Back in the old days of the Web Reviewing Community there used to be one site which would sometimes grade albums with an additional “squirm factor” on top. I always liked that concept, and even though it didn’t mean what I thought it meant (it actually referred to what his infant son was doing while the album was playing), I still think about it sometimes. In particular when I’m listening to James Ferraro, whose music seems almost deliberately designed to make you fidget in your seat. His music just makes me uncomfortable, even the stuff I really like. It’s as if it’s trying to scratch an itch that’s been injected with novocaine.
I’m not really sure yet what I think of the slew of post-Far Side Virtual releases that have pushed Ferraro into mutant R&B territory, other than the fact that they all make me squirm, most of all NYC, Hell 3:00 AM, which is one of those albums that’s managed to stick in my craw despite the fact that I don’t enjoy listening to it very much. One important thing to know about this album is that it was all recorded after midnight, and that it very much embodies that low-key depressive feeling that you start to get when the party’s over and the chemicals start to wear off. Not the stars-in-our-eyes 3 AM of the KLF, but rather the 3 AM of the lifeless city, where the only movement comes by way of blinking traffic lights and passing trains. One can picture this album being workshopped on long walks home, inspired by the disparate sounds of scurrying rats and 3rd shift factory workers.
Something that will strike you right away is just how unusual some of the sounds are here, as though it was recorded with whatever happened to be on hand at the time. There are beats made out of someone slapping a piece of tubing, snares that sound like the ICQ backspace noise, distorted string sections, and of course Ferraro’s own voice, which is out-of-focus and out-of-tune. Recorded in a studio (for the first time in Ferraro’s career!) it nonetheless sounds like a don’t-wake-the-neighbors sort of album; Ferraro sounds like he’s mumbling into the microphone, and splashy sounds only crop up once in a blue moon. Often it feels like the album is being performed in a sewer – even when you turn the volume up it still sounds like everything is far away.
As you may have guessed nearly everything on here is a real dirge – it all unfolds slowly and deliberately, with very little for the listener to really grab on to. There are barely any hooks here, and the ones you do get are mostly sung through Ferraro’s hobbled voice (“City Smells”, “Cheek Bones”). Melodies are usually pieced together or buried deep in the mix (“Upper East Side Pussy” – that piano bit would be gorgeous, if you could actually hear it). There are memorable bits here and there; particularly the sudden influx of text-to-speech bits (gotta tag this as a James Ferraro album somehow) or the clippings of 9/11 news reports. At one point there’s a rush of Michael Jackson samples, interspersed with a Coca-Cola ad…but Michael Jackson was always a Pepsi man, wasn’t he? Just more insightful and deeply confusing commentary from one of modern society’s most inscrutable critics.
Ultimately, “inscrutable” is where the album ends up. James Ferraro is the master at this, creating artistic statements that come off as brilliant and repulsive at the same time. A lot of this stuff sounds like it’s freshly picked off the garbage heap, sometimes almost literally (“Stuck 3”, a live recording of a dumpster). It is not particularly enjoyable, and there are sections where you feel like you’re being put on. But eventually the album’s internal logic starts to fall in place. Once you’ve bought into the album’s trash world, a track like “Eternal Condition” can be genuinely haunting and beautiful. The atmosphere may not be pleasant but there’s something very familiar here. It sticks with you.