I'm putting my money on New York

All musicians performing in the public eye compete for cultural capital, but while many genres are a bit shy about it, rap is overt - it's an all out-war, full of subtle re-positionings, strategic alliances and sudden reversals. You link yourself with a set, proclaim your set the greatest of all time, then turn on them when they wear out their utility. You dis whatever rapper you think it would be useful to dis, and when it stays in the music, it's awesome to behold (when it metastasizes into real-life violence, not so much). But you always stay true to your geography. Game severing his association with G-Unit is no big shock, but can you imagine him turning on California?

In the fiercely regional domain of rap, style is inextricably linked to time and place. Back in the '90s, the national face of rap was binary, east or west, and any other regional styles were calibrated against coastal tenets. But here in the aughties, the South Coast has decentralized the rap wars, and rappers from Georgia, Texas and points in between own the game. (This is a pretty heavy generalization, ignoring the Games and Kanyes and Jay-Zs of the world; still, it's hard to deny that spinning the radio dial produces a lot of syrupy drawls these days.) It's good stuff, from the chopped and screwed, candy-painted slow grinds of Houston to the crispy-fried crunk of Atlanta to David Banner's hardcore Mississippi swagger. But it's hard not to feel like the South is approaching a tipping point - it's reaching critical mass, and rappers from New York and Cali have a reason to be hungry again. And we know that when rap stops being hungry, it dies on the vine.

Ad libs are great, from Young Jeezy's "YEEEEEEAAAAAAHs" and "Jeah!s" to Lil Jon's "What!s" and "O-Kaaays"; really repetetive and drawling bounce tracks are fun to sit sideways to. You can't put out a mixtape without a Bun-B cameo no matter where you're from. Ludacris is a genius, with his weirdly stressed, off-kilter flow. But this stuff is so hot now that all sorts of third-raters are getting deals, diluting crunk and Southern rap's baroque cadences. The time seems ripe for the rap I grew up on - namely, lush West Coast G-funk and scary, icy NY crime rap - to make a big comeback. Because that's how it goes, when any one rap idiom becomes too dominant and complacent, one that claims to be restoring rap to a state of grace knocks it off the block. That's war.

So here's Papoose, who's been on his grind for a long time, killing mixtapes. But now that he's aligned himself with DJ Kay Slay, he seems primed to blow in a big way. It's hard not to post A Bootlegger's Nightmare in its entirety, because it's just heat from front to back. Cop it now if you ever pine for the heyday of Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep and Nas. Here's grime star Lady Sov, a real wild card - grime is hitting with hipsters and DJs, but how far will it be able to penetrate into the mainstream rap world? Sov's grime is pretty crunked out so she's got a good shot at sneaking in the side door. Here's Peedi Crakk, a Philly up-and-comer making Wu-Tang's triumph his own, and here's DJ Quik, as if on cue, breathing life into the G-funk that was NYCentric rap-noir's foil in the 90s. Rap is so firmly entrenched as a pop phenomenon now that maybe the cycle will be broken, the idea that there must be a dominant regional style eradicated, but I doubt it. So when the South inevitably falls off, what region is going to step up? Between Papoose eating mics like he's starving and Dipset's gathering steam, I'm putting my money on New York.

For my first venture into the works of moisture

I felt I should start with the topic that got me into this mess in the first place: Bass lines that move downward by half steps. Repeating bass lines, while standard fare of popular musics, are much less common in the classical music world; so much so, that when they have occurred, they have been tagged with a wide variety of names: chaconne, passacaglia, Lamento-Baß, ostinato. "When I Am Laid in Earth" is standard, Music-History-101-fare that features a Lamento-Baß (German for, you guessed it, lamenting bass) - a repeated bass line that moves downward by half-steps. If you have a guitar or electric bass, pick a low string, start playing somewhere closer to the bridge, then sadly and slowly, move down one fret at a time, and repeat - instant Lamento-Baß.

