I don’t need this boxed set.
The albums Naked City released from 1989-1993 sit in a permanent spot on my shelf. When sifting through my collection to find which albums could earn me cash at a second-hand store, these albums are never touched.
Still, Naked City: The Complete Studio Recordings marks the first time a majority of these albums have been released in America.
John Zorn recorded the first Naked City album while he was signed to Nonesuch Records. But legend says Nonesuch balked at the cover art Zorn proposed for subsequent releases, and the composer departed the label.
The following Naked City albums were released on various labels in Japan, including Zorn’s own Avant.
In the span of its compact existence, Naked City released seven albums, each one distinctive, all of them covering a broad spectrum of style and mood.
The original self-titled debut is a dazzling display of showmanship, and at the time, it was inconceivable just how much further this ensemble could go. They would go very far, indeed.
Naked City was the nexus between high art and punk rock. Brash and noisy, but accomplished. Spontaneous and unpredictable, but precise. Dissonant and unsettling, but melodic.
Rock fans took to the band for the volume. Student composers took to the band for its breadth. Jazz listeners took to the band for its improvisatory fire. Not everything in the Naked City lexicon appealed to everyone, but it sure brought a lot of different fans together.
In my college days, I preferred the band’s melodic material over its purely improvised performances. But nearly a decade later, even the parts that didn’t appeal to me have something to appreciate.
Heretic, a soundtrack to a French erotic film (yeah, I could have called it pr0n), is thoroughly improvised, but even in all the chaos, there’s an underpinning of logic to the performances.
It wasn’t just the cues — Zorn, guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Fred Frith and drummer Joey Baron possessed a telepathic chemistry. In the greatest of jazz improvisatory traditions, they made music on the spot that sounded like fate.
By contrast, Absinthe is the band’s darkest performance and perhaps Zorn’s most brilliant studio creation. On this album, none of the band members sound like their parts.
Guitars and keyboards go through heavy effects processing, bass and drums get spliced up and pasted every which way. What results is a nightmare soundscape as alien as it is terrifying.
Zorn had already anticipated this slower, gradual structure with Grand Guignol, something of a mish-mash album. The title piece is a slow, ominous collage, ever-shifting between extremes and never seeming to settle on one direction.
At the time, it seemed like Zorn’s least cohesive piece. As it turns out, it was. Zorn re-mixed the piece with a new vocal track provided by ex-Faith No More singer Mike Patton, and the new version brings a clairty to the piece missing in the original.
The rest of Grand Guignol is split between ethereal covers of classical pieces and the remaining 30 tracks from Torture Garden that did not appear on the self-titled debut.
Zorn resequenced Grand Guignol to put the classical covers at the end, and the result is an album with better flow.
By the time Naked City recorded Radio, Zorn got the sense the band had gone as far as it could have. (Original plans called for a second volume of Radio, but Zorn nixed them.)
With Radio, the band returns to the varied program of its self-titled debut, with more of an emphasis on improvisation. The first half of the album contains melodic material, but the second half goes utterly bugfuck. On one level, it wasn’t as successful as the first album, but still, it’s a performance to behold.
Naked City: The Complete Studio Recordings doesn’t give much room to reproduce the sparse but disturbing cover art of the original albums. And Zorn’s annoying aesthetic sense to put light text against light backgrounds makes the accompanying bound book, Eight Million Stories: Naked City Ephemera, useless.
Not totally, though — the booklet contains snippets of Naked City scores and a lot of great photos and art.
This boxed set contains some of the most amazing music ever produced by one band. Naked City managed to create more great music in five years than other bands who lasted twice as long.
I don’t need it, but I have it anyway. And man has it been nice revisiting it!