Agony Shorthand

Friday, August 15, 2003

Easily the best CD I’ve bought in the past few months, this collection pinpoints one of the least-documented major scenes of the past several decades: the NYC downtown minimalist art/funk/punk renaissance that took place in the shadow of a city in decline. One of the unique things about this era in NYC history is that the city had recently emerged from bankruptcy, and many now-trendy or famous neighborhoods were generally considered to be uninhabitable (and of course were teeming with people). “Don’t walk past Avenue A – you’ll definitely be murdered”, I remember hearing on my 1983 visit to the Lower East Side. This is the neighborhood where the “NEW YORK NOISE” underground scene mostly went down, and the neighborhood that is easily the nation’s most culturally fertile stretch of square miles anywhere. To give a context for the scene this compilation celebrates, I’ll take the easy route and quote directly from the liner notes:

“The acts featured here were part of a young and diverse group of people involved in art, music, film, theater, fashion and writing who were based in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This area of cheap rents had played host to several successive generations of arts practitioners and had come to be known as the home of an open-minded bohemian community. While the reputation born of this history undoubtedly played a part in bringing this group of people together in this particular part of Manhattan, many of the people involved in the scene felt scornful of their cultural forebears, and wished to separate themselves from this artistic lineage despite their geographical location. This tension between seeking to reject past norms while building on, and referencing, them if something that characterizes the Downtown scene of the late seventies and early eighties.”

The “NEW YORK NOISE” compilation features a small handful of semi-overlapping styles. First, you get your slashing no wave artists (MARS, DNA, CONTORTIONS, THEORETICAL GIRLS, GLENN BRANCA) – to call them “danceable” certainly stretches the imagination, but with the right stimulants I suppose it could be done – this is more the “noise” portion of the programme. How was it that MARS' frantic, incredible, skittering creepy crawl racket “Helen Fordsdale” was sitting there on my copy of “NO NEW YORK” this entire time, but never made an impression until removed from that context? What a wallop! Worth the price of admission by itself. There’s also some OK early hip hop from RAMMALZEE vs. K.ROB and DINOSAUR L – as a complete aside, when I went to Seattle’s Experience Music Project a few months ago there were two special exhibits going on: one was a “ history of punk flyers in the Pacific Northwest” exhibit, the other an “early days of hip hop” showing. Guess which one totally ruled? I was personally far more into the old school hip hop exhibit; it showed a flowering, sub-underground scene of bored kids trying to invent their favorite music from scratch, whereas the punk flyers exhibit showed me little beyond a visual representation of that legendary 1993 Gas Huffer/Gruntruck show in Tacoma.

Right, where were we? Some of the most eye-opening stuff here is the minimal funk/dance music that the comp is built around. I had bought and then sold back the LIQUID LIQUID compilation CD from a few years ago, and yet again, their hard-charging “Optimo” here sounds fantastic, removed from a context of all angry dance music & placed into a cultural time capsule with their peers. Also love the stuff from the BUSH TETRAS (“Can’t Get Funky”), KONK (“Baby Dee”) and MATERIAL (“Reduction”), as well as from new-to-me acts like the all-girl BLOODS and LIZZY MERCIER DESCLOUX. And of course ESG, who’ve undergone a renaissance of critical hosannas in recent years. Rare to find a compilation this solid all the way through – highly, highly recommended. Also be on the lookout for ZE RECORDS' “NY NO WAVE” compilation as well.