Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

July 2007: African pearls, Miranda Lambert, Arctic Monkeys, Balkan Beat Box

Having promised variety, I started exploring alternatives to my country and African finds and kept finding more, reducing my alt-rock entries to an Arctic Monkeys survey. More next month, promise. This one's kind of "roots," as they say.

African Pearls, Vol. 1: Rumba on the River (Syllart) Ibrahima Sylla, the capitalist angel of Afro-Parisian Hi-NRG, compiles 44 soukous songs recorded in and around Kinshasa in the innocent years between 1954 and 1969, with the 1969 one, Nico's rippling "Tour d'Afrique," slicker but no less sweet and gentle than the 1954 one, Grand Kalle's undulating "Ambiance Kalle Catho." These were 45s, 28 of them 3:20 or less, but they don't separate out readily for us non-Lingala speakers. Instead they're a river to rumba on, invariably softer than their Cuban models even when they imitate them. Talent scout extraordinaire Grand Kalle is the glue, and Tabu Ley is a bigger standout than Franco. Greatest hit: Sam Mangwana's 1968 "Festival Bilombe," which breaks into an irresistible trumpets-plus-pidgin-Spanish seben at around 1:20. A MINUS

Arctic Monkeys: Favourite Worst Nightmare (Domino) They're lots bigger, so be grateful they're only somewhat broader -- and that for Alex Turner maturity means subtlety, not cynicism. The herberts, paparazzi and under assistant Japanese promo men of the first few songs are rendered more generic by their big loud beats, but once Turner gets down to interpersonals his romances gone sour are tender and nuanced -- check out the failed fling of "Only Ones Who Know," the conflicted reunion of "505," the scorned compassion of "Do Me a Favour." And if we have to endure songs about the superstar round, "This House Is a Circus" is wiser than Bloc Party's. B PLUS

Authenticité: The Syliphone Years (Stern's Africa) A 1965 to 1980 trove from Guinea, which in its anti-accommodationist militance socialized music, subsidizing dozens of big-time, "federal" (i.e., "national" and local) orchestras and recording them on a government label. The consistent musicianship and enjoyable high points of the first of two mix-and-match discs don't necessarily signify from afar. But on the second, all the horn bands about to erupt up the coast in mercantile Dakar are presaged by longer tracks with crazier, more expansive arrangements. And though these aren't as spectacular as on Stern's Dakar-based Music in My Head, they're often as surprising. Midway in, roots-conscious new ensembles slow things down while keeping them weird. And for a finale, there's a tribute to the sharp, comic falsetto of Disc 1 standout Demba Camara, dead in 1973 along with his nation's first, best chance at pan-African stardom. A MINUS

Balkan Beat Box: Nu Med (JDub) More Balkan, less beat box, very Brooklyn, ex-Israeli masterminds Tamir Muskat and Ori Kaplan dispense with the yé-yé girls and give their touring band some on a truly pomo Gypsy brass record -- asses freed in a corkscrew kind of way, minds likewise. Couldn't tell you where or whether they stole Kaplan's fetching tenor line on"BBBeat" or Uri Kinrot's fetching guitar line on "Habibi MinZaman." But they sound like looted treasure that will soon help the guys wire much-needed cash to the old country from a newer, happier home. In this fifth year of our imperial horror show, anybody who can lay such a benign aura on a province of America, even rebel Brooklyn, should get a Congressional Order of Merit. Unable to suss what MC Tomer Yosef believes "intelligence be tellin' gents," I hope we get to find out. A

Bokoor Beats (Otrabanda) A white African whose father taught philosophy at the University of Ghana, John Collins named the ever-shifting Bokoor Band and the always-open Bokoor Studio after the Twi word for coolness, but the nonchalance he nurtures is much more congenial than anything American hipsters associate with that idea. These eight songs in Ga and English by Bokoor (there are also four by allied bands) were worked into surefire danceability on a picaresque touring schedule -- Collins has stories to tell. But they're not tight -- even the soukous numbers shamble. And if you never figured out what "Afro-rock" might be, Bokoor will make it clearer than any Afro-funk comp you've ever tried to love. A MINUS

Miranda Lambert: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Sony/BMG Nashville) Good thing she sets off four firecrackers -- pulls a gun on her big-fisted ex-boyfriend, belts two hard-headed sermons on small-town life, rips up the title tune -- before wasting precious tracks proving she can also do mature. But she can -- shortly after "Love Letters" waltzes with Nashville nostalgia, "More Like Her" sidles up to the complexity one values in mature types. Whereupon, the clinchers: the mature firecrackers "Down" and "Guilty in Here." Followed, for the alt-country contingent, by a Patty Griffin cover she ignites and a Carlene Carter cover she doesn't. A

Tinariwen: Aman Iman (World Village) Most Saharan music -- by the women of Tartit, the phantoms who groan and ululate in and out of the Rough Guide (listen to Rough Guide albums) and Festival in the Desert collections -- slips as easily into the background as any other modern African subgenre. These militants are less ingratiating. The spiritual gravity of their melodies and grooves demands your attention without offering to reward it -- what's sought isn't your affection but your respect. But give them time and eventually affection and even awe will follow -- for the guitar line that opens the record, the call-and-response that follows the guttural intro to Track 4, the chorus that rises up out of Track 7. Study the booklet and discover that the subject of all three songs is the privations of exile. Perhaps you'd prefer something a little more upful -- "Tamatant Tilay," say? Translation on that one: "We kill the enemies and become like eagles/We'll liberate all those who live in the plains." And it's not a metaphor. A MINUS

