Friday, April 6, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 4/6/12 - Gentleman Jesse and Lee Ranaldo

In theory, the idea of a band playing unadulterated throwback power pop in 2012 might not seem all that promising. On Leaving Atlanta that’s just what Gentlemen Jesse does, and through a combination of impressive songs and an obvious love and understanding of the style, he manages to pull it off. And then some.
While power pop’s heyday is generally considered to be mid-‘70s through the early-‘80s, it has managed to make a dent on the charts in every decade since its decline, with Weezer and Matthew Sweet scoring hits with the stripped-down formula in the ‘90s and OK Go doing likewise in the ‘00s. But “Buddy Holly”, “Girlfriend” and “Here It Goes Again” were very contemporaneous appropriations of power pop tradition, extending that framework into the mainstream by sounding up to date, i.e. nobody was confusing any these bands with The Raspberries.
In the indie/underground scene, power pop hasn’t fared so well, particularly in contrast to its stylistic cousin garage rock.  This could be due to its generally upbeat disposition, for it’s a sub-genre not noted for being overtly angry or angsty. Or maybe it’s just preferable to be seen as not trying hard enough instead of trying too hard; no knock on the garage impulse, but it’s difficult to throw a rock and not hit a underachieving (or downright lazy) band of that stripe. And for every great garage act like The Mummies, The Gories or The Oblivians there are hundreds (each!) that barely qualify as also-rans. If garage often breeds a certain nonchalance, then power pop oozes commitment to a standard far beyond attitude (though attitude was something many great power pop bands did have in spades) and elevated competence. It’s about the patience of songwriting, especially the judicious crafting of hooks, and it very much concerns extensive practice and allegiance to the band dynamic. To display this sort of dedication only to be confronted with the crossed-arms of apathy or the catcalls of derision (what a bunch of posers) honestly isn’t something most humans wish to endure.
Thankfully, Jesse Smith isn’t concerned with the opprobrium of those that would deride him as being slavishly devoted to a sound that’s far beyond its sell expiration. Or it just might be that he resides in a large enough berg to avoid the harassment of wet-blanket brigade. Formerly of the rather slept on Atlanta garage punks Carbonas, Smith formed Gentleman Jesse and His Men and released a fine debut to almost no fanfare back in 2008. Since that time he’s suffered an uncommon level of personal strife, namely a physical assault and the death of five loved ones, so rather than feeling delayed, the appearance of Leaving Atlanta instead serves as the grand testament of one downtrodden survivor and the healing properties of his art.
Given Smith’s history in Carbonas, it might seem that his work as Gentleman Jesse would retain some of his former band’s ’77-ish firepower. But no, both the album with His Men and Leaving Atlanta (credited to Gentleman Jesse alone) collectively possess nary a trace of punk grit. Instead, they openly fondle the splendidly direct pop-rock spirit that thrived alongside punk as an alternative to the conceptual bloat of the 1970s rock scene; bands like The Nerves, The Real Kids, The Beat (Paul Collins’ L.A. band) and The Records serve as the direct precedent for Smith’s sensibility, as do more obvious sources such as early Cheap Trick and Costello and the Attractions circa This Year’s Model.
While many power pop bands released LPs, the era is best remembered retrospectively for certain highpoints in specific songs that feel custom designed for killer mix-tapes. Or for that matter compilations; anybody looking for a fix on the style should search out any of the four pop volumes of Rhino’s excellent DIY series or the Numero Group single disc dandy Yellow Pills: Prefill. In plain truth many of the records these bands issued were faulty, revealing weaknesses that can be chalked up in large part to commercial aspirations. Through engaging with the album format Gentlemen Jesse may be swimming against the tide of power pop’s lingering historical resonance, but his work refreshingly lacks any unfortunate marketplace maneuvers (in a word: sappiness) to inevitably gum up the works.
This shouldn’t infer that Leaving Atlanta isn’t completely conversant with its models. It’s just that Smith understands that repeating past mistakes is to be avoided when appropriating a form to his own ends. It’s the difference between shallow homage and the relevance of true stylistic extension. And happily Jesse shoots for a full-bodied, radio ready atmosphere, not being content to replicate the scaled-down studio traits of many modest, often self-released power pop obscurities. Everything here could’ve easily ended up on commercial radio playlists back in the late-‘70s without any sense of discord regarding production value. It’s not slick, it’s vivid.
