Buy – James Chance and The Contortions
By Tyler Mandell | Top Tracks: Contort Yourself, I Don’t Want to Be Happy, Throw Me Away, Incorrigible (Bonus Track)
Part of the fun of being a music geek is discovering weird unfamiliar terms and genres to describe music you like. Do you have a thing for disco music with lots of bouncy beats and synthesizers? That’s known as Italo-disco! Do you like dark, atmospheric, jazzy music with hip-hop beats? That’s trip-hop! One of my favorite genres I’ve come across is the difficult to describe “no wave” scene.
This genre is hard to describe, and more fitting to just experience it. (This also goes for the album I’ll be talking about.) It originated in late 70s post-Vietnam New York to reflect its economic disparity, with many songs written to be quite nihilistic and antagonizing. Music-wise, most no wave tends to be an avant-garde mix of punk, funk, disco, free jazz, noise, and a general sense of experimentation. It was built out of atonal sounds and orchestrations, with more importance on texture and rhythm rather than melody. In other words, no wave was ferociously offbeat and (intentionally) aggressively ugly.
The no wave scene and all its elements were never better represented than with the album Buy by James Chance and The Contortions. I love this album though it’s extremely polarizing, and I don’t know how many people reading this would genuinely enjoy it as well. It’s consistently fascinating and danceable, yet also so chaotic and abrasive. If I had to describe it in another way, I’d call it some sort of mutant disco or dance-punk. Every song is filled to the brim with jarring guitar riffs, great drums, and some of the most creative uses of saxophone playing you’ll hear.
It feels so dangerous and edgy. Whereas most punk rock bands of the 70s tended to go in safer directions such as post-punk or poppy new wave, no wave brought punk music’s harsh, abrasive feel to a whole new level. The most noticeable part of this album is the performances of lead singer-songwriter James Chance. He might be the most jarring part of every song, with lots of expressive and cartoony yelps and screeches. Yet he fits perfectly and adds to the songs because of how he fits perfectly with the aggressive sound heard throughout.
My favorite track was the first one I heard from the band, “Contort Yourself,” which is now one of my all-time favorite songs. It’s so frantic and jittery and has Chance literally *screaming* by the end, but it culminates into one of the most danceable and fun songs ever. The guitars, horns, and drums are firing on all cylinders here. Yet it’s so jarring, like anxiety personified.
The rest of the album has similar qualities, with the band making form out of mountains of chaos. Every other second it sounds as if the band is about to fall apart yet every instrument and note is meticulously thought out. My write-up is a bit all over the place (like the album!), sure, but this is an album and genre that works best when you listen to it. Some of it may be unbearable and uncomfortable to newcomers, but it’s punk at some of its most original. The Contortions’ influence can be seen in a few modern post-punk bands such as Squid and Black Midi, as well as many experimental scenes such as industrial music and noise rock. If anything, I think this album and band should be up there with more popular no wave acts like Swans or Sonic Youth.
Also, if you do listen to the album, I highly recommend the bonus tracks. The Contortions are one of the few bands to sound the same in their studio recordings and live performances, and that says a lot considering how lively they are already.