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New York Noise: Dance Music From the New York Underground 1978-1982
In a recent Village Voice review of the new Led Zeppelin triple-disc live set, Ui multi-instrumentalist Sasha Frere-Jones writes that “all I want from life” is music that sounds “like the Stooges and Trouble Funk playing at the same time.” Funk plus punk: That could be his band’s MO in a nutshell. But, in reality, Ui’s hybridizations are a lot less specific.
By Frere-Jones’ own account, the New York quartet is a “revival group,” one that harks back to his hometown’s scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Back then, he says, it was possible for New Yorkers to catch Grandmaster Flash and the Clash on the same bill and to hear white funk acts Liquid Liquid and Pigbag on local reggae radio. Back then, no genre that put bodies on the dance floor was above bohemian appropriation. And it should go without sayingthis was punk-era New York, after allthat enthusiasm almost always trumped orthodox skill.
Yes, Frere-Jones misses the good old days. But, no, Ui’s not some riff-by-the-numbers nostalgia act. When Frere-Jones uses the word “revival,” he’s not giving his band the credit it deserves. For starters, the Brooklyn-born writer and musician was there when it all went downeven if he was just a pimply junior-high kid. And new Ui member and multi-instrumentalist Erik Sanko is something of a vet, too: He served time with John Lurie’s punk-jazz act the Lounge Lizards, which also briefly featured the guitar violations of original No Waver and DNA member Arto Lindsay.
If you want further proof of aesthetic authenticity, just side-by-side the band’s third and latest full-length, the all-instrumental Answers, with Soul Jazz’s excellent and thorough new comp, New York Noise: Dance Music From the New York Underground 1978-1982. Ui’s groove-heavy tunes are just as crunk and cross-pollinated as any mutant disco from back in the day. Yet they don’t sound like any one of the songs archived on New York Noisethey sound like all of them. Honest.
That’s because Ui and Soul Jazz share the same approach: They draw inspiration from the motivations of the old New York bands, not just from the records themselves. If one of Answers’ best songs, “Sunny Nights,” resembles the first cut on New York Noise, Liquid Liquid’s lean ‘n’ mean “Optimo,” it’s because both tracks re-purpose hi-hat-snappin’ Afrobeat as bass-centric punk rock. Of course, most of the Noise bands stick with influences a little closer to home than Nigeria. And for the most part, Ui does, too. Whereas the folks in Liquid Liquid held a well-earned grudge against hiphopGrandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s classic “White Lines” flat-out ripped off the band’s “Cavern”Frere-Jones & Co. love the stuff.
Google “Sasha Frere-Jones” and “hip-hop” and you’ll get more than 200 hits, including bylines on everything from the Brummy-reading-the-phone-book rap of the Streets to the Southern Baptist body rock of Cee-Lo. So it makes sense that Ui’s stutter-funky “Banjo” is the best Timbaland homage I’ve heard since Christina Aguilera came onto the scene. That said, the song’s got a freakin’ banjo up front. And its what-the-fuh agrestic approach is a lot closer to the look-ma-we’re-groovin’ R&B of Noise bands ESG (Bronx sisters who made minimalism seem baroque), Konk (naive rhythmists who sported a future Sonic Youth drummer), and the Contortions (James Brown wannabes who never met a skronk they didn’t grok).
Speaking of noise, let’s not forget that Ui is a rock band at its core. Though they aspire to tweaked hiphop like that of Noise highlight Rammelzee Vs. K Rob’s “Beat Bop” (see: the molasses rhythm and skeletal instrumentation of Answers’ “Get Hot, You Bum!”), the Ui boys’ first act when getting down to practice has got to be droning out for a while. Maybe that’s why the DNA-style skree of “Back Up” is the first cut on Answers. That and “The Headache Boat,” with its one-two-three-four downstroke pulse, both sound like pretty conventional guitar rockthat is, until you find Glenn Branca’s gorgeous and grooving and six-string-thick “Lesson No. 1” about halfway through Noise and remember what guitar rock was like before Sonic Youth popularized Branca’s teachings.
Then there’s the part of Answers that sounds nothing like Noise. Take “Please Release Me.” It’s full of those cloud-borne, Fahey-esque loop-riffs that Tortoise floated all over its first few records, and drummer Clem Waldmann’s sprightly swing sails the whole thing toward Popland. Don’t get me wrong: The song is beautiful. But it’s got none of the cross-pollinating zeal that makes Ui’s funk-punk more interesting than that of the zillions of neo-No Wavers and -industrialists who currently fill hip-label rosters. “Please” is just too anonymous, too genre-tethered; it could’ve come from anywhere in mid-’90s indiedom: Don Caballero, Trans Am, A Minor Forest, take your pick.
And the members of Ui are a lot smarter than that. Frere-Jones, especially, is too connected to the world of ideas to merely get the music rightto make Answers a scanned-in version of New York Noise (or In the Beginning There Was Rhythm, or Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01, or…). True, Ui will never be as nervy as those old bands. It’s too late for that. But unlike some of their younger contemporaries, these guys know it’s less important to reproduce the sounds of the past than to recombine them. And that’s one thing from the old scene that doesn’t need updating at all. CP