Review Summary: i can't stand myself2 of 5 thought this review was well written
No Wave was always more of a reactionary art statement than a defined musical genre: most of the bands consisted of drugged out punks banging out noise from their ragged instruments in rebellion against the popular New Wave. The precedence it set was extremely influential; Swans, Sonic Youth, and a whole slew of other noise and industrial bands followed suit during and after the No Wave scene. While bands like DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks made sounds closer to aural art than actual cohesive music, one musician stands out: James Siegfried, better known under his aliases James Chance and James White.
James Chance and the Contortions play a mix of punk, funk, free jazz, and noise. I could say that Buy
sounds like James Brown playing a show with Saccharine Trust, but that would dismiss some of the finesse that this album has. Unlike his contemporaries in the No Wave scene, Chance demands that the people in his band can actually play
their instruments. The result is an extremely tight band, they follow each other’s grooves, the horns go off on solos and return right back into the main hook at the precise time that the bass finishes its syncopated fill. There are moments in this album where you stop listening to the music and just marvel at how well it is played.
We know from Dream Theatre that good musicianship =/= good music. The reason why the musicianship stands out in the appropriate ways is because of the excellent songwriting. Funky 9th chords abound, this band’s main groove is rooted in the funk of James Brown, played with a hard punk edge with enough room to breathe to throw in some free jazz solos. At this point in the review, I would normally make note of some stand-out tracks, but every track on this record is just as good as any other. Whether it be the bass-heavy “I Don’t Wanna Be Happy,” the avant jazz guitar attack of “Design to Kill,” the schizo-saxophone of “My Infatuation,” the slow, creeping and unsettling lounge jazz of “Twice Removed” or the balls out funky dance of “Contort Yourself,” every cut on this album delivers.
It might seem that James Chance and the Contortions are the oddball of the No Wave scene. While this is true in many ways, they do share one critical convergence. The music was all about the live show: the band always looked haggard, strung out, they improved like mad and flung themselves completely into the performance. Listening to this music makes me want to get up and try to do the nerdiest funk dance a white boy can muster.
It might seem like this music is funky and fun, which it is. James Chance’s raspy street punk meets James Brown vocals are infectiously catchy and funky. However, there is a darker side. Lyrics like “I don’t wanna be happy// I like livin a lie,” and “I can’t stand myself; throw me away,” are pretty cynical and nihilistic. But they sing it with so sharply, and so badass that you don’t care about anything either and all you wanna do is take drugs and dance, man.
Overall, this album is a unique, creative gem that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. If you’re on sputnik, chances are you need this album.