Hiding in the recesses of the LA “skate punk” scene for a couple years, drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt and guitarist Randy Randall’s project No Age quickly caught the attention of Sub Pop in late 2007, which was once well known for putting out music by bands with that sort of sound in the past. The group was signed and quickly began to get national attention when mainstream publications like the New Yorker and Los Angeles Times caught wind of the base of operations for their underground scene—an all ages LA club called Smell. No Age had been in the forefront here, booking bands, working soundboard, and of course playing there as well. Around the time they were “discovered,” they had put out a number of vinyl-only, now out of print singles on independent labels and were playing in support of those releases. When they began to realize how big they were getting, and not just locally, the duo decided to re-issue all the singles in a self-released compilation album entitled Weirdo Rippers. The sound was pure noise rock, reflective of legendary groups like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth.
This week the band released their first true full length on Sub Pop, Nouns. The beautiful thing about the release is that even before you listen to it, you can see the band has aesthetically gone a long way towards assuaging any fears about them selling out their roots (Sub Pop is a Warner Music affiliate). This is because there is a sixty-eight page booklet included with the release that pretty much visually documents the entire scene that they have been (and obviously want to continue to be) a part of. That is devotion and truly shows they haven’t forgotten where they came from.
However, the music itself seems to suggest that the band is not afraid of progressing musically. The first thing to note is that this is a cohesive, full length release and not a compilation. Although many die hard fans of this group would argue otherwise, Weirdo Rippers suffered from feeling a little disjointed at times. Random interludes of noise would just “appear” in places in the album, when you know that they were probably intended to either open, close, or serve as a halfway point on the original release. This is not the case on Nouns. No Age spaces the music out perfectly, opening with what you think is going to be a three-minute noisefest in “Miner,” which quickly turns into a cross between punk and noise, and then they quickly change it up again.
You can hear an acoustic guitar mixed in the background on “Eraser.” “Teen Creeps” feels like something out of the grunge era, particularly in Spunt’s drumming. Spunt then tries lowering his usually high pitched voice to surprisingly good results in the melancholy “Things I Did When I Was Dead.” Perhaps the best example of them mixing it up is in “Cappo,” where the song starts off with a pretty straight-ahead punk-rock sound and by the end slowly deteriorates into an ocean of noise—it’s a technique that brings back memories of Sonic Youth at their peak. By this point you’ve already reached the middle of the record with “Keechie,” which is a brief noise interlude. The last half of the album features the band going into uncharted territory, ditching the “pure noise” sound altogether after “Sleeper Hold.”
The band’s tinkering here leads to interesting results. It sounds like they use sampling techniques in “Errand Boy,” and then in “Impossible Bouquet,” an acoustic guitar can be heard strumming the same riff over and over again while in the background it sounds like Randall’s guitar is either having a heart attack or making animalistic noises—it almost feels like the acoustic is totally oblivious to what is accompanying it in the landscape of the music. In the rest of the songs, the band brings back memories of late ‘90s punk and if you were to only hear these tracks, you wouldn’t be able to tell (at all) that this is a supposed “noise band.”
The production is also commendable, and it seems to give off the original Sub Pop feel that hasn’t been seen since the days Nirvana and Soundgarden were on the label. The drum mic’ing in particular really creates a good imitation of the “Albini sound” and it also really lets Spunt show off his excellent drumming skills (particularly in the more punk-sounding tracks). As a downside, however, this also means that whatever Spunt is yelling about can’t really be heard. This production style has been notorious for allowing the vocals to be placed low in the mix, and getting drowned out by the guitars and drums, and it’s no different on Nouns.
After multiple listens to this record, you can’t help but admire No Age’s overall sense of honesty. It shows in their attitude towards their fans and roots, and it also shows in their music. As stated, they take a lot of risks musically and toy with different sounds and styles on this record. Weirdo Rippers does seem like it was playing it too safe by comparison. But when you listen to Nouns, you can almost envision Spunt and Randall in the studio recording with the attitude of “let’s just see what happens,” and the reel is running to capture all of that as it unfolds. Their versatility seems boundless. Especially today, too many bands claim to have this punk/DIY ethos but in the studio they try to gloss their sound or do a ridiculous number of takes to get something “just right.” You can really tell that No Age brings a refreshing sense of “take us as we are, warts and all” that seems to have gone MIA in mainstream indie rock circles. Perhaps the best and most obvious example of this is in Spunt’s vocals. He doesn’t have a very good singing voice and it’s slightly out of tune. If you just listen once, you think “wow, this guy can’t even sing!” But if you give it a chance, it’s infectious and actually increases the appeal of the music. You get caught in his enthusiasm, passion and emotion and again it hearkens back to honesty that you just wouldn’t feel if he was trying to sing “in tune.”
It will be interesting to see where the band goes from here, but Nouns shows the band is not afraid of taking risks and brings a refreshing new meaning to “experimentation.”