Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Black Kids, Conor Oberst, the Hold Steady and more

Traditionally, August has been a dog month for the record business. And chances are 2008 will prove the record business's doggiest year since approximately 1933 (and till approximately 2009). But August 2008 was the kind of month that reminds me how much pop music has to offer: from archival Romanians to archival Arican to up-to-the-minutes African; from old skeptic Randy Newman to thirtysomething cuss Craig Finn to youngish idealist Conor Oberst to immature pretenders the Black Kids to a damn musical. And only slightly below, more young women than anyone can get their ears around.

Issa Bagayogo: Mali Koura (Six Degrees) Like all dance music, this is designed for a big space and bigger speakers--at home, it can dissolve into background music unless you turn it up. But at any volume it will jump out on the very African "Dibi," which is jazzy nevertheless, and the fast-moving "Dunu Kan," its funk and reggae tinges crossed up slyly if not perversely by Bagayogo's herky-jerk flow. Which is to say, Play Loud. Hear cultural exchange evolve into true fusion, even on the loungey "Tcheni Tchemakan" you'll wish he'd never tried. B PLUS

Black Kids: Partie Traumatic (Columbia) The main thing about the Cure wasn't synthesizers, or Robert Smith's adenoids either. The main thing about the Cure was that they were depressed. Christians hitting the fleshpots, Floridians claiming Britannia, and--how did they put it?--black kids sounding as pasty-faced as, for instance, Robert Smith, these proud poseurs get excited even when love goes wrong, as for kids it often does. Listen to your body tonight. They made themselves up, and they're strictly for real. A MINUS

Franco: African Classics (Sheer/Cantos) Guitarist-vocalist-bandleader-force majeure Luambo Franco recorded all the time. But in the dire tradition of both dictatorship and imperialism, the catalogue of the greatest African musician of the 20th century comprises many dozens of albums and many hundreds of songs whose availability wanes and waxes and then wanes again. So who knows how long this lovely and riveting mess of a double-CD will be around? It shares a mere four duplications with the Manteca and Rough Guide best-ofs you should buy first. It lists who's singing (14 African idols overall, Franco usually included) and playing guitar (on 16 out of 23 songs, not just the big man but bespectacled hitmaker Simaro). Its main negative is its incomprehensibly unchronological track order. Its great prize is all 17 minutes of the deeply gorgeous "Très Impoli," which does nothing but insult an unnamed somebody right down to, as biographer Graeme Ewens puts it, his "smelly armpits and dirty socks." A MINUS

The Hold Steady: Stay Positive (Vagrant) Craig Finn's aim is leaner rock and deeper narrative--sharper hooks, heavier consequences. Formally, this is the only progress that makes sense for them, and sometimes they make it count. "Stay Positive" nails the travails of the aging rock band harder than "Start Me Up" because it's about fans, and "Constructive Summer" craftily confuses different ways to get hammered. Both grab hold from their opening riffs, too. But it's one thing to understand that you're too good for piano flourishes, another to find alternative means of roiling the collective gut every time. B PLUS

Randy Newman: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch) Post-hippie, Newman's cynicism was tonic. Post-post-hippie, it curdled. Now, freshened by frailty and outrage, it's restorative again. Describing a near-death experience in the title song, he injects a kindness he's rarely risked into absurdist jokes that are as mean as ever, and that moment of compassion adds depth to the three political songs in the middle, two of which target a privileged class that explicitly includes the artiste. The other rearranges 2007's caustic YouTube special "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country": "The end of an empire/Messy at best/This empire's ending/Like all the rest." Did he write those lines in five minutes, fussing for a little longer over "messy," or wait years for them to come? Lyrically, every one of these 10 songs in 34 minutes raises that question, reinforced by the quietest and most casual singing of Newman's mush-mouthed career. Musically, however, he's a fine jeweler, a busy beaver and an old pro. Never have his arrangements exploited his soundtrack chops so subtly, changeably or precisely. You say you want the failure of the American Dream? Try a marching band put through its paces by a dyspeptic Kurt Weill. King Leopold of Belgium? How about a little "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah"? Arrhythmia? Easy. A

