But Is It Art?

Tonic is home to art music, and Brooklyn’s WordSound Records has consistently—obstinately—delivered material that fits the bill. Their lo-fi dubadelics thumb noses at the mainstream hip-hop oligarchy—hell, even the independent tastemakers over at vinyl emporium Fat Beats won’t carry the label’s output. The oddball mix of spacey instrumental hip-hop, bubbling dub, and incomprehensible raps has always been more popular in Europe and Asia than in the hook-loving U.S.

The WordSound of 2000 is different, though. The label finally has a cadre of rappers with distinct personalities—Sensational, Mr. Dead, and MC Paul Barman. Leading off last Thursday’s Tonic showcase, Sensational proclaimed, “I cause chaos like jail riots.” “Party Jumpin’,” on which that declaration is issued, is his first single for newly genre-dilettantish Matador, who’ve initiated their “Hip-Hop Series” with it. Like Kool Keith, who has always found a spiritual home in the indie-rock community, Sensational is known for his abstruse rhymes and unconventional, mushy flow. Given his spotty performance past, the MC once known as Torture did a remarkably poised set, centered around his recent Matador material. What sounds like nuclear fission on record is even more anarchic on stage. Crunchy beats step all over each other as if by accident, yet congeal into a grimy, coherent layer of bass perfectly tailored to Sensational’s arbitrary cadences.

The rangy, wildly coiffed Mr. Dead—one half of the Metabolics—followed Sensational’s set with a barrage of material from his forthcoming Dawn of the Dead album, shining most brightly on the jump-up electro of the title track. Were he slightly less wantonly unwell, Dead could be popular in that early-Method Man kind of way—eyes askew and tongue slippery. His whiny delivery was mere preparation for the de facto headliner (and true high-pitched squealer), art-hop wunderkind MC Paul Barman. By now, Barman has become a Downtown fixture, and steady performing has lent confidence and flair to his once offbeat (and off-beat) shows. At one point, Barman even scaled the speakers, peeling off salacious lines from his It’s Very Stimulating EP for the dedicated coterie of girls in flip-flops and painted toes and boys in Converse All-Stars. And Barman knows his crowd; at one point, he asked them if the logo of skate company Supreme—thick white letters encased in a bright red rectangle—was a Barbara Kruger ripoff. Someone alert the Whitney: Call WordSound for the Hip-Hop Biennial. —Jon Caramanica

Time Out of Mind

When giving advice to younger singers, Jimmy Scott tells them, “Take as long as you want—it’s the band’s job to keep up with you.” There’s nothing casual about the way Scott hangs back. He knows just how to get spine-tingling tension between the pulse of the bassline and the beat of his own eccentric drummer. Scott’s gig at Birdland on Thursday night offered proof that the time is worth taking, and that with the right rhythmic variations, half a word can become a climax. Looking a little like Nancy Reagan in a tux, Scott nimbly let the syllables fall where they may, swerving around each note until landing. As the phrases finally tapered off, Scott would wave his hand, as if to say, “Leave hitting every note to the kids.” On “Imagination,” there was an erotic longing as patrons—most of them in an uncharacteristic stunned silence—yearned for Scott to resolve the vast space between “Ima-aaa-aaa-ginnnn” and “aaayyy-shuuunnn.”

Such a device could be so much Vegas cliché, but Scott’s halted delivery felt right, perhaps because he knows the waiting game all too well. Scott spent many years in obscurity; blame a corrupt Savoy exec who kept his best recordings in storage. Now he can count Madonna and Lou Reed as fans (that’s Scott warbling in the background on Reed’s “Power and Glory”), and his opening night at Birdland generated a buzz beyond your usual jazz gig—I bumped into Ethan Hawke on my way out.

At 75, Scott has a voice that still possesses an astonishing, androgynous range, the result of a rare hormonal disorder. (Full disclosure: When I first heard Scott’s recording of “Embraceable You,” I asked, “Who is she?”) His raspy alto guided us through the unpredictable rhythmic crevices on a midtempo “Blue Skies,” a deep-in-the-gutbucket “I Got It Bad,” and a slow, stride-driven “Time After Time,” combining the songs’ romantic pining with an aching for harmonic and rhythmic resolution. It’s not easy to hold listeners in the balance when you’re well past retirement age. Eloquently raging against the metronome, Jimmy Scott reminds us that some things are still worth waiting for. —David Yaffe

Blame Kanada

Many came to see what all the hype was about and many came to take communion again in the ever growing cult of Godspeed You Black Emperor! when they played Knitting Factory last week. The Main Space was loaded with bootlegging equipment (minidisc recorders, camcorders, cassette recorders), as if the initiated feared the inevitable end of something too good to be true.

