Wednesday, 26 March 2008

ALBUM: James Chance & the Contortions - Buy

Released in 1979, "Buy" by James Chance & the Contortions is one off, if not the seminal New York "No Wave" album. Chance (born James Sigfried) originally moved to New York from Milwaukee in the mid seventies to play free jazz, falling into the cities blooming avant-garde scene, leading him to form the Contortions in 1977. The Contortions' combination of nihilistic noise-funk, free jazz, punk, disco and new wave led to extreme live reviews, both good and bad. Chance’s confrontational style, often starting fist-fights with audience members, and the band's tight funky rhythms, were a draw for the punk, disco and even jazz fans of the late seventies New York scene. It was the tension created by this strange mix that the Contortions thrived on.
Brian Eno took the band into the studio in 1978 to record four tracks for the fantastic ‘No New York’ compilation, joined by other bands from the "No Wave" scene. It was the Contortions songs that stood out. Soon they had enough material for an album, and ‘Buy’ was released in 1979.

"Design to Kill" opens the album with a jerking bass and drum line that is somehow funky yet completely impossible to dance to. Chance’s sax at the start adds spastic bursts of notes like Ornette Coleman on speed, but when Chance’s vocal comes in, the genre-bending becomes even more apparent, his punk anger somehow blending perfectly with the disco rhythms and avant-garde guitar licks.

"My Infatuation" is a spooky march; it sounds like it is about to take-off constantly throughout the song, but never manages it despite Chances vocals almost teasing the band to explode. "Don’t Want to Be Happy" is like a discotheque nightmare: perhaps akin to listening to Chic whilst being tortured, I imagine. This is by no means a bad feeling, just challenging. "I don't want to be happy, I like living a lie" spits Chance over the band's dissonant clangs and squawks.

"Anesthetic" is another nightmare gone wrong song, Chance's saxophone just teetering on the edge over the hypnotic backing before his bitter, angry vocals start teetering even closer to the edge. "Contort Yourself" is painfully funky; the title is superbly apt because contortion is the only dance form possible to this cacophonic bass led jam. Chance's vocal screams are matched only by the equally violent screams on his sax.

"Throw Me Away" sounds almost tame next to "Contort Yourself", but in truth it's another genius piece of manic funk punk, the discordant sax line repeating over and over in the verse like a psychotic bird, until the stop-start chorus leads into that great drum and bass-line. "Roving Eye" is probably the most traditional sounding funk song. It could almost be Bootsy Collins playing bass... it is only when the whole song breaks down to leave Chance's sax blowing out free jazz until he is joined by a less standard backing and odd organ flourishes that you are reminded who you are listening to. It is almost relieving when the good old James Brown groove returns.
"Twice Removed" is another creepy march, leading into the album closer "Bedroom Athlete", which opens with duelling guitars, duelling to see which can be the most out there by the sound of it. Chance's sax then pulls it into another jerky syncopated groove and finishing quite aptly on a squawking squeaking sax "solo".

"Buy" is not easy listening. It is extremely challenging and many will gain nothing but confusion and a headache from it. It's influence on punk-funk as a genre, however, cannot be underestimated. In Leeds around the same time, Gang of Four were making there own brand of punk-funk, but despite Entertainment's political and social commentary, it cannot match Chance's much more personal brand of nihilism and bile.

The combination of punk and funk is almost at odds with the physical compulsion created by both genres. Throughout the album you are often caught between wanting to jump around like a lunatic and wanting to shake your funky stuff, usually ending up in some strange dance falling in between the two: a contortion, if you will.

Dan Matthews