Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

A grab bag dominated by two nominally hip-hop chartbusters--only one is a pure pop record and the other has the aura of U2 bestowing itself upon a public hungry for enlightenment. Together they occasioned long research into lesser, um, R&B. Maxwell? Really? OK, maybe a little.

The Black Eyed Peas: The E.N.D. (Interscope) How dare people call this wondrous album--actual quotes, now--"insipid," "saccharine," "clumsy"? Only I don't mean people--I mean journalists professional and self-appointed, from rockist sourpusses to keepers of the hip-hop flame. Just plain people love it--love it so much that various of its tracks topped the pop charts nonstop for the entire summer. "Party All the Time" is no more a recipe for living than is instant Wi-Fi for all, the message of the supposedly "political" "Now Generation." But in a party anthem it's the definition of intelligence. Sampling classic rap rapaciously and as cool with Auto-Tune as with getting their drunk on, they party beginning to end, which as it happens is a far rarer achievement than signifying beginning to end. Maybe this album is dumb on the surface, though not as much as fools claim. But sure as showbiz it isn't dumb underneath. A

Goran Bregovic: Alkohol (Wrasse) An educated non-Roma Serbian-Croatian popularizer who hit the big time scoring Emir Kusturica's educated non-Roma Time of the Gypsies, Bregovic is resented by many Roma musicians, and insofar as he's copyrighted traditional tunes I sympathize. But insofar as he makes the music go boom I don't. For outsiders, the unsynched oompah sway that makes Gypsy brass so intoxicating differs only marginally from strange background blowing that doesn't, so for Bregovic's first U.S. release to stagger forward on its own groove is an impressive achievement. As befits a guitarist who long led his own rock group, Bregovic's Wedding and Funeral Band is more purposeful than the Boban Markovic Orkestar and more unified than Fanfare Ciocarlia. Of course, it's also more obvious than either. But it's not like anybody's Gypsy brass is deep into subtlety. Bregovic reports that this is the slivovitz half of Alkohol, to be followed by a champagne half featuring a chamber orchestra. I expect to stick with the hard stuff. A MINUS

Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3 (Roc Nation) For a record consisting almost entirely of boasts about being the best, the ex-prexy's official comeback--and also, let it be noted, his inaugural project with or is it for his new corporate partner--is fairly superb. He brings it off because he is the best, because he's documented more achievements than most bigmouths, and because he holds chits for miles. Not only are chief beatmakers Timbaland and Kanye West co-equals, he's gotten A work out of them--cf. Timbo's sample-free spirals on the atypically unbraggadocious "Venus Vs. Mars" and the atypically staccato clap-for-'em West designs for "A Star Is Born." Both are buried mid-disc, just where you'd think Jay would be sneaking in the weak s---. None of that here--though you have a right to think he's coming on too strong. A MINUS

Miranda Lambert: Revolution (Columbia) Of course she's quieting down as she grows up, plus covering her bases, so after half a dozen winners she levels off into a nine-song sequence that begins lame with "Makin' Plans," ends lame with "Virginia Bluebelle," and strides along quite nicely in between. And since growing up also means learning to hit your target without discharging your weapon, the grinning "Only Prettier" and the killer metaphor "Me and Your Cigarettes" establish a welcome lightness. In case you had any doubts, Lambert asserts her distance from Music Row by covering John Prine, Julie Miller, and Fred Eaglesmith, the last of whom buys her a gun. Which I guess is how it comes to pass that, in the one that she wrote with her squeeze, the girl catches the boy in bed with some other her and shoots that sinner dead. A MINUS

Now That's What I Call Party Hits! (Capitol) By "now," if I'm not infringing their copyright, this 2007 special edition of the endlessly uneven series has turned into That's What They Called Party Hits Back in the Day! But since it cherry-picks back through the six preceding years to preserve all one need ever hear of Shop Boyz, Dem Franchize Boyz, Mims, Chingy, and, sad but true so far, Amerie, that just brightens its classic aura. The other 15 artists are more auspicious--in fact, "Gold Digger," "Get Your Freak On," and "Hey Ya!" may strike sticklers as insufficiently cheesy. But to my ears these actual great records tone up such instamatic hits as the Pussycat Dolls' "Don't Cha" and Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend." Fittingly, the sole stinker is by Chris Brown. Making me even sorrier that Soulja Boy was too young to attend. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Merengue Dance (World Music Network) With its smooth disco hyperdrive, big-band merengue is cocaine music. These 15 tipsy tracks are different. Recorded mostly in the Dominican, supplied almost exclusively by a single U.S.-based label, they're nuevo tipico and proud. Just when it's time for the tempos to accelerate, hip-hop touchups add a roughness, and the dominant instrument is accordion, which as in Colombian cumbia evokes a rural idea of urban modernity even if the hands of virtuosos like María Díaz and Krency Garcia. Elsewhere find wild crossovers whose sonic reach could throw anybody's dance-music assembly line off kilter. And young accordionist Carlos Almonte earns not just his closing spot but the bonus disc that backs it up. A MINUS