Urban Africa Club (Out Here) Any ignoramus who still considers Afro-pop crude should get a load of what happens when it makes its bellicose peace with techno. The beats here are far broader than in soukous or mbalax and the lyrics are rapped in the less liquid African tongues, notably Swahili and, you'd best believe it, English. So what once was infectious is now aggressively in your face. You will dance to it, suckers. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • King Sunny Adé: Gems From the Classic Years 1967-1974 (Shanachie) A few downshifts too thoughtful for the non-Yoruba ("Sunny Spiral [four-song medley]"; "John Ali").
  • Paul McCartney: Memory Almost Full (Hear Music) "I hope it's not too late/Searching for time that has gone so fast" ("Ever Present Past," "Nod Your Head").
  • Eric Church: Sinners Like Me (Capitol) Master craftsman of high good-old-boy convention ("Before She Does," "What I Almost Was").
  • Elizabeth Cook: Balls (31 Tigers) Accounting B.A. accounted a Loretta Lynn for our time by no less an assessor than Nanci Griffith and not without reason! ("Sunday Morning," "Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman").
  • Arctic Monkeys: Leave Before the Lights Come On (Domino) Nuanced original, one-note original, sweet cover ("Leave Before the Lights Come On," "Baby I'm Yours").
  • Stella Chiweshe: Double Check: Two Sides of Zimbabwe's Mbira Queen (Piranha) To obtain a best-of that'll get you going, you need only make an additional purchase of nine "trance hits" that'll put you to sleep ("Chachimurenga," "Mese Maikwana").
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa (World Music Network) Folked-up travelogue that sidesteps most of postapartheid's actually existing pop escapism and political complexity (Busi Mhlongo, "Yehlisan' Umoya Ma-Afrika"; Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds, "Mbube").
  • Singing for Life: Songs of Hope, Healing, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways) Village instructional music, usually engaging and occasionally much more (Vilimina Nakiranda and the Bakuseka Majja Group, "Olumbe lubiibi [Death Is Bad]"; Kibaale Village Embaire Ensemble, "Olumbe lwamala abantu [Death Killed All the People]").
  • Papa Noel: Café Noir (Tumi) His rumba more African and less Cuban, and less catchy for it ("Lolita," "Sandokan").
  • Bole 2 Harlem: Bole 2 Harlem, Vol. 1 (Sounds of the Mushroom) Ersatz world-music fusion -- Ethiopian emigre, "Stomp" percussionist, Manhattan Malian, hotelier bizzer's son, some rap -- only this one has tune, groove and charm ("Bole 2 Harlem," "Quralew").
  • Brad Paisley: 5th Gear (Arista Nashville) Getting set in his ways -- "Online," ugh -- but still smarter than the Nashville norm ("Ticks," "Letter to Me").
  • Blake Shelton: Pure BS (Warner Bros.) Committed to cliché rehab with all his country soul ("The More I Drink," "I Don't Care").
  • John Anderson: Easy Money (Warner Bros.) Aided by his godson John Rich, he achieves "funky country" once again -- but not when he puts it that way ("Brown Liquor," "A Woman Knows").
  • Big Lazy: Postcards From X (Tasankee) "Boy, have we been keeping busy! Hope we see you real soon!" ("Thy Name Is Woman," "France").
  • The La Drivers Union Por Por Group: Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana (Smithsonian Folkways) Squeeze-bulb horns and wrenches banging tire rims provide the highly indigenous bed for their songs of trotro transit ("Otsokobila," "M.V. Labadi").
  • Sally Nyolo and the Original Bands of Yaoundé: Studio Cameroon (Riverboat) Zap Mama grad conducts nationwide talent hunt (Bidjoï Sisters, "Chantal"; Sally Nyolo, "Bikoutsi").
  • Gretchen Wilson: One of the Boys (Sony/BMG) Catchy enough for the job, too perky for the lifestyle ("You Don't Have to Go Home," "If You Want a Mother").

Choice Cuts

  • Taylor Swift, "Tim McGraw," "Picture to Burn" (Taylor Swift, Big Machine)
  • Rodney Atkins, "Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy)" (If You're Going Through Hell, Curb)
  • Arctic Monkeys, "Despair in the Departure Lounge" (Who the F**k Are Arctic Monkeys?, Domino)
  • Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective, "Baba" (Wátina, Cumbancha)
  • Carrie Underwood, "Don't Forget to Remember Me," "Before He Cheats" (Some Hearts, Arista Nashville)

Dud of the Month

Big & Rich: Between Raising Hell and Amazing Grace (Bella Union) Didn't take them long to ripen from corny Nashville realness to smarmy harmonies and big finishes as coercive as Diane Warren's. Keynoting with a piece of grease designed to supplant "Wind Beneath My Wings" at weddings all across Middle America, their tribute to God confuses grease with grace for so long that by the time the antiracism campaign resurfaces it feels like they're just piling on the piety. Needless to say, hell rises to the top for their best tune -- an AC/DC cover. C

More Duds

  • Antibalas: Security (Anti-)
  • Dierks Bentley: Long Trip Home (Capitol)
  • Angélique Kidjo: Djin Djin (Razor & Tie)
  • Bruce Robison: Eleven Stories (Sustain)
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela: Rodrigo y Gabriela (ATO)
  • Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars: Living Like a Refugee (Anti-)
  • Kelly Willis: Translated From Love (Rykodisc)

MSN Music, July 2007

June 2007 Aug. 2007