Graded on a Curve:
No Age, An Object

After putting together a strong body of work, No Age has been inactive since 2010. The Los Angeles duo’s return to the record racks finds their experimental approach and dedication to sonic eclecticism undiminished. But from the standpoint of songwriting, a major component in the accomplishment of their prior material, An Object is a problematic affair. While never boring, No Age’s new album is only fitfully satisfying. It brings them closer to the true nature of experimentalism than ever before.

From their arrival on the scene in 2007, No Age has been a consistently intriguing and highly successful outfit. And for a duo that’s been described as playing experimental punk, this is a noteworthy feat. On Weirdo Rippers, guitarist Randy Randall and drummer/vocalist Dean Allen Spunt selected eleven songs that had previously appeared on five EPs, those discs issued roughly simultaneously on five different labels a few months before.

However, Weirdo Rippers still hung together well enough that it didn’t connect like a comp. Again, that’s quite a laudable turn of events, as the LP finely detailed the rough edges of No Age’s art-punk expression. In fact, I still hold a (very small) preference for that album over their excellent second record from the following year.

Nouns, the pair’s actual full length debut, did an outstanding job of integrating into a cohesive if raucous whole a style that has historically proven pretty resistant to the long form. Specifically, while there was art in their attack, just as crucially there was punk, in form as well as associations; for one thing, No Age held ties to the contemporary skateboarding scene.

To be frank, it doesn’t really matter if you’re working in the unhyphenated Ramones tradition or hanging out in an arty fringe neighborhood; making a good punk LP from the ground up has been the undoing of too many ambitious bands to count. So even if Weirdo Rippers continues to give me a slightly bigger charge, Nouns can be accurately assessed as a more impressive achievement.

And 2010’s Everything in Between proved these guys could pull it off more than once. It found their experimental tendencies still extant, but the punk elements were often streamlined, enough so that the descriptor of noise-pop as applied to No Age made for a good fit. While I value Everything in Between less than the two records that came before, it does remain a fine and at times even university or satellite radio friendly listen that offered up the possibility of longevity for the duo.

Between that release and the recent appearance of An Object, No Age was on hiatus. And if they’d decided to not recommence activity, Randall and Spunt would have left an admirable body of work behind them, with a bevy of EPs and singles attached to the abovementioned LPs. It was a collected statement that emerged in a relatively compact time frame, progressing in a way that, for all the challenging aspects, wasn’t particularly difficult to digest.

At this early point, An Object registers as the first major outlier in their discography. It collects their least engaging collection of songs to date, but is to some extent salvaged by their ceaseless attention to experimentalism. And as this concise effort plays, it can seem at times that No Age has decided to rip up the program and start almost from scratch, at least in terms of their sonic narrative. So those ties to punk lineage run even deeper than it previously seemed.

“No Ground,” a nice blend of grouchy guitar, echoing pulse and noisy undercurrents, actually gets the LP off to a solid start, with Spunt relating themes in a singing voice that’s reflective of long gone punk vocalists seeking to avoid the pitfalls of orthodoxy (check they way he emphatically sings rather than merely shouts his lines.) High on rhythmic punch without relying on trad drumming (a recurring motif on An Object), the song finds No Age returning squarely to an art-punk place (rather than noise-pop or the non-genre “dream-punk”), and with an ambiance that’s unique from where they were in 2007.

However, much more melodic (though deeply gnarled) is “I Won’t Be Your Generator.” And it holds some real possibilities, but unfortunately what’s here sounds like a skeleton for a potentially better tune. Falling securely into the realms of low-fi, as the cut progresses the guitar becomes thicker and concludes with a nice swell of muffled racket. Yet the pop structure they’re messing around with is something less than top-flight.

After a brief ambient intro, “C’mon Stimmung” erupts into a nearly standard punk throttle. That’s nearly so, for grinding bursts of keyboard/synth add discomfiting dimension to the equation (in this, the track is a bit remindful of “Fever Dreaming” from Everything in Between). And it’s a good enough song without the noisy enhancement, showing that No Age hasn’t lost the knack for tough and spirited (and memorable) uproar in a (roughly) conventional rock context.

“Defector/ed” returns to the unusual rhythmic tactics of the opener, but to somewhat lesser effect. There’s choppy rumbling, some chirping, a fair amount of burbling, and the incessantness of what seems to be a (possibly looped) synthetic cymbal. As a soundscape it’s fairly effective, but it’s far from transcendent, and it points to the prickliness of No Age’s experimental attitudes as An Object moves forward.

With “An Impression” comes pop, initially sunshiny yet appealingly anemic, as guitar fuzz accents the atmosphere. So far so okay, but then an exquisitely bowed cello asserts itself into the fray. The string tones initially seem like a sitar, but then their organic warmth rises to the surface and provides the cut with its finest and least expected moment.

To be sure, “An Impression” still intertwines with An Object’s disheveled artistic direction, but it shows them to be capable of substantial productivity within this milieu. That the album doesn’t hold more evidence of this situation can surely be considered a bummer, but this track in particular leads me resist tagging No Age as an entity simply traveling down a declining qualitative slope.

On “Lock Box,” the duo wrestles a popish construction into a tangle of fidgety punk-derived guitar riffs and galloping drums, almost as if they’re striving for the tumult located near the end of side two on some bootleg comp LP of obscure punk singles. If so, No Age has found success, but it bears mentioning that many of those punk obscurities climb to a level of quality that is likeable but ultimately very modest. And that’s what emerges with “Lock Box.”

And similar to “I Won’t Be Your Generator,” “Running from A-Go-Go” also feels partially unfinished, sorta like a tape of a song they’d set aside and pulled out later, the pair electing to complete it with a wash of effects. It’s possible that Spunt’s repetition of the lyric “I don’t want to be alone again” will resonate with listeners seeking an outlet for a universal emotional malady, but as an observer that’s mainly been taken with No Age’s sound (rather than what they are articulating through words) this track lacks substantial gristle for the chewing.

After the brief hazy drift of “My Hand, Birch and Steel” is found “Circling with Dizzy,” a hunk of angular chug that edges up fairly close to the textures of neo-no wave, and that’s a pretty good fit. Then “A Ceiling Dreams of a Floor” shifts into some droning electric stun/strum, wrangling like something that would’ve floated out of the early-‘90s low-fi underground.

With An Object, No Age is nothing if not structurally diverse. “Commerce, Comment, Commence” eschews any tangible ties to pop or rock, wedding Spunt’s almost spoken lines to an ambient noise treatment for a very surprising finale. If “An Impression” is An Object’s best track, the closer is easily the album’s most fascinating.

As it ended, I was struck that No Age’s art-punk has entered a new phase, one conversant with the strategies of late-’70s/early-‘80s DIY stuff. Mostly this comparison comes down to the unavoidable attention to sound rather than tunesmithing. Many will find this LP distressing, but I’m currently thinking of it as a transitional record, one that holds possibilities for a different phase. More likely, it signifies the winding-down of the duo’s run, and if so that’s a drag.

Respecting the No Age that made An Object comes easy, and alongside it sits the temptation to overlook the faults and overrate the whole due to its obvious dedication to experimentation. But if a major departure, the scenario isn’t as radical as it first appears; much of Randall’s and Spunt’s ambition is still tethered to pop and rock structure. The great disappointment of this album is that the songs they are subverting just aren’t up to their pre-hiatus standard.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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