Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

June 2007: Nine Inch Nails It, but Aguilera Is a Dud

Herewith the MSN Consumer Guide goes monthly. It also gets shorter--but not half as short. Loosely speaking, every major pick this month is alt-rock but only because I thought I might as well group them all together. I promise more variety in July.

The Apples in Stereo: New Magnetic Wonder (Yep Roc) Rock 'n' roll doesn't need Robert Schneider's "non-Pythagorean" scales to combat mind-body dualism. But Schneider's romance with ELO was just what he needed to add heft to his Beatles fixation--the aura of middlebrow seriousness puts his formalist musings on track. "And the world is made of energy/And the world is possibility" is Heraclitean pop at its cutest and acutest, the drug advice addresses prescription meds and he understands the fatal parallel between information and radiation, which is that too much of either can make you sick. Even the Mellotron interludes compute on the album where the Elephant Six finally get their shtick together. A

The Brakes: The Beatific Visions (Rough Trade) A hopeful sign, or at least a piece of luck. Finding the Bowie-esque British Sea Power and Doors-esque Electric Soft Parade wanting as life projects, Eamon Hamilton and the brothers Tom and Alex White have made their postpunk goof their main gig. Nine of the 11 songs are fast, and nine of the 11 songs are good--it's as simple as that for once and suggests that some proggy post-er boys (I mean that in so many ways) are capable of returning to their 1977 roots. Not only that, a sweet young thing at the BBC has such a short memory or limited knowledge base that he called their country-flavored punk "original-sounding." A MINUS

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Some Loud Thunder ( They weren't as extraordinary as people said then, so why believe they're as ordinary as people say now? Not that Alec Ounsworth knew the distortion he laid on the first track--which evokes a cracked ceramic cartridge, kids--would off-put so spectacularly. But though I hated the effect at first, now it makes me chuckle--a cheeky sonic joke that doesn't diminish the excellent title song into which it's integrated any more than subtler lo-fi hurts "Emily Jean Stock" right after. The debut was a groove album that moved along smartly before climaxing on a crest. This is a song album that sags in the middle. Groove to song--if you wanted, you could even call that progress. A MINUS

Girl Talk: Night Ripper (Illegal Art) Released only somewhat clandestinely in the summer of 2006, the best mash-up album since 2002's The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever suggests why there've been so few competitors. Pittsburgh-based Gregg Gillis ups the ante. Like DJ Shadow or the Avalanches, only with obvious samples rather than obscure ones, he doesn't just make two songs smell like pirate booty--he reduces the been-there-done-that factor by creating new music from many of them. But by sodoing, he embraces the novelty factor. Because his samples have their own inescapable identities, the songs never coalesce into something deeper, as with Shadow, or even cheesier, as with the Avalanches. Nor is there much compounding of groove--the effects are too sequential. So we have here an entertaining novelty album set on proving that filthy rappers are bloody good fun. This idea is more useful than asserting that pop froth is as deep as Nirvana. But it's not exactly a profound truth--not even always a liberating one. A MINUS

Hot Chip: The Warning (Astralwerks) "There's nothing in a world where the melody is broken/There's always some way to make a silence be spoken," they promise sweetly toward the end of a title track where they also threaten to break your legs and snap off your head--with their tricky two-step beats, mind the gap. Just before comes the notably sane and sincere love plea "Look After Me," reciprocity guaranteed. Mild and modest, sometimes too mild and modest, they humanize das Kraftwerk and tenderize ye olde re-rewind. A MINUS

Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero (Nothing) No matter how clichéd Trent Reznor's dystopian fantasies may be--and they have their moments, like the rebels who conquer by crawling and the anti-Bush anthem rendered juicier by its deliberate inconsistencies--it has the virtue of getting him out of himself. And though he may warn of the noise here, it's all just modern music, whooshing and phasing hookily hither and yon. Is it a coincidence that he created his most songful album just when he stopped obsessing on his own dubious agony? Nah--it's fate. A MINUS

Wilco: Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch) Though it's possible Jeff Tweedy's wife told him to stop being a pretentious tweet, it's more likely she just told him to stop ignoring her. This doesn't mean he actually was ignoring her, mind you. But too late he figured he'd better make a point of paying attention, which meant no more pretentious tweet (for the time being). On the second-best track here, he does the dishes and mows the lawn even though she's not around to appreciate it. On the best, he admits consumers have the right to think his music means whatever they want it to. Everywhere he stops soundscaping and resumes songwriting. B PLUS

