You don’t get to jam with Sun Ra, Fela Kuti and Miles Davis unless you’ve earned some serious chops. Drummer and native New Yorker Steve Reid has played with all of the above, and his decision to collaborate with Four Tet/Fridge mainman Kieran Hebden shows that Reid, now well into his 60s, is still actively seeking out innovative musicians to collaborate with. This fourth record from Hebden and Reid is their most accessible effort yet, and it gives both musicians ample space to do what they do so well.
The idea behind NYC was to capture on wax some of the pulsating energy of Reid’s city, and the two met up in Hell’s Kitchen to record over two days in February 2008. The dense claustrophobia of opening track “Lyman Place” sets the scene. The track pounds like a frantic subway ride, with Reid laying down a propulsive beat while Hebden’s frenetically oscillating synths drive the track home. Occasionally Hebden lets a giant lumbering drone loose on the track, and it’s a glorious noise, highly reminiscent of a similar trick New York post-punkers Implog pulled off on their entry on the third New York Noise compilation, “Holland Tunnel Drive.”
The second track, “1st & 1st,” continues in much the same vein, although the mood is lighter. Hebden’s jumpy guitar lines are reminiscent of Nile Rodgers’ playing in Chic, but threaded through a Krautrock loop that repeats his cascading riffs over and over. There’s a sense of looseness and fun at work on NYC that is often hard to capture in the stuffy confines of a recording studio, and although much of this record appears to be improvised, it never lapses into self-indulgence.
The playful mood continues with the fidgety electronics of “25th Street,” but they hit a peak on the contemplative nine-and-a-half-minute jam, “Arrival.” The song takes Reid and Hebden down similar territory Tortoise explored on “Gamera,” especially when the drummer reels through some rattling percussive moves. Hebden locks in with Reid by delivering a gently repetitive guitar line and various analog squelches, ultimately providing the best realization yet of their joint musical vision.
The pair even edge toward pop territory with “Between B & C” (a reference to Hebden’s street address during his stay in New York for the project) and close the record with the choppy electronics of “Departure.” NYC is the sound of two musicians who have built a joyous understanding with one another. It’s great headphone music and would make a suitably dense soundtrack for a drunken stroll through the Lower East Side, where much of the inspiration for NYC was found. Although Hebden is likely to return to his Four Tet project in the foreseeable future, this album makes the next collaboration between these two a formidable proposition.