After the dissolution of Sonic Youth, the various members kept just as busy as they had in between full-band records, branching out into various solo and side projects. It was a fun puzzle to map out just what each person had brought to the band, what direction they’d contributed, where they were heading, and what they valued. Among them, Kim Gordon’s debut with Bill Nace as Body/Head, Coming Apart, felt the most urgent, the most necessary. Perhaps it’s reading too much into the personal to associate the record’s bruised and bruising abstractions and noise with her public personal struggles, but it certainly felt like the product of a lot of pain.
It may be unsurprising, then, that Body/Head didn’t wind up on a major tour, turning up under spotlights, in front of prying eyes, on stages across the world. The few shows that they did play were reportedly incredible, cathartic experiences in which the walls of guitar drone closed in and Gordon’s evocative, emotional voice cracked and pushed beyond the cool monotone it’s often known for. One such performance came during Knoxville, Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival, the superbly eclectic outing a perfect situation for a Body/Head performance. The result was reportedly transcendent.
The duo’s first full-length since that 2013 debut and subsequent intermittent live performances is No Waves, a live recording of that Big Ears set. The result is a mixed bag, some moments of sublime power but a lot that’ll leave some head-scratching as well. At just three tracks and 38 minutes, the record feels nowhere near as essential as the debut that spawned it. Like an Instagram photo of a great meal, the secondhand experience can be nice, but nothing like actually being there.
For one, it’s strange to hear applause jammed in between tracks from Body/Head. In the at-home listening experience, the space between Coming Apart tracks was filled with, at most, thoughtful contemplation. The recording also has its flaws, Gordon’s voice obscured to a degree, almost as if it’s faded by the sun and unable to come into focus. Feedback squalls and layered guitar drone can be difficult to capture in a studio, let alone live, and the three-dimensional feel of these massive sounds while in front of the speakers doesn’t always translate successfully to a live recording.
Gordon’s vocals on opener “Sugar Water” are nearly impossible to pick out, and while that may have been the chosen affect for the performance, it’s hard not to associate that here with the recording. The harmonic solo of “The Show Is Over” lacks in subtlety in this format, blaring and tinny, while the guitars don’t fare much better, the low end of the feedback failing to register.
But then these two are masterful musicians and tone-setters, and No Waves isn’t without its rewards. The stuttering waves of feedback on “Sugar Water” wash over like sand, blasting away preconceived notions. The nearly 24-minute “Abstract/Actress” closes the record on a serious high, the guitar drone reaching an ecstatic peak before things fall apart, and Gordon moans and calls her way into the depths, the harmonica suddenly transforming into a perversion of the blues.
Conceptually, it makes sense to want to give a live Body/Head record to the world, to allow fans the opportunity to experience what the duo can produce live for those unable to attend their few public performances. But the concept is far more ideal than it is practical, and No Waves dips between meaningful highs and shrug-worthy emptiness.
Essential Tracks: “Abstract/Actress”