Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
No New York

NYC’s No Wave movement was short-lived, very loud, and ugly, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there to witness it. But Brian Eno was there, and we have this mucho abrasive 1978 document–which allots four cuts each to scene makers the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A.–to prove it.

Sheer dissonance–both musical and cognitive–was the order of the day, and if you’re normal and looking for some music that you can, you know, sit around and listen to without having to carbo-load on Xanax first, fughetaboutit. These songs range from the challenging to the flat-out off-putting, and if you’re not a fan of deliberately confrontational avant-garde experimentation or the kind of person who likes to hang around jackhammers, you’re probably best off giving No New York a pass.

The No Wave crowd didn’t just want to kill rock stars; they wanted to kill rock music period. Fuck the pop aesthetic of New Wave: No Wave was atonal, nihilistic, apocalyptic even; these folks wanted to put an end to things altogether, and the world did what it always does to end of the world advocates–just laughed ‘em off.

As for me, I can honestly say I enjoy some of the music on No New York, albeit in small and very carefully measured doses. I may put it on twice a year when I’m convinced the world has it in for me, and it does the trick–I walk away so nerve damaged I don’t much care if the world likes me or not.

Each of these bands come at things from a different direction. James Chance’s Contortions melded free jazz to a James Brown fetish and added good old punk attitude to produce the freakiest jazz-funk fusion you ever will hear. Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks specialized in a kind of lurching, grotty crawl seemingly designed to annoy.

Mars had a wider range, if your idea of range runs from hysteria to the kinds of rock deconstruction later practiced to great effect by U.S. Maple. As for Arto Lindsay’s D.N.A., they almost sound normal to anybody who grew up listening to Sonic Youth and the like. But they really must have fucked with folks’ heads when they first arrived on the scene.

The Contortions come first and deserve top billing; Chance’s anarcho-jazz-funk is bracing stuff, and unlike the other bands these guys sounded like they were here to stay. “Dish It Out” is a furious funk foray driven by a positively demented bass; when he isn’t playing squealing sax, Chance screams and yowls like James Brown’s demonic son. “Flip Your Face” does the Bristol Stomp and boasts some seriously skewed slide guitar work by Pat Place along with Chance’s deranged sax skronk.

On “Jaded” the Contortions slow things down to a free jazz crawl; Adele Bertei’s acetone organ and Jody Harris’ sprung guitar add texture, and Chance sings like he’s slogging through mud. Think Flipper. As for their cover of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself,” it’s a funk noise revelation; the rhythm section cooks, the guitarists make an unholy din, and Brown yowls and yowls.

I never bought into Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but I almost kinda admire their total commitment to making unpleasant post-punk music for unpleasant post-punk people. “Burning Rubber” doesn’t; it comes at you like a broken toy. “Closet” sounds just like “Burning Rubber.”

“Red Alert” would be a keeper if it didn’t give up the ghost after 35 seconds; it has tempo and some great guitars. But the prospect of producing a song that somebody might actually enjoy must have scared Lunch and Company, because they quickly segue into “I Woke Up Dreaming,” which sounds a whole lot like, well, “Burning Rubber” and “Closet.” Buyer beware.

Mars blends proto-Sonic Youth guitar hijinks with Sumner Crane’s “I’m turning Japanese” vocals; I’m not a big fan of the latter, but I love the careening “Helen Fordsdale.” “Hairwaves” is a deliberate nonstarter; it goes nowhere, and kinda reminds me of brackish water. “Tunnel” is interesting noise, but you’ll hate it if you don’t find noise all that interesting. “Puerto Rican Ghost” boasts an actual pulse, a good throb, and group vocals. Not bad.

D.N.A.’s very listenable “Egomaniac’s Kiss” pits Arto Lindsay’s atonal guitar against Robin Crutchfield’s monotone organ; “Lionel” is all frenzied caterwaul, on which Lindsay does appalling things with his guitar. On “Not Moving” Lindsay shreds and shreds and shreds. As for “Size,” it’s a herky-jerky funhouse of a song, that is until the damn thing kicks into gear. This is art rock, pure and simple, and I think I hear the future of the Black Angels in there.

No Wave was a commercial No Go from the start, and No Surprise there. But like the Velvet Underground, it was a gift that just keeps on giving. I can hear the origins of just about every noise rock outfit I love (Cows, Killdozer, Pissed Jeans, U.S. Maple, etc.) on No New York, and if I don’t listen to it much–with the exception of the cuts by the Contortions–I’m sure glad it’s around.

In short, it deserves a listen, even if you end up filing it under unlistenable.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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