Review by: Jonathan Moss
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi
The Contortions were a no wave band, which was essentially a genre of avant-punk made by artistic weirdos as a reaction against new wave, hence the name no wave. Now personally I think new wave is one of the greatest musical genres and I’ve listened to very little no wave.
What I’m trying to say is that this album fucking sucks.
Nah, it’s really good actually! From what I have heard from other no wave bands The Contortions – fronted by endearing mad man James Chance – had a slightly more conventional sound, hell, I even read somewhere that James demanded a certain amount of competence from the band! (incidentally, though called The Contortions at this point, they were always James Chance’s band)
So what does the actual album sound like? It can really best be described as a mix of really scratchy, atonal yet funky Andy Gillesque guitar playing, impassioned yelping from Chance, wild saxophone playing from Chance, catchy, funky basslines, occasionally weird organ playing and man, is the drumming serviceable1. Tone wise, it has a kind of urban, downtown New York vibe, maybe like Marquee Moon but less romantic and whimsical and more like New York probably was at that time (understand, I was born in 1995 and have lived in Glasgow my whole life). While I’m continuing with the easy comparisons, the vocal styling of James Chance sounds remarkably similar to Richard Hell. James sounds a bit sleazier and sarcastic, and his voice isn’t always as animated and amusing as Richard’s was. He can still be pretty wild though, especially on certain songs.
Speaking of certain songs, man do some of these songs individually stick out! Others don’t, but that’s to be expected. Okay, so the opening song “Design to Kill” gets off to a pretty good start, containing all the things that give the album personality and which I’ve already talked about (scratchy funk guitar, catchy bass lines, manic singing). It just contains this really agitated vibe, like the band were bored recording it and just wanted to rip shit up, which explains why James would attack people in concert. During the chorus bit, it also has some nice spy rock2 guitar playing, showing that the record can also do cool, unexpected things! Second song “My Infatuation” continues this unexpected diversity by having a circus rock guitar riff!3, and a weird off-kilter vibe which almost sounds like a drunk walking down an alley in a psychedelic children’s film, like Fritz the Cat! “I Don’t Want to be Happy” might be my favourite song on the album, it just has such a fun, wacky vibe, with funny, sardonic lyrics! Musically it has a cool, groovy organ riff like for bachelor pads where the bachelor also sniffs heroin and murders people. “Contort Yourself” is a classic, showing how melodic the album is, this shit is catchy! The song “Anesthetic” goes for a slightly more serious, less cartoony style, being almost reminiscent of late period Tom Waits and featuring a kind of clanging, almost industrial guitar riff.
So, to get the most obvious complaint out of the way, this album can get pretty monotonous and if you’re not in the mood it’ll probably be pretty annoying. It’s pretty short though, so it’s not a major problem. Not every song is a success, though none of them are bad, just so-so. It’s still a pretty great album though, James Chance had a lot of smart, funny lyrics and the vibe the album does have is fairly unique.
Overall this is definitely an album worth commending, not necessarily due to its historical importance but more because of how fun it is.
1 The drumming might actually be really good, I don’t really know how to talk about drumming unless it’s really obvious it’s good, as with Keith Moon or Bill Bruford.
2 Is spy rock a genre?
3 Is circus rock a genre?