Arto Lindsay Trio
(Knitting Factory Works)
A play on new wave, the tag "no wave" was applied to a wing of New York's late-70s punk-rock scene after the influential Brian Eno-produced 1978 compilation No New York. The album introduced to an unsuspecting public the sounds of the Contortions, Mars, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (a launching pad for Lydia Lunch), and DNA. By exploiting punk's liberating disapproval of musical virtuosity, these bands recorded some of the most bracing, challenging art-punk ever made. Oddly tuned guitars, throbbing off-kilter rhythms, and ungodly screaming combined to form a discordant but coherent whole that seemed to mock musical convention. Without these bands groups like Sonic Youth, Swans, and Live Skull would've been less likely to develop the structural and tonal radicalism they became known for.
More than the others DNA practiced their art with remarkable concision and power; their tunes rarely lasted much more than two minutes. Anchored by the freakish organ patterns of Robin Crutchfield and later the thick, churlish bass lines of Tim Wright, guitarist and vocalist Arto Lindsay and drummer Ikue Mori generated a madly unhinged skree that turned the stop-start funk of James Brown into an asymmetrical nightmare. Lindsay spat out dissociative lyrics as if they were sonic spasms and played guitar in much the same way. Eschewing melody altogether, his guitar shrieks were tonally slate gray, arriving either in dronelike waves or in staccato bursts deliberately out of sync with the band's attenuated rhythmic schemes. A true punk drummer, Mori was technically an utter mess, but her primitive thudding brilliantly charged the racket and served as a backbone to the more esoteric machinations of Lindsay and Crutchfield or Wright. Aside from their four entries on No New York, DNA released one six-song EP, A Taste of DNA, and, after they broke up, a posthumous live CD.
The post-DNA careers of Lindsay and Mori have been markedly different. And as a pair of recent releases shows, the two continue to stand far apart.
Lindsay followed DNA with a thrilling stint in the original Golden Palominos, which--prior to serving as drummer Anton Fier's all-star project with people like Michael Stipe and Syd Straw--released one of the best art-rock records of the 80s, fusing raw funk grooves with an assortment of fascinating noise tactics. Most of his post-DNA work, however, was in the Ambitious Lovers, with keyboardist Peter Scherer. They released three increasingly commercial albums of pristine dance pop that were dotted with concentrated blasts of weird noises and Brazilian pop melodies and rhythms (Lindsay, though American born, was raised in Brazil). But Scherer's production sheen sanded away most of Lindsay's quirky personality. At the time Lindsay was also involved in many recording projects under the leadership of others. It seemed as though he lost his originality.
With that in mind Aggregates 1-26 arrives as quite a shocker. Recorded with bassist Melvin Gibbs (a prime mover in the Black Rock Coalition and current member of the Rollins Band) and drummer Dougie Bowne (who's worked extensively with the Lounge Lizards), the album finds Lindsay again enthralled with jarring, obtuse sounds and discombobulated rhythms. Lindsay's deconstructive guitar play drapes over the difficult rhythmic framework constructed by Gibbs and Bowne, who sculpt loose grooves that surge from almost leisurely waddles to explosive barrages of sonic dynamite. The abstract stuff concerns itself more with pure sound and shifting, lopsided rhythms than with anything you'd call a typical song structure. While there are words--Lindsay favors casual, obscure, and sometimes witty ruminations such as "You were asleep / The radio was on / You heard that Michael Jordan had quit / You cried in your dream / I'm not supposed / To fall in love with that?" (from "In Love")--his bizarre vocalizing more often than not sounds like an instrument. He's returned to the stuttered ejaculations of his DNA days, but, more interestingly, on a song like "Recognize" he undergirds dark, grinding chaos with vocals that clearly suggest those of soft-spoken jazz singer Bob Dorough.
While similar in many respects to DNA, the Arto Lindsay Trio expands old tactics with sublimely superior musicianship. Gibbs and Bowne play with potent minimalism, but within Lindsay's restrictive sonic microcosm they're able to sketch out more varied textures, offer more extreme dynamics, and subtly retool claustrophobic rhythms in a way that wasn't possible for DNA's leaden rhythm section. While there's something glorious about Lindsay jumping into such a deliriously unkempt sonic mess once again, it gets tired by the end of the album's 26 selections. While the trio's MO certainly employs a general monochromatic sonic palette, their investigations into minutely varied shades and tones demand attention and patience from the listener that sometimes exceed the rewards. An almost straight tune like the gently sashaying "Looks Like You" serves as a nice diversion. If only there were a few more of them.
Ikue Mori has been more heavily involved in experimental and free improvisation projects. Because her creativity was handicapped by her technical shortcomings on drums, she abandoned them altogether in the late 80s and began using drum machines. She played a number of them simultaneously, most often in the context of free improvisation. As half of Toh Bandjan and as a collaborator on projects with Jim Staley, Zeena Parkins, Tenko, and Catherine Jauniaux, to name a few, Mori developed a strikingly original musical language that's managed to extract an unpredictable edge from a machine. Her interactive skills--necessary in free improv, where the emphasis gets placed on spontaneous give-and-take development rather than overarching structure--are impeccable. On Painted Desert she continues her drum-machine tactics, but for the first time they're in a supporting role and the music is anything but free improvisation.
With Marc Ribot and Robert Quine, a pair of terrific, vastly experienced guitarists best known for their work as sidemen--Ribot's a veteran of recording sessions with Wilson Pickett, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and the John Zorn axis and Quine's played in Richard Hell's Voidoids and offered stunning contributions to records by Lou Reed and Matthew Sweet--Mori has made a gorgeous record clearly inspired by Ennio Morricone's distinctive sound tracks for the spaghetti westerns of filmmaker Sergio Leone. The album focuses on the warm, richly resonant undulations of Ribot and Quine, who play long, twangy, heavily reverbed lines. Their playing reflects a deliciously languid, measured development that stops its linear progress to mull over a specific phrase here and there. Between the meticulously lush textures and coolly tuneful melodies, Quine and Ribot don't do much in the way of guitar grandstanding. Restraint and quietly changing tones give the music slow, sweeping drama and create imaginary landscapes like shifting dunes in a desert. Mori also reveals a heightened dramatic sensibility. Her rhythms are constant and her quirkiness arrives in the form of sporadic but well-placed interjections that either comment upon or prod along the work of the guitarists. Her quiet genius blatantly distinguishes her work from that of a stiff drum machine: she's a loose-limbed drummer who just happens to use machines.
With a number of varied recording situations planned for future release on Zorn's new Tzadik label, Mori has stretched once-limited skills into a generous wealth of possibilities, none of which are typical. While Lindsay's new album shows him traveling full circle, Mori's slowly unraveling body of work suggests that her talent has diffused into ever-varying streams of light.