"If you want me to be a human jukebox, I'll bend over, and you can take a quarter, shove it up my butt, and press

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It takes a thief

"If you want me to be a human jukebox, I'll bend over, and you can take a quarter, shove it up my butt, and press a button. You'll hear the songs you've known and loved, and declare me fabulous. But how difficult is it to be a great DJ if you're playing so-called lounge music, oldies that are already crowd pleasers?"—DJ Anita Sarko

Auntie Anita's quote has been on my mind since I DJed at Linda's Tavern two weeks ago. When my friends had asked what kind of tunes I planned on spinning, I told them "drinking music." Records by Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, and Patsy Cline. Songs I've been drunk to, pleasantly and not so, on many occasions.

As one pal exited that evening, he admitted my set had surprised him. "When you said 'drinking' music, I thought you meant 'lounge,'" he confessed. Instantly, I felt my hackles rise. Yes, I had multiple Julie London and Tony Bennett platters in my crate. I adore vocal pop and EZ listening records of the '50s and '60s. But that term, "lounge music," really burns my toast.

It's difficult to pinpoint why. Many aspects surrounding lounge culture appeal to me immensely. Little black dresses and dinner jackets are A-OK. I wish more people dressed up to go out. Martinis instead of another microbrew? Swell. Calling your amigos "Daddy-O" or "swingin' cats" makes me smile. I'd rather see grown men displaying these affectations than puffing out their sagging chests in the locker room, or smoking cigars in public because they're suppressing fantasies of swapping blow jobs with their best friend.

So why is it that whenever I see a clutch of smartly dressed hipsters tipping back drinks to Dean Martin, I want to chase them with a Louisville Slugger? Because I fear that implied quotation marks, like the upturned corners of a smirk, frame the entire lounge music phenomenon.

Worse still, in a flurry of forced nostalgia, distinctions of quality are blurred. There once were clearly drawn lines between camp, kitsch, and cool. Camp denotes an artist or performance self-consciously exaggerated or histrionic, while Webster's Collegiate says kitsch is "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality." Shirley Bassey is camp; Steve Lawrence is kitsch. (Why a talented broad like Eydie Gorme married such a loser is a mystery.)

Cool is nearly intangible. You can work up a sweat and still stay cool. And even the finest artists now unceremoniously classified as lounge vacillated wildly in their output. Mel Torm頳inging "Lulu's Back in Town" remains cool; his rendition of "Secret Agent Man," just kitsch.

In recent years an explosion of contemporary bands—Pizzicato 5, Arling & Cameron, the Gentle People—have taken inspiration from these icons from bygone eras. Their work typically sacrifices the delineation of camp, kitsch, and cool on the altar of the grinning god Irony. But it's still more engaging than a lot of earnest alt.rock, because it doesn't forsake the qualities that made records by 101 Strings enduring: a) memorable melodies; b) inventive arrangements, especially percussion; and c) a fascination with appropriating musical ideas from "exotic" foreign cultures.

These considerations aren't lost on Washington, DC, duo Thievery Corporation, alias Rob Garza and Eric Hilton. Their many releases, from the bossa nova and dub reggae shadings of their 1996 debut Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi to two new offerings, the remix anthology Abductions and Reconstructions and their own installment in the DJ Kicks CD mix series, incorporate all three. With a straight face. Thievery Corporation is remarkably cool.

On first appraisal, Thievery Corp. seems to beg for the KITSCH rubber stamp. They sport spiffy suits and ties. Their sleeve art features photos of vintage stereo components. They named their label Eighteenth Street Lounge Music (after the nightclub Hilton co-owned), and its logo is a white plastic chair that the staff of Wallpaper would kill for! Yet it's all sublimely tasteful.

That same savvy design-queen sensibility—composition and juxtaposition are key; less is more—colors their sonic concoctions. The sultry DJ Kicks balances Les Baxter's classic "Tropicando" with cuts from DJ Cam, Rockers Hi-Fi, and Up, Bustle & Out. Abductions and Reconstructions proves even more intoxicating, drawing on raw materials from more countries than Connie Francis in her Sings Italian/German/Polish/Spanish Favorites heyday. Acts from Japan (Pizzicato 5), Belgium (Hooverphonic), Iceland (Gus Gus), and Jamaica (Black Uhuru) all benefit from the stripped-down, laid back interpretations TC gives their tracks.

You want a new CD that'll make your Manhattans slide down smoother and sweeter? Thievery Corporation can provide everything you like about lounge music, and plenty of contemporary surprises, too. Don't waste money on some pointless Naugahyde-wrapped Cocktail Cool collection of songs bought for pennies at any decent Goodwill. That's as frivolous an expenditure as shoving quarters up someone's ass.

 
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