Home Music Rediscover: Loren Connors: Hell’s Kitchen Park

Rediscover: Loren Connors: Hell’s Kitchen Park

Plenty of artists take inspiration from the vastness of the universe. What Loren Connors does on his 1993 album Hell’s Kitchen Park is delineate a few square blocks of space in Manhattan, then look at it from every possible angle: geographical, historical, emotional. There’s another Connors album called 9th Avenue, named for a thoroughfare in Hell’s Kitchen that passes not far from the park. Like with Sufjan Stevens’ proposed 50 states project, there’s a theoretical Connors album for every inch of ground in New York, the city where the Connecticut-born guitarist lives with his partner Suzanne Langille and which drives his artistry.

It’s a beautiful thing, an album that calls itself a “park” and contains itself neatly within 28 minutes. Most of Connors’ albums hover around 30 minutes in length; this was true even of his early acoustic improvisations, on which he sounded like he was attacking his guitar. It’s also true of his collaborations, in which he flies around the world to perform with the top improvisers in experimental music. If his albums sometimes feel too short, it’s in the same way that your time spent staring at a painting or walking in your neighborhood feels too short. There’s a lifetime of learning and interpreting and exploring to do in this world, but at some point, you have to be practical and move on.

Even if the album didn’t have an old park sign on the cover, emblazoned with the leafy logo of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation, it’d still be easy to tell from a blind listen that this album represents a series of snapshots of a place. This is one of Connors’ most eclectic albums, and though its predominant sound is a blunted guitar tone that removes most of the highs and centers throbbing midrange and lows, there are tracks that flirt with the distortion of 9th Avenue. There’s even a ballad blessed by Langille’s voice, which feels just as rounded and faded as his instrument.

But Hell’s Kitchen Park doesn’t span a wide range of genres so much as a wide range of perspectives. The album begins with a piece called “Mother & Son,” with a starting chord that seems to open on to the endless mystery of the nation’s biggest city. A little later there’s a track called “Father’s Dream,” and it opens with the same chord, but the piece feels frayed in the middle. Are the mother and father from the same family? What are we to make of “Child,” the track with Langille, a poetic and loving ode to a kid (“Does your heart have wings?”)

I believe that Connors is indulging one of the most basic human curiosities. Who are all these people in this park? What happens in their lives? A mother and son are a common sight to see in a park such as the one that inspired this album. “Father’s Dream” occurs elsewhere in spacetime, perhaps in the future and informed by that same day in the park. And then there’s the universal sentiment expressed in “Child,” which could potentially apply to any parent in the park that day.

Meanwhile, tracks like “10th Ave.,” “Out Alone” and “Death Avenue” roil like churning ocean waves beneath a buzz of distortion. They hint at the vastness and danger beyond the park’s gates, as well as that which preceded it in its history. By the time Connors made Hell’s Kitchen Park, the area had been gentrifying for about ten years, before which time it was known as an Irish-American slum defined by gang violence and poverty. Many of these pieces take the form of Irish airs, and one is even named for an Irish patron saint. It’s not hard to imagine Connors sitting in the innocuous park and imagining the history buried beneath his feet. And maybe, as a witness to the neighborhood’s first wave of gentrification, he was anticipating what would be lost.

If you use Google Maps to place yourself in the park, it may look like you expected: a little gated area sandwiched between brick buildings, with a basketball court and a playground. But one crucial thing is different: the sign seen on the cover of Hell’s Kitchen Park has been replaced. If you’re wondering in what obscure warehouse the original sign is being stored, you already understand this music.

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