Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Clipse, K'Naan and the Living Things Get Nods
Ludacris, Soulja Boy Tell 'Em and more receive honorable mentions; the Knux are Dud of the Month

Normally around now I'm feasting on critics' poll leftovers. This year not so much. But I thank the Pitchfork trendmongers for going overboard on that DJ /rupture album as well as Fennesz and Esau Mwanwaya down in Duds--and a bunch of Pazz & Jop voters I've barely heard of for backing up my old eddytor Chuck Eddy's tip on the aptly named Eddy Current Suppression Ring.

Abe Vigoda: Skeleton (PPM) No Age too brutalist for you? Here's a heedlessly beautiful alternative. Read the misspelled lyrics and you might take these young Angelenos for lost post-collegians or just figure they're children in search of a magic place. But since you can't understand a word they sing, in the end you'll go with a sound that subsumes those vocals in an exalted high-speed weave. It's what might have happened if Steve Reich and Philip Glass had started a no wave band instead of leaving the job to Glenn Branca. It's what people like about Battles unless what they like is the airless precision. A MINUS

Buck 65: Dirtbike (no label) I value my time too much to mess with downloads on spec, but knowing me for a fan, Nova Scotian rap mutant Rich Terfry was slick enough to burn me three untracked one-hour CDs. These have been good by now for five-six spins apiece, usually as background music--as my wife will vouch, they're excellent for sharing breakfast or settling down to sleep. The beats are basic and original--dig that bluegrass, that koto, that Shadowy thrum. Ever the wordslinger, Buck is usually rhyming, and usually worth hearing when you direct your ears his way: "Hooker in a mink coat died on a Friday/Crappy UFO on the side of the highway," "Can't make sense of the menu I'm readin'/Mistakenly playin' the wrong venue in Sweden." We'll find out whether there are Real Songs here when he releases a Real Album. I just hope he salvages the 50 Cent dis 42 minutes into the second disc, where he IDs his philosophy of hip-hop as Italian neo-realism as opposed to MGM. "I created a religion based on wild misinterpretation," he raps. "Dancing is not important to me--you got a problem with that?" B PLUS

Clipse: Re-Up Gang Records Present: Re-Up Gang: The Saga Continues (BCD) The cover copy goes on, too. Not just "Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics," as in "tickle us pink like white girl's clitoris," but "The Official Mixtape--Remixed & Remastered." That's to let alert consumers infer that it repackages 13 tracks from the first two We Got It 4 Cheap mixtapes, the second of which is longer and on balance better if you can find it. But broad-voiced Re-Up sidekicks and all, this one stands as a chilling introduction to Clipse's nasty little coke-centric world. Even the jacked beats share the Neptunes' efficiency-expert approach to two self-invented moguls Pharrell must sometimes regret he helped off the corner. From the two rappers' clipped flow--Malice killingly precise, Pusha aiming at the same target--to their analytic rhymes, these are two of the least likable guys in hip-hop. I mean, at least Plies is some kind of goon and Fat Joe some kind of glutton. But Clipse's smarts and purity are seductive in the manner of a Jim Thompson novel, even a John Donne meditation: "I'm a warrior, poet laureate, May 13th-born Taurean, cocaine courier/So ahead of my time/Like Back to the Future but minus the DeLorean." A MINUS

DJ /rupture: Uproot (The Agriculture) At first I thought, Why so glum, chum? Listenable and well-mixed, the guy's rep precedes him. But emotionally I heard little more than the downcast post-high of the chillout room. Only then the record flipped on me. There's plenty in the world to be bummed about, and if the cultural fate of the Middle East isn't as high on that long list as it was a year ago, Rupture is here to remind us that it's still around to bite us in the collective ass. No fan of his art-dance scene, I don't recognize a single source record of the 24 he flows in here. But in this sequence they speak to me of resilience, intelligence, openness and loss. Most aren't explicitly Islamic, but Middle Eastern sounds and rhythms contextualize the toasting, the dub, the electronica effects. Elegiac rather than dancey, but elegiac about the preconditions of the dance, it states, sustains, and varies a bracing mood. It even has an ending. A MINUS

Eddy Current Suppression Ring: Primary Colours (Goner) Three-plus decades after the initial dispensation, one more punk band out of the blue (Melbourne, but it could be anywhere in the English-speaking world) does the same thing punk bands have always done, only not exactly plus it sounds like they just thought of it last week, three days after they started practicing in the bassist's basement. Off-key chants, minimal chords, spare arrangements, into confusion rather than rage from "long-term memory loss" to "a little bit of kissing and a whole lot of hugging." Some are no longer susceptible to this recurrent miracle. Too bad for them. A MINUS

