Of the many projects that sprung forth from the dissolution of Sonic Youth, Body/Head—the work of Kim Gordon and collaborator Bill Nace—was initially gripping and memorable. This was largely a result of both the intensity of the band and the raw, emotional nature of Gordon’s compositions, disguised though they were behind a veil of feedback and noise. Coming Apart was resonant in a way that Gordon hadn’t been in a while and her former bandmates couldn’t hope to match. On No Waves, the duo aims to channel that intensity in a live setting, and while they occasionally keep the listener at arm’s length, that visceral feeling is mostly present.
Clocking in at just about 35 minutes, No Waves collects just four songs in three performances. Whereas the studio gave Body/Head a place to expand and meander, the stage seems to make the duo into a more direct and concise outfit. The set, captured from the group’s performance at the Big Ears festival in Knoxville on March 24th, 2014, feels a bit like a conversation in which the listener enters midway through. In other words, it can be a little uncomfortable; however, it doesn’t take long to get absorbed into the world that Gordon and Nace create. Their performance feels nothing like a conventional rock band; rather, it flows and intersects with the freewheeling intensity of jazz or orchestral performance pieces that emphasize improvisation and expression over structured interpretation.
As such, No Waves comes across as a release of new material entirely. Sure, that’s true in one case—opener “Sugar Water” is a brand new song—but even the familiar material here sounds nothing like what one would have expected. Two of Coming Apart’s finest tracks, “Abstract” and “Actress”, are blurred together into one exhilarating piece that terrifies as often as it intrigues. Meanwhile, “The Show Is Over” ebbs and flows in a way that steadily escalates the tension of the piece.
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A simplistic reading would figure that it imitates the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of the Pixies, but that would imply that Body/Head is working within a discernible structure. Instead, Gordon and Nace shift dynamics at will, feeling the mood of the crowd and each other and simply reacting. This instinctual method of playing ends up having both a positive and negative effect on the music being performed: it gives the pieces a sense of spontaneity, yet it also robs them of some power. The visceral impact of Body/Head’s older material can get lost when the two focus more on the moment than on what those pieces meant in the first place.
Even so, No Waves is far from an undermining of what Body/Head’s intentions were the last time out. Gordon still sounds renewed as both a performer and a writer; her compositions remain both deeply personal and cerebral. As a performance, though, No Waves is even more impressive. Far from a staid, arch piece of performance art, the two craft a raw, instinctual web of noise and guitar screech onstage that has far deeper roots than one would expect. As a live snapshot, No Waves is largely successful and further contributes to the artistic mini-renaissance that Gordon is experiencing as of late.