I first encountered this aria from Purcell's opera in undergraduate music history, of course, but it gained a special place in my heart about a year after that. In my first semester as an exchange student in Germany, I took a class on Baroque music, and was completely lost. The language barrier was killing me. About two-thirds of the way through the semester we had to analyze said aria for homework. In the process I discovered two things: a) German schools do not use the same theory terms that Americans do, and b) theory could actually be used to say something about the dramatic effect of a piece. To deal with item a, I made a little chart of "how we name harmonies" and "how they name harmonies," so that I could do the homework in the way I would normally think about it and then translate. For example, what Americans learn to call a ii ("two") chord, Germans call it eine Subdominantparallele. Now, even if you have no idea what a ii chord is, you can see our German friends employ an eight syllable word that has nothing to do with Roman numerals, and perhaps you can then imagine why that might be confusing. Luckily, my little scheme worked and I was able to finish off the class with significantly more confidence. To tackle item b, I started with the slant, "So it's a song. A sad song. With a repeating bass line that moves down by half steps. Big whoop."

I couldn't figure out what the big deal was, until I had a little epiphany: one would assume, that if the bass repeats, the harmonies - and, by extension, the whole cam girls song - should follow. That, of course, is not what happens at all. The bass line is five measures long - the area starts after "Death is a welcome guest," and the beat is grouped in threes - but the voice's phrasing is constantly changing over the bass, forcing us to hear it differently every time. Dido enters in the last measure of the bass' first statement, with three phrases that are four, two, then three measures long, lining up with the third measure, the last measure, and the third measure of the bass line. In the second section (beginning with "Remember me..."), Dido has one long phrase followed by a shorter phrase. The long phrase starts on the last measure of the bass line, goes through an entire statement of the bass line, and ends (the second "fate") on the first measure of the next bass line statement; then the shorter phrase ends with the bass line. When this whole section of text and melody is repeated, it starts on the first measure of the bass line, instead of the last as it did before. Then Purcell shortens the amount of time between the second "remember me" and "but ah!," giving this repetition of the text a little more urgency. Dido is committing suicide after being abandoned by Aeneas; Purcell's music emphasizes her anguish by setting up a musical expectation - the repeated bass line - and constantly working against it with the vocal line.

Arnold Schönberg has provided many playgrounds for theory geeks - "Der Mondfleck" (spot of moonlight) is one of the better ones. This is another piece in which the lyrics don't line up with the music, except in the most choice moment. While the theory aspects are awfully hard to hear because of the speed of the piece and atonal melodies, they do, I think, have an effect on perception of the lyrics. Picture, if you will, that damned, smarmy Harlequin romance mime character: You know, the one with the proto-doo-rag, the white face, the painted tear, the chequered outfit. Instead of his standard romantic novel cover role, make him a Tim Burton character: More loveable, but still pathetic, somewhat creepy, and prone to misfortune. His name is Pierrot. Pierrot is out walking at night, looking for a good time, when he notices a spot of moonlight on his black coat. He thinks it's just plaster and with mild annoyance tries to wipe it off. But damn, it's still there! So he wipes again. And again. And he's getting more annoyed. Poor Pierrot spends the rest of the evening swiping at himself, trying to get that damn, white spot (out, out...) off his duds. Herr Schönberg employs some serious tricks to create this brief insanity. The piccolo and the clarinet are in canon - that's the fancy classical music term for round (row, row, row your boat) - and the violin and cello have a different canon between them. The piano is playing the same thing the flute and clarinet are, but twice as slowly? - that's a mensural canon. Then, exactly halfway through the piece, the piccolo, clarinet, violin, and cello, start playing backwards: a palindrome. Two canons, a mensural canon, and a palindrome. Yikes! All of these contribute to the general, crazy feeling that is overtaking our poor Pierrot. The moment where Pierrot first notices the spot (even though we know already that there's a spot there and that it's moonlight and it ain't going nowhere) is the mirror point in the palindrome: er besieht sich rings und findet richtig (flip!), einen weiß en Fleck des hellen Mondes [he checks himself all over and sure enough, he finds (flip!) a white speck of bright moonlight].

