(Various Artists) – “No New York” (1978)

August 9, 2010 at 12:16 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Brian Eno-produced “no wave” compilation classic. This review by Chris Smith comes from Stylus magazine, Sept. 1, 2003…


Outside of the ironically hyper-capitalist insularity of the hardcore scene—its get-it-on-all-eight-colors-of-marbled-vinyl ethos is probably an transmigration of geekiness from the state of Marvel comics circa 1994, which is when a lot of fans bought the soundtrack to The Crow and began to cross over—not many records seem to have been subjected to quite the degree of ex post facto fetishism of No New York. Every time I’ve seen it on the wall in a record store (usually next to the first Boyd Rice LP) or read a collectors’ account of attending one of those conventions where one of the Beatnuts is standing next to you when he pays $85 for David Axelrod’s Earth Rot, I’m amazed at how much this compilation goes for. There are two copies on eBay right now, which are supposed to end up selling in the low triple digits. (So act fast, readers!)

And, naturally, the first thing I think of is comic-collecting: what I used to hate was how, in order to get issues of certain superhero series in which important things went on or characters first appeared (cf. Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, or The Incredible Hulk #181, first appearance of Wolverine), huge amounts of money had to change hands. After all, long before I started trawling bins for fifty-cent vinyl I was trawling those same water-damaged boxes for ten-cent comics (most famously in a Lancaster, PA store located beneath a Baptist church that would have noisy, barn-burning gospel freak-outs directly above me as I tried to remember which issues of Secret Wars I needed), and even then I’d wonder if the expensive comics were worth an ever-so-ginger page-turning. So it is that this morning, after finally queuing this shit up to download while I slept (dreaming, not incidentally, of my comic-fan days), I’m wondering if No New York is a genre-defining, unimpeachable classic or if its no-wave nihilism has lost its impermeable sheen and aged about as well as a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

Perhaps some historical context is in order. In 1978, Brian Eno—who was beginning to garner a name for himself as a experimentalist/super-producer for David Bowie, Devo, and the Talking Heads—convinced a subsidiary of Island records to let him curate a compilation of New York’s post-CBGB crop of bands, who were far noisier than their predecessors, disregarding pop structure rather than subverting it slyly; the atonal, spily, jittery signature style they played in had by now surfaced as “no wave.” Though he considered ten bands for the record (including Glenn Branca’s Theoretical Girls), it ended up with four groups, Arto Lindsay’s DNA, Mars, James Chance and The Contortions, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, fronted by confrontational poet Lydia Lunch. Each were given four tracks, which Eno recorded. (One gets the feeling his role as producer veered towards the hands-off.)

Things begin splendidly, with a Contortions set of addled noise-funk. “Dish It Out,” a hyperactive bass-and-drums groove sprayed chaotically with saxophone skronk, pulses and writhes, with some abused shards of Hammond organ appearing in the mix. The track crumbles midway through to allow Chance to roar/shout the track’s title and some intermittently angry (if purposely bleached of meaning, cf. “I’m a hopeless case!”) lyrics, then the band rouses itself back to life. “Flip Your Face” is slower and more deliberate, with a muted hook that approaches the tuneful, its abused wall of guitar noise tempered into jangling rhythms of fret abuse. However, a lead guitar track that seems completely out of rhythm, plus more of the untutored saxophone from the first song—I’d swear it was an outtake spliced in, assuming this album had outtakes—move along, rendering this not as much a painful, noisy experience as an utterly disorienting one. “Jaded” lumbers darkly, its sax snorting and burbling, displaced above a grisly, sparse post-Sabbath groove. The organ pounds and the guitar scrapes, but this sonic effluvium seems carefully formed into shapes of idle distraction, which are then cast aside. Mockingly, it all expires suddenly. Then there’s a mutilated cover of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)” that resolves this song cycle with a return to funk, this time of a slightly downtempo character, if no less abrasive.

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks have the difficult task of following Chance; less diverse and sonically all but inert, it’s safe to say that their tracks are the weakest of those offered here. Had the sonic punch of “Orphans”—their finest two-string-guitar-and-snare-drum moment of sonic abandon—been included, that might be a different story, but, as it is, there’s only the twisted tonal lurches of the 32-second instrumental “Red Alert” to offer something beyond the group’s ultra-limited palette of abused female shriek and some dizzy one-chord guitar churn, usually played too slowly to be chaotic. At least the moronic lyrics are intermittently great (I didn’t expect Lydia to end a rhyme scheme in the mostly dreary “Burning Rubber” with “…and I puke elastic!”), but they are when they’re at their least serious. “The Closet,” an overlong, melodramatic set-piece—with an appropriately scenery-chewing vocal—namechecks Sharon Tate and evokes asphyxiation yet doesn’t really go anywhere, but maybe that’s the point.

After this, Mars’ scrambled, uptempo “Helen Fordsdale” comes as an immense relief. Filled with hyperactive drumming courtesy that out-Ikue-Moris Ikue Mori and a comically intense, garbled vocal from Sumner Crane, it manages (not unlike Antioch Arrow) to approximate the sound of a rock band that’s long ago lost its collective shit and is now soldiering on in some wasteland of madness but thinks it sounds completely normal. (Indeed, the steady backbeat that appears in the song for about a few seconds comes as a brilliantly-timed joke.) The clotted, freeform chaos of “Hairwaves” starts off sounding akin to Sun Ra’s Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, then tumbles further into pure, oddly sensuous abstraction; the meandering “Tunnel” offers some unrecognizable, malfunctioning-ray-gun guitar work and gibberish Burroughsian nightmare vox atop a distant, almost calming midtempo groove (the result sounds sort of like an immature This Heat). Finally, the one-minute-and-one-second “Puerto Rican Ghost” sounds like the mangled tape of exactly one third of a pre-pubescent hardcore band trying to rock out.

DNA begins the record’s eight-minute coda with the sketchy, sleazy grind of “Egomaniac’s Kiss,” where Arto Lindsay deconstructs the ideological apparatus that allows bar bands that still cover “Roadhouse Blues” to exist. Its cheap keyboard and stuttering guitar work bring the Fall to mind. Then someone switches on that same Casiotone’s arpeggiator and we get the crazed, lock-step assault of shifting sonic layers that is “Lionel,” a song in which everything sounds like a percussion instrument. “Not Moving” is more conventional, harnessing this same assault to a sort of lunging, scummy blues-punk, but it seems the group’s perfected their oddball blend of idioms in this track (though Linday’s vocals are a bit derivative of David Byrne). Finally, the blurted, violent vocal, rampaging guitar and keyboard drone of “Size” close things down in an angular, intentionally repetitious fashion, perhaps providing a passage for listeners to find their way out of, something rudimentary for listeners to remember when this bizarre album came to its close.

Which makes me wonder what kind of impact this album—despite its oft-stated influence—actually had on its listeners. Bands like Blonde Redhead have offered a considerably more polished take on DNA’s ideas, and Sonic Youth began with little more than any of the bands on this record in terms of “talent,” and most likely seemed destined to sputter out with a tiny discography like DNA—a ten-minute EP and some posthumous live stuff—or Mars (whose full-length, a no-wavified remake of Don Giovanni, is supposed to be infamously unlistenable). Of course, Arab on Radar and other Rhode-Island-based practitioners of noisy lunacy would appear to be the most direct antecedents, but it’s safe to say that they’re exploring a territory that was mapped out long ago but never fully colonized, and that there’s been nothing quite like No New York before or since.

Chris Smith

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