Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

October 2007: Kanye Graduates with an A-Minus but 50 Cent's a Dud

Among the several new hip-hop albums referenced below find two older discs -- one from January, the find its 2005 predecessor -- by underground vet Busdriver, who I once dismissed, too quickly, as hyperintellectual. As someone who believes Kanye West released two of the best albums of the decade in 2004 and 2005, I'm disheartened to conclude that Busdriver's 2005 album tops Kanye's new one -- as well as every new undie-rap venture to come my way.

Busdriver: Fear of a Black Tangent (Mush) Endlessly satirizing the world's failure to reward his genius, Regan Farquhar makes the leap from too-smart-for-his-own-good to so-smart-he's-good-anyway. Whether he's impersonating Sambo on Clear Channel or a rapper-of-the-month who fell off the wrong end of a bungee cord ("I'm a dead man with golden blood in my bedpan"), his antipop plaints counter the unlikelihood of their analyses with the intricacy of their loquacity -- 23 "or" rhymes in 13 seconds, say. He changes up his pained, neurotic, whiny flow with catchy-annoying singsong, and his low-budget beats get lots of hook out of no discernible sampling. If you doubt his skills, check out Abstract Rude, Ellay Khule, Mikah 9, and 2Mex trying to keep up. Downloaders note: The CD includes a lyric booklet, which is very useful. A MINUS

Lori McKenna: Unglamorous (Warner Bros.) Sobriety can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially in a Nashvillian who claims in so many words she expects ecstasy. If she joked around or liked to party, it might give her country goodness the wiggle room every way of life needs. But she does like to rock, and there's no denying her eye for out-of-the-way details or her ear for a decent tune. Of several believable love songs, I'll take the full-bodied "Witness to Your Life" over the spartan title tune. Of several believable unlove songs, I recommend "Drinkin' Problem" to Al-Anon. A MINUS

Motel Lovers (Trikont) I'm too far away to judge how vital this particular chitlin' circuit is. But I trust the money-where-her-mouth-is of 66-year-old Barbara Carr, who quit her factory job of 20 years and returned to music full-time in the wake of regional hits "Footprints on the Ceiling" and "Bone Me Like You Own Me." Presumably not all current Southern soul records stick to explicit adulterous sex, Friday-night hustles and the circuit itself. But I bet a lot of them do -- enough for Munich-based Trikont to top its two '60s Black & Proud collections with these 18 contemporary songs. Young Sheba Potts-Wright furrows her own groove as she counsels coital subtlety. So does Johnnie Taylor's son Floyd analyzing his woman's failure to bring him his house shoes. Big Cynthia's matched demands for clitoral and vaginal stimulation and Denise LaSalle's Anita Hill-era "Long Dong Silver" are good cheap novelties. And standing tallest of all is a standstill ballad by Carr, who is pained to admit that her macho man is also a "Down Low Brother." A MINUS

The New Pornographers: Challengers (Matador) Still a band that improves everyone in it, and more forthcoming this time, though they really ought to risk despoiling their precious graphics with lyrics. Carl Newman will always be too formal (do Canadians really say "hangs in air," not "hangs in the air"?), but when Neko Case steps up to take one of his difficult-love songs, feelings surface -- and also the meanings Case's own albums archly avoid. Plus, who would have thought Destroyer Dan Bejar could write an open-skied Manhattan anthem that ventures into Queens? It's "Myriad Harbour," the indie-rock "New York, New York." Mark Kozelek could cover it! B PLUS

The Roots of Chicha (Barbès) These "Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru" taught me why I'd resisted Cuba's belatedly exhumed Los Zafiros and Brazil's lately legendary Os Mutantes. Simply put, they were more sophisticated than the rock 'n' roll they rode into modernity on. These six Amazonian oil-town bands arrived '70s, not '60s, bearing already outmoded surf guitars, teenybopper Farfisas and space-cadet Moogs. For them, psychedelic means the Electric Prunes and "96 Tears" -- in short, garage, which in the middle of an oil boom is kinda poetic. The cumbia beats they grab from up Colombia way are pokey and polka-ish, and the Andean melodies they can't get out of their heads add something new to the syncresis. The most cheerful substyle to emerge from the nether regions of "world music" in years. A MINUS

Wax Tailor: Hopes & Sorrows (Decon) Two big improvements for this very French packager of ear cinema. One: His movie-sample "content" is very much l'art pour l'art, often referencing the tools and tactics of his craft. Two: Not to mince words, he employs more African-American voices, including Ursula Rucker and Sharon Jones outdoing their own records -- and sinking the beats deeper in the process. B PLUS

