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Smoked Cheese 

A celebrated Austin lounge group re-creates itself in Richmond.

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The Richmond music scene could always use a little more good humor. All that math rock, jazz and metal is so damn serious.

Enter the Recliners, your new lounge band, playing cheesy (but technically adept), oddly soothing versions of popular modern songs — be they rock, rap or disco — in a swinging Vegas style full of bossa nova and cha-cha rhythms. Maybe you've heard L.A. comedy act Richard Cheese performing Nirvana with boozy, Dean Martin-like authority? These guys were onto the same shtick even earlier, in the mid-'90s, when they filled weekly gigs at clubs like Ego's and the Ritz in Austin, Texas.
Around that time, the original Recliners won numerous awards from the Austin Chronicle and the South by Southwest Music Awards, including being voted “Best Cover Act” and “Best Wedding Band.” Actress Sandra Bullock, who lives in Austin, hired them for her 2000 movie, “Miss Congeniality.”

Founder and principal arranger Russell Young, who plays keyboards and trumpet for the group, grew up in Richmond, where he once played in the Monarchs, a rock trio that relocated to Austin and wound up backing Ronnie Lane of Small Faces fame.

With his tinted shades and lounge jacket, Young looks the part of a late-show musical director. Sitting at a booth in the smoky confines of the Devil's Triangle bar CafAc Diem, where his locally constituted version of the Recliners plays every Friday night, Young gives the lowdown on why he left one of the best music scenes in the country to return to his hometown a year and a half ago.

“I came back for an old flame and now she hates my guts,” Young says, displaying the cheerful optimism of someone who has weathered these storms before. “But I love it here. … the only difference is more of a crowd shows up in Austin.”

Raoul Hernandez, music editor at the Austin Chronicle, that city's alternative weekly, remembers the Recliners as part of the swing and lounge scene of the late '90s. He recalls writing a feature about Thin Lizzy bassist Phil Lynott in which he recommended the Recliners' cover of “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

“A very well-done lounge version — almost like Hoagy Carmichael,” Hernandez says. “It really brought out what a great song that was, how it could've been a '40s tune.”

The Recliners' irreverent live show is all about hearing your favorite pop songs in a new light. Since the beginning, Young has been writing down drunken audience requests on bar napkins, which he keeps filed at home.

“Not every song lends itself to this,” he says. “We take a three-chord song and put 12 chords in it. … sometimes I have to track every part myself, like on Prince's ‘When Doves Cry,’ to prove to the band we can do it.”

Having formed the Recliners as a joke while working as a producer in Austin (“I always wanted to play on ‘The Love Boat,’” Young says), he now treats the group as a mobile project, with versions in both Austin and Richmond. When he resettled here, he found several talented musicians via Craigslist.

The Richmond version of the Recliners has a new album coming out titled “White Room” (yes, after the Cream song). The group's other records have received commercial radio airplay throughout the country, Young says, with three songs currently in heavy rotation on Sirius Radio and Dish Network.

Tonight the band sounds like it's played together for years, its first set featuring snazzy, cocktail versions of Blue Oyster Cult's “Don't Fear The Reaper” and Billy Idol's “White Wedding,” before a heartwarming version of Nirvana's “Come as You Are” featuring sultry crooning from debonair lead singer, Joseph Weindl.

My eyes burn from the smoky haze, but the last thing I see appears to be a trio of Octomoms shimmying beneath a sputtering bubble machine while the band plays a nearly unrecognizable version of the Beastie Boys' “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).”

Not your usual Friday night bar tunes in Richmond. S

The Recliners play CafAc Diem, 600 N. Sheppard St., every Friday night at 9. Free. 353-2500.

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