ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM -- Lounge Lizards, Editions EG EGS 108. THE SHOW -- Friday at 9:30 Club, Saturday at D.C. Space.
If there's little room in pop music for originality anymore -- and Lord knows that's what the indications are -- then at least it can still be fun. The Lounge Lizards, in better days, would have amounted to little more than a novelty act; but times are hard, and the self-confessed "fake jazz" of their debut (possibly their only) album is elevated to its party-arty status by default.
The idea behind leader and saxophonist John Lurie's approach is that if you don't feel your expertise is up to the demands of the genre, you should spoof the genre. This concept is novel only if you happened to miss Sha-Na-Na, the Sex Pistols or high school, where the most macho class clown was always prevailed upon to recite Shakespeare, and could thus be counted on to trash it forthwith. Predictable, maybe, but as close to anarchy as was allowed.
It was inevitable that the blank generation would get around to jazz, and, frankly, I much prefer the Lizards' send-ups of Thelonius Monk and Earle Hagen to the stuff that's been passing for popular jazz in the last couple of decades. That an entire generation has come to majority equating the form with George Benson and Gap Mangione is a mind-bogglingly bad joke in itself.
So anyway, you won't find any soul in this music. What you will hear are 13 snippets of ersatz '50s jazz played with varying degrees of energy and skill, whose accidents (as opposed to accidentals) are far more interesting and amusing than the intentional concept behind them.
Take Hagen's "Harlem Nocturne," for instance, that achingly familiar piece that always brings to mind those didactic old late shows where the floozy with the heart of gold gets in with the wrong crowd and ends up in the hoosegow, dies tragically, loses her man, whatever. In the hands of Lurie and his key-boardist brother Evan, it fulfills the promise of sleaze that a thousand other cover versions could never quite match. Lurie overblows and honks, slides with drunken unctuousness from note to note and generally sounds as if he's using a reed that's as old and misbegotten as the tune itself.
Lurie's twice-practiced arpeggios and chic cynicism don't work as well on the two Monk covers, "Well You Needn't" and "Epistrophy," mainly because he betrays an actual fondness for the music. But the danger of becoming too sincere is kept at bay by drummer Anton Fier's amateurish tendency to rush the beat, so that the sarcasm is kept pretty well in place.
Lurie's own tunes are well-researched pretend-paeans to cool jazz, although the high camp of his saxophone is often aborted by the guitar intrusions of Arto Lindsay, which sound like the gentle stroking of a wet balloon. Particularly interesting are "Demented," in which Lindsay's squeaky atonalisms actually fit nicely, "Au Contraire Arto" and "Wangling," in which bassist Piccolo overcomes Lurie's rasping dominance by letting slip some definite signs of expertise.
Catching the Lounge Lizards' act is much more enjoyable overall than it may seem by this account; it's only during the dull parts that the mind starts drifting to all the talented jazz musicians who will never sign a record contract, much less get produced by Teo Macero, and to the graduates of schools like North Texas State who will wind up opening second-hand instrument shops for lack of an audience.
Yet there's no point indulging in that sort of hand-wringing; the Lounge Lizards offer the kind of appeal that sells records these days, and more power to them. The cover of this one is a very studied take-off on the jazz covers of the '50s, and only the party-poopers among us will notice that the band is quintessential '80s, with its anorexic, Anglophile punkishness.
Half-serious as they are, the Lizards aren't likely to pull a repeat unless they sell a lot of albums. If that doesn't happen, J. Lurie can always go back to writing plays and making Murjani jeans commercials, Anton Fier can return to punk, Arto Lindsay can continue writing for the Village Voice and Steve Piccolo can take up his old post as a Wall Street systems analyst.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy a few jazzed-up yuks until something authentic comes along -- just don't hold your breath for that.