Sonic Youth, Stereolab Fall Short … Lovano 52nd St. by Way of Cleveland

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Sick of wading through 70-minute compact discs with only 40 minutes worth of decent music on them? Old-guard vanguardists Stereolab and Sonic Youth feel your pain. Their new albums, The First of the Microbe Hunters (Elektra) and NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen), each time out at less than 45 minutes, the length of an E.P. these days.

Given both bands’ appreciation of cut-out bin arcania, the L.P.-like brevity of these two offerings could be nods to the days when vinyl ruled. It could also be a sign that these groups are retreating from the spotlight before the clock runs out on their respective moments of rock-and-roll relevancy.

Sonic Youth and Stereolab were the avant-pop standard-bearers of, respectively, the early and mid-90’s. But success is a cruel jukebox, and despite the fact that neither band has a gold record to write off come tax time, the increasing ubiquity of their sounds has diluted both groups’ impact.

It’s not only a matter of having been usurped as influences by a multitude of apprentices with harder centers. (For Sonic Youth, see Dinosaur Jr.; for Stereolab, The Cardigans). In their respective heydays, Sonic Youth and Stereolab each raised the garage door on rock’s secret history and popularized some of its more obscure sounds. But worldliness comes cheap in the age of the World Wide Web. Stereolab’s brand of post-kitsch Franco-Brazilian experimental easy listening no longer seems so radical now that anybody can log onto the Internet to buy an Os Mutantes reissue at domestic prices. The same goes for Sonic Youth’s thrashing mix of The Fall, Iggy Pop, New Zealand’s Dead Sea and Kraut rockers Agitation Free.

The current state of the art has also conspired against their attempts at currency. Being of an analytical bent, both bands often made a point of reflecting the music of the moment. You can hear the Swans in Sonic Youth’s work circa 1984; Tortoise in Stereolab circa 1996.

So what does a band of integrity do when the times they ain’t a-changin’? Stereolab chooses to take the rec-room approach, producing themselves with a rougher-hewn sound than 1997’s edge-free Dots & Loops . Sonic Youth enlisted the production assistance of Jim O’Rourke, that timeline-conscious master of digging the avant out of pop and vice-versa. (Mr. O’Rourke has worked with the group worked before; he also produced Dots & Loops .)

Alas, the result is similar. There’s a looser, almost throwaway quality to much of these works. Neither will rank among the bands’ stronger releases.

Indeed, there are times, as on the Stax-influenced opening track “Outer Bongolia,” when Microbe Hunters sounds closer to Stereolab manques, the Dylan Group. There are worse things, but it’s sleepwalking. Only the final track, “Retrograde Mirror Form,” which appears to be based on a Yes progression, hints at a synthesis of Stereolab’s art-rock agenda with the progressive rock revival that’s currently in vogue.

When I reviewed Sonic Youth’s 1998 album, the masterful A Thousand Leaves , for The Observer , I chided the group for downplaying guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s compositions. Well, he’s all over NYC , but, unfortunately, Mr. Ranaldo’s contributions are in a wonky poetry vein. There’s not a lot of crystalline vision to them.

Still, NYC is front-loaded with some top-notch stuff before it loses focus. “Free City Rhymes” revels in it’s looseness and rock drummer extraordinaire Steve Shelley’s drumming is jazzier, in a 60’s folk-rock sense, than he previously appeared capable of. And the album’s strongest track, “Renegade Princess,” maintains an intensity worthy of Television in its prime.

On these tracks, Mr. O’Rourke’s Powerbook cut-and-paste seamless collage technique reaches the heights of his collaborations with Smog and hoffman estates. The flip side is that on tracks such as “StreamXsonik Subway” and the provocatively titled “Nevermind (What was It Anyway?),” Mr. O’Rourke ends up reshuffling many of the band’s trademark riffs in a way that’s akin to putting applesauce in a blender.

The collage approach isn’t a bad idea, but it often creates the illusion that the band is aping itself. And if that’s what I wanted, I’d throw on Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream . I’d rather listen to geniuses treading water for three-quarters of an hour than slog through 65 minutes of crap for 10 minutes of decent music.

