Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dust It Off: The Godz - Contact High with the Godz

Contact High with the Godz
Album: Contact High with the Godz
ESP-Disk, 1966

It’s hard to believe, but since 1966, no one has managed to take the edge off the Godz. The experimental pop band (not to be confused with the 70’s metal band of the same name) formed on New York’s Lower East Side in the mid-60’s, contemporaries of the slightly less obscure Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders. Together, these art-pop bands laid the groundwork for the advent of underground rock and for the use of ugliness-as-confrontation-as-art in a fully pop music context.

While it’s hard to say whether the Godz in particular directly influenced many of the bands that followed them, they certainly set in motion new ideas that would echo through music right through punk and up to the present day.

Contact High with the Godz is a 25-minute study in willful incompetence. You’ll think there couldn’t be anything more out of tune than the guitars – until the vocals come in. Drummer Paul Thornton crashes erratic single-instrument beats in purposefully unsteady tempos under the enthusiastic autoharp strumming of Jay Dillon. The "singing" sounds alternately like the wailing of a drunk cowboy and the absent mumbling of someone alone in his house who’s forgotten he was singing at all.

The songs are positively gems. From "White Cat Heat" (in which the band makes the sounds of, well, a cat in heat) to "May You Never Be Alone Like Me" (featuring an atonal fluttering from what seems to be a child’s recorder flute), each track is memorable. "Godz" features the band repeating their own name in different voices over a single irregularly-strummed chord. The aptly titled "Squeak" involves a violin played Godz-style, which to say it’s even more painful than your next-door neighbor’s eight-year-old son’s first viola lesson. And who can’t relate to the sentiment of "Lay In the Sun"? The song’s only lyrics: "All I want to do-oo-oo / Is lay in the sun."

It’s not all vapid nonsense either. First, the sprawling folk inflections and up-tempos make this undeniably a pop record, even if it’s the kind of pop that only one in a hundred people could even bear to listen to. And as such, the Godz predicted everything from punk to twee, all based on a populist confrontation of the exclusive gestures of mainstream rock. After all, could anything be more DIY than recording and releasing an intentionally unlistenable, proudly unprofessional pop album in fuckin’ 1966?

And beyond that, there’s a subtle emotive dimension to the album. When the band asks, "Is one plus one really two?" it’s not obnoxious, it’s pathetically existential. And the mournful religious musings of "May You Never Be Alone" end the album in a self-mocking but very real sadness.


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