Various Artists
Ze 30: Ze Records 1979–2009

From many accounts, New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s was awash in new, exciting music. Downtown, the arched sounds of no wave intermingled with mutant strains of funk and punk borne from the prior years’ progeny. Disco and world grooves drifted in from points north, east and west, and those who were lucky enough to be caught in the middle gladly took it all in, not segregating by genre. Seemingly at the epicenter of all this was Ze Records, the label formed in 1979 by British journalist Michael Zilkha and French art student Michel Esteban after John Cale introduced them a year earlier. Taking the first letters of their last names, the labelheads quickly established themselves as arbiters of all that was hip in New York, and in 1982, The Face called Ze “the most fashionable label in the world.”

Although, the label was put on mothballs from 1986 until 2003, when Esteban began issuing new CDs largely culled from the label’s catalog, Ze is celebrating its 30th anniversary with the compilation Ze 30, released by Strut (another recently resuscitated label.) A single disc of 14 tracks, the album is a cross-section of Ze and the music with which it became so closely associated.

The album begins with “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” by Was (Not Was), which seems appropriate given the group was one the label’s biggest successes. But this track seems to have come with an expiration date, like “best before 1986.” While the Reagan samples are mildly interesting, the wafer-thin funk has gone bad in the intervening years. Material’s “Bustin’ Out,” which features Nona Hendryx (be sure to google this musical footnote sometime), suffers with similar problems, specifically a robotic groove that now seems achingly stiff.

But where the record succeeds is when it ventures into the no wave for which Ze is largely remembered. While the version here is less caustic than others out there, Suicide’s minimalist lullaby, “Dream Baby Dream,” is devoid of age or decades-old idiosyncrasy. Alan Vega (of Suicide) also contributes “Jukebox Babe,” which again has been done elsewhere with more of the caustic aplomb for which he and his band are known. But this stripped-down hepcat groove is certainly worthy of inclusion. Best, though, is “Contort Yourself” from James White (a.k.a. James Chance) and the Blacks. A plodding beat, a bass throb, some sax skronk, and White’s howl are all that are needed to make this one an archetype of what New York can (and should) sound like. Lesser-knowns like Casino Music and Michael Dracula help round out the set with other enjoyable cuts. Of course, Ze wasn’t (and isn’t) about just one kind of music, which is what made it an interesting imprint. Still, there are some things it did (and does) better than others. You can hear both sides of that equation here.
Stephen Slaybaugh