Conor Oberst: Conor Oberst (Merge) It's official. Forget Shins guy James Mercer, Spoon guy Britt Daniel, even Arcade Fire fraterfamilias Win Butler--this vibrato-prone romantic is the greatest melodist in contemporary mega-indie. Whatever his adult solo debut portends for once and future arranger Mike Mogis, the Saddle Creek cartel and his latest girlfriend(s?), its meaning is tunes, with beat enough to carry them forward and no other musical distractions. Unlike Mercer and Daniel, he's about flow--intricacy is an occasional afterthought. Once in a while a guitar part backs up a tasty phrase, and when the time comes, someone in Bright Eyes will gracefully provide it. And oh yeah--the best song here, quite possibly the best song of his life, is basically a rocking refrain: "I Dont Want to Die (In the Hospital)." A

Stew, Rodewald and Various Artists: Passing Strange (Ghostlight) Always impressed and never bowled over by the auteur's albums, I only caught his musical after this original cast recording hit me like no Stew or Negro Problem CD ever had. Two clues emerge in the guitared-up "Prologue": first "If you're ever not sure what I'm all about/Just ask the song," then "Since it's my job I'ma set the scene." Music as surrogate self, music as daily occupation--if Stew never shone as brightly as he had to on his own records, his craftsman's approach to his lifework was why. But these limitations feed into this amusing, moving, sophisticated, less than profound Broadway show about racial identity and art for art's sake. Stew the narrator expresses himself more subtly and forcefully than he ever did as mere persona--the distance frees him up. Similarly, two songs that satirize themselves, the Afro-hardcore "Sole Brother" and the Euro-anarchist "What's Inside Is Just a Lie," pack straightforward power. But in the end, there's only one standard: "Keys," a celebration of the occasional kindnesses of the bohemia where this 47-year-old African-American has spent his adult life. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of Romanian Gypsies (World Music Network) Why'd ya think they call 'em Roma? Home to more Gypsies than any other nation, with Ceaucescu's urban Electrecord bureaucracy preceding and complementing Eurobizzers' deep-mountain fabrication of Taraf de Haïdouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia, Romania is the Gypsy-music motherlode--so much so that I've already A-listed albums by eight of the 20 artists on this inevitable compilation. But I'm not idealistic enough to believe that many readers have tried them all, and would be flattered if they'd tried more than one, so here's what you've been missing. The knockouts come in the first half, including Haïdouks and Romica Puceanu picks I'd never noticed or heard, respectively. But the civility of the Electrecord material and the raucousness of the Crammed Discs period are vivacious in their own distinct ways, with less renowned recent recordings splitting the difference. Maybe you wish four of the last eight featurees didn't play accordion, and maybe you're right, sort of. In the end, you'll hardly notice. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Go Marko Go! (Piranha) Young man with a horn leads family business toward the bigger time ("Dzumbus Funk," "Romano Bijav").
  • Yo Majesty: Kryptonite P---y EP (Domino) Conscious rapper will rock your sister's monkey--if she likes her ("Hey There Girl," "Monkey").
  • Estelle: Shine (Atlantic/Homeschool) She knows who her friends are, and they'll stay her friends even if she never overtakes Rihanna ("American Boy," "Wait a Minute [Just a Touch]").
  • Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians (Asphalt Tango) Excellent Balkan Gypsy starter set keyed to excellent Garth Cartwright book raids excellent single-artist albums and grinds to a halt on two six-minute diva workouts that give up no funk whatsoever (Fulgerica, "Briu De La Craiova"; Sudahan, "Cocek Shutka").
  • Del McCoury: Moneyland (McCoury Music) FDR fireside chats bookend bluegrass good guy Del McCoury's concept comp about slicker greed (Del McCoury Band, "Moneyland"; Dan Tyminski, "Carry Me Across the Mountain").
  • Balla et Ses Balladins: The Syliphone Years (Stern's Africa) Guinéan authenticity--exhibit clenched up noticeably as Sekou Tour--got crazier ("Limania," "Soumbouyaya").
  • Duffy: Rockferry (Mercury/Rough Trade) Lulu is so proud ("Distant Dreamer," "Serious").
  • Katy Perry: One of the Boys (Capitol) She stopped taping her "suckers" down, and kissing her girlfriend was just an experiment, but trumpeting her vulnerability she's as loud and laddish as a hockey fan ("I Kissed a Girl," "One of the Boys").
  • Think of One: Camping Shaabi (Crammed Discs) Belgian music for a European block party celebrating world migration ("Antwaarpse Shaabi," "Oppressor").
  • Miley Cyrus: Breakout (Hollywood) Teen overkill by a teen with the get-up-and-go to survive it--and get off a few shots back ("7 Things," "Breakout").
  • Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With the Blues (Blue Note) Louis Armstrong was Jimmie Rodgers' sideman, Wynton is Willie's collaborator, and somewhere in there the songs slip away ("Ain't Nobody's Business," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It").
  • Hot Chip: Made in the Dark (Astralwerks/DFA) Electrobeats smarter, love songs not ("Bendable Posable," "Don't Dance").
  • The Dandy Warhols: . . . Earth to the Dandy Warhols . . . (Beat the World) Groove-launching space oddity light years from home ("Welcome to the Third World," "Mission Control").
  • El Compa Chuy: Alacrana Lavada (Norte) Corridos with nutty polka accordion and crazy-ass tuba--which aficionados of the style say could be crazier ("Por Algo Soy El Patron," "Junior Terrazas").
  • The Cool Kids: The Bake Sale (Chocolate Industries) Too clever to call themselves the Clever Kids, they match up-to-date minimalist jokes to quasi-retro minimalist beats ("Mikey Rocks," "A Little Bit Cooler").
  • Adele: 19 (XL/Columbia) Still just a teenager, a practical romantic gets by without acting cheeky ("Daydreamer," "Tired").

