Time Based Art Festival 2013
TBA: Body/Head at the Works
Day 8: Kim Gordon's new band built a lot of tension, but it wasn't clear what they were building towards.
As Body/Head, former Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon and experimental veteran Bill Nace make largely improvisational noise rock with just two guitars and Gordon’s off-kilter, idiosyncratic vocals. It’s music that demands a lot of concentration and presence of mind, both from the performers and from the audience, and in all honesty, it’s difficult to judge the best place from which to approach this new project.
Plenty of critics have cast Body/Head as an evocative resurgence for Gordon in the wake of her divorce from husband and Sonic Youth bandmate, Thurston Moore—a narrative that seems simultaneously too obvious and too limiting. It’s hard to escape, though. Whoever chose to pump Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors over the stereo before the show had me—intentionally or not—thinking about failed rock relationships. But I’m not sure that was the best way to prepare myself for what Body/Head was about to do.
What they offered, it turned out, was a set that started strong, finished strong, and seemed to get a little lost in the middle. The two guitars opened the performance with plinking, open-stringed figures and occasional dissonance that felt compelling in a manner reminiscent of a post-rock build-up. But tension without release can feel extraordinarily stagnant to the point of ceasing to be tense, and even as the shimmering guitar gave way to more unsettling feedback, it was never entirely clear what Gordon and Nace were building towards.
The slow-motion videos projected behind the musicians didn’t always help matters. Often head shots of someone staring into the camera or shaking their hair, they lent an unnecessary air of melodrama to what was already a pretty serious undertaking. Occasionally the visuals felt intentionally well-matched to the music, but other times it was all just too much to handle. At one point, a slowed sequence of a woman pounding her fists in a childlike tantrum against a mattress sent people around me into audible fits of laughter; it was symptomatic of a general loss of focus that seemed to plague the middle of the band’s set.
Gordon and Nace have made clear that they improvise with a vision, though, and true to form, it was just when things seemed most disjointed that suddenly the music seemed to coalesce. A final distorted, resolving chord from Nace cascaded repeatedly over slight feedback from Gordon’s guitar, now abandoned near her amp, and then the show was over.
To Body/Head’s credit, I think Gordon and Nace are completely aware of the limitations of their craft. Their set was gracefully concise, which is saying something for music that seems expressly designed to stretch the audience’s perception of time. It also seemed remarkably restrained: each song could have easily devolved into escalating feedback loops and gut-wrenching dissonance but instead remained—by the standards of noise music— somehow mellow. It’s a laudable trait for a band this experimental, but I can’t help thinking that a bit more self-indulgence might have helped a performance that, simply put, didn’t really go anywhere. At times the set felt languorous, yet when it was over I still felt like it had barely begun. It was evidence that sometimes it’s not a good thing to leave the audience wanting more.