Music Article

Grunge on the Rocks

Young clubsters are forsaking feedback for sophisticated retro-swing

The Millionaire has news for James Bond: A good martini should be stirred, not shaken. ''I mean, 007 may have a license to kill, but his license to mix drinks should be revoked,'' the Millionaire sniffs. ''I will not drink a shaken martini. It bruises the gin.'' It's Saturday evening, and the ironically self-dubbed guitarist from lounge act Combustible Edison drops this helpful hint while sipping a sidecar in a Madison Avenue bar. Dandied up in a single-breasted aquamarine suit with a silk pocket square and a purple paisley tie, he seems well-steeped in sophistication — which makes it that much more of a shock to learn that only four years ago, the Millionaire was Michael Cudahy, a ''pissed-off Boston punk rocker'' who favored engineer boots and a scruffy leather jacket.

For Cudahy and many other refugees from the rock & roll underground, the grunge days are over. Bands like Edison, the Coctails, Donkey, and Love Jones are forsaking the world of flannel and feedback for satin and swing. Call it lounge music's second coming, or call it an act of desperate boredom, but all at once, groups from Atlanta to Los Angeles are mounting a return to those heady, Rat Pack days when the drinks were stiff, the steaks were thick, and pinkie rings glittered in the spotlight. ''It's the Cocktail Revolution,'' says the Millionaire, who broke up his alternative folk-rock band Christmas when he heard the call of the mild.

While the Millionaire has yet to become a millionaire, he has tapped into a rich, 80-proof vein: Things that used to be impossibly cheesy (remember Bill Murray's Saturday Night Live routine?) have somehow taken on a certain chic. Tony Bennett is the darling of the slacker set, twentysomethings are stirring their swizzle sticks in smoky watering holes (L.A.'s Dresden Room and the Derby; New York's Fez), and a few neo-lounge acts have converted the anti-Lollapalooza backlash into record deals: Love Jones with Zoo Entertainment, Donkey with Steam Records, and Combustible Edison with Sub Pop — the label that spawned Nirvana and Mudhoney. ''It's more than just the music,'' says Dawn Sutter, 24, who keeps an eye on alternative rock for College Music Journal. ''It's a lifestyle.'' Nils Bernstein of Sub Pop agrees: ''People are sick of rock clubs and ripped jeans and another bunch of a--holes thrashing for two hours. They want elegance.''

Lest you think Generation X is just flexing its irony once again, cocktail revolutionaries are quick to stress that the boom is more than kitsch. ''It horrifies me when people think we're lampooning it,'' says Edison's ''femme thrush,'' Miss Lily Banquette. ''This is something I really love.'' Insists bongo player Ben Daughtrey of Love Jones, a band known for its matching red 100- percent-polyester uniforms, ''We don't want to be the Sha Na Na of the '90s.''

In fact, for many of these bands, the sound — equal parts samba, swing, vintage pop, Louis Prima, Sammy Davis Jr., and Muzak — is a 180-degree reaction to rock itself. ''At its best, rock is crude, simple, and stupid,'' says the Millionaire. ''We wanted to do something that has a spectrum, many different complex combinations — just like a cocktail.'' Adds Love Jones' Jonathan Palmer: ''It's time for musicians to chart territories other than those already charted by Black Sabbath.'' That means vibes, horns, and congas — not to mention a little old-fashioned showmanship, swank threads, and steady stage patter. Daughtrey, a veteran of Squirrel Bait and the Lemonheads, calls it ''a return to nightclub entertainment and having fun, instead of just going out staring at the floor and wallowing in your problems.''

A distaste for grunge hasn't stopped the loungers from teaming up with the more debonair wing of alternative rock. The Millionaire has sat in as a sidekick guitarist with Urge Overkill, and Love Jones recently played a few dates with the Afghan Whigs. ''We're a lounge act on the outside, but it's got a punk-rock soul,'' says Palmer. Even so, the lounge lizards rely on just the kind of cheesy marketing gimmicks that indie rockers deplore, such as Love Jones matchbooks or stuffed Coctails dolls. With that in mind, some wonder whether this new high life can get past the novelty stage. ''I don't know if the Cocktail Nation is going to sweep college airwaves,'' CMJ's Sutter says. ''It'll find a niche, but I don't know how huge that niche will be.'' For his part, the Millionaire isn't worried. ''We've decided that the kingdom of Vegas is within,'' he says. ''You don't have to be a millionaire, just think like one.''

Originally posted Mar 18, 1994 Published in issue #214 Mar 18, 1994 Order article reprints
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