Shoegazing in flip flops: No Age sings sitting down
Dean Spunt, the drummer for art-punk duo No Age, is also its lead vocalist, which accounts for perhaps the main charm of the raucous two-and-a-half-minute buzzsaw concertos he makes with guitarist Randy Randall: They sound like they’re sung sitting down. Already plenty limited, the biomechanical handicaps sitting puts on diaphragm control, and forceful thoracic function in general, no doubt render Sprunt’s voice weaker and more ragged still, and not always artfully so. But even—or especially—when he’s gasping, assuming the position does wonders for our suspension of punk disbelief: Paeans to youthful ambivalence and romantic ennui can’t help but ring a bit false when delivered with the posture and conviction of a stump speech; much better to produce the words as they’re meant to be received—hunched over, gaze fixed, limbs flailing.
And so they are. What stands out immediately about Everything In Between, New Age’s new album, for anyone familiar with their singles collection Weird Rippers or debut proper Nouns, is the promotion of Spunt’s vocals several rungs up the sonic org chart. They used to emerge, late and indistinct, in the slipstream behind Randall’s massive guitar lines; here, they still tend to arrive a quarter of the way or more through the (slightly longer) songs, but enter with the authority, and volume, of an instrument willing and able to commandeer the melody. It does so regularly, to great effect, on the poppier first half of Everything In Between.
Opening the disc, “Life Prowler” has a kick drum rather menacingly imitating knocks at a door, joined ten seconds in by a shimmering three-note guitar theme, but it’s the lyrics that establish the workaday dreamscape of the album: “One time is all I need / to know my job’s complete / and when I reach into / myself, my past comes true.” Now that you can hear him over the critically acclaimed din—it’s become something of a trope of No Age literature to wonder how two people could make so much noise—Spunt turns out to be, if not exactly Milton or Dylan, agreeably economical and ironical as a lyricist, with the smart but slouchy sentiments, the tossed-off profundity, to match the delivery.
In any case, limitation is the mother of pop invention, and sincere necessity always formally flattering: Spunt’s monotonal musings work best neither hidden behind nor futilely aping the rangey guitar work but rather in explicit conversation with it, partners in the call-and-response sass of some cracked Phil Spector girl group. On the current single, “Glitter,” the chorus—or the closest No Age ever gets to a chorus—has the human, droll and mechanical, droning “I don’t fear god / I don’t fear anything / at all / cause I know…” What it is he knows is filled in by an epic banshee wail extruded through fuzzboxes, wah-wah pedals, and sundry related contraptions of mass distortion—an edifying reminder, for the rockist moralizers still cursing the times, that the electric guitar was the original AutoTune.
Everything In Between, in other words, finds a maturing No Age clambering out intact and emboldened from behind the wall of buzz—pun duly intended. Three years ago, Spunt and Randall first emerged in the national consciousness, or certain precincts of it, as avatars and spokesmen for a D.I.Y. punk-rock renaissance said to be flourishing in Los Angeles, around a performance space–cum–community center called The Smell. (Other affiliates, varyingly scruffy and experimental, include The Mae Shi, Silver Daggers, Abe Vigoda, and the recently disbanded Mika Miko.) And while it tests credulity to imagine a city of four million people and 500 square miles—or a county of ten million and almost 5,000 (that is, about the size of Connecticut)—having only one epochal scene, and that scene having exactly one important venue, it’s easy to understand why they attracted such fulsome praise, and ethnographic interest, from The New Yorker and Pitchfork Media on either end of the American East’s Brooklyn–Boston–Chicago, campus-to–cocktail-party cultural axis.
On one hand, that is, The Smell was redolent of the glazy California guilelessness which, for outsiders, seems so alien and thus definitive. Less a club than a Club, it was (and is) staffed by volunteers, sold vegan food at cost and haircuts for $5, and had enough faith in unaltered neurochemistry—and the acts—to declare its events drug-free, alcohol-free, and open to all ages. On No Age’s part, even the skuzzy, dirgy, largely instrumental tracks like Everywhere’s “Sorts” and “Dusted” have a certain sunniness, a lightness of touch and fleetness of feet that seems particularly Pacific. They slip easily from frantic anthems to a kind of shoegaze, but one where the view’s of flip-flops.
If it offered the authenticity of the foreign, The Smell also appealed, on the other hand, to a familiar and flattering idea of the urban commune. The venue first opened in 1997, but for East Coast chroniclers of its rise to prominence, the foundational myth starts with its 2000 move from North Hollywood to the current location, a former Mexican grocery store in downtown L.A. Featured on the cover of Weird Rippers, The Smell’s exterior looks like it might be in Bushwick or South Philadelphia—which encourages in residents of such climes something like the eternal fascination American anthropologists have for South Pacific cargo cults. After all, the cosmopolitan’s inherent suspicion of indigenous Southern California culture—whether Compton rap or Orange County ska—has much to do with the (sub)urban morphology: How to accept, as artistic capital, a land of yards and detached houses and freeways and car ownership? The Smell solves the dilemma: given the chance to make their imagined communities real, from scratch, even Angelenos would choose to congregate in close quarters and scruffy sidewalks, to live and create like us.
Twenty years ago, the sociologist Mike Davis wrote despairingly in his City of Quartz about Los Angeles’s then-fledgling plan to turn its neglected and atrophied downtown into something like a tightly surveyed simulacrum of the traditional urban environment it rejected long ago (not least by ripping out one of the country’s largest street-car networks at the behest of the auto industry). The implication being that a masterplanned, corporate-sponsored initiative to populate the center of the region’s “hundred suburbs looking for a city” would be doomed to repression and sterility. The happy communal success of The Smell, around the corner from the old Skid Row and a few blocks from Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, may just tell the lie to Davis’s pessimism, his notion that the directed, post-hoc and whole-cloth creation of something necessarily marks it as inertly artificial next to the haphazard products of slow, primordial "organic" processes.
So too, metonymically, might No Age’s. Spunt and Randall are so ecumenically attractive because they call upon a generation or three of attempts to make rock dense and dissonant and atonal but as hooky as ever. Black Flag, The Birthday Party, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Xiu Xiu, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead…: each of these outfits has found someone to name it a No Age antecedent. What becomes clear on the terrifically accomplished, loud, focused, and slightly bloodless Everything In Between is that this band has no interest in retracing the many self-indulgent, dead-end detours all those predecessors allowed themselves, that—in step with their hometown and home stage—they can reach for the pure three-minute pop potential of the genre without the tedious pantomime of evolution or growth.
Connoisseurs of the masters and natives of the dream factory, No Age landed on its formula and is unembarrassed about staying there. If this is a slight, at this early date in their career it’s a minor one they can surely take sitting down.