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New no wave
The Scene Is Now return to active duty

The Scene Is Now’s Chris Nelson once sang, "They’re just 24 hours, from the vine to the brine/But you gotta let ’em soak for a long, long time/Oh, the well-made pickle is a taste sublime." The lines could describe the band’s approach to their craft. "Some elements may be off-the-cuff," says Nelson, "but by the time I say, ‘These are the lyrics,’ I’ve looked at every syllable hundreds of times." The Scene’s career has proceeded on a similar timetable: the recent Songbirds Lie (Tongue Master) is their first widely available release since 1988’s Tonight We Ride.

The roots of founders Nelson and Phil Dray lie deep in New York’s ideologically noisy no-wave scene: they formed Information in the late ’70s with drummer Rick Brown. (Nelson may even have coined the movement’s name in New York Rocker and his own fanzine NO.) "That approach didn’t exactly encourage adherence to traditional song structure," Dray recalls. The first Scene Is Now single ("1150 Lbs.") and album (Burn All Your Records), both from 1981, were song-based but spontaneous, with the traditional skills of second guitarist Dick Champ and drummer Jeff McGovern offset by Dray’s oblique keyboard, harmonica, and trombone lines and Nelson’s raw guitar and vocals. Several members also played with the groovier, earnestly leftist Mofungo, but the Scene’s touch was lighter. As Nelson had it in "If Justice Hides," years later, "There’s politics in every song . . . la da dee da da-da-da."

The band’s profile rose in the late ’80s as major indie Twin/Tone distributed their Lost Records imprint for Total Jive and Tonight We Ride, both with backing by Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and dB’s drummer Will Rigby. Two ’90s outings after Champ’s departure and Twin/Tone’s implosion — the cassette-only Shotgun Wedding, and the barely-distributed CD-R Let’s Straighten It Out — were practically samizdat. (Bar-None’s best-of The Oily Years, still in print, samples from all but the last.) "To us, it seemed we were working right along," Dray says, "but we disappeared from anyone else’s thoughts."

Songbirds Lie marks the Scene’s return to full-band status after a string of duo performances. Nelson and Dray have found another solid rhythm section in Sue Garner (also Brown’s partner) and Robert Dennis (Fire in the Kitchen/Tono-Bungay), but two newer collaborators deserve equal credit. Multi-instrumentalist Greg Peterson corresponded with Dray as a lone fan in Iowa; after moving to New York in 2000, he was drafted for live work. Trumpeter Steven Levi, whose jazz pedigree includes a stint gigging with Cecil Taylor, came aboard at almost the same time.

"This is the first time in many years Phil and I have had other people bringing in material," says Nelson. Peterson has self-released several solo discs; here he contributes music to the autumnal ballad "Falling Leaves" and two others, though he’s happy to leave the words to his elders. Levi’s "Going to Where It’s Green" is largely his handiwork. A second cousin to Talking Heads’ "Nothing But Flowers," it’s the disc’s most immediately accessible track, as Nelson — who admits to making "small adjustments" to the lyrics — ticks off the dubious pleasures of a country weekend over a ska-goes-Broadway arrangement: "The air is so damn clean/I’d better bring a magazine."

The disc’s core nonetheless remains the leaders’ knack for sophisticated play. "Machiavelli" sets quotations from the father of European political cynicism over lopsided blues-piano riffing. "A man must learn how to act like a beast/Or a half-man and a half-beast," Nelson howls, sounding like exactly that. The first of the bookending instrumentals, "T.S.I.N. Fight Song," undercuts a showy trumpet fanfare with squalling guitar, as though James Chance had invaded a Bacharach date; the closing "Molasses, 25 Cents" hangs together as loosely as 1981’s Poulenc-inspired "Rope." Given their working pace, the Scene Is Now’s return to public view could have been a soggy dill chip; instead, Songbirds Lie is as tart and crisp as a just-sliced half-sour. You could even call it sublime.

Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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