A twentysomething duo consisting of guitarist Randy Randall and drummer/primary singer Dean Spunt, the Los Angeles-based No Age is a band with skate-punk roots that cut its teeth at a grubby-looking DIY dive called the Smell.
Those unpretentious roots are at the core of the band's appeal, resting comfortably, perhaps heroically, alongside an avant-garde bent that incorporates samples, shoegazer sheets of sound, and twisty song structures. The result is the rare band whose music would sound equally at home at a sweaty basement punk party or at an art gallery opening.
Like Hüsker Dü and Pavement before them, this duo tweaks hardcore punk into something more personal, artier but also more affable. The difference is that No Age's Zen Arcade/Perfect Sound Forever noise-into-tune-and-back-again moment has lasted four years, across two studio albums and myriad singles and EPs.
This isn't to say that the band's oeuvre rejects evolution but that it betrays no compromise, with the fundamental noise-tune trick of uniting punk directness with more ambient textures remaining intact.
A collection culled from five EPs released on five different labels and with home club the Smell depicted on the cover, the band's 2007 debut full-length, Weirdo Rippers, sounds sort of like its title.
The album's first song, "Every Artist Needs a Tragedy," is not, in retrospect, a band highlight, but it maps something like a musical template. An effects-driven guitar emerges like a sunrise from a bed of ocean sounds. Then quickly clattering drum cymbals add radiant drone until, after two minutes of texture, a little burst of feedback ushers in tune: Floor toms keep a steady beat, the guitar repeats a clear, sinewy, five-note line. Thirty seconds later, Randall lashes out with a distorted, agitated punk riff, the beat speeds up, and Spunt shouts out plainspoken but cryptic lyrics: "I feel tough but it's not every night," "I don't feel right because I feel down." Like that. Then all the previous elements come together. Thirty more seconds later the track ends.
The album weaves its way into something like real "songs" occasionally. On "Boy Void," little feedback-laden guitar detonations dart in and around hardcore-schooled drums while Spunt emerges occasionally, shouting, "It's so obvious." On "Everybody's Down," Spunt's voice peaks up through a layer of ceaseless guitar rumble to stake a claim on humanity: "I'm not afraid of laughter/It's all feeling too." But the record as a whole is slower and moodier than you'd expect, but just as lo-fi. By the closing "Escarpment," tune has surrendered to pure static and texture.
After signing to Seattle's high-profile indie Sub Pop, the band's studio-album debut Nouns introduced a more solid, fuller sound. But they weren't tamed, and their wildness in fact yielded more beauty, especially on the single "Eraser," where a long, chiming intro gradually picks up speed, suggesting but withholding release for about 90 seconds before bursting into full-fledged song.
Last year's Everything in Between continues on this trajectory. Where Weirdo Rippers and Nouns each came in at under 32 minutes, Everything in Between is comparatively expansive, topping 38. It's their most tuneful album, but rather than evolve toward more standard song forms like Hüsker Dü and Pavement, the album's location of hazy beauty in dissonance, propulsion, and pure sound points toward post-revolutionary Sonic Youth as perhaps a truer model.
A series of sure shots, the album opens with a slow-burn statement-of-principles, "Life Prowler," which seems to pledge fidelity to the band's modest, one-take punk roots, Spunt singing, "One time is all I need/To know my job's complete/And when I reach into/Myself/My past comes true."
Feedback and buzz bobble persistently under the melodic throb of "Glitter," an ostensible romance that suggests companionship and empathy commingling with lust: "And you feel like everyone is out to get you again/I want you back underneath my skin." The album peaks with the duo's most undeniable anthem, "Fever Dreaming," with a shrieking vocal loop battered into a hooky riff over a locomotive foundation, and then climaxes later with "Shed and Transcend," an even more appropriate title than Weirdo Rippers.
Somewhat fittingly given the musical kinship and yet somewhat surprisingly, No Age was tabbed to open dates for Pavement on that band's 2010 comeback tour. I didn't see any of those shows, but you'd think this band's noisy, intimate two-man sound would be a poor fit in arenas and theaters and, according to friends who caught them at a Minneapolis date on this tour, it was.
But No Age was back in the Twin Cities over Thanksgiving, and so was I, and I was able to catch them, for the first time, playing the tiny 7th Street Entry. (Imagine the Hi-Tone Café's main room, cut by about a third.) With a third tourmate adding samples to the mix, the band was fierce but engaging, clearly at ease back in clubland.
Toward the end of the set, they invited a bunch of rabid, happy fans up onstage, where they danced around behind Randall, singing. Take it for what it's worth, but I can't remember the last time knotty noise and punk-fueled aggression felt so friendly and comfortable.