Though the bill said GYBE was to go on at nine, we were unexpectedly presented with over 70 minutes of moderately interesting experimental Canadian film, which quickly grew tiresome in the overheated, overcrowded, standing-room-only space. As smartass quips darted out more frequently, and enthusiastic clapping for the end of each film grew louder, the band finally hit Thursday’s designated nonsmoking room—chain-smoking, relaxed, and confident.

The consortium consisted of nine members: three guitars, two bass players, two percussionists, a cello, and a violin; GYBE’s trademark found-sound tape collage and the usual film accompaniment was MIA. (Perhaps they thought we’d had enough?) Playing mostly new material from the forthcoming double LP, Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, they closed their eyes and slowly swayed to the inner reception of a higher-dimensional broadcast.

Dynamic, anthemic, and absurdly dense in both texture and melody, their meandering, haunting melodies and droning-insect crescendos are a hurricane of beautiful destruction, mixing elements of minimalism with post-rock and space-rock stylings. About half the audience left at what seemed to be the end of the performance (the fire department abruptly arrived, requesting a “break” due to the sold-out room capacity), but 20 minutes later the band started up again with “Moya” from Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, and ended with an astounding Hendrix-ized improv version of “Amazing Grace,” with both percussionists keeping a pulsing rhythm as they strolled about the audience. Considering technical difficulties and a frustrated crowd, GYBE’s transformation of the “space” within the space was nothing less than sonic alchemy. —David Shawn Bosler

Mo Money, Mo Problems

Why does a CD still cost $15? Last week, a coalition of 30 states and territories led by New York and Florida sued the five major music distributors (BMG, Capitol/EMI, Sony, Time Warner, and Universal, along with their subsidiaries) in federal court in Manhattan, alleging a price-fixing conspiracy that kept CD prices artificially high throughout the ’90s. The suit claims that after discounters like Circuit City, Kmart, and Best Buy started using new CDs as loss leaders, marking down their narrow selection of bestsellers as low as $10 to draw in customers who might then buy other merchandise, major retailers like Tower and Musicland (which owns Sam Goody) pressured the distributors to control CD pricing by tightening their “Minimum Advertised Price” (MAP) policies. Under MAP, retailers could not advertise low prices—even on in-store displays—without losing lucrative “co-op” dollars, payments from the distribs that are supposed to help pay for ads but often exceed the retailer’s actual promotion costs. The suit says that during 1996 the major distribs had all adopted the tougher MAP rules, and cites a Billboard report from June of that year crowing that “since [MAP] policies have come into play, sanity appears to be returning to hit pricing.” The distribs deny any wrongdoing, and say the MAP policies helped save record stores—which stock a wider range of titles than the discounters—from a disastrous price war they couldn’t win.

The labels agreed in May to suspend MAP after a challenge from the Federal Trade Commission, and the states are now suing to recover the damages, although they haven’t specified a dollar amount. The FTC estimates that MAP cost consumers as much as $490 million, and under antitrust law the states could recover triple the overcharge. Consumers shouldn’t expect to get any of that back, at least directly: Scott Brown, a flack for New York’s attorney general Eliot Spitzer, says the state will use its share for “something music-related, like buying instruments or education programs for schools.” Several individuals have filed separate suits that could become class actions, under which any consumer who overpaid could recover damages.

Will the death of MAP inspire a new round of loss-leading by the discounters? Best Buy is set to open 12 stores in the tristate area next month (that’s why they’re inflicting Sting on Central Park September 12), but for “competitive reasons” the company refuses to disclose how much it will charge for new records, except to say that it will try to offer the “best buy” in the market. While the savvy consumer could already get each of this week’s Billboard top five albums for a dollar or two less at the Circuit City on Union Square than at the neighboring Virgin Monsterstore, or even cheaper at online discounters like, there’s no sign yet of a race to the bottom.The manufacturers have not reduced their price to us, so we can’t reduce our price to the customer, says Tower’s Sarah Hanson. Unless, of course, Napster wins and reduces them to zero. —Josh Goldfein