Dar Williams' "Mark Rothko Song" is a lovely meditation on light vs. dark, art vs. life, life vs. death, traditional vs. modern - a lot to pack into one short song! Lyrically and musically, I find this to be her richest work. (Though, I must admit I haven't heard what she's done lately; I lost interest starting with "End of the Summer." But I digress...). I was once privy to a conversation between my college jazz band director and our guitarist, in which the guitarist was complaining that he didn't understand why people talked about certain keys as being light or dark. For him, transposing a song from, say, C major to B major, didn't change any qualities the song might have had. Our Chaturbate director felt there was a huge difference; B major - a key with a lot of sharps - was a really bright key compared to C, which - having no sharps or no flats - sounded more neutral. He cited the Beatles - who apparently recorded songs in one key and slowed down the recording to get a darker, flatter feel – as an example. I never came to any definite conclusion about this myself, feeling that, while modulation within a song might feel like a move towards darkness or light, the diference between "I Got Rhythm" in Ab (dark) instead of A (light) was something for people with synaesthesia to discern. In any case, I wasn't hearing it. When I was going through my Dar phase back in the day (= mid to late '90s, and what smartypants girl wasn't going through a Dar phase back then?) and learned how to play this song on guitar, I was reminded of that brightness or darkness of keys conversation. While the chords are fingered in D-minor, the song requires a capo on the first fret, putting everything up a half-step. This key could be called either D# (extreme light) or Eb (extreme dark) minor, depending on whether you like thinking in six sharps or six flats. Furthermore, the verses end in the relative major (F#/Gb), creating another potential major/light-minor/dark opposition. I don't know whether Dar thinks about the lightness or darkness of keys, but it's an interesting echo, in a song in which light and dark figure so prominently in the lyrics. One last thing to listen for in this recording is the phrasing. I think of this song as being in 2 (two beats per measure) because of the way the chords change. The intro, then, is 13 measures long; the verse is 37 measures long, phrased into 8 (hand), 9 (snow), 7 (bright), and 13 measures (here). The Purcell-like lack of regular phrasing creates an unsettled feeling, reflecting the tone of the lyrics.

My devotion to Life Without Buildings is a little scary (I won't post them here, even though they're the backbone of this post, because I've done so before), and ever since I fell in love with their only album, I've been pursuing the second coming like a wild-eyed apocalyptic in sandwich boards. While each of these bands diverge from LWB in significant ways, they definitely scratch the itch and I love them all. I still don't know what it is about chirpy, helium-infused female vocals and floaty guitars that exerts such a powerful thrall over my imagination. Nostalgia for a time when post-rock was more dreamy and cerebral than abrasive and pretentious? (For a crash course in classic post-rock, check out Nitsuh Abebe's amazing Pitchfork article.)

Apropos of letters this week

Williamsburg Bureau recently sent a package to an associate in Heilbronn, Germany, containing (among other things) a CD by George Draguns. George used to be in Don Caballero, and now works as a restorer of 18 & 19th century homes in Philly. Notably, he's (still) a ripping skater and is a perennial fixture in the East Coast Handplant Invitational.

Here's the email response we received:

yeah, jet goes slowly....thanx ones more for good stuff...lots of goodstorys and lots of pession to go over crazy punk stories and artists life...music, hm nice....what i enjoy in moment....i hear in moment lots of post rock shit, draguns are good..some parts are in somekind of surf music....nice....

those tours in last time make so crazy....you know, when you live in small tour and here is nothing going on and germoney goes in moment throught economie crise...its everthing fucked up, we loose concert room, darkroom and there is no money for youth, lots of pepole with ideas(like every year when comes time to study) are also away....so fucked up....and i i don't know way fight over moving in big citys) and try to work with people to make sach born/dead city more nice.....but pepole run every year and i start every year from begining, search for new people....ahhhhhhhh....take sometimes lots of power that you will like too to move and sometimes just also be a Livejasmin.cc consumer ;)

