On Skid Row, James Ferraro explored Los Angeles’ seedy side with measured panache
Original release date: 13 November 2015
Label: Break World Records
“Los Angeles, it should be understood, is not a mere city,” wrote activist, author and urban theorist Mike Davis in City of Quartz, his classic study of Tinseltown dripping in blood. “On the contrary, it is, and has been since 1888, a commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States like automobiles, cigarettes and mouthwash.”
The thing Los Angeles sells better than anywhere else is its own mythology. And we buy it time and time again: LA, the city of dreams; the city of nightmares; the place where stars are born and ruined. The city’s seedy side is well documented in film and literature, but few records have explored its complexity with the measured panache of hypnagogic pop artist James Ferraro’s 2015 LP, Skid Row. Here, the ex-Skaters producer takes listeners on a night drive through a burnt-out Babylon, corralling his surroundings and obsessions – both sonic and thematic – into a document of decadence and decay.
Across 13 slowly disintegrating songs, Ferraro surveys a landscape where “hell’s bells tow” and “palm trees are green but the money’s even greener”; a place where gated communities guard Bel Air’s elite from the overwhelming poverty only a few blocks down the street. He is, as he mumbles over the unsettling ambience and siren echoes of Million Dollar Man, “lost in the smog of an ancient dream”. This is a record about the myriad ways that LA society fails its most vulnerable – and the devastating consequences of doing so.
Among the drifters and the dispossessed is O.J. Simpson. He’s present on White Bronco, named after the vehicle the former professional American footballer commandeered during his televised police chase down a southern California freeway in 1994. Simpson’s defence lawyer Johnnie Cochran’s infamous claim that “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” is heard at the beginning of the album’s eight-minute centrepiece To Live and Die in LA, a song that chops and screws new jack swing into something lean and lugubrious.
Despite drawing inspiration from the City of Angels’ dark underbelly, Ferraro wasn’t attempting to paint a grotesque portrait of LA’s horrors – horrors that the Simpson case and the 1992 Rodney King beating beamed into millions of homes the world over. Talking to Dummy the year of the album’s release, Ferraro explained, “it’s different spectrums of humanity: over there it’s this artificial, air-controlled golf course, and over here it’s the bombed-out junkie village. It all speaks to each other; it’s all in the same conversation. So for me, it’s not ugly, it’s just reality. I find that beautiful.”
That nuanced beauty reveals itself in a genre-spanning approach that immediately sets it apart from Ferraro’s earlier work, like 2008’s barely-there Marble Surf or 2009’s Jarvid 9: Gecko. On Skid Row, he effortlessly flits between sloppy pseudo-soul (Street Freaks), distorted trap (Pollution) and zero-gravity modern composition (1992); a reflection of his own complicated relationship with the place he’s called home since he was 18.
Tracks like Doctor Hollywood and Thrash & Escalate, which explore furrowed-brow funk and iced-out bedroom pop respectively, are lessons in how slowing things down can render the familiar uncanny. This sluggish pace also functions as a way to present society’s grim realities without obfuscation. Take the tilted R&B of Rhinestones, for example. With jazz-indebted drum programming and twinkling synths ringing out in half-time, you can’t escape chillingly straightforward lyrics like, “Betcha don’t need a man/ Rehab in a drop top Jag/ 110 freeway/ Screams written on the wall.” Album closer At the Beach is the only song that truly harks back to Ferraro’s older work, all delicate and undulating beds of synths and strings – and yet would fit perfectly over a bizzaro-world version of the closing scene from Michael Mann’s Heat.
By surveying the darkening of Hollywood’s blue-skied fantasies, Ferraro created his most compelling work to date. He may have made stranger, bolder and arguably better albums, but he’s never made anything as cohesive and focused as Skid Row; the complex sound of a storied city that has never failed to allure and dismay in equal measure.