CBGB-era no wave/funk/postpunk pioneers the Bush Tetras are playing a couple of nights on March 29 and 30 at 8 PM at the Slipper Room (the red-curtained strip club at the corner of Stanton and Orchard), of all places, and if you’re planning on going you should get there early: these shows are likely to sell out. After fifteen years in major label limbo, their long-awaited second album, Happy, has been released by RIOR on both vinyl and the usual digital formats. Brilliantly produced by noiserock maven and noted archivist Don Fleming, the album is a lot heavier than you might expect after hearing Too Many Creeps. For anyone lucky enough to have seen the band at, say, Brownies, around the time it was recorded and wondered when we might get a chance to hear studio versions of these songs, it’s a special treat.
It opens with the slow burn of Heart Attack, Pat Place’s guitar resonant and grim, then delivering a mean, minimalist metallic menace, Cynthia Sley’s vocals channeling her usual visceral unease. The second track, Slap, raises the menace factor, setting eerie minor-key janglerock over drummer Dee Pop’s suspenseful groove: “Could you slap me real hard, could you wake me up?” Sley asks plaintively.
Trip turns on a dime from a catchy two-chord funk vamp to snotty, straight-up rock. Nails reverts to the roaring, multitracked blue-flame ambience of the opening cut – what’s cool about this album is that as much as Place does the noisy/atonal thing more succinctly than just about anybody, here she gets to fill out the sound with a lush roar that she doesn’t often get the chance to create onstage.
The hypnotic, echoey instrumental Chinese Afro sets crashing percussion over the tiptoeing bass of Julia Murphy (who by that time had replaced Laura Kennedy in the group, and has since left). It makes a good segue with Pretty Thing, which takes the atmospherics up a notch for an unexpectedly artsy, Velvets-tinged ambience.
At this point, the album hits a peak and stays there, beginning with You Don’t Know Me, a beefed-up take on the band’s abrasive early-period sound, Place firing off wickedly atonal swirls and macabre chromatics over a tight funk beat. Buckets of Blood works a slow, lingering, distantly menacing 80s jangle, Murphy hovering just underneath, Sley’s angst-ridden vocals overhead. Unlike what the title might suggest, Motorhead keeps the tensely simmering menace going.
Theremin (which actually has a theremin on it) builds from surreal no wave funk to a snarling groove that reminds of what Thalia Zedek and Come were doing around the time this album was made. Likewise, Ocean follows an arc from a hypnotic but harsh backdrop to a paint-peeling guitar workout. The album ends with Swamp Song, an off-kilter riff-rocker that evokes the Chrome Cranks, but funkier, a reminder that the Tetras were constantly evolving and keeping up with what was happening around them in New York. Kind of sad and funny that an album made in 1998 would be one of the best released in 2013 so far.