Choice Cuts

  • Rihanna, "Disturbia" (Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded, Def Jam)
  • Laura Cantrell, "Love Vigilantes" "Trains and Boats and Planes" "Howard Hughes Blues" (Trains and Boats and Planes, Diesel Only)
  • Aguaturbia, "Erotica"; Kissing Spell, "Yellow Moon" (Love, Peace & Poetry: Chilean Psychedelic Music, Normal)
  • Rihanna, "Disturbia (Craig C's Disturbstramental Mix)" (Disturbia Remixes, Def Jam)
  • Willie Nelson, "Who Put All My Ex's in Texas" (Texas in My Soul, American Beat)
  • Miley Cyrus, "Nobody's Perfect" (Hannah Montana 2/Meet Miley Cyrus, Hollywood)
  • Beck, "Walls" (Modern Guilt, Interscope)
  • The Duhks, "95 South" (Fast Paced World, Sugar Hill)
  • Alan Jackson, "Small Town Southern Man" (Good Time, Arista Nashville)

Dud of the Month

Natasha Bedingfield: Pocketful of Sunshine (Epic/Phonogenic) As pop wannabes go, the Bedingfield of 2005 had humanity and humility. Still "unwritten," she "stumbled," "bruised easily." But stick this follow-up in the changer and the magic of compression raises the volume of these transparently calculated songs to barrage level. Even doing her humble bit, she yells in your ear. So what's all this about how she just lost her job but has so many reasons to be happy anyway--and so do you, girlie! Though the Sean Kingston collab generated sales and remixes and the album hung around in the top 40, it's yet to go gold. I never rejoice about the death of the record business. But sometimes it doesn't seem like such a bad idea. C PLUS

More Duds

  • Sara Bareilles: Little Voice (Epic)
  • Toumani Diabaté: The Mandé Variations (Nonesuch)
  • Marié Digby: Unfold (Hollywood)
  • Scarlett Johansson: Anywhere I Lay My Head (Atco)
  • Juanes: La Vida . . . Es un Ratico (Universal Latino)

MSN Music, September 2008

August 2008 October 2008