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Gang Gang Dance and artful assimilation

November 19, 2008 | 10:08 pm
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The New York quartet Gang Gang Dance isn't my favorite band in the world right now, but they do more single different things I like than probably any band going today. Their intriguing new album, "Saint Dymphna" is a mosaic of ambient swirls, Near East vocal acrobatics, twitchy house blips and lockstep primal drumming that's sometimes exhausting, and about a third too long.

But after catching their fantastic show over the weekend at the El Rey, I find they seem emblematic of the dominant philosophy of experimental music right now: Instead of building something new or deconstructing something old, they're throwing absolutely everything they can think of against the wall and documenting how it sticks. 

The problem with this approach is that it inherently requires a good editor, and some of the screwier moments of "Dymphna" could have used one. But the real gift of modern take-home production technology for bands like GGD is that where Sun Ra and John Cage had to tweak expectations through noise and chance music, GGD gets to do everything at once.

Take, for example, the single "House Jam," which begins with a ghostly vocal loop that reminds me of Tweet's "Oops (Oh My)" and gets subsequently joined by a Kate Bush-style melody that's pure phonemes and Tuareg blues guitar. Or "Princes," where a pristine little synth arpeggio gives way to a clanging jungle beat, a cameo from UK rapper Tinchy Stryder and taunting Deerhoof-y yelping. It doesn't make a bit of sense on paper, but the band's sheer technical skill and patient imagination gives it a coherence and crescendo that escapes similarly ambitious bands like Black Dice, Tussle or local heroes Health

The record's a bit of a workout, but live it's a joy to watch all the instruments and ideas flit in and out of the mix while their absolute manimal of a new drummer Jesse Lee keeps it disciplined. Singer Lizzi Bougatsos (or LZA, as the liner notes wryly put it) looks hypnotically lovestruck onstage, bashing roto-toms and grinning ear to ear while peeling off runs rooted in Arabic scales.

The band has a bit of a Third World exoticism fetish (check the headscarved guitarist on the back of the album art), but in the same rewarding way that Timbaland or M.I.A. does: as one sound among many others to push a song further, not a wholesale adoption of any culture's ideas. GGD was a breakout band at CMJ this year, and seems to be setting the tone for acts pushing the lines between noise antagonism and pop production (I would have loved to hear them tackle an "A Millie" remix). Their problem might be that they're too good at too many things, and there are worse conditions to suffer from.   

-- August Brown

GGD photo by Josh Wildman

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