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ZE30: ZE Records Story 1979-2009

(Strut; US: 11 Aug 2009; UK: 3 Aug 2009)

How appropriate that the first letter of ZE Records is the 26th letter of the alphabet. It’s about that many styles that figure into ZE30: ZE Records Story 1979-2009, a collection celebrating the 30th anniversary of the New York City-based record company founded by Michel Esteban and Michael Zilkha. Like scanning the menu of a Greek diner on Manhattan’s west side, there are a multitude of delicacies available on ZE30 to sate the palette. A subtitle could read, “Adventures in record listening”, for this is the definitive artifact of the vibrant downtown New York music scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.


The collection kicks off with “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming”, a funk-thumping house of mirrors infused with wry lyrical spirit by Was (Not Was). From the Nile Rodgers-styled guitar riff to the creative sampling of a Ronald Reagan speech, it’s a bemusing time capsule of both the musical and political climate of the early ‘80s. The grooves are deep and hearty, and it’s little wonder why the song became a club staple upon its release in 1981.


Material’s “Bustin’ Out” also delivers in the BMP count. Illustrating just how well rock and dance meld together in the right hands, it churns on a sizzling mixture of guitars and synths. Nona Hendryx stirs more heat into the elements with a fierce and feisty vocal, creating one of the most unforgettable odes to independence. “If I leave here alive / I leave nothing behind”, she proclaims, stoking the cylinders of Material’s musical machinery.


Further along the spectrum of dance-rock primogenitors, a music box melody gives way to something more wicked on “Things Fall Apart” by Cristina. The track originally appeared on ZE’s A Christmas Record (1981) and brims with foreboding chord changes and dissonant fret work. The star of the track is, of course, Cristina, whose portraits of Christmases-past are the depressed twin of Hallmark cards. The liner notes by Kris Needs characterize her couplets as “damaged cartoon lyrics”, which couldn’t be more accurate. Sung-spoken in a caustic tone, listeners are treated to Cristina’s snapshots of trimming the cactus tree with her earrings and weeping alone with her cat after a botched Christmas party. Anyone prone to rhyme “tear” with “Christmas cheer” or winces at the sound of “Jingle Bells”—or those who just crave a hefty chunk of irreverent, guitar-driven dance—will find a friend in “Things Fall Apart”.


The collective from which Cristina’s rusted star rose is also known for canny incongruity. Kid Creole & the Coconuts, led by August Darnell in full Panama Jack mode, specialized in Caribbean-Latin pastiches that had an undercurrent of deprivation. (Equally infectious but absent from this collection is “Darrio”, a sunshine-dipped tale that sends-up the starlets and sycophants who clamor for entry to Studio 54.) Remixed by Larry Levan, the legendary DJ who held court at Paradise Garage, “Something Wrong in Paradise” could be mistaken for a five-minute excursion to Aruba were it not for lines like, “On the land beyond the beach / There’s the smell of bloodshed in the air”. Like “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming”, “Something Wrong in Paradise” melds political commentary with an irresistible entreaty to the dance floor.


Unabashedly inviting, “You Know What I Like”, appears, at first, to be a parody of disco conventions, circa 1976, something akin to a modern-day Brooklynite hipster wearing a three-piece polyester suit. The sweetness between the male and female vocalists, who have a rapport similar to the late ‘70s duets of Billy Preston and Syreeta, almost seems exaggerated. However, nobody would put this much work into a production for the sake of parody. Mysteriously billed as Sympho State, the orchestration is as masterful as anything ever released by Salsoul Records. This is real disco for real lovers of the genre. The fact that it exists on the same label as the rockabilly chug of Alan Vega or James Chance & the Contortions’ “heroin-punk aggression” (thank you Kris Needs) makes its appearance here that much more significant and underscores the label’s generous reflection of late ‘70s New York nightlife in all its shapes and sounds.


While clearly oriented in the anything-goes context of late ‘70s/early ‘80s musical fusions emanating from downtown clubs, ZE30 is also something of a crystal ball looking into the future. “Hard-Boiled Babe” by Lizzy Mercier Descloux is the template for just about anything you’d expect to hear in the 21st century world of Paris Lounge and Hotel Costes collections. A sparse electronic environment conjures the visual correlation of mushroom clouds in a lava lamp. Replete with oceanic sound effects, “Hard-Boiled Babe” is sung in English with Descloux’s Mandarin-like inflections. When the sweet squeal of a harmonica suddenly surfaces, it’s a charming acoustic accoutrement among the futuristic beats. It borders on whimsical, and if ever there was a label to indulge and support an artist’s whimsy, ZE and its thrilling roster of music radicals was it. If only there was a second disc to extend the birthday celebration.

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Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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