NYC Subway: Songs from the Underground
YC Subway: Songs from the Underground collects eleven artists from out of the big city tunnels and gives them 15 tracks on which to do their things. The album's slogan, "The World's Most Diverse Music Venue," reveals the producers' intention of making an eclectic collection. The breadth of music here also feeds the concept of New York City as the world's ideal multi-cultural metropolis. I've been insulted in enough languages in NYC to both accept and reject that appeal. But we're not advertising a city here, we're discussing some music, and that music provides exactly the ups and downs you'd expect.
The first act is also the compilation's best. Spokinn Movement, a four-member hip-hop collective, features iLLspOkinN rapping over jazzy, guitar-based tracks. As the title "Flows" suggests, iLL moves at a quick, steady pace. He rhymes cleanly, with a bit of conscious in his background. The group references De La Soul as an influence, and that connection makes sense, even as Spokinn extends themselves with their smooth instrumentals.
The following act, Krystle Warren lets us down. I've tried re-sequencing the disc to see if following a less exciting act would improve her showing, but it doesn't. She's competent, but doesn't really shine mixing spoken-word and acoustic guitar on "Sparkle and Fade" or on the more typical singer-songwriter number "Central Park." Like Spokinn Movement and several other acts, Warren has two tracks. If the putative follow-up gives space for more artists, then Buskin' 2: Semi-Electric Bugaloo will be a more intriguing listen.
The album continues in bursts and naps. For every up-tempo, exciting blues guitarist (Jason Green) that moves our feet, we get a Haitian folksinger (Manze Danye) who doesn't fit as either a slow vocalist or a world artist. I really can't decide what I think of her performance (this is, admittedly, my first Haitian folk song), but it doesn't work so well in the context of this collection. Dropping her and allowing Green's ecstatic playing to segue into Thomas Bailey's old-time folk number would have made more sense (even if it would make the city's tubes feel less worldly).
Alongside talented and traditional jazz artists like Sean Sonderegger, we find Finnish vocal groups (Kaiku) and solo vibraphonists (Sean McCaul). Sonderegger's drummer provides the disc's most attention-getting moment with a stunning percussion break. McCaul provides the loveliest stretches with his melodic, harmonic mallet hits. The producers segue smoothly from his "Strazz" to Andes Fusion's Chilean groove-laden folk. On your best trip across Manhattan, you can find a flow like this.
On most trips, though, you're more likely to hear the Kathleen Mocks and Theo Eastwinds of the subterranean stages. Both are solid but uninventive folk-singers/guitarists. Eastwind has a sound reminiscent of Ellis Paul, albeit with a fuller and deeper voice, but his presentation isn't any more likely to stop you between transfers than it is to get you to hit the repeat button. Mock could be a captivating singer in a smoky bar, but with so much interesting music here, her inclusion sounds more like an acknowledgement of the presence of girls with guitars in the subway than a promotion of a talented artist.
Like the ride under the city the compilation wishes to represent, NYC Subway can be pleasant, it can be exciting, and it can be boring. Actually, scratch that—subway rides are always boring unless someone's getting thumped or you're convincing yourself you're making quality eye contact with that sexy person across the aisle (and I'm not talking about your reflection, you hot thing). Like the stairways ... no ... like ticket machines that work 75% of the time.
Screw it, commuting has worn me out. Content: good, diverse music. Lesson: someone should sign Spokkin Movement.