Trying to Rise Above the Pedestrian
What does it take to stand out in a city of eight million people? A certain kind of personality perhaps, a unique style, and a healthy mix of ego and humility? Arguably, the same qualities are required of busking. There’s a combination of self-assuredness and unassuming nature required to put oneself out there musically, on the public corner, or in the subway station. The motivation for busking can be far-ranging—from pure conceit to the basic need for expression, from communing with one’s fellow man to making a few bucks. Either way, buskers have the potential to give the public an opportunity to be a part (if not a patron, depending on whether you choose to open your wallet) of the arts and help provide a sense of community. Songs from the Underground: NYC Subway has collected 11 diverse acts on 15 tracks in an effort to showcase and share talents that might not otherwise be heard if you weren’t a New York City commuter.
Songs from the Underground: NYC Subway opens on the able shoulders of Spokinn Movement. Perfectly named, “Flows” does just that. The vocal freestyle approach of Spokinn Movement’s wordsmith, iLLspOkinN, washes over the body, and you suddenly realize that your head is bobbing and your body is swaying to a Digable Planets’-like groove. One of four acts with two cuts on this collection, Spokinn Movement makes the most of the additional exposure with “Apes”—a funky jazz/rock exposition that allows Dave Cinquegrana’s guitar work, Chris Cuzme’s bass line, and Yoni Halevi’s drums to stretch and blend with iLLspOkinN’s rhymes.
Headset Productions obviously knows the strengths of their compilation with the most potent performers represented with two offerings each, but many of the seven other artists with single offerings are also worth the listen. The MUNY (Music Under New York) award-winning group Andes Fusion delivers a moving blend of influences from Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru and Bolivia in “Poncho”. Jorge Olmedo’s flute is as lyrical as any vocal performance, providing an uplifting emotional friend to guide the listener through the piece. Also worth noting is the evocative a cappella work of Kaiku (Finnish for “echo”) on “Puhurin Poika” that comes off as both otherworldly and organic. For two-and-a-half minutes, Jaana Kantola, Paula Jaakkola and Erja Vettenranta invite you to close your eyes and lose yourself in the lush soundscape of these three Sirens. Listening to something this beautiful, it’s easy to believe that myths are rooted in truth.
This collection of songs continues to surprise throughout. Moving in the same orbit as Tracy Chapman, singer/songwriter Krystle Warren provides a soulful, melancholic voice on “Sparkle and Fade” and “Central Park” that rises above the clatter of everyday life. Blues guitarist Jason Green makes the most of his single track, “Little Blue Cart Blues”, by showing off a sense of depth and playfulness in the three minute piece. The disparate collected works is rounded out with, among others, a featured vibraphonist (Sean McCaul), a 17th and 18th century music revivalist (Thomas Bailey), and a folk guitarist (Kathleen Mock).
On a project this ambitious, there will inevitably be some missteps. “High”, the lone cut from self-taught Austrian musician Theo Eastwind, struck too similar a chord to the forlorn style of England’s David Gray and of Ireland’s Paddy Casey (himself a former Dublin busker). The mature riffs of Sean Sonderegger belie the 22-year-old’s youth, but the two tracks presented here don’t do enough to distinguish themselves from each other (despite his second track having the best title of the package: “Neanderthology”). Haitian Manze Dayila’s “Café” also seemed to miss the mark, with her folk singing/chant delivery and the accompanying tribal rhythms seeming to lose their impact in their repetition.
The founding partners of Headset Productions spent six months tracking down performers in the subway, at the annual MUNY auditions, and with the help of trusted friend’s recommendations. The result is a group of artists who are all deserving of the exposure. A minor protest would be that, with so many talented and eager buskers in the tunnels, one would have hoped for less duplication of single artists and even more variety in the package. Instead, we’re left with more than half the songs coming from just four performers. Problems aside, to put this in larger context, Songs from the Underground: NYC Subway has the potential to put a human face on what happened in London earlier this month by giving the listener a connection with the world under the streets all around the globe.