Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27: James Chance, "Contort Yourself"

Artist: James Chance
Song: "Contort Yourself"
Album: Buy
Year: 1979

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While it almost goes without saying that music in itself is an art form, it is odd that many times, when music takes on a more "artsy" form, it is seen as being of lesser value or talent.  That is to say, when an artist or band takes a more avant, completely original take on music, often heavily influenced by other art forms, there are claims that it is "too out there," and not a "valid" form of music.  This has occurred many times throughout the history of recorded music, but it has rarely been more obvious than when one inspects the so-called "no wave" movement of the late 1970's.  Birthed out of the "performance art" community of New York City, this style of music stood in clear defiance of absolutely everything, and while many associate it with the punk sound, there is such a stark contrast between "no wave" and any other form of music, that it cannot be remotely compared to anything else.  While there were only a handful of "true" "no wave" bands, as the style itself was one of the mots short-lived moments in music history, there is no question that James Chance stands among the finest and most influential, and his 1979 debut, Buy, may be the definitive album of the time period and musical style.  Filled with wild musical arrangements and some of the most aggressive, if not confrontational vocals ever recorded, one can quickly understand the entire "no wave" sound by experiencing James Chance's extraordinary 1979 song, "Contort Yourself."

The moment that "Contort Yourself" begins, the rather adversarial nature of the song is immediately apparent, as in every aspect, the song is a far cry from anything else that was being recorded at the time.  Almost the entire song revolves around the bassline from David Hofstra, and there is a looming, almost menacing feel to the unsettling groove that he deploys across the entire song.  Though the tone itself is rather soft, it is the spirit with which he plays that keeps "Contort Yourself" slightly off balance, ensuring that the listener is kept moving throughout the entire song.  The way that this sound combines with the almost scatter-shot drumming from Don Christensen stands as one of the finest rhythm pairings in history, and it is the dry, unrelenting pace he dictates that defines the energy throughout "Contort Yourself."  This nervous tempo is made even more intense by the guitar playing of Jodi Harris, as the main progression that he plays throughout the entire song borders on maddening, and the song as a whole manages to ride the edge of chaos in a way unlike any other recording in history.  Each time that he plays the riff, the song digs deeper into its own insanity, and it is the overall instability added by the slide guitar of Pat Place that makes "Contort Yourself' absolutely unlike anything else in the entire history of recorded music.  The final element of the music is the alto saxophone of James Chance, and the way that he randomly blurts and blares notes all across the track are the ideal finishing touch in terms of mood, and it also displays the songs' connection to the avant styles of jazz music.

Along with his dazzling performance on saxophone, James Chance's vocal display is nothing short of stunning, and there has never been another similar performer before or after his time.  It is the emotion with which he performs that makes Chance so unique, and on many levels, it is this style that cements the link between the "performance art" community an the entire world of "no wave" music.  Though for the most part, Chance's vocals on "Contort Yourself" can be heard as little more than borderline-insane ranting, when one digs deeper, there is without question a form and musicality to his performance.  Creating an additional rhythm that adds to those found within the music, Chance seems to let the sounds around him completely possess the lyrical flow, and there is no question that this stands as one of the most truly inspired vocal performances ever captured on tape.  Along with this rather distinctive style and pace, it is the focus and force with which Chance delivers each word that makes the lyrics themselves impossible to ignore; and this demand to be heard is where the "no wave" movement finds its connection to the word of punk rock.  However, the lyrics themselves separate "Contort Yourself' from an overwhelming majority of punk songs, as there is a poetic brilliance to every line that almost requires being studied.  The words themselves can be interpreted in a number of different ways, as while there is a rather literal meaning to each line, when taken as a whole, one can find far deeper meanings within this focused rant that is stunningly performed by Chance.

In almost every aspect, there is an unapologetic musical revolution to be found all across every note of James Chance's "Contort Yourself," and even more than thirty years after its initial release, the song remains decades ahead of the current music scene.  From the sheer mayhem of the musical arrangement to the unrelenting assault of the vocals, "Contort Yourself" seems to make a point of defying everything musically, and this is perhaps the most clear definition of the entire "no wave" sound.  However, it is impossible to write-off any of these contributions as anything less than vital to the progression of music, as the movement itself was a reminder that there was still plenty to be explored within that world, and the level of talent and quality on "Contort Yourself" is far beyond that of almost any other recording of the entire era.  However, perhaps the most confusing element of the entire song is the fact that when one breaks it down into pieces, it becomes a clear combination of the previous two decades of music.  Within the musical constructs, one can find everything from bop-style jazz to blues to hard rock, and it is impossible to deny the sonic similarity between this song and The Stooges' "L.A. Blues."  With that in mind, one can see "Contort Yourself" as the most balanced and accurate summary of "underground music" to that point in history, and to this day, the song knows no peers.  Though it may seem like musical chaos at first listen, once one digs deeper into the musical forms and intent, there is no denying the absolute genius that is James Chance's 1979 song, "Contort Yourself."

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