In the late '70s, singer/saxophonist James Chance combined the snarling attitude of punk, the noisy squall of free-jazz, and the rhythms of dance clubs to create a sound so difficult and weird that almost no one listened to it. Despite critical acclaim from noted rock critics like Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder and an appearance on Brian Eno's infamous No New York compilation, the New Yorker's music went largely unheard. But his reputation as a miscreant freak lived on, with “difficult music” fans and boho musicians searching out his long-out-of-print records. Now Tiger Style has made appreciating Chance a whole lot easier by releasing Irresistible Impulse, a four-CD box set that includes live and recorded tracks from all phases of his career.
The highlight of this collection is Chance's first (and only) album with the Contortions, 1979's Buy the Contortions, included in all its abrasive, jerky glory. Over funky rhythms, tuneless guitars, wandering keyboards, and bleating saxophone, Chance screams and grunts lines like “You better try being stupid, instead of smart” and “I prefer the ridiculous to the sublime.” The sound is disturbing and fun, danceable and somehow wrong — like a James Brown record recorded by punk misanthropes.
After his gloriously weird debut, Chance went straight, transforming himself into a Caucasian version of the Godfather of Soul, even changing his band's name to James White & the Blacks. Without the wild dynamics of his previous group, his conceit wears thin, though, especially on the bland disco tracks of 1979's Off White and 1982's Sax Maniac. Singing how he's “Almost Black” might be forgivable, but covering Brown's “Super Bad” is pointless, especially considering the original was silly enough.
A box set of Chance's recordings is unnecessary, especially for the casual fan who only wants to hear what has inspired weirdo bands like Erase Errata, Gogogo Airheart, and Get Hustle. Still, the delirious thrill of the Contortions is worth savoring — it's an acquired taste that the kids have finally swallowed.