Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Perfect Noise

Many years ago, a friend and I descended into a basement somewhere on Houston Street and took a seat in a folding chair. There were plenty to choose from as not many people had decided to make the same pilgrimage.

Soon, an eminently reasonable man with a large saxophone appeared at the front of the room. He greeted us and we returned the favor. He then put the reed to his lips and...good god, what a sound. Unholy squawks, growls, and shrieks filled the air, interrupted for precious seconds by serpentine melodies - or a pause for breath. The performer looked barely in control of what was issuing from his horn, almost as if it were playing him and not the other way around. My friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. At first.

This was Charles Gayle, one of the preeminent free jazz players of all time, and as the music continued, we settled down and began to resonate with him. It stopped being funny and became beautiful. Fifteen minutes in and we both had our heads down, deeply involved in the sounds. As we listened, we began to hear the overtones, and to discover the rhythms and melodies contained within them.

We didn't look up until he was finished and then applauded long and hard before returning to street level. Before parting ways we shook hands meaningfully, as people do when they've shared a challenging but rewarding experience.

I had no companionship last night at the Knitting Factory when I trekked out there to see Perfect Pussy, but at least I knew a bit of what to expect, thanks to their excellent debut full-length, Say Yes To Love. Live is a very different story for some bands, however. The record, which is slightly more refined than last year's EP, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, is filled with terse songs combining brute force with nuance and electronic sound art with bright guitars and rhythms that gallop, pummel - and swing hard.

As the album title hints, there is an underlay of naïveté to the Perfect Pussy thing, which is embodied perfectly in the fresh-scrubbed (if heavily tattooed) appearance of singer Meredith Graves. On the record, her shouts, screams and squeals are heavily distorted, almost just another texture amidst the squalls and songs. In performance, she attacks each song like an athlete, hurling her body into the tsunami of sound. Graves spent at least some of each song bent over at the waist, her right arm thrown across her back, her left hand clutching the mic, as she attempted to expectorate the lyrics, most of which were indistinguishable from the noise made by the other four members of the band.

While there is some relation to hardcore punk in their sound, Perfect Pussy changed the template a bit by including Shaun Sutkus, who operates a table of electronics that add a wealth of variety and texture to the songs. This puts them in a lineage with Pere Ubu, the Cleveland-based proto-punk band whose original incarnation featured Allen Ravenstine playing EML synthesizers as electronic sound generators rather than to emulate acoustic instruments. Not only does this mean they could do a perfect cover of Life Stinks, but it also means they are prone to allow songs to devolve into feedback laden collages that reverberate and deliquesce with some of the same random quality as a guitar left leaning against an amp.

But most of the show was constant motion as all (except for Sutkus, an oasis of analytical calm) translated the explosive songs into physical forms, each in their own way. Garrett Koloski, bearish behind his drums, seemed to deal out the rhythms rather than just play them, while Ray McAndew on guitar and Greg Ambler on bass attacked their instruments with impunity, especially the latter whose head sprayed sweat that caught the light like diamonds. But Graves was the focus of attention, her leaps and whipsaw twists our roadmap to the sections of each song. She was riveting to watch and I doubt anyone in the room was having a better time than her.

As a totality, there was a sense that the members of Perfect Pussy were riding the waves of their own creations, which is what put me in mind of Charles Gayle, along with the appearance that they, too, were reasonable people. And then, after 20-25 minutes - just like that - it was over. Practiced indie band that they are, they were packed up and off the stage in a flash. They're known for their short sets and wisely so, as it allows them to push the intensity into the red while still leaving the audience wanting more. There was no question of an encore, as they had another gig at St. Vitus shortly after the one I saw.

Both concerts were part of the Northside Festival, which meant there was a lot of foofaraw surrounding the show. When I walked into the Knit, I found it colonized by Palladia "a state of the art high-definition channel showcasing the best in music from today's biggest artists." Dont feel bad, I never heard of it either. There were Palladia staffers milling around and a giant logo on the wall surrounded by memorabilia.

Palladia is owned by the same division of Viacom as MTV and VH1 and there were also many people with corporate lanyards on, which led me to worry for a moment that I was the only one who had actually paid to get in. The lineup for the night was "curated" by Linda Perry as promotion for her reality show Make Or Break: The Linda Perry Project, in which the perpetrator of the execrable 4 Non Blondes will search for the "best and brightest new artists to sign to her record label." Perry herself was the MC for the night, introducing the bands, giving away classic albums and telling us what was wrong with music today. To which I would say, don't we have you to blame for James Blunt as well as top 40 fodder by Pink, Gwen Stefani, etc.? In any case, her final message was "It doesn't matter if you don't like me or what I do, just watch the show." Well, OK.

In the end, this was a surgical strike for me to see Perfect Pussy, a hot ticket that usually sell out. I did check out the other bands (Shilpa Ray and Roya), but neither was for me. I believe Meredith Graves & Co. will be with us for a while and I'm excited to hear - and see - where the wave takes them next.

Give a listen to Interference Fits, a standout track from Say Yes To Love and watch six seconds of "scenes from a song" performed last night.


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