resurgence, influencing modern acts like Combustible Edison and Japan’s Pizzicato Five. Lounge music was featured in soundtracks to movies like Swingers and Four Rooms, and suddenly what was disregarded for years as “easy listening” was cool again. Capital saw the opportunity and took it, releasing over twenty volumes of Ultra Lounge, plus special editions and multiple Christmas albums.

So, what exactly is “lounge music?” In Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, Melissa Ursula Dawn Goldsmith describes lounge music as “a complex network of music ranging from light instrumentals (easy listening) to experimental uses of instruments and cutting-edge technology (not-so-easy listening).” Ok, I admit that’s a little vague and sounds boring.

First, there are a number of styles of lounge, from the vocal styles of the Rat Pack, to the hip, space-age creations of artists like Esquivel and Hugh Montenegro, and the birth of the lounge sub-genre—exotica. Meant to take the listener to wild and exotic places (thus the name), exotica was kickstarted by Les Baxter in 1950 with the release of Ritual of the Savage.

Another major player in the world of exotica was Martin Denny, which brings up back to the record store. I couldn’t believe what was before me in the cheap stuff—1959’s Quiet Village, The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny. My eyes lit up, and just as if cold water had been splashed on my face, my forgotten love of lounge music came rushing back. I couldn’t get home soon enough. The alluring Sandy Warner, the same model from the cover of Exotica, beckoned me like siren from her tropical hut.  I poured a gin & tonic, “lounged back” (of course) in my easy chair, and took a listen.

Our exotic adventure begins on side one, with “Stranger in Paradise.” As the mellow sounds of the vibraphone slid from my speakers, I was instantly transported to a faraway land. The addition of sounds like a slide whistle meant to sound like birds whistling away in the jungle or voices simulating monkeys in the trees add the desired effect of being somewhere tropical and this is repeated throughout the album.“Hawaiian War Chant” doesn’t actually sound a lot like a war chant, but a peppy number that is heavy on the percussion, primarily in the form of drums and congas.

As you take in the serene tones of “Paradise Found,” you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in some far-off tropical locale, having just discovered a hidden-away crystal blue lagoon. The whimsical cha-cha rhythms of “My Little Grass Shack In Kealakekua, Hawaii Cha Cha Cha” would fit in both at a Hawaiian luau or a cocktail party, as long as you were adorned in a fez and smoking jacket. The mystique of some of the lush settings these songs convey is perhaps lost a bit in our era of information-on-demand. Many in the general public would see some of these places only in movies, and in turn, the Exotica style appealed to that sense of the unknown in John Q. Listener.

The album closes out with Denny’s version of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village.” Utilizing more of the aforementioned wildlife mimicry, the song is a piano number that slides along with various percussive instruments. The inclusion of the instrumental version of this song, and the naming of the album, was presumably a marketing move by Liberty Records. “Quiet Village” originally appeared on Denny’s debut album, 1957’s Exotica. The song proved to be his biggest hit, reaching number two on the Billboard charts, and propelling Exotica to the number one spot.

Now, in 2014, we have seen a resurgence of lounge music on a slightly smaller scale than in the ’90s, primarily due to the success of the television series Mad Men. The larger effect the show has had has been the comeback of the men’s hat, with more men sporting a fedora or trilby than in recent years and classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned back in style with some bars even putting unique, modern spins on the libation.

They say that everything comes back around, and lounge music is proving to have the lives of a feline. At its heart, the experimental instrumentation and the eccentric and whimsical nature of the music is still able to take the listener to those imagined distant lands—and the sounds of Martin Denny are a great way to get there.

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