Free Kitten is a downtown dream band, the closest thing the underground has to a supergroup. It includes Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, Julie Cafritz, formerly of Pussy Galore, Mark Ibold from Pavement, Yoshimi from the Boredoms and an appearance by NYC's hyper-intelligent DJ Spooky. You can't put that much talent in a studio together and not come out with a few sparks of brilliance. But at the same time, the combo's new album, "Sentimental Education," often chokes with the self-indulgent sloppiness of a side project -- the title track is a 12-minute instrumental monstrosity that takes Sonic Youth's feedback-thick crunch to prog-rock heights of pretentiousness.
That said, there are exhilarating moments on "Sentimental Education," most of them when Gordon and Cafritz -- the soul of the band -- get beyond their dirty guitar rock roots. The Manhattan-centric lineup heavily influences the album, and its best songs are redolent of a certain ineffable kind of Lower East Side grit and subdued glamour. The opening track, a cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Teenie Weenie Boppie," is riotous and rousing, with Gordon and Cafritz's off-key wailing adding a spicy edge to the song's French kitchiness. Free Kitten used the horn section from the original, then put it under a wash of feedback to make it sound like a crazy sample from a '70s game show. Superimposed are the surreal lyrics, translated in English by the members of Stereolab. "It's Mick Jagger floating down the Thames/He is dead in his beautiful clothes." The result is anarchy, but it's as catchy as any pop anthem.
Gordon's unmistakable moan is all over this album, and many of the songs could be Sonic Youth outtakes -- "Picabo Who?" sounds like an early version of "My friend Goo." She does a mean duet with Cafritz on "Top 40" as well. The song has the rolling, rising energy of a Pixies song, with Cafritz singing whiny, Kim Deal-style melodies while Gordon backs her up with her throaty deadpan.
There's also a gorgeous, desolate and unexpected blues instrumental called "Daddy Long Legs," a song so elegant and atmospheric it seems out of place on a rock record, but so perfect that I was grateful they put it in. Consisting of a single plaintive horn backed by a sadly descending guitar and a few coy bells, it is spare and simple and somehow conjures an Alphabet City's worth of romantic desperation.
Maybe it's because I'm a child of the '80s that I can appreciate abstract, drawn-out techno compositions more than meandering guitar jams. But the "Sentimental Education" track made me feel like my ears were bleeding, whereas "DJ Spooky's Spatialized Chinatown Express Mix" made stunning sense. It accomplishes something incredibly rare in electronic mixes of rock songs -- it keeps the organic feel of an electric guitar while transforming it completely. Spooky layers guitar feedback over and over on itself and then cuts it all up with bursts of imploding, machine-gun rapid beats. The fuzzy washes of reverb tie it to the rest of the record, as does its quintessentially downtown mood. Listening to it is like being on the subway at 5 a.m., with the city's waking-up sounds echoing underground and the ringing of the night before still in your ears.