Kal: Radio Romanista (Asphalt Tango) Guitarist Dragan Ristic is a Serbian Roma impresario-bandleader-propagandist whose preservationism is proudly mongrel in the great Roma tradition. Where Kal's 2006 debut was beefed up by guest instrumentalists and vocalists, the follow-up showcases Ristic's seven-piece "Rock'n'Roma" touring unit, which is less full, but peppier. I'll take the tradeoff--try sitting still for the kickoff "Krasnokalipsa," the DNA-altering "Romozom," or the bitter-in-translation "Ding Deng Dong." But I could use more input from the likes of Serbian rapper Marcelo at the start and Serbian sister Jelena Markovic at the end. And I still wish Ristic sang not just in Romany, Serbian, Spanish, and French, but English, dammit. Hey, over here! We're the superpower! Aren't we? B PLUS

K'naan: Troubadour (A&M/Octone) What makes K'naan's hip-hop Somalian is less the authenticating stories he tells than the atmospheric samples he claims--after a snatch of Marley ska, the borrowed stuff is all Buda Musique swing from up Addis Ababa way. But lest you think him a do-gooders' rehab project like Emmanuel Jal or Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, be hereby informed that when this ambitious and optimistic fellow talks "song hook," he knows whereof he speaks--just as he does when he rhymes in the English he learned as a teenager, though I hope he outgrows "Somalia"'s -ation rhymes. Chubb Rock and Mos Def cameos are about it for his hip-hop cred, but Damian Marley-Adam Levine-Kirk Hammett is a pretty good pass at pop cred. Not that they guarantee sales. But after what K'naan has been through, bless him for trying--the ebullience he extracts from a life much tougher than North Americans can know is worthy of soukous, mbaqanga, the highlife of Ghana's most punishing inflationary spiral. Spiritually Afropop, rhythmically Ameripop--instead of hip-hop, maybe we should call it rap. He likes the word fine himself. A MINUS

La Cherga: Fake No More (Asphalt Tango) Two Kosovan masterminds, two Macedonian horn players, and two Serbians manning guitar and bass pursue pan-Balkan dub in Austrian exile. The music isn't as hot or goulash-like as stay-at-homes will hear from cosmopolitans who slum around looking for "interesting, romantic people," to quote chief mastermind Irina Karamarkovic. It's sprightly, light, controlled, although danceable if you know the steps and probably if you don't. Karamarkovic's small, supple voice and Anglophone lyrics infuse the lightness with brains and laughter, which for me equals sex appeal. Keep all your smoky EU chanteuses and their safe-word s&m. I'll take this sometime voice teacher tempting a fate she defies by name, warning of bandits who rob the brain-dead, chiding slivovich-sipping tourists in one verse and cheerfully encouraging them to come on come on the next. A MINUS

