When Steve Albini declared James Chance and the Contortion’s “Flip Your Face” — featured on the classic, Eno-curated compilation No New York — his favorite song of all time, he must have drawn a parallel or two with his work in bands like Big Black and Shellac. Just as those bands challenged the very conventions and constitution of “pop music” — Hell, “He’s A Whore” might’ve been another “In A Jar” if not for Big Black’s propensity towards the grating — The Contortion’s blistering mélange of avant-jazz and punk rock defied the burgeoning gleam of new wave, resulting in some perverted cousin of disco that seemed to spit in the face of conventional pop.
I’m wondering, then, what he might think about Adele Bertei. A veteran punk rocker, songwriter, musician, and eventual filmmaker, Bertei is perhaps best known as the Contortions’ original keyboardist. With Phantascope — the second album by LA’s Anubian Lights (and first counting Bertei as a member) — she seems to have forsaken the Contortion’s guiding, deconstructionist maxim. Album opener and first single “Wild Winter” plays like a glossed up, streamlined-for-marketability interpretation of “Flip Your Face”. Incorporating backwards-sounding guitar thrashes, outré-Motown bass thumps, and the type of organ solo that might result from an elbow-drop to the keys, the song centers around Bertei’s gruffly distant, distorted vocals. A clear throwback to Chance and co., “Wild Winter” still comes off as “art-damage lite”; it’s oddly digestible and awkwardly premeditated, perhaps intentionally crowding the art-grime niche now occupied by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Oh, so the story, then: formed in 1995 as an extracurricular outlet for multi-instrumentalists Tommy Grenas and Len Del Rio (the two had already been collaborating for eight years), Anubian Lights finally released their debut Naz Bar in 2001. Subscribing to the notion that “anything can and will be possible, without limitation”, the duo crafted a sound from a range of disparate influences: from their mutual love of krautrock to house and second-wave ska to psych-rock, trip-hop and a myriad of other styles. When introduced to Adele Bertei while working with her fellow No New York alumni Lydia Lynch (of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), the Lights expanded to a trio, pushing Bertei’s gravelly yet alluring vocals to the forefront of their already eclectic compositions.
Unfortunately, that eclecticism is the problem here. Between all the genre-hopping, I can’t shake the feeling that Phantascope is at its best a mere exultation of the obviously wide-ranging musical palette of the group, itself. Following the erratic, no-waved “Wild Winter”, the housey “Bhajan”, — with its Madchester beat and distant, near-spoken-word vocals (this time courtesy of Grenas) — seems embarrassingly out of place. These aural acrobatics continue with “Way Gone Man”, a mid-tempo, synthed-out wink at Missing Persons and Blondie driven by Bertei’s (thankfully) distortion-less vocals and some Scary Monsters-cribbed guitar work. And while none of Phantascope is truly horrible — most songs succeed in their own right — it’s a confusing, if not simply wearisome listen, leaving me to wonder whether the Lights’ oft-awkward versatility is the result of a critic’s cognition or the embarrassingly wide-eyed veneration of a couple of aged fanboys (and girl).
In the end, I suppose, what I find most problematic about the disc is hearing a musician like Adele Bertei — whose past work so aptly deconstructed and reinterpreted its pop surroundings — simply concocting a mere homage to her most enduring contemporaries. That isn’t to say that Phantascope isn’t worth a try: such derivation never failed for acts like Saint Etienne. After Anubian Lights’ largely instrumental and sample-laden debut, Bertei’s presence here is a certainly a welcome one. Come third album, I just hope that they finally learn to play to their strengths and experience, not their record collections.