Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

February-March 2007

Writing bimonthly, pondering design issues, ditching the annual Turkey Shoot and, most of all, irritated if not appalled by all-too-many records with reps, I've adjusted the Consumer Guide for MSN Music. So on page two you will find two albums marked Dud of the Month, with the more notable dud listed first. Politically correct coot that I am, I regret that both feature young women. Believe me, the young men will get theirs, and there are coots aplenty waiting in the wings.

Beyoncé: B'Day (Columbia) If opulence can signify liberation in this grotesquely materialistic time, as in hip-hop it can, then Beyoncé earns her props with a bunch of songs she says were inspired all in a rush by her Dreamgirls character. Many suspect they were actually inspired by Jay-Z, who has the noblesse oblige to save the only expression of erotic longing on the record. I don't. But I admire her for opening the possibility, which leaves Hova with his hands full whether he's a thousand miles away or getting one-upped on "Upgrade U." Not counting "Irreplaceable," where hook subsumes meaning anyway, the key track is "Suga Mama," which ends with Beyoncé ordering her boy toy to remove the duds she just bought him -- real slow. On most of them she's wronged yet still in control because she's got so much money. A MINUS

Lily Allen: Alright, Still (Capitol) In a no-frills voice that carries a tune as easily as a schoolkid carries a backpack, the 21-year-old daughter of performing arts professionals plays a girl sticking up for herself, creating an illusion of the ordinary that seems as simple and inevitable as punk without punk shock and/or rage. Just to help out, her well-attuned producers pretend that ska was a basic pop component in an era not yet lost. Only two songs ring false: the one about her ex's penis because everybody lies about that, and the one about keeping it real because all the 21-year-olds sing that tune -- and because she isn't real, really. A MINUS

Clinic: Visitations (Domino) Though you'd never know it from the weary complaints of Alternian ADD victims, Clinic's albums don't all sound the same. They do sound similar -- Clinic are minimalists. But like most minimalists, they try out new effects, and especially for those put off by Ade Blackburn's lockjaw, the variations in texture and rhythm here add jam to a garage-punk revival that's more solid than the Strokes'. I still prefer 2004's disreputable Winchester Cathedral. But this is a proper guitar fix nevertheless. A MINUS

Clipse: Hell Hath No Fury (Zomba/Star Trak/Re-Up Gang) The rapping is crystalline, gritty -- that is, hard two ways. The only reason "Momma, I'm so sorry, I'm so obnoxious" isn't the theme is that they're not sorry. Playing hit rappers forced by evil bizzers to return to a life of crime, so that music is just pocket money for them, they're unflinchingly unsensationalistic. But it's the beats that turn this into noir worthy of Jim Thompson, far from the stolen fun of the We Got It for Cheap mixtapes. Anyone who associates the Neptunes with suave keyboard hooks won't believe they're behind all this spare alienation. So what if "Mr. Me Too" contains a portion of the composition "Burrup," written by Cegricia Hamilton and Gary Henderson? Meaning that buzzing dub thing? Or is it ringing? OK, vibrating. Et cetera. A

Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar) Looking back, we understand that Coleman was always an inspired melodist. We may even conclude that it was his melodies that made his free, harmolodic and avant-funk concepts irresistible. But at 76, he turns the page with this two-bass, two-Coleman quartet. Tony Falanga bows most ballad themes and is hornlike or maybe just cellolike throughout. Ornette's alto (though not his trumpet or violin) could also be described as cellolike, and his new compositions suit the mellow mood even when the arrangement gives Denardo Coleman room to bash and rumble. Exemplary is one of just two remakes: 1959's "Turnaround," which was a lowdown gutbucket blues on Tomorrow Is the Question but is a whimsical chamber-music blues here. Both times Ornette quotes Cole Porter's "Do I Love You"; here he also quotes Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer." Conceptually as major as Change of the Century (1959) or Of Human Feelings (1979) and almost as consummately executed. A

Lupe Fiasco: Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor (Atlantic) Why do so many rappers of the everyday come from Chicago? Fiasco follows Common, Capital D, Rhymefest and of course his homey Kanye West, who is definitely part of the explanation. Though I wish the beats were less corny-orchestral, Fiasco marks his own turf in a three-song sequence that would have led the second side back in the day. The not-quite-nightmarish "Daydreamin'," the thug-life-after-death fable "The Cool" and the free-accelerating "Hurt Me Soul," which begins with Too Short calling women bitches and ends in the geopolitical sinkhole we all inhabit, prove it isn't just realists who describe real life. And the two takes on his signature "Kick Push" hope that everyday life isn't always a sinkhole. A MINUS

