We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The biggest problem with Theoretical Girls’ legacy is its half-life: By the mid-’80s, any claims to inventiveness the band once enjoyed as its own were eclipsed by those of others in the New York No Wave scene it helped create. But even if the quartet’s members—particularly guitar symphonist Glenn Branca—later took the ideas on Theoretical Girls well beyond what the group set out to do with them, this collection captures a pivotal moment in art-punk history. The chiming, martial “U.S. Millie,” the A-side to the group’s only single, released in 1978, sits somewhere between the first Suicide album and the first Sonic Youth EP—although it’s sprightlier than both. Elsewhere, Branca, guitarist-vocalist and main songwriter Jeffrey Lohn, keyboardist Margaret Dewys, and drummer and—surprise!—future Sonic Youth producer Wharton Tiers offer up tight, complex, and ever-so-noisy postpunk that does its best to groove and hook, even when it really shouldn’t. “Europe Man,” for example, twists an early-Modern Lovers rave-up into something a bit on the skronkier side. And “Parlez-Vous Francais” might just, but the vocals are buried too far below the foghornlike squawking of Lohn’s bass and Dewys’ keys to tell. But the song to play for your grandkiddies when they ask, “Poppy, what was No Wave?” is “Computer Dating.” The tune begins by smacking ya like a wall of summer air after you’ve stepped out of a meat locker, then settles into a swelling groove that supports some sweet chromatic riffing on the parts of Lohn and Branca. Out of necessity, most of the tracks on this near-complete history are really fucking lo-fi: When not recorded live, most of Theoretical Girls’ 19 selections sound very quickly four-tracked. And that’s probably the level of polish they really deserve—not because they’re half-constructed or poorly played, but because sometimes the best thing to do with raw and urgent music is to let it be what it is. In this case, that just leaves more room for the legend. —Mike Kanin