Graded on a Curve:
Talk Normal, Sunshine

Pining for some fresh No Wave/post-punk derived sounds that don’t radiate as if their makers have spent too much time in front of stereos perfecting borrowed moves? Then please head directly to the work of New York’s Talk Normal. The duo’s new one is called Sunshine, and it’s a stunning offering from one of the current scene’s most singular units.

In a musical landscape where it can often seem that the boundaries have all been effectively pushed, the New York City duo Talk Normal can sure do an effective job at sounding unsettling. NYC bands used to be particularly good at doing this, like back in the days when Sonic Youth were barely a glimmer in any upstanding young record execs’ eye and they offered their wares in dank, small clubs with a drummer named Bob Bert. There were experimental but also more than a little bit threatening in this period, as evidenced by “Death Valley ‘69” and its accompanying video directed by filmmaker/photographer and general provocateur Richard Kern.

There were other bands specializing in this sort of dark atmosphere, but Sonic Youth are especially relevant to Talk Normal due to the existence of a 2001 split 7-inch with Thurston Moore on the Fast Weapons label and the use of artwork from Kim Gordon on their “Lone General”/”Hurricane” short-player that also came out last year on M’lady’s Records. But the duo of drummer Andrya Ambro and guitarist Sarah Register create a sound that’s in no way derivative of the Youth’s early work.

Instead, it seems very much a case of shared influences. One of SY’s primary formative inspirations was the groups of the No Wave scene such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, DNA etc, and that’s also a big part of where Talk Normal’s sound derives. But if a large factor in their music, it’s also clear they aren’t seeking to define themselves as some sort of calculated retro-No Wave trip. Talk Normal have been much too wild and ambitious over the course of their still small discography to be saddled with the bag of mere copyists.

But I also don’t think it’s accurate to say they sound contemporary, mainly because I haven’t run across another current act that sounds like them. A big part of their appeal is how they are so distinctly out-of-time. This is partially due to the highly structured but very unique nature of the songs, but it also pertains to the instrumentation and even more the production sound.

While their five-song Secret Cog EP from ’09 featured bass (on one track courtesy of Richard Hoffman from noise-rock bruisers Sightings) and even piano on its closing track, the main thrust of Talk Normal became apparent rather quickly; insistent yet shifting rhythmic patterns and passages of guitar that ranged from spiky, crystalline shards to waves of grumbling distortion.

And they weren’t heavy in the more traditional mode of noise-rock as they were urgent and extreme; Secret Cog was a fascinating debut and one that immediately displayed their lack of predictability, for its opener “Grinnin’ in your Face” featured a connection to the Delta bluesman Son House. I emphasize connection rather than inspiration for as a very loose and disruptive cover it’s appealingly unclear to me just how much they actually drew from House. They could’ve been struck by any number of subsequent sources.

The uniqueness of Talk Normal’s progression continued with the issue of their full-length Sugarland, also from ’09 and also featuring another expectations defying entry, this time a take on Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache.” The use of bass was back on a couple racks (again via Hoffman), but it was still totally Ambro’s and Register’s show. And the lineage of No Wave was still apparent, but the heft of the music’s motion also recalled the more confrontational aspects of the UK-post-punk shebang as corralled in part through early Rough Trade. Sugarland fell right into the lap of No New York fans, but it also provided good strokes to lovers of Wanna Buy a Bridge? and the work of The Pop Group.

Secret Cog and Sugarland arrived so close together that it’s not a great leap to assume they came from the same fresh burst of creativity. And while there have been signs of life from Talk Normal since ’09 (the abovementioned 7-inches, a limited split cassette with Lower Dens, half of a single shared with duo Christy & Emily) they have taken their time producing a follow-up full-length, and now that it’s appeared the patience shows. Sunshine is their best effort yet.

The nine-song LP opens with “Lone General,” and while the music remains as ominous as ever, the songwriting has gotten even better. Bass also figures in the track (this time played by scene vet Christina Riles, though Hoffman still has a hand in the song’s composition), but again, the really distinguishing factors are the instruments that belong to Ambro and Register. And not just the drums and the guitar; their shared vocal duties have become one of Talk Normal’s most distinctive and winning qualities.

Fans of Laurie Anderson will recognize the connection between the duo’s moniker and the last track on side one of Home of the Brave. Talk Normal doesn’t sound like Laurie though, at least not in any explicit way. But in a manner similar to what’s been detailed above regarding Sonic Youth, there is a palpable connection in spirit between Talk Normal and Anderson, and much of it relates to the pair’s vocal sensibility.

As singers, Ambro and Register have proven they can scream and belt it out, but they aren’t really best assessed as screamers or belters. Neither do they fall into the sort of “pretty” mode that’s so common with female vocalists. Instead they alternate sometimes throaty, often half-spoken richness with edgy chanting and moments where their voices intertwine not so much in harmony but in dialogue. “XO” displays these elements to strong effect and really drives home that Talk Normal and Anderson are solid if subtle spiritual kin.

But the instrumentation of “XO” is also superb. Talk Normal are a truly legitimate extension of one of No Wave’s and edgy early post-punk’s best attributes, that being a minimal yet dynamic rhythmic sensibility. Sunshine’s second track opens with a basic and emphatic pulse that establishes a lithe tension that’s periodically released with wonderfully (and thankfully) non-contrived bursts of guitar, drums, and again those nicely atypical vocals.

“Bad Date” takes a vaguely popish structure and turns it on its head, integrating some expertly calibrated amplifier squall and saxophone skronk courtesy of Vanessa Roworth, while a cyclical guitar pattern builds in intensity and the drums deliver a beat of unwavering simplicity. When the maracas enter the fray it becomes crystal clear that Talk Normal is on top of a game that hardly anybody else has the ability to play, much less master.

If the title track throws down guitar textures that will remind some of mid-‘80s Sonic Youth, the delivery is still markedly different. For one thing Talk Normal’s duo conception resists the more muscular aspects of the full band dynamic and furthermore the pair’s songwriting, while at its core pop oriented, is also wildly non-traditional. In fact, the way Sunshine’s music deftly rises and falls, instruments dropping out and then rushing back in, is subtly remindful of Wire.

“Hot Water Burns” opens with a chant that seems readymade for the playground of the world’s greatest art school. From there the song moves into Sunshine’s deepest examination of Ambro and Register as vocalists. One of Talk Normal’s unique attributes is how their voices often sound intriguingly distant, but on “Hot Water Burns” they are quite extroverted, possessing an erudite swagger and with no loss of positive effect. What’s more the music that accompanies them doesn’t suffer, being full of unusual twists and turns.

From there “Shot This Time” stretches out a bit, riding a rhythmic bedrock that quickly becomes infectious as the duo uses it to execute sweet tangents of all sorts. And “Cover” takes a poppy vocal idea (complete with a “sha-la-la” for emphasis) and throws in some waves of keyboard ambience that are strikingly successful in their simplicity. From there “Baby, Your Hearts too Big” expands to nearly six minutes in length and retains its power the whole way, a feat that’s partially attributable to the stuttering and captivating drumming of Ambro.

And closer “Hurricane” seals the deal for this LP (limited in vinyl form to 500 hand-numbered copies) and for Talk Normal as a group, the song also spreading out to five and a half minutes in duration, finding shrewd catchiness meeting minimalism halfway and to excellent result. As strong as Sunshine is however, it doesn’t feel like they’ve hit their qualitative ceiling. If Talk Normal undergoes a big spurt in creative growth they just might tear the roof of the sucker.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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