The Living Things: Habeas Corpus (Jive) Five years after this St. Louis brother band dropped their bomb, they drop their follow-up, and somehow--though kneejerk revolutionary Lillian Berlin has since had two kids with the director of his first video--they're still true believers in the cleansing if not excoriating power of rock and roll. Leading their theoretical followers into the streets in "Brass Knuckles" only to pine for "the good life" in "Mercedes Marxist," they aim for a higher consistency: a collective grandeur that evokes AOR and punk simultaneously. Their retro is familiar in outline even though you can't name a single band who sound like them. Well, maybe the MC5 a little. But Rob Tyner was a blues-stud wannabe. Lillian murmurs his provocations from within a chorale. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Beats Antique: Collide (CIA) One alleged Bay Area belly dancer plus two Bay Area lower-case gypsies dub up Middle Eastern beats--and tunes--they play themselves ("Beauty Beats," "Roustabouts [Bassnectar Remix]").
  • Zomby: Where Were U in '92? (Cargo) Revisiting/recombining jungle's heady heyday--or, if you're neither nostalgic nor scholarly, gluing 38 minutes of electrodance dynamite onto repeated rumbling synth riffs and surgical blats of rousing high-end ("Where Were You in '92," "F--- Mixing, Let's Dance").
  • Flying Lotus: Los Angeles (Warp) Steady-state DJ undulates a world of sound in the world's direction ("Comet Course," "Golden Diva").
  • Kocani Orkestar: The Ravished Bride (Crammed Discs) Balkan brass's most fluent ensemble speaks the language of erotic commitment ("Kalino Mome," "Sahara Dreams").
  • Ashford & Simpson: The Real Thing (Burgundy) After 45 years of songwriting and 35 of marriage, their partnerships live on live ("It's Much Deeper," "Gimme Something Real").
  • Clem Snide: Hungry Bird (429) Impressionistic doomsongs that grow in beauty, as if to prove doom has an afterlife ("Pray," "With All My Heart").
  • Abe Vigoda: Reviver (PPM) If this EP marks their transition into a song band, somebody tell them mixing the voices up front won't do the trick ("The Reaper," "Don't Lie").
  • Madlib: The Other Side: Los Angeles (Time Out/Deaf Dumb + Blind) Afrocentric mixmaster's multiculture speaks only da English--but in a beatful way (Outlaw Blues Band, "Deep Guilty"; Steve Grossman, "Inmate Man").
  • Ludacris: Release Therapy (Disturbing Tha Peace) Rap porn clown as rap businessman, a richer choice thematically than rap entertainment mogul or rap crime boss ("Tell It Like It Is," "Mouths to Feed," "Slap").
  • The Best of the Johnny Cash Show 1969-1971 (Columbia/Legacy) Back when country was working to prove it was America's music, rather than donning the mantle of patriotism and disrespecting us sinners (Ray Charles, "Ring of Fire"; George Jones, "MEDLEY: She Thinks I Still Care/Love Bug/The Race Is On").
  • Soulja Boy Tell 'Em: iSouljaboytellem (Collipark/Interscope) Stoopid, but far from dumb--especially compared to the dogboys who froth at the mouth about him ("Bird Walk," "Eazy," "Soulja Boy Tellem").
  • Belly Bar (CIA/Bellydance Superstars) For two CDs ethnic and less so, what the title says, although outsiders well may wonder about the "Some Like It Cool" disc (Saad, "Salaam Alakoom"; Turbo Tabla, "Irrouh").
  • Wye Oak: If Children (Merge) Poised warily between innocence and experience, d/b/a melody and chaos ("Keeping Company," "I Don't Feel Young").
  • David Banner: The Greatest Story Ever Told (Big Face/SRC/Universal/Motown) Aka "The Power of Positive Thinking," "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and/or "A Man for All Seasons" ("Cadillac on 22's Part 2," "Get Like Me").
  • The Bigfellas: Chubbed Up (no label) Beloved San Diegans reflect more wittily and tunefully than most on their normally displaced lives ("Reinventing the Wheel," "Wish You Knew").
  • Clipse: Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang (Koch) Liva and Sandman carry more weight than they can eat ("Million Dollar Corner," "Emotionless").
  • Amanda Palmer: Who Killed Amanda Palmer (Roadrunner) In the grand solo-artist manner, better when she explains her dark-side vision than when she explores it ("Runs in the Family," "Ampersand").
  • Novalima: Coba Coba (Cumbancha) Retro-futurist Peruvian salsa, freshest at its most dub ("Kumana," "Se Me Van").
  • Madlib: Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6: A Tribute to . . . (Stones Throw) J Dilla for Dummies (like me), in 42 shifting pieces ("King Chop [Top Line]," "Never Front [Ears Up]").
  • Boom Pam: Puerto Rican Nights (Essay) Surf-inflected Balkan worldbeat inna Hebrew, avec rent-a-singers ("Ushest," "Marylyn Jones").

Choice Cuts

  • Bruce Springsteen, "Queen of the Supermarket," "Outlaw Pete," "Kingdom of Days" (Working on a Dream, Columbia)
  • Simone White, "Mary Jane" (I Am the Man, Honest Jon's)
  • Ludacris, "I Do It for Hip Hop" (Theater of the Mind, Disturbing Tha Peace)

Dud of the Month

The Knux: Remind Me in 3 Days . . . (Interscope) N.O. bros whose house burned down after Katrina. Backstory, check. "Hipster rap" that knows Fishbone and the Cars exist(ed). Concept, check. And then? They're not very hooky, they're not very funny, they play guitar but not very well. Their rhymes convey no passion for language or human experience. All that separates them from the afterparty vacuity of corporate/Los Angeles hip-hop is their eclecticism and their taste in clothes. This is a new direction? It's not even a halfway decent collection of songs. B MINUS

More Duds

  • Oana Catalina Chitu: Bucharest Tango (Asphalt Tango)
  • Fennesz: Black Sea (Touch)
  • The Gaslight Anthem: The '59 Sound (Side One Dummy)
  • Health: Health/Disco (Lovepump United)
  • Johnny Cash Remixed (Compadre)
  • Patti LaBelle: Live in Washington, D.C. (Philadelphia International/Legacy)
  • Lindstrom: Where You Go I Go Too (Smalltown Supersound)
  • The Very Best: Esau Mwamawaya and Radioclit Are the Very Best (Ghettopop/Green Owl) [Later: **]

MSN Music, March 2009

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