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Conversations With The Silhouettes
A lost psychedelic lounge classic from Pittsburgh
So who exactly were the Silhouettes? Good question. They certainly weren't the Silhouettes, the Philly doo-wop group who scored a major hit with their 1958 song "Get a Job." Having gotten a copy of this album with no information at all about who made it, I assumed—incorrectly, it turned out—that it was another record made by a bunch of session musicians who had nothing better to do one weekend and thought it'd be a good way to make a quick buck. But no, these Silhouettes were three high school friends in Pittsburgh circa the early 1950s: George Bacasa, Ronnie Thomas, and Al Secen. The three lads formed a polka trio during their senior year of high school. Later, they ended up playing together as part of the Air Force Band (between the US and Britain, a lot of musicians came through the Air Force), where they honed their skills and made the switch from polka to jazz.
They were stationed at Cape Canaveral, getting direct exposure to the burgeoning space race and the sort of music that would evolve around it. Bacasa excelled at the flute, Secen took up the vibraphone, and Thomas played bass. They gigged around their native Pittsburgh, fleshing out their sound with drummer Lenny Rogers and vocalist Cathy Martin. By the time the line-up was complete, they'd eased into the sort of breezy cocktail lounge sound that typified a lot of outfits in the late 1950s and throughout the '60s. As the decade progressed, elements of California sunshine and psychedelic pop crept into their style, which is recorded for posterity in their 1971 release, Conversations With The Silhouettes, produced by Pittsburgh jazz saxophonist Nathan Davis, with whom Bacasa played on a couple of albums.
If you've heard the more modern-day lounge act Martini Kings, you'll have an idea of what the Silhouettes were up to, only with more wah-wah guitar. Kick things off with vibraphone and wordless female "du du du du" vocals, and you pretty much guarantee that I'm on board. Which is what Conversations With The Silhouettes does and what I am. Throw in a little jazz flute, and you really got me. The Silhouettes nail the sound I'd describe as "convertible MG roadster music." Light and breezy, with a touch of bossa nova and a splash of psychedelia, the perfect soundtrack for a sunny day drive along the Amalfi Coast circa the 1960s. A bit of the past, a bit of the present (well, the present of 1971). And it's absolutely fantastic.
One of the things that sets this release above others is that the majority of the songs are originals. The album opens with a peppy, loungy number called "Young Blood," which I really dig and which delivers all of the aforementioned flutes, vibraphone, and vocals. Following it is "Time To Fall In Love," which has a very hippie-ish Brit girl beat. Of course, every band from this era working with this sound was required by international law to cover a Beatles song, so the Silhouettes did. However, they eschew the usual suspects and turn in a really great version of "Norwegian Wood." It's one of my favorite Beatles songs, and usually, Beatles covers just don't work out. But this one's great, with kind of a psychedelic fairytale feel to it. "Sally's Tomato" is a solid Mancini cover from Breakfast at Tiffany's, and there's also a cover of Michel Legrand's "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life," with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, written for the 1969 film The Happy Ending.
Other than those few, though, everything else is an original composition by either Secen or Becasa, and they really had some talent for writing catchy cocktail pop. Cathy Martin's vocals could be Carnaby Street or Rio, playing alongside Astrud Gilberto when the Silhouettes go more bossa nova. "Question: Why?" in particular boasts that vibe. I would have loved to hear Martin take on The Associations’ “Windy” the way Gilberto did. A shame this is the only release I can find featuring her; she’s spectacular.
"Fonky Forest," on the other hand, leans heavily into the emerging jazz-funk sound of the era, with staccato drums a la the theme from Shaft, fuzzy guitars, and of course, Bacasa's groovy flute and Secen's dreamy vibraphone. There's also a wailing sax, apparently also courtesy of Bacasa. A cat named Willy Smith brings his congas over to the pad for "Hashi Baba," a moody slice of sultry, druggy exotica that stands with the best songs in the genre. Smith sticks around, I assume sitting on the floor of a sunken living room next to a lava lamp, for the album's final track, "Lunar Invasion," which actually has more of a jungle exotica groove than anything from the space-age pop genre the title would imply. The song sounds less like a lunar invasion and more like a lithesome temple priestess seducing the hero with a provocative dance. Or it's just good music for a straight-up swingers' orgy. Take your pick.
In reviewing a number of these fairly obscure old lounge and jazz albums, I've frequently written: "pleasant enough but not a lost classic or anything." Well, Conversations With The Silhouettes kind of is a lost classic. It's got a swinging groove that would have been right at home in one of Jess Franco's nightclub scenes. Alas, it wasn't to be for the Silhouettes. While they worked regularly on the Pittsburgh nightclub circuit, they never hit the big time. Too '60s retro for the '70s crowd, too '70s funky for the '60s hipsters—but just right for me. Unfortunately, the album is long out of print and there's been no reissue (yet). Luckily, you can find it on Youtube, and even better the whole album is available on Spotify. For fans of lounge music, cocktail jazz fusion, exotica, and pop that occupies a dreamy space between psychedelia and easy listening, Conversations With The Silhouettes is an absolute gem waiting to be rediscovered.
Pittsburgh's Silhouettes, Old Mon Music