Consciously or unconsciously, Body/Head’s latest is indisputably an album for or about summertime, a No Wave mirror held up to our present, perspiring moment. It could be the soundtrack to the prelude to a coastal blackout, or a more personal, emotional one. On The Switch, the duo of Kim Gordon and Bill Nace once again intertwine and friction-slide insolent guitars that have little to no investment in pop. This time, though, insularity and entropy reign supreme: this is “semi-major, minor-label” noise music with actual distribution (in 2018!) that’s at constant risk of disintegrating, losing power, or collapsing in on itself.
Sonically, Body/Head have never been easy to define. While Nace’s underground rap sheet is a long, winding one, Gordon is most directly associated with Sonic Youth’s protracted climb from Lower East Side chaos to elite American indie-rock comprehensibility. Together, the pair hew impulsively to an art-rock ideal that cherishes abstraction, a grab-bag of imprints, a diversity of formats. On 2014’s The Show is Over EP, they pursued short-form ethereal drift; on 2016’s cinematic No Waves live LP, they smuggled harmonica skronk hits into the proceedings, a splash of Americana. 2013’s abrasive, furious Coming Apart – most listener’s introduction to the band – felt like Gordon’s reeling reaction to the end of her marriage to bandmate Thurston Moore.
By contrast, The Switch mutes most levels, turning up the reverb. Gordon sings far less than usual, as though breathable air is in limited supply. For its first three minutes, the chords on opener “Last Time” are peeled off and then immediately warped, lost to the studio’s simulated heat index; the echoed words that trail them suffer a similar fate. It’s the sonic equivalent of watching an ominous mirage that’s already fading from view. Instrumental “In the Dark Room” is somewhat more tactile, a stirred drone thick with feedback shrapnel that sounds like a car engine unwilling to turn over. “Change My Brain” serves a wobbly layer-cake slice of distorted riffs, each one smoldering with the same gloomy, hyperventilating melody. Shuddering, industrial-qua-ambient “You Don’t Need” recalls late-career highlights from the departed NYC noise trio Sightings.
It’s on “Reverse Hard,” though, that the album’s desolation really intensifies, where Body/Head oversell the experience of heat stroke. There’s precedent, of course. Twenty-six years ago, Sonic Youth closed out Dirty with the woozy “Creme Brulee,” where a tuff, daft Gordon and an out-of-tune acoustic guitar serenaded listeners. But “Creme” was convincingly sultry, where “Hard” is flat and hardpan at first: remote, a looped, burnt quaking with the merest suggestion of a motif baked inside. Gordon and Nace stretch this smudge for what feels like an eternity, slowing inching the volume north until, suddenly, we’re all somewhere else. Swelling guitars churn, whirr, and stumble as Gordon’s caterwaul leaps in and out of phase, distended. The song—The Switch itself—threatens to blow a fuse, then unceremoniously does, in what is Body/Head’s first unequivocally strong exeunt. The ensuing silence nearly roars.
Since the release of Fractured Orgasm, this duo’s 2011 cassette debut, they’ve proven themselves adept at subtly but profoundly shifting the mood of whatever studios or venues they happen to be exorcising. What The Switch demonstrates is that Gordon and Nace have gotten better at being overt.