Body/Head is the minimalist duo of ex-Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon and experimental guitarist Bill Nace. On their intoxicating first full length, where both play guitar and Gordon sings, the duo treat a limited palette as a challenge, like the straitjacket a magician dons to prove he can break free.
he musical approach Kim Gordon and Bill Nace chose for their duo Body/Head seems intentionally restrictive. Both play only guitar. Their songs are slow and sometimes static, an effect enhanced by the near-total absence of beats (and, in concert, by the slowed-down films projected behind them). Gordon sings mostly in monotone, spreading her words out in a glacial rap or moaning them in a breathy whisper. The mood is similarly confined, sticking to a strident heaviness through serious lyrics and dirge-like guitar.
This limited palette could feel claustrophobic, or just boring. But on Body/Head’s first full-length album Coming Apart, the duo treat it as a challenge, like the straitjacket a magician dons to prove he can break free. (Not coincidentally, the album is named after a 1969 movie set in a single apartment and shot from a single camera angle). In nearly 70 minutes of music over two LPs, Gordon and Nace burrow deep into their narrow sound, mining it for more variety and emotion than it should rightfully hold. The effect is subtle– at first the music feels aimless, in search of something vague and elusive. But give Coming Apart a few listens, and distinctive shapes emerge. Eventually, the duo’s dedication to a specific point of view becomes intoxicating.
That dedication shows up most strongly in the conversational guitar work of Gordon and Nace (himself a veteran of many excellent collaborations). Oddly, the duo chose to pan their individual sounds to opposite sides of the stereo space. But rather than making them feel disconnected, that tactic gives their interplay a call-and-response synchronicity. When one of them hits repetitive chords or plucks two-note patterns, the other weaves long tones or dense distortion; at other times, one’s left turn into dissonance inspires the other to find melody in the noise. (The chiming quality of that noise sometimes recalls *Evol-*era Sonic Youth, but there are many other evocations in the pair’s timbres.) The timing of these actions and reactions makes Coming Apart surprisingly engaging– though all 10 pieces were mostly improvised, many have an arc that’s thoughtfully song-like.
Even more engaging is Gordon’s singing, which is as expressive as anything she did in Sonic Youth, and often more so. She stretches out syllables, expands phrases, and melts her voice into the rising guitar lava. At times it seems she’s simply exploring the way words sound, treating them like physical objects sliding up her throat and pouring off her tongue. At other points, the concrete meaning of her lyrics is all that matters. So when her simple yell of the title in “Actress” turns urgent, it suddenly sounds like the most important word in the world.
Gordon’s voice also provides an entry point into tunes, which can otherwise be a bit forbidding. But it’s also easy to get lost in them, much the way the most intense work by Jandek or Scott Walker can take on the quality of a dream. As in dreams, time on Coming Apart becomes a moving target, and sometimes seems to disappear altogether. As a result, these songs often feel longer than they actually are– but this is the rare case where that’s a strength rather than a weakness.
Still, given the music’s endless feel, closing Coming Apart with its two longest tracks is risky. But Gordon and Nace manage to find new ideas in these elongated settings. 17-minute closer “Frontal” is like an album unto itself, gradually moving from distant echoes to the duo’s most aggressive tones. Its predecessor, “Black”, is even more mesmerizing. It’s ostensibly a cover of the traditional folk song “Black Is the Colour (Of My True Love’s Hair)”, but Gordon was likely inspired by one version in particular: the radical take recorded by singer Patty Waters and her free-jazz group in the late 60s.
Gordon doesn’t get as frantic or desperate sounding as Waters; in keeping with the album’s tone, her interpretation is darker and heavier. But it’s just as radical. Waiting almost seven minutes before singing, Gordon reworks simple stanzas into zombie mantras, eventually duetting with herself in a chorus of abstract hums. The re-imagining is typical of her career, which has featured more detours than she’s perhaps been given credit for. Count Coming Apart as another fascinating step in that journey, and Body/Head’s musical path as one that she and Nace will hopefully follow for a long time.