NYC Subway: Songs From The Underground: Various Artists

Any compilation of artists regardless of the theme is going to be uneven. It is just something you have to accept, and when you keep in mind the range of talent you might experience day to day on your commute, a compilation of buskers from the New York City subway system is going to be especially so.

Much like New York’s residents itself, these artists all hail from around the country and the world, adding their work to the melange that is the greatest city (and subway system) on Earth. After an intro track of the sound of a subway train coming into a station, Spokinn Movement opens the mix with a song called “Flows.” This organic hip-hop is kind to the ears with is catchy acoustic guitar lick paralleled by the MC, iLLspOkinN (his spelling, not mine), but the flow is lackluster and the nostalgia of the opening track seems more like derivative shout outs than any kind of real props to rap’s elder guard.

And then you have the usual instrumental acts that are common on subway platforms, like Sean McCaul’s easy-listening vibraphone pieces and Andes Fusion’s South American pan flute, drum and guitar jam. You can just picture them with their alpaca ponchos and boots; ethnic, but not intimidating. Sean Sonderegger’s sax playing in the jazz trio he plays with here has a percussive quality that works well with the excellent drummer and the upright bass. It’s enough to make you want to have your jazz brunch on the Union Square “L” train platform. Or perhaps you might prefer Jason Green’s accomplished blues and jazz guitar chops, which you can imagine echoing nicely down there.

If you haven’t grown tired of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares style of close female folk singing harmonies, then Kaiku (from Finland) should impress you with their haunting voices meshing into something like a human Hammond organ.

The real stand out on Songs from the Underground is Kansas City’s Krystle Warren. With her rich emotive voice stretching out undulating melodies over smooth and sparse guitar playing, she is the real deal. Someone you might let a few trains pass by just to hear for a while, and that you might do the unthinkable and cough up ten bucks for a homemade CD in a box by the guitar case. In addition, lyrically she is evocative and unafraid. The two songs included here, “Sparkle and Fade,” and “Central Park,” leap out from among the others on the compilation, and beg to be surrounded by a whole album of this woman’s work.

Manze Dayilia and Thomas Bailey round out the compilation nicely providing music you would only hear on the subway and be pleasantly surprised by. At what other time are you going to hear a Haitian Vodouisant wail passionately over frentic drums or 17th Century American Colonial music?

It’s important to note the difference between the live and recorded music experience. What can be engrossing and alive on the subway platform, bringing a smile to your face and carrying you through your evening commute, can come off as uninspired and flat in the digital medium. So, while one might be tempted to be very critical of the remaining singer-songwriters (Kathleen Mock and Theo Eastwind) on the compilation, and write off their songs and performance as boring and trite, it is totally possible that underground it might just be perfect for the moment, and even if not perfect still worth some pocket change or a sawbuck. The same is true of any of the artists found here; perhaps Spokinn Movement’s herky-jerky organic backdrop elevates the lyric in the live setting. Maybe Andes Fusion’s flutes are just the thing you need, arms heavy from Christmas purchases, to carry you on your way home. You never know, there is a magic to those subway performers that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

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