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Most people know the Eighteenth Street Lounge as the home of the contemporary, three-button-suit dub of Thievery Corporation (“Beats Working,” 3/5/99). But ESL the label is also in the business of taste-making, bringing us the best of in-flight entertainment. ESL keeps its ear as internationally attuned as Thievery’s: The band’s appearance on a recent Wallpaper magazine compilation CD cemented the idea that its music serves folks looking for a retro-futuristic sonic backdrop to enliven the Stockholm or London apartments they’ve outfitted in Eero Saarinen and Eames knockoffs. And ESL honcho Eric Hilton keeps one designer slip-on firmly planted in the past as he turns the label into a quick reference guide to global style, subtly answering the question the London-based design and lifestyle mag answers 7,000 times a month: Where next?

Having proved his fluency in spy jazz, Hilton is now pointing us toward a colorfully appointed room in the stylish Euro-modern past—the days of Ursula Andress and Brigitte Bardot. Give ’em a spin and admit it: Hilton & Co. have plucked a lot of gems to fill up ESL’s new compilations, Easy Tempo and Jet Society.

The Easy Tempo and Right Tempo labels of Italy made their names compiling film soundtracks from Italian films of the ’60s and early ’70s. Hilton noticed that the collections were hard to track down, but he wound up finding the first volume of Easy Tempo’s output at the Tower Records store here in D.C. After ESL operatives Rob Garza and Farid Ali met Rocco Pandiani of Easy Tempo in Italy, they cut a deal to get the catalog out in the States. Hilton explains that, although he and his boys are big fans of Pandiani’s series of reissues, they didn’t like every track on the Italian compilations. ESL’s Easy Tempo, he says, “is an informal ‘best-of’ for us.” The CD features composers who are household names in Italy, such as Piero Piccioni, who is “almost like the Henry Mancini of Italy,” says Hilton. ESL also included B-movie and cop-show composer Armando Trovajoli, plus Stefano Torossi, who is “big in the crime genre,” too. “It sounds a little like background from Starsky and Hutch, but they somehow dress ’em up a little bit, make ’em a little less down-and-dirty and a bit more elegant,” explains Hilton.

Sonically, the Italian collections are like the popular and infinitely listenable Vampiros Lesbos, a Crippled Dick Hot Wax/Motel Records disc that gathers the creme of Spanish B-filmmaker Jess Franco’s best cult-film soundtrack work. Easy Tempo is a smoother, less kitschy set of tunes (with the exception of Trovajoli’s “Sessomatto,” which features giggling, groaning continental babes). Hilton digs the Lesbos compilation as well but calls it “loud” compared with Easy Tempo.

The Crippled Dick label has also issued its own compilation of Italian cinematic music, Beat at Cinecitta. But ESL’s Easy Tempo is better suited to a suave night on the town—perhaps with a car chase, an encounter with a mysterious, leggy, mod vixen, and several martinis. It’s not the acid-soaked sex-freak show that Lesbos conjures. One of the Italian compilations has been described as “Blue Note-tinged crime meets porn jazz on a piazza in Rome”; that just about describes the American one, too, except that the music is more suave.

ESL’s Easy Tempo collects so many stellar, Euro-mod themes that it’s hard to choose which one I want to announce my arrival when I get off the 707 in Rome or Reykjavik, but I guess I’d be content to make Giancarlo Barigozzi’s brassy, vibrant “Airport Rock” my theme. The Green Future’s upbeat “Honey Rhythm and Butler” cribs from soul and layers on essential flute jams. There is even lead vocal on Trovajoli’s “Decisione,” which makes it stand out in a genre that often prefers spacey oohing and ahhing. Easy Tempo gives you a great excuse for getting your grooviest friends together and making a scene. You’ll soon forget those ubiquitous late-’90s tiki-lounge collections.

While they’ve been unearthing soundtracks, the ESL crew has come up with an imaginary one as well: Jet Society, a compilation that “starts and ends with older music and has contemporary productions in between,” as Hilton describes it. It’s part of an ESL series intended to represent different evenings of music at the Eighteenth Street Lounge. Jet Society concentrates on bossa nova and its cousins. It opens with a gorgeous, jazzed-up fado from Portugal, “Lisboa a Noite,” performed by Teresa. Italian DJ and producer Nicola Conte—who has a full-length record slated for ESL—offers “Bossa per Due.” ESL pulls off the concept behind Jet Society so well that the lounge management had better watch out—it’s an economical alternative to a night out.

Putting together these compilations was not easy. Hilton says it generally takes about two months to license the tracks for a project like Jet Society—but not for a lack of enthusiasm; he says that the people who hold the rights to the music are quite interested in helping such compilations along. And, despite all the legwork involved, the ESL gang is planning the next one, which, Hilton says, will have “a Jamaican, rootsy feel.”—John Dugan