Jean Baudrillard at a Stevie Wonder concert: “A strictly regulated release, a cold ceremonial, very far in human terms from its own musical savagery, which is merely that of technology.” Call it the Stevie Wonder dialectic: Afro-diasporic pop culture conceals not a quantization of truth (groove as the soul in motion; humanity as a pattern of similarity), but a radical equivalence between the two processes, the expressive and the imprecise swelling behind the lattice of a timing grid.
• Perhaps rhythm does not belong to the foundations of the city.
• Perhaps the measure of motion is a senseless byproduct of urban performance and exchange.
• Perhaps rhythm is not a sentence to be sworn, its invocation requiring the acquisition of knowledge and technical mastery, but a crisis to be managed, an ecological condition that needs to be supervised, regulated, and contained.
The case for a disintegrated pop is on a similar track: a revenge of the flesh, all too human glitches disrupting songforms of crisis and collapse. “Don’t wanna get cancer, but these cigarettes give me cancer/ Can-cer, can-cer, woooh,” Ferraro vamps on “Cheek Bones,” soulboy sloganeering bathetic in the face of addiction and disease. The airborne histrionics of How To Dress Well and Autre Ne Veut have gone to ground; these clenched fists have grown cold.
All of the tracks on NYC, HELL 3:00 AM contain at least two of the following Four Elements:
1. vaguely misanthropic reflections Auto-Tune’d over slo-mo campus-trap elegies;
2. droning Juno treatments backdropping the distorted groans of an errant sampler processing jazz melodies;
3. non-sequitur streetlife collage, i.e., found sounds (anxious/aggressive animals; traffic noise; feet, props, and cloth), surveillance audio, 9/11 news reports, cinematic dialogue, soul snippets;
4. mellow smooth industrial ambient, i.e., the ambient strategy of meshing environment and mood, animated by the industrial insight that scrambled thought patterns, limit states, and broken syntax hold the keys to what Throbbing Gristle once called “post-psychedelic trash.”
In terms of beat design, the BEBETUNE$ and BODYGUARD releases were light years behind the work on Cold and Sushi (it seems obvious now that those earlier releases were on a learning flex, off-piste workouts that a more innocent age would have called demos). NYC, HELL 3:00 AM goes further, closing on a remarkable trio that confirms the album’s status as the topping out of a beat-timbered vernacular that places Ferraro’s studiously non-committal, endlessly hash-tagged, and brandified persona above the threshold of a skillfully wrought trapcore hoax. The percussive flourishes of “Irreplaceable” suggest a quiet storm drifting out toward a polluted sea, a tranced-out Ferraro cooing “What have I become?” while glockenspiel melodies flash across a lo-fi dirge of bowed strings and smothered kicks. “Vanity” is pure screwface headnod: low-passed string loop weaving in and out of the red, synthesized speech irregularly dimpling an accompanying puddle of live and electronic drums. “Nushawn” might be the best of the lot: built on the dramatic sweep of a looped Hermann sample, its gargled vocal hook bleeding into patterns of abstract noise. As is the case with the rest of the album, there is an organic feel to these productions, a slipperiness suggestive of the covert routes by which fantasy encroaches upon the drowsing world.
This is the nearest we’ve come to The Rubáiyát Of James Ferraro, to the essence of what Jonathan Dean once called Ferraro’s “self-reflexive and problematized” Everything Time. A sheet of tangible melancholy hangs over everything, softening angles and obscuring depths. Bass lines flutter like damaged retinas scanning the abyss. Plumes of whispered neuroses gather around the impact of listless kicks and snares. Garbled vocals migrate from slogan to slogan, colonizing new areas of angst and uncertainty. Fractured allusions become building blocks for mutant ballads, degenerate torch songs whimpered in a sex pest’s basement. Slow Jams For Sociopaths, Notes From Underground performed by Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder dialectic: eroticism and obsession line the city’s psychic interior, the imprecise and the expressive lurking in the shadows of a vast shopping mall. Listen to NYC, HELL 3:00 AM close enough and you’ll hear them drumming at the windows of your mind’s storefront.