Ghostface Killah: More Fish (Def Jam) Not really rehashed leftovers but definitely a Christmas snack, this could prove a paradigm shift: major label -- not Sanctuary meets De La or Koch doing its thing -- sticks with quality artist past his commercial prime because he'll certainly break even and possibly sell long-term. Granted, it could just be Jay-Z playing his remaining executive cred for the greater glory of his artistic legacy (which would also be a paradigm shift). But hip-hop is now where rock was in the early '80s, when veterans such as Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Lou Reed were the equivalent of what the book trade called publishers' poets back when commercial publishers dealt poetry. Whether doing his ex-Wu thing or mixtaping with the Theodore Unit pals showcased here, Ghostface always tells a good story and finds a good beat. This isn't the gauntlet Fishscale was. It's just a good bunch of songs. Thank UniMoth for venturing capital on it. A MINUS

The Knife: Silent Shout (Rabid/Mute) Celebrating the lighter side of alienation, the cunning Olof Dreijer elbows comely synthesizer tunelets with sharp synthesizer beatlets as his wacky sister Karin applies a kiddie screech to various bad things. Exactly what these are is hard to say because the lyrics resist parsing as sound and sense. But the musical construction is so jaunty that they can't be serious even if they're cutting their alienated fans out of the joke. Dig it when Karin lowers her voice electronically and duets with herself. Good giggles are so rare in alt these days. A MINUS

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited: Rise Up (RealWorld) Like Burning Spear at a higher level of elaboration, the Zimbabwean truthteller tends toward the mean. His songs go on, his grooves blend together. So it's a surprise when a lead track constructed of the usual reggaefied mbira materials leaps from the speakers. Clearly, good riffs do still come to Mapfumo, especially when he's pondering his loss of a home market. Nothing else here tops it, and soon you wish he wouldn't hand off so much singing to the ladies. But the details are manifold, and the grooves maintain their mo. B PLUS

The McKay Brothers: Cold Beer & Hot Tamales (Medina River) Whatever we've been hearing since outlaw was a cliché, no way is honky tonk the key to a higher reality. But I'm glad I met the George Jones imitator who gets to the package store on his lawnmower and am touched by the lachrymose lyricism of the guy whose dog replaces his wife on the passenger seat of his pickup. Their roadhouse wisdom is improved by their Texan bilingualism and their concern for ecology. And when Hollin McKay buys his lifemate some breasts, he does ponder a higher reality: "Do they stand up when you lie down?/How do they make you feel?" A MINUS

Tartit: Abacabok (Crammed Discs) These mostly female Tuareg exiles convened in Belgium in the '90s to brave the world music circuit, with who left Africa when and who went back fuzzy. For all their tinde drums, the folkloric chants of 2000's "Ichichila" seemed static and bare. But since then, the Mali explosion has brought with it Festival in the Desert and its children, and the forward drive here is definitely cognizant of the better-known Tuaregs of Tinariwen. Tartit play faster and ululate more as their self-sufficient gravity accommodates a Westward-looking groove. Afel Bocoum and friends carry one track, less familiar names three others, with Tuareg bassist Nasser a standout. If their veiled faces make you feel guilty, be that way. I take my Islamic connections wherever I can find them. A MINUS

TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope) Proud foe of prog, poetasters and their debut album, I filed this under overwrought 'til I could bear the clamor of their youthful cohort no longer, and soon I was sucker-punched by its opening salvo, four sour treated-horns-with-sitar notes that remain the best thing on the record, immediately followed by the second-best thing, Tunde Adebimpe's pained falsetto "I was a lover before this war." Together, these are enough to justify the record's ominous tone. Though hardly straightforward, neither music nor lyrics are obscure. Instead, emotional dislocations are contextualized for once -- blamed on Bush and/or capitalism, actually, which rather than a cop out is almost an analysis. Never rousing and too often glum, the album is carried by its intelligence, integrity and terrible beauty. Difficult but durable music and point but open-ended verbiage that conveys what a bummer it is to struggle fruitlessly with your own political impotence. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • John Mayer: Continuum (Aware/Columbia) Saying in so many words what his less-gifted, more-pretentious contemporaries think it's cool to camouflage ("Waiting on the World to Change," "The Heart of Life").
  • Jay-Z: Kingdom Come (Roc-a-Fella) The pleasures of going legit ("Minority Report," "30 Something").
  • Lady Sovereign: Public Warning (Def Jam) Volume duly fiddled, "Fiddle With the Volume" still isn't a banger ("Love Me or Hate Me," "Random").
  • Nellie McKay: Pretty Little Head (Hungry Mouse) Too much too soon, and also too late, a syndrome that cries out for professional advice ("Cupcake," "Food").
  • Andy Fairweather Low: Sweet Soulful Music (Proper American) "Born to be the who I am," "secondary modern boy" pushes 60 ("One More Rocket," "Zazzy").
  • The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop) "Faced with a dodo's conundrum" -- he said it, I didn't ("Girl Sailor," "Australia").
  • The Pernice Brothers: Live a Little (Ashmont) Tuneful of course, but even if all this convolution is easier for him, it isn't for us ("High as a Kite," "Somerville").
  • The Rough Guide to West African Gold (World Music Network) Golden-age ecumenicism, late '50s to early '80s -- Francophones trying out their English, Ghana respecting Mali, Nigerian Hawaiian guitar (Bembeya Jazz, "Whiskey Soda"; Eric Agyeman, "Abenaa Na Aden?").
  • Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere (Downtown) Actually, I liked how weird he is better when he was producing himself ("Gone Daddy Gone," "Go-Go Gadget Gospel").
  • Regina Spektor: Begin to Hope (Sire) A bigger heart than her piano-playing New York City counterparts but a slightly smaller talent, a problem that could prove chronic or lessen with time ("That Time," "Another Town").
  • Eccodek: More Africa in Us (White Swan) Ethnotechno soundscape, sometimes a shade too comfortable or anonymous, sometimes just eerie enough ("In This Drum a Secret," "Bodhichitta Dub").
  • Big Lou's Polka Casserole: Doctors of Polka-Ology (Accordion Princess) Prefers accordions and novelty songs to polka, still likes polka a lot, and for your information is a girl ("Hey, Mr. Travel Agent," "Boys in the Backroom").
  • Mutant Press: Idiots Rule (Mutant Press) If the MC5 hadn't kicked the bucket, they'd be older than these guys, but not louder, grayer or more revolutionary ("Idiots Rule," "CIA").
  • Hallelujah Chicken Run Band: Take One (Alula) Fun mbira-guitar history lesson, with Thomas Mapfumo only a bit player ("Mudzimu Ndiringe," "Tamba Zimba Navashe").
  • Kelis: Kelis Was Here (LaFace) Good for sex and not much else, which in a fantasy object is plenty ("Blindfold Me," "What's That Right There").
  • M. Ward: Post-War (Merge) Loud is over if you want it ("Magic Trick," "Rollercoaster").
  • Ali Farka Touré: Savane (World Circuit/Nonesuch) Grave to the grave ("Yer Bounda Fara," "Ledi Coumbe").
  • Cat Power: The Greatest (Matador) With the Hodges brothers keeping her together, she might actually pick you up at the methadone clinic like she said she would ("Could We," "Love and Communication").
  • Willie Nelson: Songbird (Lost Highway) Now he knows -- if he wants somebody who can't stop writing songs, better Harlan Howard than Ryan Adams ("Hallelujah," "$1000 Wedding").
  • American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986 (Rhino) Beyond Black Flag, Bad Brains and Flipper, 23 driven bands with a track apiece disappear into one anonymous blur (Bad Brains, "Pay to Cum"; Black Flag, "Nervous Breakdown").

Choice Cuts

  • Loudon Wainwright III, "Good Ship Venus," "Turkish Revelry" (Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, & Chanteys, Anti)
  • Stan Ridgway, "Hanging Johnny" (Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, & Chanteys, Anti)
  • Ralph Steadman, "Little Boy Billee" (Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, & Chanteys, Anti)
  • Fergie, "Fergalicious" and "London Bridge" (The Dutchess, A&M)
  • +44, "When Your Heart Stops Beating" (When Your Heart Stops Beating, Interscope)
  • Ne-Yo, "Get Down Like That (Remix)" and "So Sick" (In My Own Words, Def Jam)
  • Snoop Dogg, "Get a Light" (Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, Geffen)
  • The Bird and the Bee, "F*cking Boyfriend" (The Bird and the Bee, Metro Blue)
  • The Green Arrows, "Mwana Waenda" (The Green Arrows, Alula)

Duds of the Month

Joanna Newsom: Ys (Drag City) Original is one thing, worth doing another -- and if only indie ideologues knew the difference. So much that is sprightly about the debut is subsumed here by ambition, to be kind, and privilege, to be brutally accurate. The through-composition does gain melodic grace over time but would mean little without the ministrations of Van Dyke Parks, whose fancy stuff requires simpler tunes than Newsom wishes to provide. And the libretto -- ach Gott! Supposedly inspired by milestones in Newsom's life, these whimsical pastoral allegories reveal only that her taste for the antique is out of control. All those who gave this a rave should proceed directly to Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene or John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The new Arcade Fire will only waste their time. C PLUS

Brazilian Girls: Talk to La Bomb (Verve Forecast) The idea that Sabina Sciubba is sexy and sophisticated assumes that one finds sophistication sexy. Many do, of course, especially when shows of sensuality sweeten the deal. But some of us would rather that shows of warmth broke the ice. If only she was as sophisticated as she thinks she is. Or as funny. B

More Duds

  • Angels and Airwaves: We Don't Need to Whisper (Suretone/Geffen)
  • Beach House: Beach House (Carpark)
  • Bright Eyes: Noise Floor (Rarities 1998-2005) (Saddle Creek)
  • The Clientele: Strange Geometry (Merge)
  • Diddy: Press Play (Bad Boy)
  • The Game: Doctor's Advocate (Geffen)
  • Scott Walker: The Drift (4AD)
  • Rihanna: A Girl Like Me (Def Jam)
  • Shawnna: Block Music (Disturbing Tha Peace/Def Jam)

MSN Music, Feb. 2007

Dec. 2006 Apr. 2007