How Gang Gang Dance Learned to Live Forever

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | May 11th, 2011

Gang Gang Dance is a New York art band in the tradition of our most iconic, descended from Talking Heads and Sonic Youth in both heart and borough. Of course they sound nothing like either, but they’re one of the few post-9/11, pre-third-term-Bloomberg bands left in Manhattan whose untethered experimentalism honestly captures our spirit and tension. Their music, rattling with tin percussion and synth gleam, peels away the cosmetic prostheses of mondo-condos and digs up the pure ecstasy beneath the skin of the streets. With each new album, they plunge into the grit and emerge wielding a beating heart. How do they keep the revolutionary spirit intact when there’s now a bourgeois gelateria and accompanying clientele situated right next door to Max Fish? I think it’s their corporeal way — there’s some mystical intrinsic oneness between their beings and their music, wrought by jam session and no boundaries. Their long notes and spaces, extendo-length songs and ability to feel out the terrain as they go comes from a place of instinct, impulse, and enthusiasm. Eye Contact, their new album, capitalizes on that, an overwhelmingly warm devotonal to the kinetic physicality that crackles between band members Lizzi Bougatsos, Brian DeGraw and Jesse Lee. If they’ve held New York’s beating heart aloft before, this is Gang Gang Dance becoming our circulatory system. We need them as they need us.

Never making it too easy, weeks ago Gang Gang released “Glass Jar,” as their first single; over 11 minutes long, it sits in galactic drift for a good half of that before congealing into any real structure. While its synth twinkles are gorgeous, I frankly didn’t have the patience when it dropped to really feel it. In the context of the album though, as an opener, it’s a hearts-full mission statement. Bougatsos, kewpie soprano pure as ever, sings I care for you like a brother/ I’m there for you like a mother while a deep bassline keeps her afloat. For a song about unconditional love, they were right to be generous with its length, and “Glass Jar” cushions the rest of the album, which is threaded together more tightly than any in their past. Actual jams, their signature provenance, still feather out into tendrils, but structurally they’re going for arcs, influenced by dance music and underscored by references to the cultures that comprise NYC. British raves and Bhangra, soca and dancehall, R&B and cumbia, Arabic pop and reggaeton all come into play, whether through samples or allusions. They are one of a handful of long-running bands popular in the indie circuit that has never seemed impervious to the diversity of our city, yet they have never felt like they were appropriating… more like open. On “Thru and Thru,” Bougatsos approximates the high trills of Bollywood ladies, studied paeans rather than odes to the Other; “Chinese High” nods to big-resort dancehall but slips in some guitar bends and echo effects culled from the stoniest of yacht rock dudes. Their sense of adventure on Eye Contact is honed to a brilliant point. And to further enter the album in the canon of great downtown works, they’ve named a tender lullaby “Sacer,” after their friend and collaborator Dash Snow, whose tag still blankets the LES (plus a toilet in the ‘Bunny’ bathroom at Fish) nearly two years after his death.

Bougatsos, for all her vocal slipperiness, is always the center of Gang Gang, feminist/artist/muse holding it all together (like a mother, maybe). For a certain subsect of New Yorkers, it’s impossible to speak of her without a sense of awe; she’s the patron saint for local weirdos, art connoisseurs, and anyone with a refined sense of the outre. In her capacity as Gang Gang’s singer, she makes sublime use of the guttural, her yelps approaching the elevated passion of only a few vocal innovators in pop music — Bjork, Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim, Kate Bush, Yoko Ono. As a visual artist, she’s refashioned mundane aspects of everyday city life — streets signs, “For Sale” placards — into sanguine feminist statements that challenge concepts of the vulgar. (Bonus bits: under-heralded fashion icon with a phenomenal Long Island accent not heard with the kind of rare aplomb since Cyndi Lauper did the Pee Wee’s Playhouse theme song.) So on Eye Contact, she remains the challenging locus, and with her subversive tenderness and power, translates it into an inherently feminist work — not by mission statement, but by mere existence. Someone, maybe Bougatsos or guest singer Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, whispers It’s gonna be all right on the sensual slow jam “Romance Layers”; whether reassurance to love or to self, the sentiment resonates on the album as a statement of acceptance and openness. And maybe therein is the crux of these dudes, New York City all-stars, the secret to how they can keep their cool in a malleable town that’s ever-friendlier to the filthy rich: to make do, do you.