At 10:30 my friend finally shows up and orders a black Russian. He sneers at the Emerald. It’s a nice enough little bar, equal parts émigré bartenders, plastic gingham tablecloths, and a Bon Jovi-only jukebox.
“These guys are fantastic,” I cry, pointing to the back of the barroom. The live act is bedizened in white tuxedos. At the keyboards is the shaggy, Charles Nelson Riley-esque Ricky Ritzel, and accompanying him on vocals, a brash cymbal, and some other drums is Aaron “Hot Rod” Morishita, who strikingly resembles a young Yoshiro Mori, braided ponytail and all.
“Oh, yes. The Lounge-O-Leers. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of them,” he laughs. “Aren’t you sick of this stuff by now, all of this ‘Oh, ha, ha, kitsch, yoom, bernab, loo, loo, loo’?! ”
The kitschy pop duo is indeed one of the most tedious hazards in modern New York City music: all of those empty and unfunny references to slightly celebrated, forgotten jazz ages; the evasion of any clear statement, even a happy-go-lucky one, in favor of infallible coyness; all that bullcrap.
And yet what the Lounge-O-Leers offer is different; they aren’t pretending to be anything but a couple of weird guys playing weird music. Their tunes provoke a cocked head and a grin, but the covers aren’t just funny. They’re actually good.
They rework extremely familiar songs to sound unsettlingly fresh, such as “Mrs. Robinson,” laden with artificial vibraphone and Zooma zooma zoom‘s (or Zoom zoom zooma‘s, I can’t read my notes) from Hot Rod.
Or try the inevitable barroom dose of “Love Shack.” I thought it would take an utter torturing of that song to keep me from puking. These guys brutalized it with a rumba beat and left me grinning. The same is true of the strongest songs in the set—songs that seem to have been created to annoy. “Flagpolesitta!,” “Walking on the Sun,” “Smooth,” and “Thong Song,” just to name a few, are covered to the edge of intelligibility. “Karma Chameleon” resounds with greasy electro keyboards. “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” lives and breathes like the Word of God. The Lounge-O-Leers rephrase boring songs into bizarre classics.
The most depressing and yet wonderful thing about the group is the seemingly endless list of songs—not to mention scores of commercial jingles and television theme songs—numbing the nation that they can recombine and revive.
“Do you guys know New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’?” I ask after thumbing their black binder of songs in search of my favorite secret pleasure. It took me a minute of intense, self-conscious reflection to ask.
Hot Rod grins and takes out a pen to write it down. “No, but that’s a great idea. We would have a good time with that one!”