Body/Head at the MIA, 2/27/14
Photo by Steve Cohen
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis
Thursday, February 27, 2014
When you go to the art museum, you're gonna get some art. Nobody who'd already heard Body/Head's 2013 Matador debut, Coming Apart, went to the MIA Thursday night expecting to sing along with Kim Gordon. Body/Head is Gordon's first musical project since Sonic Youth went on a hiatus that nobody's pretending isn't permanent. The project is a two-guitar collaboration with Massachusetts experimental noise musician Bill Nace, and it doesn't feel quite right to call it a band.
"Bands" play pop or rock, or even pop-art or art-rock. Throughout a brief three-song set, which barely scraped over a half hour, this duo constructed electronic sound sculptures, though Gordon's guitar often disrespectfully scrawled graffiti on these works, her tweaking hooky even at its noisiest. Old habits die hard.
See Also: Slideshow: Body/Head at the MIA, 2/27/14
The initial bursts of noise were shapeless and feckless causes for concern. The fear wasn't that Body/Head would be pretentious -- that was a given. (Anyway, what a silly pejorative, like we all deserve a cash refund whenever an artist's ambition exceeds her execution.) No, the looming pitfall was self-indulgence, a particularly dangerous flaw when your music is this impersonal and abstract, threatening a private conversation between musicians impervious to our eavesdropping.
Photos by Steve Cohen
As the two guitarists settled into their respective roles, these worries subsided. Nace strummed and throttled his Gibson, manipulating the feedback swells he summoned into three-dimensional drones. A modest stage presence in flannel, he nonetheless lunged in what might have seemed like parodies of the classic guitar hero's characteristic poses if the physical effort hadn't been exerted to alter the sound his instrument produced.
Gordon contributed to the drone as well but also added little decorative bits on her Fender. She settled into bass-like pulses, or lightly thwopped muted strings with the butt of her palm, or slashed open-string chords, each adornment also contributing some forward motion more deliberate than Nace's ebb and flow. She toyed with a sharp, controlled feedback hum by disconnecting her patch cord and bringing its metal tip in contact with various parts of the guitar.
Twice during the set Gordon pulled out a harmonica, translating her breath into distorted metallic shards splattered against the backdrop drone. And, like Nace, Gordon also physically maneuvered her instrument for sonic effect, hoisting the guitar above her head and bouncing its sound off the objects on stage.
Gordon wore a faux sports jersey designed by Rodarte, with that clothing line's name across her chest, as perfect an example of her dedication to serve as godmother for arty young women with a knack for self-promotion as her recent guest spot on Girls.
For most of the set, her vocals were inarticulate -- whether or not she was singing actual words, she deliberately subjugated meaning to sound. Gordon's groan first epitomized a certain sleazy self-possessed in the '80s; just as it verged on schtick, her singing took on a haunting madwoman-in-the-attic quality in the late '90s. But in this context, Gordon's voice wasn't primarily expressive or disturbing -- it was comforting, the most familiar sound in the room.
Photo by Steve Cohen
Body/Head finished the night with "Abstract," an unexpectedly quiet, tuneful and simple coda to the improvisational discord that had preceded. Essentially, Gordon repeated "I/ Can only/ Think of you/ In the abstract" over the most melodic instrumental dissonance of the night. The guitars still roiled, but this was the light drumming of rain on the roof after a particularly theatrical thunderstorm. In this context (and this context alone) "Abstract" was as calming as a lullaby and as direct as a pop hit.
Critic's bias: I loved every Sonic Youth album from Sister on. You know the one you thought was their last great album? I loved what they did after that too.
The crowd: Younger hipster couples, possibly MCAD students; balding, bushy-bearded noise-rock heads; middle-aged indie-rockers still mourning Gordon's separation from Thurston Moore and showing their support. In general, mostly folks who don't usually get to frequent the Reception Hall, the part of the MIA where the well-off are wheedled for donations.
Random notebook dump: The video presentation was less compelling. The screen behind Body/Head displayed a visual study of a man and a woman. Occasionally, as when the woman's hair obscured her face, taking on a wispy straw-like quality, it was intriguing. But generally the music seemed to call for something more abstract and allusive.
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