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No Expectations

Gang Gang Dance doesn't give 'em what they want.

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Gang Gang Dance
  • Gang Gang Dance

It's cool when musicians fuck with their audiences' expectations. That's one of the reasons Neil Young released so many awesome records in the '70s.

Young mainly did this for his own sanity (he didn't want to turn into a robot like James Taylor), but he also understood a truth that's difficult for most consumers to accept: What we want isn't always what we need.

Gang Gang Dance also understands this. After releasing two records that explored an abstruse fusion of industrial, hip-hop, and tribal vibrations, the band nailed the perfect pop record. Unfolding more like a surrealist novel than a traditional album, 2005's God's Money is a crystalline latticework of gnarled dance grooves and psychedelic new wavery, with each track shape-shifting into the next.

That sounds pretty damn strange, but GGD crafted hooks -- gorgeous ones. There's the jeweled vapor rising up from Brian DeGraw's synth work. Guitarist Josh Diamond's solar-reflective feedback. Tim DeWitt's quasi-African drum patterns. And then we have Liz Bougatsos, whose exotic siren's call, trickster wordplay, and layered percussion pushed God's Money into dream-pop territory.

But like Neil, GGD had no intention of driving down the middle of the road. The New York quartet's new DVD/CD, Retina Riddim, is a "33-minute visual-aural experience that washes over the mind and challenges preconceived notions of what a record can be, as well as what kind of expectations can be thrust upon a band," boasts the band's label, Social Registry.

Retina Riddim doesn't even feel like a proper follow-up to God's Money. It's more like an inscrutable slab of experimental art to tide fans over until the "real" record arrives (like Kid A, but weirder). The CD, which is actually the bonus disc, consists of a single collage of samples culled from GGD's massive archives.

Everything good about the band's sound, including Bougatsos' gorgeous voice, has been chopped up and tossed into a digital blender. What's popped out is an IDM beast: a 22-minute sequence of stuttering rhythms that could possibly induce seizures.

The DVD is basically the same thing, only more manic. These are split-second snippets of footage from the band's live gigs, tours, and vacations that spastically dance to the music's endless loops and inverted grooves -- kind of like tribal hypnotism for the ADD generation. It's a lot to take. After about 19 minutes of this artsy madness, my hands are on the verge of ripping the DVD player from the console and launching it out the living-room window. But then the video mellows, with DeGraw sitting in a field of grass, talking to a journalist.

"I feel like the whole mechanics -- the whole routine of being a band, of going up onstage and the audience is just sitting there, either idolizing you or hating you -- it's all wrong," he says with petulance. "We want to push things forward. Before you can build, you have to destroy."

Though the video jumps back to its regular freakery, DeGraw's point has been nailed. GGD doesn't want to play the music-biz game; it's boring and mindless. So it will resort to drastic measures.

The follow-up to God's Money was supposed to be the band's most important release to date. If DeGraw and company had dropped a gem of a pop album, their upcoming tour would've been a highly anticipated event. As it is, Gang Gang Dance is going out in support of a release it can't even reproduce live.

Back in '73, Young had his biggest hit to date, Harvest. But when sold-out audiences packed hockey rinks, expecting "Heart of Gold" and "Out on the Weekend," he stuck them with a set of atonal country-noise. Folks were pissed, but Time Fades Away, a lo-fi live record documenting that tumultuous tour, is now a stone-cold classic.

I don't know if Retina Riddim will age that well; it's way too early to tell. But Gang Gang Dance has me thinking hard these days about its contentional music -- more so than if the band had released just another pretty pop record. And as philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff believed, we're most alive when experiencing discomfort.

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