2000 to 2004 was a goddamn glorious time to be roaming the underbelly of New York City music: Gang Gang Dance, Excepter, Animal Collective, and Black Dice pried open indie-rock’s tomb and revived the mummy therein with a serum equal parts no wave, minimal techno, tribalism, free jazz, classical minimalism, Smiley Smile–era Beach Boys, dub, and straight-up industrial. In other words, they injected some desperately needed hooks, rhythm, and chaos into a genre overrun with stale Tortoise clones and general post-rock boredom.
Of course, Lizzi Bougatsos, GGD’s exotic brunette, who looks like she slinked straight out of some early-’70s giallo flick, dismissed that narrative when I interviewed her just after the release of last year’s Retina Riddim CD/DVD. “People always lump us together, but I don’t see it—we’re very different,” she insisted, and then giggled. (She giggled a lot.)
But even though these groups have traveled often radically different paths (especially nowadays—simply compare Gang Gang Dance’s Raw War EP and AC’s Strawberry Jam), they shared common origins and destinations. Rich Zerbo and Joe Gaer, the dudes behind the Social Registry imprint run out of that pencil factory in Greenpoint, represent this shared space. They started up the label at the same time as all this stuff really got going: “It was tightly knit back then,” Gaer explains. (He’s been kicking around the city since the early ’90s.) “The scene was small, and people lived close to each other. For example, the Pink Pony [on Ludlow], when it was around, had many different people working there who are in bands now. It was like a meeting place. But the scene has gotten so big. There is no one single scene anymore—there are all these bands that we can’t keep track of anymore. I mean, there are so many bands. It’s an overload.”
Zerbo, an NYC native, agrees. “Sonically, things have changed a lot in the last two years.”
Social Registry’s chief contribution to that original movement was actually getting the mercurial GGD organized enough to do an album. And that was huge.The locals went absolutely apeshit for Revival of the Shittiest—first the limited-edition CD-R in 2003 (which everybody wanted, but nobody seemed to own), then the beautiful vinyl reissue in ’04: It sounded like Sun Ra spinning industrial dance jams in Dubai in the year 2080. Nevertheless, the label didn’t really catch fire until the last couple of years. As Gaer points out, the “scene” did what scenes do: expand and fracture as musicians dispersed. And Social Registry is really the only label that has tried to document that fracturing. Sampling SR’s recent roster and discography—including its monthly seven-inch series, the Social Club—will give you the most accurate picture of just how disparate and sprawling underground New York has become.
Start with Telepathe, the core duo of Busy Gangnes and Melissa Livaudais, best represented on last year’s “Sinister Militia” remix 12-inch, a sound heavily influenced by GGD and Excepter, forging a kind of dreamy disco/funk/noise/twee that sounds as if it’s the indigenous folk music for the DayGlo pygmies of Atlantis. Also in that vein are Psychic Ills and Growing (the latter Pacific Northwest transplants and new signees), both long-time cosmic drone-masters, dense and murky. However, minimal dance-floor rhythms are sneaking into both bands’ newer jams, especially Growing’s Lateral, the band’s Social Registry debut, due out mid-February: Its crystalline pulsations and static-caked ripples are not that far removed from Kompakt’s ambient offerings.
As with most of Social Registry’s earliest releases (which are all avant-something), this stuff sounds great after a lengthy session with one of those Volcano vaporizers (which, according to a head-shop clerk I recently chatted with, are now illegal to import). Lately, however, I’ve been freaking for the imprint’s forays into New York’s newfound earthiness. Oakley Hall isn’t the only local outfit conflating the rural and urban these days: Both Christy & Emily (a gorgeous folk-pop duo who sound like Judy Collins covering Young Marble Giants) and grizzled blues growler TK Webb could and should grace the cover of No Depression or some other mainstream rag dedicated to roots music. (Steve Earle’s got enough press, guys.) The same can be said of Mike Bones, who just dropped The Sky Behind the Sea in November: Like Christy & Emily, he looks to the city’s anti-folk movement (remember that?), as well as the singer-songwriter tradition of the early ’70s (Dylan and Cohen both haunt his music). But many of Bones’s tunes, which boast neo–Harry Smith titles like “Town Crier” and “Love’s Not Yours,” are built not from banjos and 12-strings but from synthesizers and tape loops. In this sense, he’s the bridge linking Social Registry’s byways: Everything from the aforementioned Telepathe to the—how to put this?—grunge-funk of Blood on the Wall, whose brand-new disc, Liferz, recalls the early-’90s Gotham of Yo La Tengo and (!!) Babe the Blue Ox.
At its best, Social Registry even introduces arty shenanigans into our roots music. And only good can come of that: We don’t want everything in New York to sound like shitty neo-Springsteen bar rock. (And while we’re on the subject, check out those first two jams from the J. Geils Band. Awesome.)