James Chance & the Contortions
Buy ( Ze) Click here to listen to "Contort Yourself."James Chance laid the groundwork for every guitarist currently struggling to maneuver his skinny-blazered arms freely enough to wring frantic, chicken-scratch chords from his instrument. The Contortions' debut album, first released in 1979 and reissued this month, fuses punk energy, unsteady disco rhythms, and unhinged funk, with Chance barking in bitter triumph over it all. Uniting hitherto incompatible genres into a form that made the most of its contradictions, the Contortions prefigured the current crop of "dance rock" acts like !!! and Liars, but the latter-day bands can't match their mentors' shizophonic sound. In "Contort Yourself," the album's undisputed anthem, guitarists Pat Place and Jody Harris stab at Chance's saxophone fills, which spill out like entrails. A bonus live cut of "Jailhouse Rock" contains a moment of punk prescience: Chance snarls, "And now a little something for those of you that live in the past—and that's about 99 percent of you idiots out there."
Lesson No. 1 ( Acute)
Click here to listen to "Lesson No. 1."Glenn Branca, who in the 1980s became known for the monolithic "symphonies" he composed for dozens of electric guitars, has based his career upon one essential theme: the prismatic sound of a single note multiplied and refracted into a dazzling spray of harmonics. The three pieces here, recorded between 1980 and 1982, run from eight to 16 minutes apiece and are written for guitars, bass, drums, organ, and "sledgehammer"; they translate the minimalist cycles of Steve Reich—who in the 1960s revolutionized classical music by obliterating linear melody in favor of extreme repetition—into maximalist chimes that sound like amplified versions of the music of the spheres. The sour chords and trashcan clang on "Lesson No. 1" sound like Sonic Youth's live jams, which makes sense: Both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo did time in Branca's ensembles, and both appear here on the 1982 track "Bad Smells."
DNA on DNA ( No More Records) Click here to listen to "Egomaniac's Kiss," and here to listen to "New Fast."Like James Chance, downtown noise rockers DNA first appeared alongside Mars and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks on the 1978 compilation No New York, the Brian Eno-produced collection that introduced the short-lived post-punk scene called "no wave." Despite the movement's nihilistic name, DNA on DNA—a compilation of singles, unreleased cuts, and live recordings, recorded between 1978 and DNA's demise four years later—shows how no wave cleared the way for some of the most exuberant, exhilarating rock music of the century. Tunes like the rollicking "Egomaniac's Kiss" sound like calcified glam rock, but elsewhere increasingly irregular arrangements, like the flailing, inverted galloping of "New Fast," knock down established forms and beat the bricks and rubble together, as if broadcasting manifestos in clumsy Morse code. Almost no song lasts longer than two minutes (and many of them barely hit the one-minute mark); the effect, from today's perspective, is like watching time-lapse footage of rock's evolution.
Tokio Airport (Acute) Click here to listen to "Suspenders in the Park."Parisian punks Metal Urbain answered punk's egalitarian challenge by giving a drum machine the privileged seat usually reserved for incompetent tub-thumpers (possibly at great risk of offending the French musicians' union). In their second incarnation, as Metal Boys, they also demoted the guitars, favoring squirrelly synthesizer squawks and space-age circus organs. Where Metal Urbain were faithful to punk's three-chord format, 1980's Tokio Airport flirts with lounge jazz, intergalactic hymns, and electronic fugues (the psychological state, not the Baroque form). Even the "rock" songs here are puzzling, inspiring questions like, "How did all those bees get in my speakers, and where did they get such small guitars?" It's tempting to call this retrieved artifact, more curio than classic, a Rosetta Stone for French punk. But the English singer China's lyrics—like "The rain it stops my tits from growing/ Napalm you're so good in bed," showcased on "Suspenders in the Park"—are more opaque than illuminating.
So Young but So Cold: Underground French Music 1977-1983 ( Tigersushi)
Click here to listen to Ruth's "Roman Photo," and here to listen to Richard Pinhas' "Iceland."The Paris label Tigersushi takes an unusually catholic approach to reissues, pairing all-but-unrelated songs—a 1995 Chicago house track and a 1980 disco cut from Bill Laswell's Material, for instance—on a single 12-inch EP. This compare-and-contrast approach allows us to consider how categories like "dance music" cut across time and place. So Young but So Cold focuses on only six years of "underground French music"—which here seems to mean quirky rock, disco, and electro-pop—but it uncovers a welcome, varied range of sounds by virtual unknowns who have long since disappeared into the secondhand bins of the Marais. Ruth's "Roman Photo" balances repetitive keyboards with burping horns that wouldn't sound out of place in a New Orleans funeral march, while yearning, sci-fi interludes from Tim Blake and Richard Pinhas serve as the missing links between Jean-Michel Jarre, Stereolab, and this year's synthesizing stargazers M83. Reissues like this one underscore the irrational, rapturous belief at the heart of the crate-diggers' quest: If this stuff has gone undiscovered for so long, just think what else is out there.