Kanye West: Graduation (Roc-A-Fella) Rank this minor success with hooky background music like 50 Cent's The Massacre -- no deeper than Coldplay when you pull out the measuring stick, but a lot smarter. Compared to 50's, the hooks are pretty pricey. Yeezy loves designer labels and procures for himself the finest fromage -- Elton John to Steely Dan to Daft Punk softening us up for gay cult hero Labi Siffre, like that. He self-indulges throughout -- not just by expanding at length on his skimpily rationalized fascination with his own fame, but with little stuff like his failure to convert "this"-"crib"-"shit"-"live"-"serious" into a rhyme or "at bay at a distance" into an idiom. Nevertheless, every single track offers up its momentary pleasures -- choruses that make you say yeah on songs you've already found wanting, confessional details and emotional aperçus on an album that still reduces to quality product when they're over. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Busdriver: RoadkillOvercoat (Anti-) "The musings of a winded fact-checker" -- attempting, with some success, to escape the prison house of self ("Less Yes's, More No's," "Casting Agents and Cowgirls").
  • The Hidden Cameras: Awoo (Arts & Crafts) What Joel Gibb wants isn't dirty sex; it's the transcendence its abandon affords, so the dirty sex faded away as the melodies grew ("Lollipop," "Awoo").
  • Prince: Planet Earth (NPG/Columbia) Viva Las Vegas and later for Viagra -- but not never ("Guitar," "The One U Wanna C").
  • Maroon 5: It Won't Be Soon Before Long (Octone) Learning what Prince has always known -- that kindnesses render a falsetto manly and kiss-offs don't ("Nothing Lasts Forever," "Won't Go Home Without You").
  • Wiley: Playtime Is Over (Big Dada) Still a speed-rapping grimesta whose sound effects kill ("Bow E3," "Gangsters").
  • Chaka Khan: Funk This (Burgundy) Meaning Jam & Lewis this, a decent interval after London Symphony Orchestra this and Prince this ("Disrespectful," "Foolish Fool").
  • Los Straitjackets: Rock en Espanol (Yep Roc) Just what their retro-nuevo surf instrumentals needed -- singers (translating '60s hits into Spanish? One of them an Anglo anyway?) ("Hey Lupe [Hang on Sloopy]"; "De Dia y de Noche [All Day and All of the Night]").
  • Bonde do Rolê: With Lasers (Domino) Baile funk for art-punks, which they think means you and me ("Marina Gasolina," "Dança do Zumbi").
  • Sage Francis: Human the Death Dance (Epitaph) The rare undie-rapper who's learned from his opportunities ("Underground for Dummies," "Got Up This Morning").
  • Bettye LaVette: The Scene of the Crime (Anti-) And I thought recording with the Drive-By Truckers meant Patterson Hood would write her some songs -- and rein her in a little, maybe ("I Still Want to Be Your Baby [Take Me Like I Am]," "The Last Time").
  • RedCloud: Hawthorne's Most Wanted (Syntax) Chicano, Native American, conscious, Christian ex-gangbanger from the Beach Boys' hometown inspires curseless Kurupt cameo -- wow! ("405," "Death of a Salesman").
  • Jason Isbell: Sirens of the Ditch (New West) Like so many major talents, more major in a group ("Dress Blues," "Try").
  • Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade (New West) More songs about mortal struggle and mortal struggle -- which can be beautiful, he's decided ("Down Here Below," "City of Immigrants").
  • Spear of the Nation: Spearitalk (R.N.L.G.) "Why you wanna be a nigga?/You was God before" ("Black Love?" "Find Ya Bes'").
  • Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam (Domino) "The other side of takeout is mildew on rice" convinced me that they Know Life -- but then I started to wonder again ("Peacebone," "Cuckoo Cuckoo").
  • James Luther Dickinson: Killers From Space (Memphis International) More good songs he discovered and you never heard of ("Dirty on Yo Mama," "No No Never Again").
  • Johnnie Taylor: Live at the Summit Club (Stax) Stuck in L.A. with a raggedy band, Jody's prophet still makes infidelity signify ("Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone," "Little Bluebird").
  • Antsy McClain and the Trailer Park Troubadours: Trailercana (DPR) Blissfully obvious musical jokes about sinking out of the lower middle class ("I Was Just Flipped Off by a Silver Haired Lady With a 'Honk if You Love Jesus' Sticker on the Bumper of Her Car," "KOA Refugee").
  • Marvin Sease: Candy Licker: The Sex & Soul of Marvin Sease (Jive/Legacy) Chitlin' king bowdlerized -- where where where is "The Bitch Git It All"? ("I'm Mr. Jody," "Do You Need a Licker?").

Choice Cuts

  • Noiseshaper, "Sly & Robbie -- Vice Vanity," "Me Done" (Real to Reel, Miracle Sounds)
  • Gilberto Gil, "Questão de Ordem," "Luta Contra a Lata Ou a Falência Do Café"; Caetano Veloso, "Soy Loco Por Ti, America"; Gal Costa and Jards Macalé, "The Empty Boat" (Tropicalia: A Revolutionary Movement of Sound, Universal Latino)
  • Mickey Avalon, "My D**k" (Mickey Avalon, Interscope)
  • Me'Shell NdegéOcello, "Article 3" (The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, EmArcy)
  • Tim McGraw, "I'm Workin'" (Let It Go, Curb)
  • Theory Hazit, "Lesson in Power," "Dumb Dunces" (Extra Credit, Superrappin)
  • Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, "100 Days, 100 Nights" (100 Days, 100 Nights, Daptone)

Dud of the Month

50 Cent: Curtis (Interscope) The first giveaway is a lie no less bold-faced with his Connecticut mansion on the trading block: "I ain't fresh out the hood, I still in the hood." The second is a truth all too revealing of the lost urgency of his aesthetic motivation: "I ain't even gotta rap now, life is made." What the two boil down to is that a parvenu mastering pop music for money has turned into a made man running on vanity. I find that this renders his expert trivialization of murder and such rather less piquant, and I think he does too -- that an audacious formal delight has become routine. And though his sex talk retains some charm, Eminem's gross-out cameo casts a pall. Is Slim trying to one-up R. Kelly or just his D12 doxy Bizarre? B

More Duds

  • Aesop Rock: None Shall Pass (Definitive Jux)
  • Lyle Lovett and His Large Band: It's Not Big It's Large (Lost Highway)
  • Panda Bear: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)
  • Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: This Is Somewhere (Hollywood)
  • Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns (Stax)
  • UGK: Underground Kingz (UGK/Jive/Zomba)
  • Wax Tailor: Tales of Forgotten Melodies (Decon)

MSN Music, Oct. 2007

Sept. 2007 Nov. 2007