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Genetic code
Arto Lindsay’s double helix

Listening to Arto Lindsay’s first recordings next to his latest prompts an obvious question: how did he travel from there to here? DNA on DNA (No More) is a long-overdue retrospective of the trio the self-taught guitarist formed in 1978 with drummer Iuke Mori and keyboardist Robin Crutchfield (later replaced by Pere Ubu bassist Tim Wright). Salt (Righteous Babe) is Lindsay’s sixth solo disc, and his most recent to feature multi-instrumentalist Melvin Gibbs and production/programming team Kassin & Berna. The first is arch-negationist no wave, breaking conventions many earlier punk-rockers hadn’t even known they were following. The second is a slick, accessible collection of electro-acoustic grooves, seasoned session playing, and bi-lingual lyrics. Worlds apart? More like galaxies.

In itself, it isn’t shocking that Linsday would arrive at a heavily Latin-accented sound; born in the US, he spent his youth in Brazil with missionary parents, at the very moment when Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were interbreeding their own country’s popular music with Anglo-American sounds under the banner of "tropicalism." Those artists combined political provocation with traditional songcraft and instrumental skill, so the real surprise is that the music Lindsay made upon returning to the States was so single-mindedly, buzz-killingly confrontational.

Compiled by Alan Schneider and Jason Gross, the DNA disc supplements the mere dozen songs the band released before dissolving in 1982 with 19 more, some from mysterious sources. (Just what was "The Fiorucci Tape"?) This is not a party album: despite their brevity, these dense, harshly recorded tracks are most effective a few at a sitting. Lindsay’s retuned guitar emits a depthless squall entirely distinct from Glenn Branca/Sonic Youth sonorities, and his throttled vocals make "Psycho Killer" sound like "White Christmas." On the 10 songs with Crutchfeld, his one-finger synth-bass is used less for timekeeping than for textural contrast. Wright’s playing is more versatile but moves the group no closer to normality; two tracks from the final line-up’s farewell shows at CBGB’s are as unrelenting ("A New Low") and arrhythmic ("Calling To Phone") as anything that came before.

All four booklet essays mention global influences on Iuke Mori’s drumming, but no two identify the same ones. (In Byron Coley’s eyewitness account of the no-wave moment, he admits, "At the time we assumed it was just noise.") It’s possible to hear her playing on "New Fast" as a translation of a multi-percussionist batacuda onslaught to a single kit, but only with hindsight (and imagination). More often ("32123"), she anticipates the so-called "blast beats" of the Locust and like-minded hardcore extremists. There’s one less tenuous link to those global influences: a number of Lindsay’s lyrics contained stray Portuguese phrases, and the aforementioned "A New Low" adapts a poem by Lusophone literary giant Fernando Pessoa, though even a native speaker might not know it without the lyric sheet.

If DNA on DNA documents a noise band with a Brazilian undercurrent, Salt — like most of Lindsay’s solo work since 1995’s bossa-centric O Corpo Sutil (The Subtle Body) — turns that picture upside down. His guitar is as untutored as ever, but now it’s used selectively, a distant, dissonant shadow that troubles just three songs out of 10. (More conventional harmonic tasks fall to Gibbs and guest players including Vernon Reid.) Although a technologically enhanced samba feel dominates, Lindsay and his cohort are confident enough within their chosen form to venture outside it. "Twins" has some of the kick-driven sharpness (though not the aggressive jolt) of a prime Timbaland track. "Make That Sound" is almost as minimal, with instructional exhortations ("Right foot cross left/Drop hip") somehow tying together a hard-to-follow beat and a lone violin into a cerebral but surprisingly danceable package. But the real tour de force is "Personagem" ("Character"). The Portuguese lyric is an admiring portrait of a lover’s identity play (a favorite theme of Pessoa’s), and it’s set to one of Lindsay’s shapeliest melodies; meanwhile, the arrangement rings changes on a single, insistent rhythm, first as a drum program fortified with real-time percussion, then as a softer keyboard pulse.

Would Lindsay have made music this open and engaging a quarter-century ago if he’d had the appropriate collaborators (and studio budget)? As with hearing DNA as a Carnaval trio elétrico in downtown mufti, it’s possible, but just barely; there’s ample evidence of a change in attitude as well as production savvy. When Lindsay shouted, "Don’t try to duplicate my rhythm," on the No New York compilation in 1979, the words were both a warning and a challenge. When in 2004 he sings, "Throw your shoulders back/Switch feet/When you make that sound," they’re an invitation.

Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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