One could debate for hours whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is responsible for the proliferation of big-budget, ultra-violent movies, but there's no argument that he almost single-handedly resurrected the cigar from the dead, simply by sporting a stogie in nearly every public appearance.
Everywhere you look these days, from upscale clubs to private bashes, men and women are lighting up. Whatever little else they may have in common, Toni Braxton, Suge Knight, Demi Moore and Rush Limbaugh are among the scores of entertainment figures who have conspicuously enjoyed an expensive import.
To cash in on this trend, Hip-O Records has released a collection to provide musical fire to go with all the smoke: "Cigar Classics: Volumes 1-4."
So just what constitutes a cigar classic?
It's hard to tell from the music on the various discs.
It can be anything from Dooley Wilson crooning "As Time Goes By" in a smoky nightclub, as he did in "Casablanca," to Rose Royce singing their popular "Car Wash" in the '70s movie of the same name. Smoking itself apparently has less to do with it than songs that strike a definitive mood.
This range explains why these 56 songs spanning 70 years have been divided into four categories, designated as "the Standards," "Urban Fire," "Cool Smokes" and "Smokin' Lounge."
All offer great excuses to throw a party.
"Volume 1: The Standards" jumps out of the gate with the boogie-woogie of Francis Craig & His Orchestra's "Near You," which evokes the days when radio was the primary way of keeping the country connected.
But the collection doesn't really offer a distinctive edge until "As Time Goes By" and the Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Both ballads are absolutely timeless in their ability to establish a romantic mood. Passion, not tobacco, is what these songs ignite.
After the mellowness of the first volume, "Urban Fire" kicks in with a surprise. This disc is less about relaxing than about getting down. The bass riff that runs underneath the Pointer Sisters' brilliant "Yes, We Can Can" is electrifying, which is why it's a favorite of rap producers who sample the track over again and again. This collection, perhaps the most enjoyable of the series, might as well be titled "The Foundations of West Coast Rap."
So many songs, from the Gap Band's lively "Shake" to Rufus and Chaka Khan's still riveting "Tell Me Something Good," have proved to be fertile sampling ground for everyone from DJ Quik to the Dust Brothers. Smokin' grooves, indeed.
Volumes 3 and 4, "Cool Smokes" and "Smokin' Lounge," are less definitive than the other two, but both have their moments. "Cool" has more laid-back jazz such as John Coltrane's hypnotic "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)" and James Moody's smooth "Parker's Mood."
"Smokin' " takes the cigar back to the motherland of all stogies: Cuba. Two Perez Prado classics, "Que Rico El Mambo" and "Mambo #8," will create instant dance lines. And two of the songs, Robert Maxwell's "Poinciana (Song of the Trees)" and Ferrante & Teicher's "Aflame," sound as if they're waiting for a cutting-edge rap producer to pull them apart and reintroduce them in some funkier form.
But rap producers aren't the only ones who might find some interesting source material here. Budding filmmakers of the Tarantino mold should check out the collection for tracks that could add marvelously to the emotional mood of a movie.