– D. Strauss

Lovano 52nd St. by Way of Cleveland

Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano has arrived at that strange and enviable place where he can’t seem to do much wrong. He creates chamber-jazz albums in the intuitive, free-form spirit of Ornette Coleman ( Trio Fascination in 1998) and elaborate larger ensemble works that revive the tradition of a “cool” symphonic jazz ( Celebrating Sinatra in 1996 and Rush Hour in 1994).

With the latest addition to the oeuvre , 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note), Mr. Lovano has found an equally happy middle ground between the arranged and the improvised. He has assembled a squad of crack musicians (including pianist John Hicks, alto saxophonist Steve Slagle and trumpeter Tim Hagans) to play nonet arrangements of classic bebop which then breaks down in modular fashion into smaller groups to blow more freely. (Mr. Lovano’s Nonet plays the Village Vanguard May 16 to 21.)

On 52nd Street Themes , Mr. Lovano plays only tenor sax, his most persuasive horn, and returns to the classic bop that he considers his first language (but that you sometimes had to strain to hear on his more “out” albums).

In less capable hands, a bop homecoming would mean polishing up some Charlie Parker licks and yawns all around. Mr. Lovano, though, has a wonderful sense of an album as an extended thematic excursion. Here, the idea is to revisit the 40’s and 50’s world of 52nd Street jazz clubs and spitfire bop combos from an arranger’s perspective. A proud child of the Rust Belt, Mr. Lovano selects as his bop muse fellow Clevelander Tadd Dameron, the pianist and band leader who composed five of the album’s 13 Themes . Provincials always make the best New Yorkers.

Dameron, who died in 1965, has conventionally been regarded (and then, often as not, forgotten) as a transitional figure between big-band swing and small-combo bebop. These days, when we’ve grown bored of endless, improvised bop harmonies, his insistence on musical form and catchy melodies doesn’t seem so old-fashioned.

Admittedly, Dameron possessed neither the classically minded elegance of the Miles Davis-Gil Evans team nor the anarchist genius of Charles Mingus. But Mr. Lovano and his Nonet–which includes at least four members of the current Mingus Big Band–take the opportunity to build upon, dare I say improve, the relatively slim history of Dameronia.

Dameron tunes like “If You Could See Me Now” and “On a Misty Night” become big-canvas bop: on the surface of the charts, lush and creamy, and in the solo details, crackling with an eccentric drive of the sort that made bebop worth loving, or almost as honorably, hating, in the first place.

In addition to all that, 52nd Street Themes is Mr. Lovano’s neighborhood album; his ode to the old days in Cleveland. For municipal authenticity and a living link to the bebop era, the tenorist turned to a childhood mentor, Willie (Face) Smith, who had been a musical associate of Dameron’s in the late-40’s and who in the mid-70’s wrote arrangements for the organ-and-sax combo led by Brother Jack McDuff. The baritone saxophonist in that band was none other than Joe Lovano.

Mr. Smith’s arrangements swing in a relaxed, unfussy way, with a period flavor that is enhanced by the album’s no-frills recording style. That said, not all of the nonet tunes seem completely realized. On tunes such as Dameron’s “Whatever Possess’d Me” and Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” (famously bop-ized by Charlie Parker), you sense the absence of the firm baton provided by Gunther Schuller on Rush Hour and Manny Albam on Celebrating Sinatra . The tempi feel a little draggy, the musical lines not as sharply delineated as they might be.

But let’s face it. However ennobled by the arranger’s art, bop still belongs to the soloist. Mr. Lovano is an overwhelming one, and the smaller combo tracks on 52nd Street Themes –his reading of Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” for instance–are irrefutable evidence of that. In the lower register of his horn, he’s got the chesty, gruff sound of a swing-era titan. In the upper register, he’ll manipulate freak tones to the point of unpleasantness in order to etch the notes more sharply.

Mr. Lovano is a macho throwback and a timbral experimentalist all in one package. His latest album accommodates opposing forces with similar grace.

–Joseph Hooper

Sonic Youth, Stereolab Fall Short … Lovano 52nd St. by Way of Cleveland