CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The setting -- a converted bowling alley -- was way too vast. The sound was muddy. And the audience was too dang noisy.
Still, Combustible Edison thrived.
In spite of it all, the suave, neo-easy-listening act succeeded in transforming the Middle East Club into a kitschy, new-millennium cocktail lounge last Friday night, using potent doses of its trademark sci-fi, B-flick and finger-snapping retro-swing sonics.
Craig Portalla, 30, of Boston, who came with a friend, was shocked. " 'Is this a joke?' I was thinking, but then I really got into it," Portalla said. "I'm definitely picking up their CD."
There was reason for questioning the band's seriousness. After all, this may be the only act with a frontwoman dressed in a satiny, formal evening gown while playing a mouth organ.
But, given the musical context, the image made plenty of sense.
Tellingly, the title of Combustible Edison's upcoming album is The Impossible World.
Beginning with the sweet, light ambience of "Song of the Space Call," from Impossible World, the band brought to mind film composers such as Henry Mancini ("The Pink Panther") and Nino Rota (Federico Fellini's films).
Breaking into the new disc's "20th Century," the ever-jesting Millionaire yelled, "Open bar for the next millennium, folks!" as MIDI keyboardist Brother Cleve seemed to levitate the band with a series of eerie, melodic figures.
The impossible world that CE create is one of faux lounge-lizardry, reworked B-movie themes and all manner of re-fabricated '50s and '60s kitsch-cultural effluvium. It's the conception they chose when seeking a way out of the commercial dead-end they'd found themselves in back when they were called Christmas.
Yet the jokier aspects of the band are anchored in solidly professional showmanship, as the group proved conclusively at Friday night's show.
In the evening's two sets, the band drew from its upcoming album and from its previous discs, I, Swinger (1994) and Schizophonic (1996).
The song "Satan Says" was a hipster's dream, with its lazy congas and sultry whistling. In contrast, "Carnival of Souls" conjured a clown-loony audioscape, replete with circus-organ accompaniment. The voodooey "Mas Suprosa" upped the dance ante, building on raga-like spy-movie guitar phrasings. "Shot in the Dark" sounded, appropriately enough, like "Pink Panther" material.
Frontwoman Lillith Banquette (a.k.a. Liz Cox), meanwhile, showed that she can shift from her multi-octave vocals to drums, xylophone and other percussion without missing a beat.
Bald guitarist the Millionaire (a.k.a. Michael Cudahy), sporting horn-rimmed glasses and rocking his guitar side to side ominously, delivered the required range of crap-cultural guitar styles, from curling spy-fi licks to angular TV-theme hooks.
Stand-up bassist Nicholas Cudahy and drummer Michael Connors concocted solid but varied sets of rhythm -- at times straightforward and propulsive, at others odd, moody and offbeat.
Opening the second set, the band dressed the new LP's "Dior" in glitz. Heavily reverbed guitar permeated "The Veldt." The follow-up, "Cat o' 9 Tails," showcased psychedelic-sounding keyboards.
CE jumpstarted the crowd with the twisting "Vertigo-go" and
"Short Double Latte" (RealAudio excerpt), which sported a freaky xylophone solo. An outer-space anecdote by the Millionaire led into
"Solid State" (RealAudio excerpt), which gave way to "Millionaire's Holiday," a quirky ditty delving into creepy music styled after the '60s comedy television series "The Munsters."
Although this audience only half-begged for an encore, CE delivered some rich desserts -- a wild, conga-driven and guitar-charged rendition of "Hellraiser" and a Vegas-style revamping of the schlock ballad "Cry Me a River."
"They're really slick and cocky," said Karen Bopp, 21, of Boston, who claimed that she was introduced to "retro" music via Combustible Edison's works. "I like them a lot," she said. "But I'm surprised more people aren't dancing."