mon 22/07/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: James Chance aka James White | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: James Chance aka James White

Reissue CDs Weekly: James Chance aka James White

Musical cubism on the first two albums from the confrontational New York no wave pioneer

A God. Me? James Chance in 1979

According to the May 1979 issue of the New York art-paper East Village Eye, James White “is treated [everywhere] with awe and the special consideration lacking in most people's lives.” The adoration was boundless. White is “the star, the proof of the divinity that can be had by those who strive for a life beyond the schemes of men, James White is not an animal creature, James White is one of the breed called God in older times.”

For those who hadn’t realised White was a deity, his more commonly known alter-ego James Chance remained a mere cornerstone of the New York-spawned no wave scene celebrated on the Eno-produced 1978 compilation album No New York. Within its grooves, Chance and his splenetic band Contortions battled for attention alongside the equally fractious D.N.A., Mars and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. He was also a member of the latter.

JAMES CHANCE & THE CONTORTIONS  BUYGetting a handle on Chance aka White was not meant to be easy. Of course, he was not a God. Instead, he was the Milwaukee-born James Siegfried, a conservatory-educated musician who moved to New York City in 1975. Adept on keyboards and sax, he had a head full of jazz and found his place in an arty scene where envelope-pushing was rife. The musical straightjacket of punk was mostly side-stepped in New York, yet the newly renamed Chance drew on the confrontational aspects of the era and was wont to start fights with his audience.

Buy – credited to Contortions – and Off White – credited to James White and the Blacks – were the first two albums Chance made, both issued in 1979 and recorded by pretty much the same band. Each was issued on ZE, the label set up by Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban. Chance assumed the further identity for Off White as it was distinct project: Esteban had asked him to make a disco album.

JAMES WHITE AND THE BLACKS  OFF WHITEThe reappearance of both brings the opportunity to, indeed, assess whether this is the music of a God. Hardly. Despite the East Village Eye’s idiotic hubris, there is a devotional aspect to each album. As well as jazz, Chance was infatuated with James Brown (hence the name James White). Furthermore, he worked himself into such frenzy on stage he may as well have been in a ritual trance.

Buy is the album to hear first. It is music as cubism, wildly refracting funk, jazz and soul with cheese-grater guitar, rubbery bass, squawking sax and relentless rhythms. Every cut is a classic and the album defines unhinged despite being entirely deliberate. Off White is less immediately impactful as Chance had produced it to order. Although he had no instructions beyond conceptually addressing disco, it is more scattershot and less direct. Even so, it remains bizarre, energised and – at a stretch – could have been the album Albert Ayler made if he was tasked with trying disco on for size. Both albums are a blast.

Contortions BuyWhile the music itself remains timeless, this pair of new releases says nothing new. Each repackages CD versions of the albums issued in 2004, reusing the bonus tracks and Michel Esteban’s liner notes from then. Frustratingly, the same liner notes are employed for each package. Furthermore, this is an overview rather than text dedicated to each album and its context. Two new essays should have been written. Also, the digital remasters from 2004 are recycled: these are very dry and lack the mid-range punch of the original vinyl albums. A glitch at the end Buy’s “My Infatuation” interrupts the track moments before it has run its course. Buy comes with a cover crediting the album to James Chance & The Contortions: this is an after-the-fact confabulation. It was originally credited solely to Contortions, which is what the band were called,  and the album should be seen as thus otherwise history is rewritten. To play spot the difference, the original sleeve is seen to the right while the new reissue version appears above. It would have good if both albums had been revisited wholesale before hitting the market again.

Nonetheless, Buy and Off White are fantastic and the fresh availability should be an invitation to check out the true one-off that is James Chance. For anyone who wants to dig in to what was originally intended, neither album is rare and originals of Off White fetch around £10. Buy hits £20. The choice is there to be made.

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