Soul Jazz goes back downtown to unearth another impressive collection of no-wave, mutant funk, and other assorted dissonance from either side of 1980.
As "no wave" reclaimed buzzword status at the onset of our unnerving new millennium, something was sorely lacking. The new scene with which the term had come to be associated was overtly fashion conscious, relying on a long list of influences for credibility. What was missing was a definitive touchstone. Brian Eno's infamous No New York was woefully out-of-print aside from outrageously overpriced imports. As original copies ascended in value, other compilations rushed in to fill the void. Outdoing No New York with a much more comprehensive assortment of musical movements afoot in the Lower East Side from the late '70s to early '80s, collections like N.Y. No Wave and New York Noise reestablished a much needed reference point.
Eventually, No New York did see a suitable re-issuing. Re-released just last year, the album reentered the market to little fanfare. The nervous energy of no wave had once again acquiesced into the glossy sheen of new wave just as it had 20 years prior. The criterion collection that had once been so appallingly absent was suddenly somewhat irrelevant.
With the fickle focus of hip critics and critical hipsters shifting even further away from the avant angularity of no wave, Soul Jazz steps forward with yet another collection from New York's underground heyday. New York Noise 2: Music from the New York Underground 1977-1984 follows up New York Noise with an even more obscure assortment of artists from the era. While not as outright enjoyable as its predecessor, the new compilation offers further perspective on the variety of cross-cultural creative endeavors underway in the city on either side of 1980. That insight may not exactly be in demand any more, but New York Noise 2 is as flooded with love and attentive care as everything else from Soul Jazz and proves well worth a thorough listen.
Even without reading the lavishly extensive liner notes, a few commonalties are established across the collection. Most immediately the brash attitude of the scene is bared in all its blustery beauty. From the jagged jerk of funky punk to the loping loops of mutant disco, momentum overpowers prowess and energy surpasses melody. Whether or not that rush of undiluted expressiveness is desirable may be subjective but the seething sense of self-importance is undeniable.
Also up front and apparent is the prominence of women within this insular network of artists. Almost half of the bands featured are fronted by females, and not a one of them plays passive or anything less than commanding. Anyone wanting to know who reclaimed the "I" right out from "grrrl" should start here.
The legacy of influence from this movement continues. "Ungawa Pt. 2" by Pulsallama and Mofungo's "Hunter Gatherer" offer early takes on the kind of ethnic inclusiveness that would later enthrall David Byrne and beget the genre of world-music. Red Transistor's "Not Bite" is an atonal precursor to Mission of Burma's anthemic rush while Felix's "Tiger Stripes" wraps up with a primitive rap. Receiving due acknowledgement for their emergence into the twilight of no wave's ascendancy, Sonic Youth appears with an early track that's not nearly as noisy as they could be or would get but proves much more akin to their textured and contemplative contemporary work. Rhys Chatham's "Drastic Classicism" is reminiscent of Big Black and fans of neo-no wavers the Liars will readily recognize the closing riff from Ut's "Sham Shack". Hinting at what Skinny Puppy would become in another few years, "Black Box Disco" from the Vortex soundtrack overlays dark funk with disturbing film samples. Jim Jarmusch's The Del-Byzanteens project into the future as well, with an embarrassing likeness to Primus.
These tracks are all at once progressive and unrefined, and the scene that spawned them stands as an inspiring moment of looking back to move forward. Perhaps out of necessity, these artists rejected the sleek sheen and excess associated with more commercially successful albums of the same era. Tracks are laid down bare and that minimalism exposes the sparking intensity of their urban origins. Vibrancy verging on violence surges through these songs as they address love, loss, anxiety, and the city itself.
This impassioned assimilation of surroundings imparts a certain timelessness to the collection. New York City is still a citadel of strange and its magic enigmatic pull is as strong as ever. While a lot of attention may have migrated away from that legacy over the past couple years, New York Noise 2 offers another, albeit untimely and not entirely essential perspective on this vital and influential era.