opinion byPETER TABAKIS
Before taking a three-year hiatus in 2010, No Age ended Everything in Between, the band’s strongest album to date, with an improbably effervescent track called “Chem Trails.” That song – with its call-and-response verse, enthusiastic chorus, clear-as-a-bell production (at least by the band’s standards), and guitar-solo heroism – held the promise that the LA noise-punk duo would maybe someday emerge from the fuzz to fully embrace their underlying pop tendencies. In other words, they’d stride down the trail Sonic Youth blazed in the late-80s. The pithy punk outbursts No Age are best known for hardly invite comparisons to the commanding, magisterial distortion of a typical Sonic Youth composition. But like their elder no-wave forbears, guitarist Randy Randall and singer/drummer Dean Spunt have tamed their archest sonic impulses (see their first five EPs and some of Nouns) to make tunes you can actually sing along with (see the rest of Nouns and most of Everything in Between).
On their new album An Object, No Age largely (but not completely) zag away from both pop and punk immediacy, perhaps because another zig in the direction of either would have been too predictable, or maybe impossible. In recent interviews, Randall and Spunt have described the writing process for their third LP as problematic. The bandmates re-recorded and scrapped songs until they eventually reworked the very blueprint of their sound. Spunt soon became fixated on the new album not only as music to stream out of headphones like magic, but as a tactile artifact (an object – get it?). So the No Age boys dove into the industrial arts and focused on self-designing An Object’s artwork and packaging. They even assembled the first batch of CDs and records by hand, to Sub Pop’s (understandable) chagrin.
When a vaguely Marxist, performance-art stunt is the most noteworthy part of an album’s creation story, you’d expect it to be a mess, if not a complete fiasco. Remarkably, An Object is a confident and frequently affecting, if ponderous and flawed, detour for No Age. Randall and Spunt have indeed reworked the signature No Age sound. Only four of these eleven tracks approach the coiled punk vigor the duo’s previous albums had in such abundance. Many songs meander into formless, sound-collage territory, and some are stripped so lean that they could pass as No Age demos. Triumphant guitar riffs are also in short supply – Randall’s guitar melodies often arrive as repeating quarter-note pulses. Spunt’s voice is at the forefront, and he regularly delivers impressionistic lyrics in a sour monotone.
The band’s new direction, however jarring, doesn’t signify some sort of decline and is not disappointing on its own. In fact, An Object is most successful when it least resembles a No Age album. The wistful and listless “Running from A-Go-Go,” which deftly evokes the lonesomeness of an empty stretch of highway, could be a lost Yo La Tengo gem. The rippling ambient tones of the album’s closer “Commerce, Comment, Commence” swell to a slight, dissonant crest as Spunt sing-speaks absurd lyrics (like “time opens up like the back of a pickup truck”) with such boredom that what should summon scorn instead comes off as strange and lovely. One of An Object’s simplest songs, the gentle “An Impression,” is also its most radical. Spunt, employing a bass guitar and a contact microphone, which provides a basic beat click, fashions the song’s minimal scaffolding as strings swell and Randall’s guitar triplets enter and exit. The album’s highlight “I Won’t Be Your Generator” ranks among the duo’s finest songs. The song glows with warmth and shimmers with guitar arpeggios, but it’s Spunt’s desperate pleas to a lover (“Show me some decency”), so fragile and heartbreaking, that make its grip as inescapable as a pop anthem.
An Object’s uptempo songs are more problematic, since they suffer in comparison to the bulk of No Age’s earlier work. The lead single “C’mon, Stimmung” comes closest to recapturing the duo’s vintage thrills, with squalls of guitar feedback delivering the song’s hook. Notably, it’s the album’s noisiest track. Flat eighth-note guitar riffs temper “Circling With Dizzy” – an equally vigorous track – and its overall breathless rush. Airless garage stomper “Lock Box,” however, exposes the labor that went into An Object, which “No Ground,” the album’s twisted surf rock opener, nods at in its lyrics (“Who do you think you are, trying so hard?”).
An Object comes and goes so swiftly that its worst tracks (“Lock Box,” “My Hands, Birch and Steel”) pass by almost unobtrusively, which gives the album a sheen of accomplishment it doesn’t entirely earn. No Age may not have delivered another knockout, but An Object compensates for its shortcomings by being a mature and often moving album, a first for the duo. Even punks have to grow up sometime. [B]