The easy listening boom of the middle 20th Century gave rise to some highly esoteric music. The "space age" fashions embraced by many a swinger hinted at a future that was never to materialize; an eagerness to test out new hi-fi systems resulted in a proliferation of quirkily arranged, bizarrely mixed records by bandleaders like Esquivel and Enoch Light. Among the strangest subgenres to emerge during this period was exotica, spearheaded by Martin Denny, who unashamedly regarded his music as "window dressing."
Many Americans, WASPs in particular, had a severely limited awareness of outside cultures, and exotica thrived on this ignorance. Using ethnic instrumentation to create a wholly inauthentic approximation of "world music," the genre conveyed the mystery of tropical lands to its audience, but without taking them too far out of their comfort zones.
Absurdly high-concept albums with elaborate, sexually tantalizing cover art promised more than they delivered; the music was often just syrupy orchestral pablum with mildly "exotic" flavoring. Likewise, the glitzy lounge lifestyle veiled its own sad actuality, a hollow existence peopled with gamblers, alcoholics, and prostitutes.
Flash forward a half-century: most of the advances in music have been technological. Ambient music has legitimized the idea of sound as wallpaper, while new age has continued exotica's tradition of crafting sonic travelogues of nowhere in particular. Lounge music and exotica, like virtually everything else once deemed un-hip by the rock 'n' roll generation, have become retro, "appreciated" by condescending ironists and vinyl-hunting DJs alike.
Sex Mob's purported tribute to the Martin Denny sound, Sexotica, does not seek to poke polite fun at the quaint anachronisms of 1950s lounge culture. Instead, it offers a reminder of the era's decadent realities. The album finds slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein's group of accomplished players assisted by the production team GoodandEvil, whose grimy beats are largely responsible for the sleazy atmosphere.
Unlike Martin Denny, Sex Mob makes no effort to transport the listener to the South Seas. There is nevertheless a strong sense of placenamely, seedy bars and smoke-filled strip clubs. Direct references to Denny are limited to imitations of wild animals; the vibe on Sexotica is too unsettling to be considered straightforward homage, and the mood is ultimately too abrasive to provide much fun. On rare occasions, the band sobers up for some inspired improvising, but otherwise it meanders dizzily like a staggering drunk.
Sex Mob has a reputation as a clever postmodern jazz outfit, but Sexotica is not the retro-lounge recording it appears to be. By no means escapist entertainment, the disc exposes the squalid side of the lounge aesthetic, and its booze-drenched aura lingers long after its closing strains.
Personnel: Steven Bernstein: slide trumpet, mellophones, vocals; Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Tony Scherr: acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, vocals; Kenny Wollesen: drums, percussion, bird whistles, vibraphone; Mike Dillon: tablas; GoodandEvil (Danny Blume and Chris Castagno): programming hijinks.