And Leaving Atlanta greatly extends this Carter Administration radio-friendliness by grappling with a few of the era’s bigger and not immediately power pop taggable properties; “Take It Easy On Me” smartly splits the difference between Petty and Springsteen, particularly through the use of organ and a mildly Spector-esque bass line. Analogous to this are hints of a ‘50s jones that really steps up to the plate on penultimate track “Rooting For the Underdog”, its wickedly trim 1:39 sounding like something Rick Nielsen might’ve penned after being bowled over by a rerun of The Girl Can’t Help It on late-night Illinois TV.
A huge part of the record’s success derives from its top flight instrumentation. Milton Chapman’s keyboards add just the right amount of tonal color to the tunes, the rhythm section never lays a note wrong, and a dual guitar attack allows for ripping, Berry-descended solos without any loss of overall power. They even scored garage heavyweight King Louie Bankston (Royal Pendletons, The Persuaders, Bad Times) to contribute a little harmonica. Maybe the band’s best collective tactic is invigorating the up-tempo numbers with just enough hyperactivity to possibly inspire a live crowd mass pogo (or a big ol’ dogpile on the living room carpet), but not so much as to undermine the music’s essential power pop circuitry. Again, what really drives Leaving Atlanta home is that it’s never conflicted about what kind of record it wants to be; if the garage punk cats don’t “get” it, that’s just means there’s more room on the dance floor.
If anything punk-informed slips in here, it might be in the dark lyrical undercurrent to many of the record’s thirteen tracks. The relationship songs lack the la-la sweetness that undermined a lot of power pop (those commercial aspirations again, a quality that found many of the style’s purveyors labeled as “wimps”), and much of the material is focused instead on uncertainty and (as its title indicates) the desire to get away. This obviously has roots in Smith’s aforementioned personal struggles, but it never feels overly autobiographical; the love song’s words display common ground with The Ramones, and album closer “We Got to Get Out Of Here” is in the fine tradition of a similarly titled tuned by The Animals. Smith really seems to understand that great party music should always be leavened with undercurrents of emotional dissent in order to distinguish it from mere escapism. And he acquits himself as a fine lyricist here; “I saw an old friend yesterday/but I couldn’t recall his name/he told me that I have not changed” easily nails the nagging sense of loss that comes from time and distance, and “at night I sit in TV glow/watching reruns of the Popeye show”…well, that just speaks for itself.
The music on Leaving Atlanta is the stuff of great sweaty gigs in hole-in-the-wall dives and spirited, lease-breaking revelry. It’s also so successful in the recalibration of its chosen glories that an obvious temptation to overrate it creeps in. But no wheels are being reinvented here, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
But the on the other hand, that won’t really be germane to the issue when three dozen people are up in your digs and another quick clean party platter is the only situational recourse. Cue this up and don’t be shocked if next morning some lout is sprawled out on the floor with the gatefold sleeve of Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool hovering over his slumbering mug like a tent. At least the dude has good taste.

After over three decades as one half of Sonic Youth’s estimable guitar tag-team, Lee Ranaldo finally delivers a traditional song-based solo album. While quite strong melodically and displaying the assurance and wisdom of a veteran musician, it also can’t help but register as a somewhat reserved affair.
Upon first seeing the cover of Between the Times and Tides, I couldn’t help being reminded of New York Eye and Ear Control, the wild and wooly free jazz soundtrack to Canadian multi-media artist Michael Snow’s experimental film released by the legendary ESP-Disk label way back in ’64, a record that features august avant-garde improvisers Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Sunny Murray amongst others. But beside the use of black and white (frankly underutilized in album sleeve design), the images aren’t that much alike; yes they both feature human bodies and symbolic representations of same, but that’s really where the mild similarity ends. And yet I couldn’t help but be reminded of one by the other, and my thoughts on why have turned to the similarities between Snow and Ranaldo that just might’ve been residing in my subconscious.
For amongst other pursuits Michael Snow is involved with painting, film/video, photography, books and music. And so is Ranaldo. Unlike Thurston Moore, his prolific cohort in the currently on-hiatus Sonic Youth, Ranaldo is far less easily categorized as simply a guitarist with a few additional creative outlets. Yes, he’s been involved in a fair share of solo and collaborative music endeavors since the release of From Here to Infinity, a drone/loop/locked-groove project first issued by SST in 1987, but since that time his extracurricular concerns have been pretty evenly divided between music, visual art (often with his wife Leah Singer) and writing; he’s slowly acquired a reputation as a multi-media artist whose highest profile gig happens to be membership in what’s arguably the finest New York city rock ensemble since The Velvet Underground. By contrast, Moore can’t help being identified as a maddeningly prolific and indefatigably networking guitar slinger who just happens to dabble in small-press post-Beat poetry, music journalism and the running of the Ecstatic Peace! record label.
