Essential Albums of the 80s and 90s: Combustible Edison- I, Swinger

Combustible Edison – I, Swinger

Year of Release:  1994

Essential Tracks:

  • Cadillac
  • The Millionaire’s Holiday
  • Breakfast at Denny’s
  • Cry A River
  • Spy Vs. Spy

Quick!  What do alt-rock and punk bands have in common with easy listening and lounge music acts?  Give up?  The answer is simple: Sub-Pop Records signed them!  That’s right.  The record label that brought us Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, and was known for all sorts of heavy-hitting acts is also responsible for bring us a key player in the short-lived swing resurgence that happened in the 90s.

Yeah, that was a thing and the group in question here is Combustible Edison.

Combustible Edison, also known as The Combustible Edison Heliotropic Oriental Mambo and Foxtrot Orchestra, was started by former members of a Providence, RI rock band called “Christmas” as founders of the band, The Millionaire (Michael Cudahy) and Miss Lily Banquette (Liz Cox) attempted to piece together a fourteen-piece orchestra for a show that The Millionaire had written called “The Tiki Wonder Hour.” The orchestra evolved and morphed into the five-member group which was signed by Sub Pop!

After an EP and single release, they officially released a debut album entitled I, Swinger in 1994.

While the album came out in the 90s during the (mostly ironic) swing revival, the album and music could fit in during the Big Band era of the 20s, 30s and 40s!

I, Swinger opens with “Cadillac” which opens with a swinging and bouncing drum beat and upright bass.  This is kind of a Big Band, ballroom style that could easily be the intro to a song by Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman (look them up, kids!) The song continues with a call-and-answer melody repeated by vibraphone, harpsichord and organ mixed with The Millionaire’s funky rock n’ roll guitar style. This culminates with a boogie-woogie piano riff and comes grinding to a halt after all of this repeats itself. It’s hard to believe that this was all done and composed by a five person group!

The second track on the album is arguably the most famous track by the band (and is, in fact the first song of theirs I heard in 1994).  “The Millionaire’s Holiday” starts with some soft drum play and guitar styling that could easily be mistaken for Dick Dale (again, look him up) with some floating organ over top. This is the track where we are introduced to the beautiful vocal styling of Miss Lily. It’s a two minute song with somewhat nonsensical lyrics that seem to point irony at the fact that this is swing music (“If your pad is a wax museum, be a swinger if you dare”) and Lily’s old-timey blues lady voice is almost and instrument in and of itself. Why is this song so pivotal in the history of Combustible Edison? One word: Commercials. This song was used in ads for everything from soda to cars to video games. It was also used in the soundtrack for “Four Rooms” which the band did as well.

This is immediately followed by a track that almost doesn’t fit the album.  That is not a bad thing by any means and the track is one of the best on the record. “Breakfast at Denny’s” almost sounds eerie with it’s slower pace, floating vibraphone sounds, sparse bassline, wood block percussion sounds and floating guitar. Throw in the “aaah’s” of Miss Lily and the deeper male voices of the group and the somewhat middle eastern sounding guitar melodies in the middle of the track and this could easily be turned into an entire movie soundtrack. In fact, this one was also in Four Rooms.

Four Rooms - A Comedy Compliments Of The House

“Intermission” is next.  The track literally sounds like one that would be used in an old movie theater during an intermission. I wish I could say something special about this one but, while it’s good, it doesn’t stand out. What does stand out, however, is yet another number with Lily’s vocals.

“Cry Me A River” sounds like a song that could have been a standard in Billie Holiday’s repertoire and that pretty much explains it.  It’s a bluesy, break up song. Lily’s voice is decidedly as sexy as could possibly be on this track as she sings “Cry me a river. Cry me a river. I’ll cry a river over you…”

“Impact” is next which sounds like a crazy abstract jazz piece that could have been done by Miles Davis during his “Bitches Brew” sessions.  It almost has an impromptu jam feel to it that would make any jam band (e.g. Phish or The Grateful Dead) fan happy as well and this transitions nicely into “Guadalupe” and it’s tango feeling and more of Miss Lily’s sweeping voice and a faint hint of The Millionaire’s surfer rock electric guitar.

The remainder of the album just seems to find the group having a good time and embracing the fact that they are a swing band through and through. There are goofy melodies and repeated themes from the beginning of the album (“Carnival of Souls.”) The Millionaire’s guitar style further shows itself with some more tango rhythms and some more showcasing of the group’s keyboard sections (“Veldt.”) Miss Lily even delves into foreign language lyrics (German in “Surabaya Johnny.”)

Two track bring round out the album perfectly.   While Combustible Edison did the soundtrack for Four Rooms after this album, they certainly put forth the images and style that they were meant to do scores for old spy movies and this is the whole idea of “Spy Vs. Spy.” The title itself conveys the sense of a spy flick and the strong backbone of percussion and keyboards are augmented by some more of that guitar sound! Then it all changes up to a fast paced jazz piece done on a harpsichord and back to guitars again.

Out of breath from that last one?  Well there is one more. Since the group came from the orchestra used in “The Tiki Wonder Hour,” would the album be complete without the theme from that production? Here it is. Very light and soothing. A nice way to close the album.

Jazz and lounge, Swing, Ironic, Hipster music, etc.  Whatever this is called now, Combustible Edison fits the bill and made quite a career out of it. There were more albums where this came from, but I feel this is the essential one! Sub Pop made a great decision signing these guys along with their already heavy-hitting lineup of Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana, etc. And while the swing revival may have died at the turn of the century, the music itself never will, so go ahead and embrace it. Listen to this album, sit and chill with your martini (“A glass and a shaker. Our host is a real scene maker”- The Millionaire’s Holiday) and enjoy the stylings of The Millionaire (guitar), Miss Lily (vocals and bongos), Nick Cudahy (bass), Mr. Peter Dixon (organ), Aaron Oppenheimer (percussion) and special guests Brother Cleve and Michael “Laughing Boy” Connors: The Combustible Edison Heliotropic Oriental Mambo and Foxtrot Orchestra!

 

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