ah, lots of down feelings......tom waits make me feel common

Suddenly I found myself in a strange country where the wind blows violently ... We were a large group singing as we marched ... The others were moving very fast. As far as I was concerned, I couldn't keep up the pace in spite of my efforts: "Wait for me, wait for me!" Suddenly, before us, there were ... "But what are these ugly beasts? Hippos? Yes! Hippopotami! Wow! This is unheard of!" They all began to flee. I couldn't move my legs. All of a sudden (a big shriek): I was stamping on Max Remier, who was lying on the ground, 30 meters long and covered with spots like a giraffe's body. The two hippos rushed toward us, and just at the moment when they were going to crush us, I saw, from behind a tree, a surprising procession of every wild beast in the world: a genuine menagerie. But at that precise moment, a storm rose up: the wind, the rain, the thunderstorm made the wild beasts flee ... The storm had become a music storm, the forest a concert hall. There was applause, yet ther was nobody in the room. The applause became deafening: one would have believed that it was a fusillade ... "Help! Help!" "Come in here, you'll be safe, come in but please come in!" It was the usherette of the concert hall who was pushing me into a padded box. The box was a concrete shelter where I found all the spectators piled onto one another like sardines. Below us, the hall was collapsing, the fusillade went on. In the shelter everybody was complaining of suffocation. "Help! Give me some air, please!" I was myself about to suffocate when I woke up, panting, with a pillow over my head.

Tristan Tzara and Arnold Schonberg

Having just returned to the Moistworks office, imagine my surprise at all the entries about Tristan Tzara and Arnold Schonberg. That means any possible discussion about the Zen of Trios, the suspended strings of Morton Feldman, Japanoize guitarists, Popol Vuh, and sound poetry will wait another day as I instead opt for a simpler, slightly more song-sung muse.

My indoctrination to Drag City in the early 90's probably correlated with SPIN Magazine's jean-creaming over Pavement's Perfect Sound Forever 10". That quickly led to scarfing up every Pavement single around, as well as those of their early prolific labelmates, Royal Trux (My only regret now is that I didn't just splurge on superunknowns like Twin Infinitives or a VHS tape of wtf??ness entitled What is Royal Trux?). By high school's end, "Back to School" gave instant nostalgia to the present, soundtracking the education everyday in the backseat hotbox.

Nothing could quite prepare our ears for Palace Brothers though (who I also read about at SPIN way back when), and there was nothing like the moment that a copy of West Palm Beach/ Gulf Shores got down to us. In the mail-order days, it was almost impossible for such artifacts to even make it down to San Antonio, and pilgrimmages to Austin were always in vain unless you happened into Sound Exchange the exact moment the records hit the shelves, as these singles always sold out. What was it about Kramer's studio touch at that time of these singles (he also did Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon"), Rumpelstiltskining everything amid all the porn and pot?

For whatever reason, I took great comfort in the music of Mayo Thompson and his Red Krayola and all who sailed with it. Coconut Hotel had a profound influence on how I approached my own noise-making way back when, though I can't exactly parse why amid the rambling clatter and splashing water. The stories of the band playing at a mall in Houston still make me giggle at such an absurd sight. I tried in vain to embody that mischievous, beatific smile he cracked on its back cover, and found that that smile could also sing hokey lilting tunes as well, of which "The Lesson" is but one. It's a song I have put on a tape for an ex.

If you would've told me then that the duders at Drug City would just send me their new joints now, or that Neil Hagerty and Little Willy Bulgakov would still be bringing it, I would've just guffawed and coughed. Not sure why I'm so taken with that snare sound on the Hex's "Apache Energy Plan," but maybe it's that comforting ductile mewl of the man himself. Just as I'm made pleasantly uneasy by the malefic recasting of "A Sucker's Evening," its Maya Tone pitter-pat replaced by Matt Sweeney's sinister guitar vortices.

My original plan for this post was to write about mistaken songs, songs I had the wrong idea about. Such is the case with Edith Frost's selection here. The first time I heard it, I swore it was a cover, maybe even a Kitty Wells song or something. Listening back, I'm not sure why I thought it was so old. Is it in the chord progression, the wistful lyrics themselves? Who knew that Drag City could still capture that perfect sound forever?