'Tuned In' review: Vermouth pours it on with potent exotica brew

Vermouth's 'Retrofuture Pop Exotica'

Vermouth's "Retrofuture Pop Exotica"

“RetroFuture Pop Exotica,” Vermouth (Vermouth)

Vermouth doesn’t quite blend the right ingredients in the right amounts on “RetroFuture Pop Exotica,” set for release Jan. 22, but the ambitious Los Angeles-based seven-piece band keeps it tasty.

The group’s name and the album’s title spell out much of what the band mixes — cocktail music steeped in exotica and spiked with pop — though Vermouth also includes a generous splash of Balinese gamelan (which complements exotica on some level) and dashes of a variety of other “ultra lounge” flavors. And although exotica and gamelan music don’t generally emphasize vocalists, Vermouth has a distinct voice in Justine Kragen.

“RetroFuture Pop Exotica” is playfully endearing and unusual. The band probably would have been better off doing a straight-up exotica album with beginning-to-end continuity (the group is particularly deft with that genre), but that wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Besides, the zingers and surprises — often led by the cabaret-like presence of Kragen — separate Vermouth from other bands. She’s the coy mouthpiece on the vibe-resonant, stealthy introduction track, “Velvet Circus.” She spearheads the sharp hook in a “My House” wrapped in hypnotic rhythm (“Won’t you come to my house tonight?”), and she’s critical to the lulling invitation of the escapist fantasy “Costa Rica” (“We’ll travel through the jungle and try to stay alive”).

Meanwhile, the industrious Vermouth swirls around, sounding like an exotica-punk version of the Ting-Tings on “Go Go Dancer” and evolving the critters-and-vibraphone exotica opening of “Gretchen the Iguana” into something akin to Gothic psychedelia. Also, Steven McDonald’s Bond guitar adds mystery to “Tidy,” and his surf guitar contributes to a genre-smearing fog on “Blue Sky” that meshes jazz, country and shoe-gazer alt-rock.

It’s a little disjointed, yet it mostly works, despite stretches where the band seems stuck in neutral or just killing time. And late on the album, Vermouth breaks too far from form on a few ill-fitting, goofy/dull songs that make it seem as if they needed a good lie down.

Apparently they got one, because closer “Sea Anemone” is an inspired, child-like sing-along: “You look so pretty, but you pack a sting.”

At worst, Vermouth is guilty of overreaching.

That sure beats not trying hard enough.

Rating (five possible): 3-1/2

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