So it’s really no surprise that Between the Times and Tides is being touted by Matador as Ranaldo’s first “proper, song-oriented studio album”. That’s just simple truth in advertising. Up to now his recorded output has included grand drone statements like ‘93’s Scriptures of the Golden Eternity and 2000’s Amarillo Ramp (for Robert Smithson), some avant-improvisational splatter with drummer William Hooker and auto-harpist Zeena Parkins (‘95’s The Gift of Tongues), and the experimental film music project Text of Light. While Ranaldo has included honest-to-goodness songs on some of his solo outings (I particularly value his cover of Lennon’s “Isolation” from Amarillo Ramp), twenty-five years is a long time to deny the prospects of a full-fledged rock solo work, particularly when it’s been established through Sonic Youth’s proper albums that the guy can really deliver the goods in the style (e.g. “Hey Joni” from Daydream Nation, “Mote” from Goo and “Rats” from Rather Ripped).
In deciding that now’s the time to indulge his latent solo rock side, Ranaldo’s held nothing back in assembling an all-star cast; the core unit includes Wilco’s Nels Cline, bandmate Steve Shelley, Text of Light collaborator and former Love Child/Run On member Alan Licht, Medeski, Martin and Wood’s John Medeski and bassist Irwin Menken, with appearances by ex-SY members Bob Bert and Jim O’Rourke. But the work Ranaldo has signed is far from an indie-experimental jam session, indeed being far more song-oriented than expected from its measured promotional description.
Much of what’s here could easily fit onto any of the LPs that comprise Sonic Youth’s late work. But due to Ranaldo’s appealingly direct, almost conversational vocal delivery and his rather individual (if ultimately very accessible, even popish at times) approach to songwriting, the results are quite distinct from the feel of Sonic Youth’s work proper. Due to the limited exposure (some would say neglect) that his songs receive in the context of SY proper (he’s been described as the band’s George Harrison), Between the Times and Tides can give the impression of a solo record by absolute necessity; if he’d saved these tracks for upcoming Sonic Youth albums it would’ve taken ten more releases to actually hear them all. But the record lacks the aura of having something to prove, instead feeling assured and very relaxed. It did take this long to appear after all. This feeling of casualness comes to define the record, even when it occasionally starts to drift outward.
Opener “Waiting on a Dream” sets the course with a solid mid-tempo, the tune slowly building in forcefulness until it settles into an appealing (and familiar) pulse/chug rhythmic pattern meticulously layered with gliding string textures and the immediately welcoming tones of Ranaldo’s voice. From there the album is front-loaded with two of its standout tracks. The first is “Off the Wall”, an especially pretty and concise piece of guitar pop that succeeds through sheer melodic simplicity and a nice dynamic shift in the chorus. If Between the Times and Tides features a “single” (and why not?), “Off the Wall” is it. The second is “Xtina as I Knew Her”, a lengthy groove again in the mid-tempo (which honestly seems to be something of a songwriting comfort zone for Ranaldo) that’s simultaneously a multi-guitar showcase and a ample vehicle for some loose, imagery-laden storytelling.
And from there the album displays a consistency that is at once impressive and a slight bit disappointing. Impressive because of its clarity and variety, with the psych-inflected “Fire Island (Phases)” being quite a pleasant surprise, just for starters. And a bit disappointing due to a nagging sense that Ranaldo is playing it somewhat safe in crafting his first trad rock solo work. Naturally, “playing it safe” = my own mildly flouted expectations; all this firepower in one studio at the same time and they never manage even once to really let it fly. I understand that Between the Times and Tides is a collection of the guy’s very good, at times even exceptional melodic material and not an out-rock free for all, but I can’t deny thinking these songs could’ve benefited from some more chance taking, a few rougher edges and a greater helping of Ranaldo’s proven potential for general idiosyncrasy.
But I shouldn’t protest too strongly, for “safe” or not after a few listens it becomes clear that Ranaldo has made the album that he wanted. And touches of essential difference do sporadically assert themselves, with “Hammer Blows” skeletal acoustic structure serving as the platform for some nicely tweaked (if too brief) vocal action. And the use of Leah Singer’s spoken words in “Shouts” really adds to the songs already affecting Occupy-inspired atmosphere, forming what will likely remain the record’s finest track.
Between the Times and Tides is an admirable effort by an artist of distinction. Those who enjoy Sonic Youth purely for their more grounded inclinations will find much to like here. And if it doesn’t scratch the itch of those favorably disposed to the clime of outward-bound experimental exploration, well there’s always New York Eye and Ear Control.

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