The Music Tapes
“The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South)”
Historically, the longevity of melodies has depended largely on their reproducibility. As popular music arose in the 20th century, this reproducibility often hinged on its method of dissemination (via sheet music, player pianos, gramophone players, TV, film, etc.), but running in parallel with these technologies was the oral tradition of folk musicians, which necessitated melodies that were, at the very least, memorable in order to be refashioned and retransmitted.
It’s no surprise that a song like “Sleepy Time Down South” has lasted over 80 years. The song, originally performed in 1931 by Nina Mae McKinney (in a film called Safe in Hell) and later popularized by Louis Armstrong (who, importantly, was the first jazz artist to actually choose which songs he played), is a perfect example of where the two above-mentioned methods of reproduction meet. Not only was the song heard widely on TV, film, and radio, but it also had a downright gorgeous, heart-wrenching melody that has survived its many variations, from Billie Holiday and The Boswell Sisters to Wynton Marsalis and Louis Prima.
With “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South),” the intro track to The Music Tapes’ forthcoming album Mary’s Voice, Julian Koster takes the melody and runs with it. Aside from removing the beats, which already serves to highlight the melody, Koster stretches it the way he does his own melodies, straining his voice to emphasize the song’s dynamic range in the process. By the time he mutters the refrain, he sounds exhausted. Interestingly, the lyrics are altered by Koster too, most notably the second line of the song. Which is a good thing: the original tune is about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and featured the lyrics “Darkies crooning songs soft and low.” Somewhere along the way, the line was changed to “Folks are crooning songs soft and low” (which is the version Louis Armstrong sang, but not without losing a portion of his African-American audience). Koster, however, goes back to the original lyrics as a source of inspiration, changing “darkies” to “the dark is,” a play on words that both undercuts the melody’s racist origins and keeps in line with his aestheticization of nature.
While the information age has pushed aside the necessity of memorable melodies for reproduction (I can hear you downloading Merzbox right now), I can’t help but have a renewed faith in the power of melody not only to provide continuities with our past, but also to revise it. Listen here:
Mary’s Voice, the follow-up to Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes (#30 on our Favorite 100 Albums of 2000-2009 list), is part one of a two-album series. The album, due September 4 on Merge, features pop-up artwork (seen above) and is available now for pre-order.
Joe Knight (of Rangers)
“Walk in Closet”
Like most of his laid-back pond-dwelling/beach-combing, Joe Knight toasts another slow-burner adrift the rest of them mallards and gulls. Only this time as himself, rather than using his Rangers moniker. Which is straight, whatever. Peeps go through name changes all the time. And all this lingering guitar is starting to remind me more of the trip home, when mom needs milk at the grocery store, and you’re stuck in the car for an hour waiting on… milk. She comes back with a cart full of food; you have sand everywhere; and the dog in the car next to y’all (aptly named Evil Woof Czar) has been killed in your space-age imagination over a dozen times now. “Just grabbed a few other things,” says mom, and now you wonder why such rebellion against spending money and shitty foods exists. Next times ya hit up your local waterfront (when you’re seven or eight), hide in the “Walk in Closet.” Find yourself your own youth.
• Joe Knight: http://soundcloud.com/joe-knight-music/tracks
THIS JUST IN: Azealia Banks’ Fantasea mixtape is available right here, right now.
• Azealia Banks: http://www.azealiabanks.com
The shimmering phrase that opens Pulse Emitter’s “Bioluminescence” sounds like a movie theater’s cue that the lights are going down and it’s time get quiet. The layers of synthesizer that emerge after the initial chime compel the listener to slow down and observe as if something is beginning to grow. Compounded by the imagery of the track’s title, “Bioluminescence” sounds like the score of a nature documentary that borders on science fiction. The song itself is a series of morphing cycles, of swelling synth growls and melodies that wax and wane — a translation of biological expectation. The shimmering patterns recur in variation and become the remarkable moments breaking up expectation, akin to glimmers of light emitting from a creature.
“Bioluminescence” is one of two Pulse Emitter (Daryl Groetsch) tracks contributed to the four-way 2xLP split on Immune Recording. Each of the four artists — Pulse Emitter, Date Palms, Expo 70, and Faceplant (Aaron Coyes of Peaking Lights) — cover a side of vinyl.
The World Is A House On Fire [album stream]
On Zelienople’s Tumblr, there’s a photo post captioned “Summer in the city.” Strata of sable sky weigh heavy on a streetlamp washed in briny green. These are summer days for Zelienople: sky-gazing, images of submersion.
Zelienople’s music, appropriately, makes me feel supine in a field. Albums that sprawl are usually frustrating for being stagnant; I’m not content just to float, I want to drift and/or dive. You know my feel. Zelienople’s The World Is A House On Fire has, however, remarkable movement. In all of these songs, there are many gaping beats, which threaten to sag and fall through, but the next step always comes. By the album’s third track, it’s impossible to not then listen to all seven.
The album is great. I wish only that when the music decides to move, it moved hard. That said, “Out of It’s” ending is the finest I can imagine for the The World Is A House On Fire. You’ll say, “Shit. I’m thinking of the kind of film whose last frame leaves you dead in your seats, a book whose last page’s white space leaves you staring like at the summer sky. “
“The Need Superficial”
People Hear What They See, the latest LP from D.C. rapper Oddisee, is the classic example of a hidden hip-hop gem. It’s a Bandcamp release, so it’s easy to miss, but once you hear its ingenious mix of rap, soul, and funk, you’ll find yourself pressing “play” over and over. “The Need Superficial,” available as a free download from the kind folks at Mello Music Group, marries a breezy soul groove to Oddisee’s rowdy, ricocheting flow — and it’s proof that the DMV is still packing some serious talent amid a resurgence of West Coast rap.