In these eco-conscious '90s, old newspapers and empty Jolt cans aren't the only things being recycled. Beyond blue bins and redemption centers — as if to cement our end-of-millennium pact with the ecological powers that be — we've taken to recycling the past itself, particularly when it comes to entertainment. Sometimes we put a new shine on old shit with a detached, ironic wink (e.g., the geeky pseudo-soul of Ween and the resurgence of all things Brady), and sometimes not (i.e., the straight-up punk regurgitation of Rancid). One thing's for sure, though; at mid-decade, as the bottom of the barrel comes into view with increas-ing clarity, our frenzied efforts to salvage and refurbish eras past have taken on bizarre twists.
Hence the Cocktail Nation, a schmaltz-encrusted musical netherworld that harks back to a more carefree, civilized time that probably never existed. A time when a man was a man, a dame was a dame, a drink was a drink and elegance meant something, dammit. Bedecked in sharkskin suits, martinis in hand, the denizens of the Cocktail Nation offer a challenge to the 18-35 demographic: Dare to be fabulous.
“Be a swinger if you dare,” coos Miss Lilly Banquette, the Combustible Edison chanteuse in that band's “Millionaire's Holiday,” urging us to “join the race of the young and exotic.”
Quoth the Coctails: Thanks, but no thanks.
Despite their name and their continued association with the Cocktail Nation in the press, the Coctails refuse to bear the tiki torch. Sure, the Chicago quartet runs a vinyl-only label called Hi-Ball and, yes, that is a marimba that surfaces occasionally in their more sprightly numbers. Never-theless, the combo represents the first rumblings of backlash within the lounge movement, the first wave of expatriates fleeing the Cocktail Nation.
“[The Cocktail Nation] is just something that Michael Cudahy cooked up to sell his band, Combustible Edison,” claims Mark Greenberg, bassist/drummer/marimbist/vocalist for the Coctails, whose lineup is a constantly revolving game of musical chairs, “and it worked. It was a great idea, that there's this kind of agreed underground going on. But in all the press that's happened in the last year, if you really think about all the bands that they're talking about, there's really very little that's alike between those bands. It's a real indie-rock kind of limited thinking: 'Out of the 30 bands that we know and listen to, these bands are similar in this way, so this must be some sort of crazy happening!'
“If you really sat down and discussed the music that's being put out by the bands that are being described as the 'Cocktail Nation,' though, I think the whole idea would be dropped. We were in things like Mademoiselle and USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, things like that, where the piece is so surface-y.”
Well, yes, but the media isn't entirely to blame for the Coctails' inclusion in the lounge scene. Being artsy types (formed at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1989, their first gig was providing background music for a print exhibit), they're predisposed to conceptual thinking, and early releases boast packaging that carves out a distinctive image. The cover of Here Now Today finds the boys sullen-faced, wearing skinny ties and blazers, looking for all the world like they just stepped out of London circa 1963, while Songs for Children's cover is a fair approxi-mation of early Ventures albums.
The Coctails' handmade line of merchandise further solidifies their retrocession; cloth dolls and boxes of “Coctail Popcorn,” all bearing cartoonish images of the band members. They might not spend all of their time hanging around the kitschin' sink, but the Coctails have clearly been to camp.
“There is a certain element of that,” Greenberg admits, “but it's also stuff that we grew up with, and really love. It's the Beatles, it's what Devo did, it's that kind of filling out the experience. We're not just doing stuff to get a chuckle. There's more to it; those dolls are actually handsewn, and the packaging is handprinted. A lot of that is missing when you buy a record nowadays. There's a lot of different things that are steering toward the un-handmade feel to things. When you buy something, you kind of want it to feel special and unique, and I hope there's something about that to the stuff we make.”
The Coctails' latest release, Peel (Carrot Top), displays these qualities even without the kitschy packaging. A straightforward collection of ragged, guitar-heavy, indie-rock numbers, Peel is a profoundly human record, intimate in its minimalism and close-to-the-bone ruminations. Divided almost equally between Barry Phipps' giddy pop tunes and Archer Prewitt's dolorous elegies to love gone wrong, the album offers a cover-to-cover exploration of the emotional spectrum.
Phipps, with his syrupy “Miss Maple” and buoyant “Postcard,” serves up the musical sugar rush in an innocent, Jonathan Richman-like timbre. Prewitt gives us the other side of the coin, drawling wearily through melancholy downers like “And You Could” and “Wicked Ways,” backed by John Upturch's willowy, mournful musical saw and plaintive harmonica. Some-where in between are numbers like the title track, a languorous waltz that occasionally breaks into teeth-grinding dissonance, and “Even Time,” the album's rollicking closer, which sounds both hopeful and despairing. Coupled with a back catalogue that includes 1993's horn-heavy, jazzy Long Sound and a collaborative EP with Caroliner's Dame Darcy, Peel proffers a glimpse of a band whose musical direction is guided, more than anything else, by whimsy.
“We're not just a band that unfolds the Coctail Revue and does it again like we did last year,” says Greenberg. “We're constantly shedding things and we're constantly adding new things. I don't think it would be satisfying to us if we didn't.”
Which hasn't completely helped the Coctails evade the lounge-band tag. Mercifully, the majority of their gigs have been in rock venues playing with groups like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Pavement; the occasional booking snafu in unknown territories, however, has led to some shows the band would rather forget.
“It happens sometimes,” Greenberg concedes, “when people are like, 'Oh, they have matching clothes and a vibraphone! Heck, I know some guy who sings Neil Diamond songs and wears crazy glasses!”
He pauses for a moment.
“That kind of stuff just never works out, because the stuff is just bad to begin with. You can't really put it with anything and have it end up being good.”
Coctails play Mon, Feb. 27, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.
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