Bush Tetras : They Live in My Head

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The No Wave movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s extended punk’s rebellion into spaces occupied by jazz, dub reggae, and experimental noise. It also sometimes circled back into punk’s late-1960s roots of drone-mantra art and proto-metal riffing and whooping. From its New York City epicenter came players and sounds like Bush Tetras, whose sporadic but seminal work was compiled first on Boom in the Night in 1995 and then on the Rhythm and Paranoia anthology in 2021. The band’s brand new album They Live in My Head makes us long for that exciting bygone age, and not always in positive ways.

Bush Tetras have seen both renewed interest and upheaval since reuniting for performances and new recordings in 2005. They’ve gone through a series of bassists, and even They Live in My Head player R.B. Korbet has since been replaced by Rocky O’Riordan (Elvis Costello, Pogues). Founding drummer Dee Pop died in 2021, and after sitting in for a tribute show ex-Sonic Youth skinsman Steve Shelley joined the band full-time. Still, with original singer Cynthia Sley and guitarist Pat Place still at the controls, as time has passed the band has sounded more assured in their performances.

But that also means Bush Tetras now feel much more straightforward and tuneful than during their early ’80s heyday, and as such less surprising and dramatic. If Sley uses Patti Smith delivery on weak modern Iggy Pop-isms in songs like “Walking Out the Door” and “So Strange,” do they make a sound? “Tout Est Meilleur” and “Ghosts of People” are highlights here, but only because they’re distant echoes of grunge and slowcore, respectively. Even stretching back to their first reunion album in 1997, Beauty Lies, we’ve been able to place Bush Tetras in the context of other genres. Though, why should we need to?

No Wave’s musicians were deceptively skilled, delivering cut-up poetic lyrics and dissonant arrangements as if they were mere amateurs practicing, often turning pop music widdershins to be purposefully non-pop. They Live in My Head is another in a long list of attempts from legacy artists to re-enter music’s conversation with cachet based on reputation, with results that are profoundly conventional.

Label: Wharf Cat

Year: 2023

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