A few weeks before Christmas I was in Bristol and I made a stop into Ceremonial Sound. While I was flipping through the records one cover, in particular, stood out to me. It was a record I had been thinking about getting for a couple of months but had yet to have seen it in person. It was a title from the Chicago-based label Numero Group. I’ve been a fan of Numero Group for a few years now. They specialize in collections and compilations. Deep dives into little-known or obscure artists and collections of different genres from the same kind of artists.
A particular favorite collection by them is “Seafaring Strangers: Private Yacht.” A wonderful double LP set that complies music from the Yacht Rock era by bands and artists who had hoped to be the next Michael McDonald. Within the vast Numero catalog are a few different series of releases under a particular branded umbrella. My favorite is their “Cabinet of Curiosities” line. All of Numero’s titles have wonderful art direction, but the Cabinet of Curiosities titles take it to a higher degree than most labels.
Around the start of the pandemic, I picked up “Whispers Lounge.” In the mid-90s there was a huge revival of mid-century American easy listening and adult pop music, call now called “Lounge.” But it didn’t go beyond the 1960s. “Whispers” looks at lounge music of the 1970s, performed by regional acts who mostly worked the cocktail rooms of chain hotels all across America.
The LP itself is packaged in an oversized matchbook, not just something that looks like a matchbook, something that actually opens like a matchbook. Flap, Staple at the bottom, and striking strip on the back. The record itself is housed in an inner sleeve that looks like a row of matches waiting to be plucked, then it comes with a mini-poster that has hundreds of real, vintage matchbooks.
The title I saw in Bristol that caught my eye is one of the latest releases in the Curiosities line. “NuLeaf” is packaged to look like a pack of cigarettes you might find someone smoking for pleasure in 1986. There’s a seal at the top of the package you have to break, and inside the inner sleeve looks like a row of cigarettes. To add to the retro vibe of the packaging, a one-sheet flyer of items you can get with your “Leaf points” is included. This flyer also doubles as a scratch and sniff card. The scent? Menthol.
The music itself is a collection of 1980s underground smooth jazz. 10 years ago I would have winced a bit at the idea of listening to such a thing, and yet, with Numero’s ace curations and unique packing, it’s one of the most chill and relaxing records I’ve heard in a very long time. This is one of the secret bits of brilliance that Numero does with The Cabinet of Curiosities. They make records of music that’s worth listening to in genres you might not think to explore, yet they also double as sort of audible vacations.
You listen to the music on “NuLeaf” and you think “Yes, this should be packaged like a cigarette pack from 1986.” The whole thing promises a life of smooth relaxing leisure that perhaps never really existed except in the dreams of those who made the music on the record. It’s very clever. The most recent release takes things put to the 90s with “Numero ’95” which explores pioneers of computer-generated music. Appropriately, the packaging for that is like a giant floppy disc you’d find on your desk in 1995.
Since things every day feel increasingly disheartening, I take some comfort in knowing there are creative music lovers out there making collections like this. I’ll keep buying them as long as they keep making them. Check out a Numero title and see if you don’t find yourself enjoying an audible vacation in your own mind. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and it makes me happy. See you next week.