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Music Review: Various Artists – Downtown 81 Soundtrack

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American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is best known for his avant-garde work in the visual arts. Widespread film audiences were familiarized with the painter’s work in the 1996 film Basquiat, in which Jeffrey Wright played the title character. But long before the major motion picture came the cult flick Downtown 81, which starred Basquiat himself. The recent release of the Downtown 81 soundtrack aims to deliver the aural flavor of the New York City art scene of the 1980s to home stereo systems everywhere.

The film showcases Basquiat as a painter, actor, and musician. Hearing the contributions to the soundtrack by his band, Gray, listeners take in a side of Basquiat’s artistic endeavors with which most are unfamiliar. The disc opens with a dreamy string piece performed by Gray, over which a woman’s voice introduces us to the tale: “The story you’re about to see isn’t true, but it isn’t false, either. Any resemblance between the characters and events depicted here and reality is purely magical.” This sets the stage for strange and exciting things to come, right?

Coati Mundi, with Kid Creole and the Coconuts, jumps right in after that mellow introduction with the bouncy, energetic “K Pasa-Pop I.” Between the outrageous freestyle howling of Coati Mundi and the sassy chanting of the female chorus, the song sets a high bar for energy and creativity. Listen closely and you’ll catch a few nuggets of lyrical awesomeness, like “Intellectual constipation will be the death of this great nation.” Later on, Kid Creole makes a second appearance with “Mr. Softee.” August Darnell’s fabulous panache is flanked by deliciously kitschy strains of organ music.

Tuxedomoon waxes political over the pitfalls of material culture with “Desire.” The vocals go back and forth between soothing spoken word and jarring, in-your-face bursts of bleating admonition. The music itself is a high-energy model of early, gothy electronica.

In general, the soundtrack plays like West Side Story in a discothèque: wild, jazzy show-like tunes with plenty of ethnic flavor, interwoven with synthesizers and drum machines. Chris Stein’s “15 Minutes,” The Plastics’ “Copy,” and James White and the Blacks’ “Contort Yourself” are prime examples. This energetic theme is punctuated occasionally by slow, gritty numbers, such as the Lounge Lizards’ down and dirty harmonica number, “I’m a Doggy.”

Even without having seen Downtown 81, listening to the soundtrack I concocted a vivid mental image of the downtown art scene of New York in the early ‘80s. Is it accurate? I’ll have to hunt down the film to know for sure. I can’t wait to see Coati Mundi in action.

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