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V/A - New York Noise, Vol. 3

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Artist: V/A

Album: New York Noise, Vol. 3

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Feb. 13, 2007

During the 1970s and ’80s, New York City saw an amazing proliferation in pop music. Punk rock, disco and hip-hop each emerged in succession over a single 10-year span, all intersecting with each other in what was one of the most exciting eras in the history of pop music. Right in the middle of all this, in 1978, no wave exploded in a brief but thrilling outburst of sheer hostility. The movement spent itself within a year, but the fallout lingered far beyond that as other acts picked up where the original bands left off and continued producing similarly harsh and willfully difficult music long after no wave proper had dissipated. The Soul Jazz label has already taken a look at some of these groups with the second installment of its series New York Noise, and now we have a third volume. Assembled by Stuart Argabright of the groups Ike Yard and Dominatrix, New York Noise Vol. 3 compiles tracks by those two groups as well as other like-minded, no wave inspired acts, most utilizing synthesizers and drum machines.

The obvious precursor to these acts is Suicide, who set the standard early on for art-damaged punk electronics with their 1977 debut album. Suicide had split up by the time most of the bands on NYN3 were recording, but Martin Rev appears solo on the compilation with "Temptation,” a fever dream of a track with nervous percussion, roiling synths and twinkling bells. It's reminiscent enough of Suicide's best work to be fairly satisfying, but still one wonders how much it would have been improved by some vocals from Alan Vega. Much better are the efforts by Ike Yard and Dark Day. Ike Yard's two tracks "Loss" and "A Dull Life" feature creaking synths and party intelligible lyrics propelled by shuddering drum machines. The songs from Dark Day, a project of ex-DNA member Robin Crutchfield, are somewhat more accessible: "Hands In The Dark" has a simple, catchy melody but is still supremely creepy with its warbling, vocoder’d lyric: "Hands in the dark / touch and depart.”

The real pick of the material on this compilation are the two songs by Implog, a group fronted by Don Christensen of the Contortions. Their track "She Creatures" serves as the opener, setting the tone with a tale about a man submitting to succubi that ascend from the netherworld. And then there's the mighty "Holland Tunnel Dive," which anchors the whole program. It's a monument of disaffection, with a subaquatic rhythm track, huge waves of distortion, metallic reverb, and an exhausted, resigned narrator who catalogs the details of his empty life. He then announces his plans to lose himself with the ambiguous lines, "I'm leaving for the other side / Going to take a Holland Tunnel dive / Oh what a ride.” Whether he means he intends to commit suicide or simply disappear into the depths of New York City is unclear, but either way, the lyric 'the other side' offers a key to the music on this compilation: it's 'the other side' as in dub, the flip side, the shadow worlds of death or the city's seedy underbelly. (This idea was suggested by Jeff Chang in his hip-hop history Can't Stop, Won't Stop.) The huge, menacingly empty spaces in these records convey deserted city streets and also recall the dreadest Jamaican dub, which may very well have been a direct inspiration. Judy Nylon's cover of "Jailhouse Rock" is particularly reminiscent of an energetic King Tubby mix, with heavy reverb and echoing percussion flying back and forth across the left and right channels.

Unlike dub, however, the music on NYN3 is cold, harsh, and faithless, offering no redeeming spirituality. The depiction of crushing big city pressure in these tracks rivals even the most polemical Rastafarian lyrics about the evils of Babylon, and the NYN3 tracks are all the more compelling for their finality. There are no routes out of the ennui and malaise depicted here. These musicians were working in the Lower East Side when it was filled with drug dens and burned-out buildings, a lost neighborhood in a lost city. Their music evokes the experience of city dwellers scraping by, living in tiny downtown apartments where they idly watch late night TV, take drugs and pursue uncomfortable, cold or antagonistic sex – people on a Holland Tunnel dive.

The compilation closes with Dominatrix's "City That Never Sleeps,” an uneasy electro track. Stuart Argabright founded the poppier Dominatrix after the demise of Ike Yard, and the group had a club hit with "The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight" (not included here), a tune that bridges the gap between the scuzzy, low-rent scene examined on NYN3 and the glitzier electro and freestyle music played at clubs like the Roxy and Danceteria at the same time. Acts like Shannon, Jellybean and Newcleus also used drum machines and synths to explore similarly dark themes of casual sex, unhealthy romantic obsession and man-machine alienation, albeit with danceable beats and conventional song structures. Their songs provide the overground, pop-oriented counterpart to NYN3's no wave-inspired bands, which operated on the margins of the city's scene at the time, and have been largely forgotten since then. These groups were very much of their time and place, however, and they produced some of the classic New York music of their era – in particular "Holland Tunnel Dive,” which is simply a classic, period. Congratulations, and thanks, to Stuart Argabright and Soul Jazz for this excellent compilation.

By Greg Ferguson

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