Ork Records: New York, New York
Discerning music lover, if you long for curation and worry that Spotify might kill enthusiasm for music, please look into the Numero Group. It is a label that regularly focuses on a single scene for each release, compiling an absurd number of songs and thorough liner notes to give context to local movements. Its latest compilation, Ork Records: New York, New York, is no exception. This time, the focus is on the mid-seventies nascent punk scene in New York City and a label briefly home to soon-to-be important artists like Television, Richard Hell, The dB’s and The Feelies. If you seek more than Marquee Moon and Third/Sister Lovers to fill the gap between The Velvet Underground and More Songs About Buildings and Food, this compilation is definitely for you.
Like most compilations, Ork Records shines a light on essential songs, revelatory songs and songs that offer context. Of course, you get “Little Johnny Jewel,” the seven-minute single that started it all (and basically invented post-punk while most bands were still trying to figure out how to be punk) for the tiny label. Also included is Chris Stamey’s “The Summer Sun.” It really is power pop perfection and does more than hint at the giant hooks he’d deliver later in The dB’s. So important was the song that, nearly 40 years later, Stamey would re-record the song (twice!) for a collaboration with Yo La Tengo.
Of the revelatory songs on the compilation, The Feelies’ “Fa Cé-La” is particularly so. More noisy than the version that would eventually end up on the band’s genius first album, Crazy Rhythms, this early version is more raw than the post-punk they became known for. Another surprise in this collection is “Christmas Weather” by The Student Teachers. With synths, chainsaw guitars and miserable lyrics, the song predicts the sounds Josef K would attempt two years later, across the pond on Postcard Records. “If and When You Come” by Chris Stamey and The dB’s is important, if only because it was the first time The dB’s name appeared on a record label. Fortunately, it’s a great, noisy pop song, to boot. The band’s signature melody, background vocals, chimey guitars and cute lyrics are already present in this early version of the band.
Thankfully, many of the b-sides and should-have-beens who appear on Ork Records: New York, New York actually deliver more than context. There’s some really great stuff here, folks. Erasers’ “It Was So Funny (That Song That They Sung)” hint at the mix of vulnerability and power pop punch The Undertones would later perfect. (Oh yeah, and what about that weird cut-out at 3-minute mark? Robert Pollard would be proud.) In “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” Alex Chilton delivers precisely the giant hook over a chugging, descending chord change that you’d expect from a guy in Big Star. Until the final 38 seconds, that is, when the track nosedives into all manner of noise and feedback and applause. “Love You All Day Long” by Prix is another track that Numero saves from obscurity. With it’s slick, doubled lead lines, crisp acoustic guitars, lush background vocals, and litany of major sevenths in the half-time bridge, the track would not be out of place in a mix with The Raspberries or Wings.
The 49 tracks here are accompanied by meticulously accompanied by liner notes and copious photographs, which has become a hallmark of the Numero Group. The writers naturally focus on the story of Terry Ork, who moved from San Diego to New York to sorta follow in Andy Warhol’s footsteps and ended up managing the band Television and starting his own label.
Perhaps most of this review comes off as exercise in name-dropping, but consider this: one of America’s longest-running, and perhaps most successful, bands may have never formed if it weren’t for Ork Records. Peter and J. Michael repeatedly cite the work of The Feelies and The dB’s as the chief inspiration for them to start their band, R.E.M. The Feelies are also praised by another band with nearly unparalleled longevity, fellow Hobokenites, Yo La Tengo. The sound of crisp drums and angular guitars of Ork’s bands is still relevant today with bands like Sleater Kinney to Parquet Courts to Nude Beach. Ork Records: New York, New York proves that it is entirely possible to return to the source and enjoy both the originators of a sound, as well as the bands they influenced.