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.

Party jumper Mr. Dead gets grimy.
photo: Brett Myers
Party jumper Mr. Dead gets grimy.

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.

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