Juan Garcia Esquivel - Esquivel!
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I’ll call hair of the dog, on my knees, and with rosary beads wrapped around my drinking hand. Such an odd place to be when listening to a supposedly “easy listening” record, but 15 martinis on an empty stomach can still sing after a decade.
As a teenager, I understood and appreciated the irony of the 90’s “Cocktail Nation” aesthetic—or believed I somewhat did. I thought that enjoying the uncool was pure iconoclasm for my adolescent self; it offended all of the rebels I knew and baffled the preppies I loathed. And I repeatedly played the 1994 Juan Garcia Esquivel collection, Esquivel!, a favorite of the cocktail revival, to fulfill that aesthetic. I recall spending half of my Christmas Eve 1995 staring at the Christmas lights strewn in my bedroom while listening to the organist welcoming trust funded scions in cardigans at a country club in the tune “Surfboard.” Images of Ren and Stimpy episodes and other icons of 50’s suburban American culture—all distorted through kitsch—filled my head. There was something undeniably psychedelic in the sound. The way that the flutes floated between the stereo channels by the end of “Latin-esque” was bulletproof from any irony-chic appeal.
Then again, it was mostly irony, and irony wears out fast. And so on: a cigar bar opened near a local Borders Books and More, there stood a giant, plastic martini glass display selling Rhino’s Ultra Lounge reissues in a Sacramento record shop, aspiring movers and shakers who go nowhere in Hollywood but end up heroes in Swingers. Theories abound about why the revival happened, some say that the attraction to the supposedly plastic and complacent was fallout from Cobain’s death that seemed like a breaking point for cynicism translated in rock ‘n’ roll, or it could be a cultural white flight from hip-hop and gangsta rap’s increasing dominance of the pop charts. Whatever the reason, the fad lasted for about a year, or until The Gap told everyone that swing was in.
A few years later, I played a song from Esquivel CD for a jazz improv class in college and stared at the carpet—a few classmates smiled and chuckled at the “cartoon music” they heard. I didn’t play Space-Age again for seven years. It reminds me of that famous scene in Repo Man when Emilio Estevez walked into a club and saw the Circle Jerks playing an easy listening version of “When the Shit Hits the Fan” while dressed in velvet. “I can't believe I used to like these guys,” he said. That scene belonged to a punk tradition of sorts: lounge music exploited as a punch-line to shock. Throbbing Gristle interrupted their industrial din to sleep in Denny’s Quiet Village, the Dead Kennedys mockingly celebrated Reagan’s inauguration with a lounge-jazz happy hour and the novelty “loungecore” band Black Velvet Flag performing a smoothed-out version of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.”
In looking back a decade, it’s a shame that Esquivel was mistreated by the hepcats, because he was a brilliant composer. The Mexico City artist was considered the “king of space-age pop” and I still agree. His music embodied the can-do American optimism of the late 50’s and early 60’s era, where it seemed only a decade would pass before cities were built on the moon. Esquivel’s niche was to create pop music to help show off new hi-fis, including melodies zig-zagging between the stereo channels or call-and-response horns in the left channel blurting in sync with the piano in the right channel.
On Esquivel! (compiled by novelty record king DJ Irwin Chusid of New York’s WFMU), what is heard is a Latin big band orbiting the earth. However, little makes for “easy” listening, the music is nearly too abstract and 45-degree angled to quality as pop. The vocals are typically nothing more than action balloons from a comic book (i.e. “Pow!” “Zu-zu-zu”). There is the feel-good ending credits tune “Bye Bye Blues,” where brass and “pows” suddenly stab a light, guitar-and-bell melody. “Whatchamacallit” sounds like Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling clashing with Spike Jones, beginning with a randy melody played on the bassoon-like Ondioline keyboard. “Surfboard” is one of the eeriest songs I’ve heard; the elevator muzak drifts into a haze clouded by a woman’s jazz scat which oddly evokes the feeling of rolling off a couch in drunken stupor. However, the corn remains. “Mucha Muchacha” is whitebread Latin pop that features a Spanish lesson for when gents wanna fool ladies into believing they are “Latin lovers.” And then there is the meldodrama of “Harlem Nocturne,” schlock best suited for Ed Wood or John Waters flicks, or “Lazy Bones,” a country & western tune that would embarrass your grandchildren.
After hearing Esquivel’s music again for the first time in years, I nearly forgot the 90’s lounge revival. While most of the music is explicitly dated, it’s still entertaining for its oddness and ability to shake out a few chuckles every now and then. I’m angry at myself for having to use ironic appreciation as a protocol for enjoying the music—the more I listen to Esquivel!, the less I can forgive myself.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-04-11