On Second Thought
John Zorn - Naked City






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

One of the many moments that I now consider pivotal in my convoluted musical development: I’m standing in Rainbow Records, a chain store that’s since been vacated to expand a Staples. I’m in high school. I think I have exactly seven dollars and ninety-nine cents in my pocket: enough to buy one used CD. There’s no sales tax in Delaware. So I’m trawling the bin, I check for the sorts of things I’m always looking for—I remember logging serious time in the gnomic “C” section back then: Coil, Can, Captain Beefheart—and then I come across things I didn’t expect to find. First I see Daydream Nation, which looks like a likely contender. I’m guessing someone bought this and wasn’t too fond of it, or else they’ve stopped dying their hair with Kool-Aid in preparation to go to a Midwestern liberal arts school. Or, heck, maybe they bought a 180-gram vinyl reissue that may or may not have existed at this time. Damned if I know. Then I see John Zorn’s Naked City. Well, what do I know about this album? Not much. There’s a Weegee photograph of a dead man on the cover; there’s some intricate, grotesque Japanese horror-noir artwork on the inside. I see that Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms—who I’d also discovered in a used bin, along with Enter the Wu-Tang, on a fateful summer day at another now-departed independent store—is involved. There are eight songs in a row that last shorter than forty-five seconds. What I’m saying is, I guess I’m sold at this point.

So, you know, what we could end up inferring from this passage is that I don’t have very good taste in music, or that my taste in music is willfully contrarian. And listening to Naked City or further outings from the band—specifically Torture Garden, which consists entirely of these short pieces—isn’t something many people are going to necessarily enjoy. Sitting down to play this record with a friend who never moved too far from Daydream Nation (and maybe even sold it, along with all those other records that sounded so awesome in the Spin Alternative Record Guide but were just noisy and shitty) might be like watching Risky Business on a date with a Marxist women’s studies major: they’ll probably hate it, but it’ll certainly be interesting to hear what they have to say. There’s nothing outright offensive about this record, really, on the surface: it’s quite accessible. It’s all in the way the elements are combined. We get covers of crime-and-spy-and-mafia soundtrack staples (“The James Bond Theme,” a lesser-known Morricone theme, Jerry Goldsmith’s “Chinatown”), we get dashes of Ornette Coleman and Latin jazz, we get cartoonish rock-and-roll replete with surf-guitar and blasts of boogie-woogie piano, we get snaky sci-fi keyboards, we get pop-art ménages of all of the above fused with, well, Napalm-Death-style grindcore.

With what? Yes, chances are that those who fail to appreciate From Enslavement to Obliteration or even Reign in Blood on at least some aesthetic level will not be fans of this record. It’s not that obliterating sonics necessarily pervade the album (which I’ve heard garner a lot of airplay during instrumental NPR interstices, after all), but that it takes its split-second, rapid-fire sensibility directly from two influences, one of which is the grindcore fast-forward mosh-part-to-blast-beat-to-sudden-ending compositional technique (the opener, “Batman,” which starts as a surf-rock hybrid with jazz fanfares, suddenly collapses into hyperactive drumming and free-jazz cacophony, before regaining composure). Yes, I said compositional: Zorn scored out every note on this album for Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Fred Frith, and Joey Baron to play, so it’s interesting to keep in mind that it’s not merely a matter of bewildering edits that hold the sound together: these songs—as well as dozens of soundtrack covers—were routinely recreated live.

But the second influence: Carl Stalling, composer of Warner Brothers cartoon soundtracks. He developed a compositional system that involved holding up flash cards to his musicians, which enabled piano crash to follow pizzicato violin strings to follow operatic fanfare while madcap chase scenes and grotesque dismemberments alike occurred. And there is very often something, if not entirely cartoonish, very madcap about the pace of this album: think ADD. Then think ADHD. Then think the most extreme hybrid of problem-child genetics combined with the often infantile brilliance of Frank Zappa’s early work and you’re, well, halfway there.

With twenty-six tracks here, it’s hard to describe what goes on. “The Sicilian Clan” is a gently ominous, subdued instrumental; “You Will Be Shot” flirts with punk riffs but turns them into a springy chaos; “Latin Quarter” combines Meters drumming and nightclub cheesiness with rollicking guitar; “A Shot in the Dark” starts as amorphous sprawl that sounds like the Locust tuning up (if they ever did so), then camps along as a spy instrumental that occasionally zaps you with a laser blast to the cranium, with an uproarious foray into swinging jazz strut. This is all par for the course, then we hit a gloriously bumpy portion of terrain, all songs with titles like “Igneous Ejaculation,” “Demon Sanctuary,” and “Speedball,” which take the form of a series of small irruptions borrowed from the Napalm Death songbook, complete with Eye’s slobbering, deranged, octave-leaping vocals. After this excursion into tightly-wound madness, things loosen up a bit—and become considerably less silly—with a gorgeously atmospheric “Chinatown” and a series of longer pieces that concentrate less on shock value and more subtly on head-spinning musical interplay.

This isn’t the kind of album you discuss specific highlights on; many of these songs, after all, make you feel like you’ve just listened to six others in a row, despite their brevity. This also, needless to say, isn’t the kind of album you listen to every day. “Zorn is a great musician,” said an old e-mail correspondent of mine who let me in on some gossip pertaining, I think, to a mutual acquaintance of his and a former Zorn girlfriend, “but he sure ain’t subtle.” These words seemed a little ominous; a little don’t-fuck-with-him. His enfant terrible reputation certainly shows this; how many other musicians have told Madeline Albright to shut the fuck up in the middle of a performance? Subtle or not, whether his brashness has mellowed in his age, Zorn is undisputably possessed by some kind of genius. I say this in the sense that Norman Mailer said of Burroughs, who I’m paraphrasing: look no further for proof that artistic inspiration doesn’t contain some element of the demonic.


By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01
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