Honorable Mention

  • Björk: Volta (Atlantic) Divinely chosen leader of an all-girl horn orchestra ("Declare Independence," "Earth Intruders").
  • Brother Ali: The Undisputed Truth (Rhymesayers International) Rocking the self-conscious party ("Lookin' at Me Sideways," "Uncle Sam Goddamn").
  • Camera Obscura: Let's Get Out of This Country (Merge) Forever indie, and here's how you can tell--too often they think nudge when they need a knockout ("Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken," "Let's Get Out of This Country").
  • Mecca Normal: The Observer (Kill Rock Stars) Vocal-performance-with-guitar cycle about online dating--sometimes harrowing, sometimes excruciating ("Attraction Is Ephemeral," "I'm Not Into Being the Woman You're With While You're Looking for the Woman You Want").
  • Patti Smith: Twelve (Columbia) Many interpretive singers have superior pipes, and some equal brains, but few match her quality of belief ("Are You Experienced?" "Smells Like Teen Spirit").
  • LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (Capitol/DFA) One song so irresistible it makes you think the other tracks are songs too, which sometimes they are ("North American Scum," "Time to Get Away").
  • TV on the Radio: Live at Amoeba Music (Interscope) Four from Return From Cookie Mountain, every one less mannered and deliberate ("Wolf Like Me," "Blues From Down Here").
  • Avril Lavigne: The Best Damn Thing (RCA) I never cared whether she was really a punk (as if)--I just wished she'd act like one ("The Best Damn Thing," "Everything Back but You").
  • This Moment in Black History: It Takes a Nation of Assholes (Cold Sweat) Frantic fury à la Bad Brains and the Crass, only faster ("Garbage In/Garbage Out," "Nailed to the Cross").
  • Scritti Politti: White Bread Black Beer (Nonesuch) "He said you gotta have a reason for a revolution/She said if you don't have the wherewithal you don't need the why," and like so many ex-Marxists, Green Gartside loves women in theory ("The Boom Boom Bap," "Road to No Regret").
  • Lifesavas: Gutterfly (Quannum Projects) "Original soundtrack" to a theoretical blaxploitation movie, and less beaty for its pains ("Night Out," "Double Up").
  • Buju Banton: Too Bad (Gargamel) For him, dancehall is roots reggae, to which he returns none too soon ("Me & Oonu," "Jig").
  • Land of Talk: Applause Cheer Boo Hiss (Rebel Group) Montreal FOAF Elizabeth Powell could turn into Carol van Dyk when she grows up, which beats Feist ("All My Friends," "Summer Special").

Choice Cuts

  • Gwen Stefani, "Yummy" (The Sweet Escape, Interscope)
  • Cham, "Ghetto Story," "Ghetto Story Chapter 3," "Boom Boom" (Ghetto Story, Atlantic/Mad House)
  • CocoRosie, "Japan" (The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, Touch and Go)
  • The Stooges, "Free & Freaky" (The Weirdness, Virgin)

Dud of the Month

Midlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther (Bella Union) The prestige of this conjunction of pomo prog, alt-country, fantasy fiction and video-game narrativity is the silliest proof yet of how jaded indie's tastebuds have become, with candied cannabis and lark's wings in aspic impending. Because Tim Smith has a sweet voice and a decent heart and his formerly psychedelic bandmates can negotiate moderately complex arrangements without twisting their ankles, this unfathomable concept album about loneliness on some olde frontier is compared to "classic rock"--Fleetwood Mac especially. Putting that band's eponymous rhythm section aside, one wonders just which of these songs might entrance the common folk like, for instance, "Go Your Own Way." Perhaps the first and catchiest, in which Smith as Occupanther laments that he isn't named Roscoe. There's a sentiment all can share. Roscoe Smith. We'll have this fellow playing da blooze yet. C

More Duds

  • Christina Aguilera: Back to Basics (RCA)
  • David Bazan: Fewer Moving Parts (Barsuk)
  • Breaking Benjamin: Phobia (Hollywood)
  • Cold War Kids: Robbers & Cowards (Downtown)
  • J. Dilla: Donuts (Stones Throw) [Later: ***]
  • The Good, the Bad & the Queen (Parlophone/Virgin)
  • Paris Hilton: Paris (Warner Bros.)
  • Jim Noir: Tower of Love (Barsuk)

MSN Music, June 2007

Apr. 2007 July 2007