Four young jazz guys, including a couple of biggish names—saxophonist James Carter and keyboardist Cyrus Chestnut—doing an instrumental album of Pavement songs? Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers) sounds like it'd be one of those wonderful cross-genre leaps that happen every so often, like Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, say. It turns out that what brought these musicians and these songs together wasn't quite their natural inclination—it was their record label. Alan Suback's liner notes tell us that the album was assembled with "the idea behind fantasy sports leagues applied to music": Brown Brothers picked the musicians and chose the Pavement songbook for them to play. Carter, Suback claims, is "simply John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler all rolled into one." Really, now.
The liner notes raise a few other red flags, too. "The lo-fi nature of [Pavement]'s recordings left much room for this quartet to . . . up the musical ante of the performances," Suback writes. The proper response to the term "lo-fi" is always "fidelity to what?" One of the things that made Pavement's early recordings interesting was that the band had made conscious decisions about what their recorded incarnation should sound like, instead of the default recording technique of trying to approximate the sound of a live band playing in a small room. And, after their first album, Pavement mostly stopped pinning recording meters in the red; they spent the better part of their career being recorded at least as conventionally "professionally" as Gold Sounds is. As for "upping the musical ante": Carter, Chestnut, bassist Reginald Veal, and drummer Ali Jackson are definitely more technically proficient than Pavement were—but technical proficiency isn't what Pavement's songs needed. Like Stephen Malkmus sang, they had style, miles and miles; that's all that was required of them.
So it's a pleasant surprise that Gold Sounds is ultimately a good idea, or maybe a questionable idea well executed. The quartet doesn't play any of the eight songs they've plucked from the Pavement catalog straight. Instead, they pull out their favorite phrases and structural devices from the songs and build performances around those: the three-bar riff and wordless whooping of "Cut Your Hair," the way "Stereo" repeats almost every bit of its melody a few times before it moves on to the next. The overall vibe recalls the albums by '60s soul-jazz types who'd throw in a reconstructed Beatles or James Brown song just to demonstrate that they dug the new breed. (Actually, the Beatles are still getting that treatment. The Brad Mehldau Trio's new Nonesuch album, Day Is Done, includes versions of "Martha My Dear" and "She's Leaving Home" that suggest that there's been nothing new under the jazz sun in the last 35 years. They do get points for opening the album with an eight-and-a-half-minute sprint through Radiohead's "Knives Out" whose slow melody/frantic rhythm section contrast suggests they know a little about drum and bass.)
Gold Sounds veers a bit too close to smooth-jazz territory a few times, particularly on a grandstanding "Here" with Carter playing soprano sax. But the group's willing to be unfaithful enough to Pavement's originals that they can use them as an on-ramp for their own miles and miles of style. The high point is Chestnut's deliberate, cleanly articulated solo piano version of "Trigger Cut," on which he emphasizes the sour beginning of the verse melody (the "lies and betrayals" bit) and the three-chord chorus riff ("coming back today") and fills in the rest with half-dissonant descending and rising note barrages.
The chief current rival of Gold Sounds in the "bizarre reworkings of old material" arena is Cobra Killer & Kapajkos' Das Mandolinenorchester (Monika). Cobra Killer are the German "digital hardcore" duo of Gina V. D'Orio and Annika Trost, whose three earlier albums are mostly the two of them screaming over sliced-up samples and hammering electronic beats (and whose thoroughly awesome performances involve them wearing formal dresses and/or fetish gear, abusing microphones and pouring wine all over the place). So reprising a bunch of their songs backed up by Kapajkos, an acoustic folk ensemble led by three mandolinists, isn't the most obvious move.
But it's also a pretty good idea, helped along by the fact that everyone sounds like they're having a smashing time. Even when it doesn't quite gel, there has never been a record that sounds much like this one. Yelling "Helicopter! U.S. Navy! Six six six! Hey! Hey! Hey!" in German accents over loud drum machines isn't news; yelling it over plinking mandolins and clickity-clackity hand percussion is at least novel. Some of Cobra Killer's songs are drastically improved by the new arrangements, too: "Mund Auf Augen Zu" starts with an octave-bass pulse lifted from Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams," then adds dueling mandolins and a squealing singing saw that make D'Orio and Trost's icy, monophonic chant sound way more shocking than its original generic industrial setting. They probably shouldn't try to make another record with Kapajkos, but they've escaped the stylistic dead end they were heading toward. What they're going to do next is a much more interesting question now than it was a year ago.