In 1993, Sub Pop, then probably the coolest record label on the planet, sent their mailing list a Christmas card with a CD inside. I’m guessing that had this CD contained material by one of Sub Pop’s alt-rock signings, most obviously Nirvana, but Sebadoh or Afghan Whigs would do at a pinch, this CD would probably change hands nowadays for a lot more money than it actually does. As it is, less than ten dollars will secure you a copy, probably with the card itself attached too. It seems lounge revivalists Combustible Edison just aren’t that collectible…
Anyway, here are the two tracks featured on that CD. Well, they were given away for free in the first place, after all. Apparently, “Christmas Time Is Here” is a seasonal standard in the USA, but I’d never heard of it, and until I looked into the story of Combustible Edison last year, I’d assumed it was an original song. How wrong I was… Wikipedia lists a whole heap of other versions, noticeably all by North Americans. We just don’t have that song in the UK. I think the Charlie Brown christmas special which introduced it in 1965, may have been shown here at nine in the morning once in 1991.
Anyway, “Christmas Time Is Here” is the less interesting of the two tracks. Much better is their inventive arrangement of “Sleigh Ride”. We in the UK do know “Sleigh Ride”, mainly through the Ronettes version, but Combustible Edison’s version is a pleasing contrast to Phil Spector‘s wall of sound. A surprisingly minimal arrangement (no strings or brass in this version) and seemingly delivered with a determination not to maintain the same combination of instruments for more than eight bars in a row, it fairly breezes along and even survives the uncharacteristic cheesiness of the brief vocal interjections (“Giddy up!”). Delightful.
I think it’s safe to say that the lounge revival was one of the lesser musical trends of the mid 1990s, but while it lasted, Sub Pop-signed Rhode Island quintet Combustible Edison were probably its coolest hepcats. According to Wikipedia, “unlike other bands with a more ironic take on the lounge scene, Combustible Edison took the music seriously and strove to add to what its members saw as a canon of works such as those by Esquivel, Henry Mancini, and Martin Denny”. If they were ever trying to be funny, it was funny peculiar, not funny ha ha.
The group had its roots in the band Christmas, founded in 1986 by Michael Cudahy (vocals / guitar) and Liz Cox (vocals / drums). At various points the band also included keyboard player Peter Dixon and Michael’s brother, bassist Nick Cudahy. I’m not very familiar with the earlier group, but I like what little I have heard – very art-school new wave stuff. In 1991 Michael Cudahy wrote a stage show for which he assembled a 14-piece lounge band, The Combustible Edison Heliotropic Oriental Mambo and Foxtrot Orchestra, which included Liz, Nick, Peter, and percussionist Aaron Oppenheimer, and out of that came the five-piece Combustible Edison, who released a debut single in 1993 (the same year the last Christmas album, Vortex, came out) and kept going from there, issuing the albums I, Swinger (1994), Schizophonic! (1996) and – with some line-up changes – The Impossible World (1998), before officially announcing their split in 2001. Although it includes a couple of recycled I, Swinger tracks and a couple of pieces by other artists, the Four Rooms soundtrack (1995) is effectively an unofficial Combustible Edison album too, and by all accounts was much better received than the movie itself.
I always liked the idea of Combustible Edison more than I liked the actual records. At the time I was into other bands with 60s lounge and exotica influences, like Stereolab and The High Llamas (Mars Audiac Quintet, Gideon Gaye and I, Swinger all came out about the same time), so Combustible Edison would have seemed a natural inclusion in my record collection, but although I bought the albums, they never got played much. Eventually the CDs got put in a drawer and stayed there. The drawer moved house with me; the CDs were undisturbed. I have played them since, but they didn’t really grab me… except for this one.
In 1996, two German-only singles were issued to promote Combustible Edison’s second album Schizophonic!. I don’t know whether that indicates that Combustible Edison were particularly popular in Germany, or just that someone thought that with the right push, they could be. Given that there were no singles from their next album, I’m guessing the latter. Anyhow, alongside the original LP version, the “Bluebeard” single featured an international line-up of remixers: German exotica composer Peter Thomas, Britain’s Saint Etienne, and Fantastic Plastic Machine from Japan. It’s the last of these who provides my preferred interpretation, ramping up the 60s vibe and making it sound like the theme for an imaginary ITC adventure series.
For completeness, here are the other four tracks from the single. The last one isn’t actually mentioned anywhere on the CD or packaging, but the mix title is given on the corresponding 12″ issue.
Link: Combustible Edison – Bluebeard (album version)
Link: Combustible Edison – Bluebeard (Space Patrol 2000 Mix by Peter Thomas Soundorchester)
Link: Combustible Edison – Bluebeard (Buddy Mikro Mix by Saint Etienne)
Link: Combustible Edison – Bluebeard (Instrumental Space Patrol 2000 Mix)
And a little something to drink? Here’s the recipe for the Combustible Edison cocktail, as given on the back of their first album, I, Swinger:
- 2 oz Brandy
- 1 oz Campari
- 1 oz fresh lemon juice
In a shaker full of cracked ice, combine Campari and lemon juice. Shake and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in a chafing dish. When warm, ignite the brandy and pour in a flaming stream into the cocktail glass. If the brandy is chilled and shaken rather than ignited, the drink is known as “The Edisonian”.