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The Lead Review

The Outside In: Love & Power By No Bra
Liam Cagney , November 28th, 2019 10:23

There is a rich seam of artistry in No Bra's apparent artlessness, finds Liam Cagney

Photo by Wolfgang Tillmans

Art college, a haven for freaks and marginal people, has always produced interesting bands. The Who; Roxy Music; Talking Heads; the No Wave scene: each was au fait with contemporary art; each was unafraid to be pretentious; each used pop’s template to move pop out of pop, to make pop overflow its bounds, to fuck with pop, making pop pop (in every sense). No Bra is the latest in the venerable line of art school pop-fucking music weirdos.

Formed by German-born Susanne Oberbeck (original in collaboration, now solo), No Bra came about after Oberbeck had graduated from Camberwell College of Arts and returned to London following studies in film directing in New York. The 2005 single ‘Munchausen’, a well-aimed satire of London’s pretentious Nathan Barley-ites, was a breakthrough. “I like listening to Karlheinz Munchausen . . . We used to live together . . . I used to piss on him,” goes its absurd mock-dialogue between Oberbeck and Dale Cornish. ‘Munchausen’ was followed by No Bra’s debut album Dance and Walk (2006) and an embrace by the art and fashion worlds. Since then, No Bra has become Oberbeck’s solo project and she has relocated from London to New York.

On this third album Love & Power, No Bra is more Suicide than Shoreditch. Lead single ‘Bangin’ gives Vega’s scuzzy nervous electro-crooning an update, Oberbeck’s lyrics (“Rubbing our dicks together in the house of love / Rubbing our clits together in the house of love”) sung with a close echo recalling Alan Vega, and indeed Elvis’s ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’. Comparisons are odious, of course, and No Bra’s aesthetic is singular. But just as Suicide provoked disgust and jeers in the Belgian gig immortalised on ‘23 Minutes Over Brussels’, I can well imagine No Bra’s po-faced unmusicality provoking some men to anger.

‘No Money’ is a précis of Na Bra’s style. Drum machine rhythms are sequenced seemingly at random. When her voice comes in, Oberbeck ignores the 6/8 meter by singing over it in an ill-fitting 4/4. Melodic and harmonic layers are there but never synchronise; instead they run oblivious to each other as if wandering drunk, bumping into walls. The sung couplets sometimes hit the target and sometimes are like Kim Gordon at her first-thing-that-comes-into-my-head worst (‘No asses / No assets’). It’s jarring, and even for someone like me who likes noise and weirdness, Love & Power can be hard to get into. It takes a few listens. But as with a lot of the most interesting music, it’s a grower and it repays the effort.

Love & Power’s deliberately disjointed music relates to its lyrical themes: gender fluidity, performance of social roles, urban anomie, misogyny and the male gaze, the sexual perversions wrought by social inequality. On ‘Dysphoricize’ Oberbeck intones in her flat sing-song: “You cannot cure this / How would you cure this? / […] How would you control this?” The kick drum pattern is sequenced but all over the place. Two layers of synth chords are layered without synchronisation. Then halfway through, without any cadence or preparation, the song abruptly cuts to a protracted blast of noise, as if mistakenly inserted on Audacity. Similarly on ‘30 Pounds’ Oberbeck sings, “30 pounds is what it took to get you on your knees”, while a I-V chord progression played awkwardly on electric guitar emerges in the background. It all sounds ‘wrong’. But it’s ‘wrong’ by design. At first it sounds frustrating; then, after a few listens, it appears as powerfully resistant, music creating its own terms and narrative.

I could go on and describe the album song by song, but I’m more interested in No Bra’s queer blurring of intentionally artless delivery and (quote-unquote) ‘arty’ style. No Bra’s music appears artless; and it appears so precisely inasmuch as it’s arty. No Bra sounds roundly, soundly, flagrantly artless, and roundly, soundly, flagrantly arty. This paradox – it’s arty inasmuch as it’s artless – defines No Bra’s style. The listener’s desire to correct the rhythms, to quantise the voice – a desire to manipulate and control and violate her style – is ceaselessly frustrated. In that, the style is a mode of resistance and inherently political. As in Mars’s later stuff like ‘Monopoly’ and ‘Outside Africa’, pop here becomes a grandly gritty question mark over itself.

There are some overtly poppy moments. ‘Who is the God’ (featuring Abdu Ali) is a standout, a parodic nonsensical hip hop track – all bling, auto-apotheosis and pussy-eating (with Oberbeck throwing in the odd “I get my dick in a twist”). On ‘Bangin’ the voice is autotuned, and the video’s parade of reclining nudes recalls the Vincent Desiderio-inspired video for Kanye West’s ‘Famous’. In recent years, mainstream pop has shown tendencies to undercut itself, towards psychedelia and the avant-garde. And given that the mainstream is all about star-making and the sovereignty of the image, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see No Bra ending up there, with her distinctive look of bare chest, shoulder-length hair and fake moustache.

The Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue editor Diane Vreeland used to say that, instead of trying to hide a bodily imperfection, one should instead make it the centrepiece of one’s look. “If you have a long nose, hold it up and make it your trademark,” she said, famously using this to establish Barbara Streisand’s brand. A similar strategy at times suggests itself in No Bra’s studied musical artlessness. ‘Hypnotizing Powerful People’, as with other songs, is out of tune with itself, harmonically banal, and has a vocal line to give a vocal coach nightmares. But all that is up front and centre and as a style it simply works. The persona is an effete man being sung by a gender-fluid woman. Gender identity is in a swirl. It’s an affront to musicianship. And that is what’s ballsy about it.

Those without the patience to listen might dismiss No Bra as embodying the excesses of contemporary art transferred into pop. Love & Power’s cover shot was taken by Wolfgang Tillmans and No Bra often performs at galleries. The lo-fi artlessness can occasionally cross the line into dross, but as with anything experimental, that goes with the territory. But there is an anarchic quality to what No Bra does – a perversely infuriating style – that unquestionably validates the whole thing and situates her in a longer outsider pop tradition.

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