Graded on a Curve:
Bush Tetras,
Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras

Bush Tetras are an essential New York City band, with their early recordings a vital chapter in the story of no wave and their impact on the early ’00s dance punk uprising undeniable. But that’s only part of their history, a reality driven home by Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras, which offers three 180-gram LPs and a 46-page LP-sized perfect bound book with an exclusive essay by Marc Masters, plus appreciative writings by Thurston Moore, Nona Hendryx, Topper Headon and more, all snugged into an attractive box with an always helpful lift ribbon. A two CD set in a four-panel digipak is also available, as is the digital option, natch. It’s all out now via Wharf Cat Records.

Bush Tetras formed in 1979 and stabilized with the lineup of vocalist Cynthia Sley, guitarist Pat Place, bassist Laura Kennedy, and drummer Dee Pop (who sadly passed in his sleep on October 9, RIP to a great one). Place’s prior experience in the Contortions (the band of vocalist-saxophonist James Chance, don’tcha know) solidifies the connection to no-wave; additionally, Adele Bertei, also a Contortion, was the Bush Tetras’ singer for their first show.

The quick departure of Bertei and original guitarist Jimmy Joe Uliana ushered in Sley and Place, with the four-piece debuting via a three-song 45 on the legendary 99 Records in 1980. That the A-side “Too Many Creeps” has persevered as Bush Tetras’ signature song should in no way imply that they peaked early. They just burst out hard and made an immediate (and lasting) impression.

“Snakes Crawl” and “You Taste Like the Tropics” comprise the other side of that first 45 and cement that Bush Tetras weren’t a one-song wonder. Unsurprisingly, the tracks from their debut release open Rhythm and Paranoia followed by ten more from the band’s storied first phase, which culminated in 1984 before they could cut a proper full-length.

Instead, they dished “Things That Go Boom in the Night” b/w “Das Ah Riot” and the white label 45 “Can’t Be Funky,” with that song and its B-side instrumental version also featured on side one of the “Rituals” 12-inch. The “Things That Go Boom in the Night” 7-inch and the “Rituals” EP were released by the Fetish label in the UK and Stiff in the USA in 1981. All three of these records were released by the UK label Fetish, and all in 1981. That same year, two live cuts, “Punch Drunk” and a cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” were included on Stiff Records’ Still Swimming compilation alongside fellow NYC (and neighboring Jersey) bands The Bongos, Raybeats, The dB’s, and the Fleshtones.

In one sense, Bush Tetras’ initial phase ended before most people even knew they existed. The live recording Wild Things (documenting two nights at CBGB’s in August of 1982) came out in ’83 on the cassette-only ROIR label, but the impression it made was largely posthumous. And five years later, Better Late Than Never (Original Studio Recordings 1980-1983), also issued by ROIR, proved crucial in hipping folks to their existence after the fact.

However, Bush Tetras did make a deep impression on those who heard them while they were extant, and furthermore, they twice made the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. Interestingly, the “Rituals” EP made it to spot 32, while “Too Many Creeps” only made it to 57, a circumstance that likely relates to the spikey (not spastic), punky (but harnessed) energy of their debut.

They didn’t lose that punk edge, which is likely why their stuff only climbed so high on those charts. Also, this punk rawness and intensity explains why Bush Tetras stand amongst the handful of foundational acts in the whole dance punk shebang (others include Gang of Four, Delta 5, Pylon, and 99 Records cohorts Liquid Liquid and ESG).

Now, surely some folks possessing a minimum of familiarity with Bush Tetras are assuming this dance punk connection is why they got back together, but no. The year was 1995, and their return registers more as a recommencement of activities than a ballyhooed reunion, even as Sley, Kennedy, Pop, and Place all took part. Solidifying this conclusion is a sound that was decidedly different, with their momentum more rock-inclined and connected to the sounds of the decade they were navigating.

Sley’s hearty and soulful singing puts her in good company, as the ’90s saw an upsurge in tough women vocalists who drew inspiration from the punk impulse. Place’s guitar is suitably large and rough, but to my ear, it’s the rhythmic deftness of Kennedy and Pop that made it plain Bush Tetras weren’t playing catch-up stylistic ball.

Another way of putting it: disinterested in regurgitating the past as formula, the band also wasn’t scrambling to fit into the ’90s musical scheme. Instead, they were simply receptive to the moment as their landscape of influence broadened (there is mention of Albert Ayler and Soundgarden), a healthy scenario that has assisted their ’90s records in holding up exceptionally well.

This includes the “Page 18” EP, produced by Henry Rollins and released in 1996, and the Beauty Lies CD, produced by Nona Hendryx, which came out a year later, both issued by indie Tim/Kerr. And there was also Happy, produced by Don Fleming in connection with Tim/Kerr and scheduled for release through Mercury Records, a plan that floundered when PolyGram bought Mercury and then left the album on the shelf. Featuring Julia Murphy on bass, it eventually emerged in 2012 via ROIR (no longer exclusively a cassette label).

Happy’s belated release was a definite positive, and likewise the ample space it receives in Rhythm and Paranoia’s sequence, as I consider it the stronger of the two full-lengths from Bush Tetras’ middle phase. “Nails” in particular, is a tidy gem of heft, motion, and dynamic range. This is no small accomplishment, as reunited bands, even when they start out strong, rarely get better inside that trajectory as they progress.

And it’s even less likely that getting back together a third time, on this occasion with Val Opielski on bass, would produce their best stretch of material since the 1980s, but that’s just what they went and did. Rhythm and Paranoia offers three cuts from Bush Tetras’ wholly spiff “Take the Fall” EP from 2018 on Wharf Cat and both sides of the utterly killer 45 they released on Third Man the following year, plus the digital track “Sucker Is Born” that’s associated with it. “There Is a Hum” (side one of the 45) even manages to snake back around to their no wave roots a little bit, and to a fully satisfying result.

All this and two digital bonus tracks (there is a download card), specifically a ripping live cover of the VU’s “Run Run Run” and the riff beast that is original song “Cutting Floor.” Both add value to an already marvelous collection. Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of the Bush Tetras documents a band whose start-stop-start-stop-start was never sullied by marketplace concerns. It offers music made for the sheer fucking love of it, and that’s why it matters so much.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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