James Chance and Les Contortions
Styles: no wave, punk-funk, noir, free jazz
Others: Barry Adamson, Defunkt, Lounge Lizards, Hubert Selby Jr., Lydia Lunch
Kurt: “I’m Kurt, I’m 11, I’m incorrigible.”
Kurt: “What’s incorrigible?”
Maria: “I think it means you want to be treated like a boy.”
While not quite a boy, James Chance was no more than a young man in the period for which he’s best known, the late 70s in No Wave New York, where he collaborated with fellow provocateur Lydia Lunch in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and formed the first incarnation of The Contortions. Three decades later, has our little boy grown up?
Like a typical teenager, Chance’s music was, and continues to be, angsty (in the best sense), confrontational, and rejectionist, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Even among a sea of worthy contenders for that crown, Chance was the seminal point of the emergent locus between punk and funk. But where others would later take this in a predictably frat boy or indie party direction, his vision was always the self-destructive sneer, turned both inward and outward — typical of early punk, but expressed with the more cerebral Freudianism that was No Wave’s hallmark.
Getting away from the meta-references of pop culture and into the literal signified, ‘incorrigible’ has the sense not only of ‘wild’ or ‘unruly,’ but specifically of being so in a way that resists or shrugs off any possibility of a return to the fold. In that sense, it’s an appropriate title; unlike a more stereotypical trajectory toward mellowing with age, Chance continues to rail against himself and the world. That isn’t to say, though, that there’s no control here: Incorrigible! lies somewhere between the No Wave squalls of The Contortions and the (relative) accessibility of the tight, locked-in grooves of James White (see below). Les Contortions, as you might guess by the definite article, are a French reincarnation of the original group, with whom Chance has been working since the mid-2000s. Most tracks top the six-minute mark, as they explore the typical jazz/funk paradigm of a contrast between the hypnotic groove and the scribbling jam. But this never descends to the masturbatory quality that the description might gesture to.
Perhaps it’s Chance’s self-loathing that keeps the sense of too much pleasure in one’s own outpourings from inhering, even within the long-form groove. Indeed, he might be seen as an example of Adorno’s sado-masochistic Jazz-Subjekt, if in saying so I may put the question of political totalitarianism aside. But speaking of the critique of capitalism, “The Splurge” is an anti-shopping torrent, and while I’m certainly down with the message and with the sonics of this musical vehicle, I can’t help but wonder — clichéd though the critique may be — if shopping is the problem, shouldn’t the album be given away? The economic analysis continues on “It All Depends On The Amount,” a song that begins as a “ladies take warning” ballad before reducing love and sex to the primordial transactional self of homo economicus.
The neo-Marxist analysis inherent in a reading of economics and labor as a substructure defies the question of authenticity, of the kind of African-American-targeted Orientalism that has dogged the relationship between black and white music since the blues. This is a paradigm that’s currently playing itself out in the critical adulation rained down upon footwork; a representative and unconsciously telling statement describes it as “one of the last untapped (and resultantly, unfiltered) hood dance music styles in the world.” Chance explored this nexus — using irony to challenge authenticity, with politically questionable but aurally brilliant results — on 1979’s Off White, on which his group was billed as “James White and the Blacks.”
Here, however, he has put questions of race aside in favor of class — as on “Home Is Where The Hurt Is,” an addict castigating the hypocrisy of those who would judge: “You sit there with your alcohol and cigarettes and all your power.” One of the album’s slower pieces, it’s a moving, defiant, knock-em-down-drag-em-out tale of junkiedom.
So thought I wrote earlier that Chance hadn’t mellowed, that statement might be qualified. “Terminal City” explores noirish territory that has long been the preserve of Chanceian (or should that be ludic?) fellow travellers – Lunch, or Barry Adamson – but which, for him, breaks new ground. And the album also features a moving cover of Billie Holiday’s “Yesterdays,” a nod to the self-destructive side of pre-rock’n’roll popular music, and to the jazzier, more croonerish side of the tracks. Reminiscent of Hell covering Sinatra, but mournfuller, the nostalgic aspect of the Janus face of suffering is allowed space to breathe its foetid fumes. Where Kurt von Trapp may have wanted to be treated like a boy, it’s the uncertainties, sorrows and spitting rages of Chance’s maturity which deserve congratulations.
02. Home Is Where the Hatred Is
03. The Splurge
04. It Depends on the Amount
05. Pull the Plug
08. Terminal City