At the early dawn of the 21st century, as a new wave of lean-tuned art punks came crawling out of New York City’s small club scene, one of the hippest LPs to covet was 1978’s No New York, the Brian Eno-produced album that sampled four acts from that city’s underground music scene. These groups were lumped under the banner “no wave” in order to distance them from the still freshly minted new wave crowd of Talking Heads, Blondie, and Television. James Chance & the Contortions were one of the bands on that compilation. They contributed four tracks, as did noise rock pioneers DNA, Mars, and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Saxophonist, songwriter, and vocalist James Chance had been a founder of the latter, but, frustrated with the group’s direction, jumped ship to start his own thing.
What is that thing? It’s more difficult to define than the style of his peers. The others were noisy, atonal, screeching no wave purists. The mind of Chance, on the other hand, sought greater connections and a broader sense of musicality. He was into the punk, but also the funk, the soul, the Afro-pop, the rock, the whatever. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he distilled this all into a slinky-yet-agitated groove, sounding like a coked-out, paranoid, and patently Caucasian James Brown. His sound was both an exaggeration and a minimalization of what Talking Heads were constructing at this same time. On his two albums from 1979, Off White (which was recorded as James White) and Buy, Chance supplied the skeletons for contemporary “disco punk” bands like !!! and the Rapture.
On tour in 1980, however, he sought to blow his own sound wide open, heating up his own chilly style with looser and fuller grooves. A Rotterdam concert from this tour was caught on tape and, in 1991, issued as Soul Exorcism. In the recording studio, Chance’s nervous energy was rattling around inside of him, like a bottle of soda that’s all shook up. On this live album, the top has popped off, unleashing a growling and yelping frontman.
He and his crack backing band kick off this concert in totally weird style, covering, off all people, Michael Jackson. Just one year after Off the Wall, Chance and his Contortions were offering their own take on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. Remember, this is back when Jackson was still a black man; it’s impressive, then, that Chance out-funks Jackson’s ass on his own tune. As entertaining as that cut is, the band’s take on the aforementioned James Brown’s “King Heroin” is haunting and intense. Slow, somewhat disjointed, and injected with darkness, the song matches the drug’s effect and features some crazy, Hendrix-like guitar squalls.
Most of Soul Exorcism Redux, though, is occupied by originals. Of these, only Chance’s classic “Contort Yourself” had previously appeared on a studio LP, making this album even more daring. As if their riotous outpouring of red-hot sound weren’t enough, the Contortions were blasting the audience with a set of almost entirely new tunes. From the sound of the crowd, they were lapping it up. And why not? It’s not everyday you get Fela Kuti-like extended jams played with the wound-up nihilism of post-punk. I guess some could argue that this rarity is a good thing. It is a crazy sound, and one not suitable to everyday listening. But, if you’re all bottled up and ready to explode, then this newly remastered CD is the perfect way to exorcise your twitchy soul.
As something of a P.S., Soul Exorcism Redux comes with three 1987 demos tagged on at the end. Coming after the rapturous workout of the live album proper, these thin, drum machine-backed song scribbles couldn’t be more out of place. I’m certain they’re here only as bait to get the die-hards who already own the first CD pressing to cough up the bucks for this Redux edition. Really, though, the original set speaks for itself. No bonus tracks are needed to render this disc a must-have for all you fans of post-no wave free jazz Afro-funk rock ‘n’ roll.
// Notes from the Road
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