Seprewa Kasa: Seprewa Kasa (Riverboat) The seprewa is a 10-stringed Ghanaian bridge harp world-music evangelists compare excitedly to a kora, always a sign of mystification afoot, so I'm pleased to report that you could also say ukulele. An Osibisa guitarist and two Accra music profs weave quiet licks, riffs, and runs on their rediscovered ax into music whose talky vocal cadences ID it as lovingly fabricated neotrad highlife. Unassuming, lyrical, and blessedly content free. B PLUS

Serengeti: Conversations With Kenny & The Legacy of Lee (Goldenfloyd) There's one problem with this concept album: It's a genuine sequel, so that those who don't already know middle-aged white guy Kenny from Dennehy may have trouble relating to him as he descends into a 12-step funk. No such problem with his new acquaintance Lee, an African-American with entrepreneurial dreams of escaping his sanitation job by opening a laundromat. Sincere and clueless, Lee is defeated every which way, first by in-laws who turn Bubbles & Fun into a crack bazaar, but even worse in the end by the sincere, clueless white bohemian chick he hooks up with. Whether sampled or electro, Tony Trimm's beats lend not just musical presence but groove and a few hooks to plotting more nuanced than any summary can suggest. Hip-hop is regularly extolled for its storytelling, and there are individual tracks that justify the hype. But Serengeti's understanding of character development substantially surpasses that of, to name a personal favorite, Ghostface Killah. Even with lesser beats, it would make him a rapper worth seeking out. B PLUS

They Might Be Giants: Here Come the 123s (Disney Sound) Chuck Berry once defined music as "just some mathematics and a few vibrations," which suggests why the 2008 installment of TMBG's preschool-ed series is more adult-friendly than the 2005 alphabet and 2009 science editions. These supreme technicians were made to devise songs about numbers, and although being clever is always their specialty, these arithmetic lessons give them the chance to be very clever indeed--suddenly 7-year-olds who've long since memorized "One Everything" or "Even Numbers" are going to figure out their deeper meanings and start dreaming in algebra. Other multitracks for the ages include "Zeroes," which "mean so much," "The Number Two," about connectedness, "Apartment Four," occupied by a drummer, and "Infinity," which doesn't go on forever though they could have pulled some out-groove trick just to be perverse. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Raekwon: Only Built for Cuban Linx . . . Pt. 2 (Ice H2O) Noir is beautiful ("10 Bricks," "House of Flying Daggers," "Ason Jones").
  • Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks: Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks (Tradition & Moderne) Old man's blues revived jug-swing style ("The World Is Going Wrong," "Under the Chicken Tree").
  • Major Lazer: Guns Don't Kill People . . . Lazers Do (Downtown) Diplo and Switch attach an artist name to a mixtape--which includes obvious stuff for pop pushovers like me! ("I'll Make You," "Mary Jane," "Baby").
  • They Might Be Giants: Here Comes Science (Disney Sound) Catchy facts marshaled to fortify innocents against Christianist anti-empiricism, and marred by progessivist didacticism as a result ("Why Does the Sun Shine?" "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?").
  • Son de Madera: Son de Mi Tierra (Smithsonian Folkways) Neotraditionalists from Mexican-Caribbean Veracruz reclaim son jarocho's urgent cries and dedicated guitars from the tourist restaurants ("Cascabel," "Buscapies").
  • Wonderlick: Topless at the Arco Arena (Rock Ridge Music) Two Too Much Joy vets, one now a reality-show producer and the other a Real Networks VP, lay some noisy desperation on capitalism, soft sexism, and other facts of postmodern life ("This Song Is a Commercial," "Janie Jones").
  • Amsterdam Klezmer Band: Zaraza (Essay) Klezmer--one place balkanization is a good thing ("Takaj Zhizn," "Netty").
  • Grant Peeples: Pawnshop (Gatorbone) "Garbage burning in the yard, a rebel flag waves/Car on blocks, a pit bull chained/All the sheriff's deputies know his name" ("Real Country," "Jesus Was a Revolutionary").
  • Sila & the Afrofunk Experience: Black President (Visila) Not to be essentialist or anything, but this Kenyan-American-led Bay Area Afrobeat unit generates uncommon funk--and appears to comprise black musicians exclusively ("Shelter," "Chrome").
  • Speech Debelle: Speech Therapy (Big Dada) South Londoner's murmuring flow lets eavesdroppers connect her problems to their own--maybe even suggest solutions ("Daddy's Little Girl," "Finish This Album").
  • Living Colour: The Chair in the Doorway (Megaforce) Great players and unusually reliable thinkers, they still have something to prove and more to teach, especially to the hard-rock faithful ("Asshole," "Burned Bridges").
  • Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs (Matador) Georgia and Ira's 20th-anniversary history lesson ("And the Glitter Is Gone," "Periodically Double or Triple").
  • Chris Smither: Time Stands Still (Signature Sounds) His dad died, the economy crashed, and his easy groove feels more amenable very year ("Surprise, Surprise," "Old Man Down").
  • Grant Langston: Stand Up Man (MSG) Gets most of his traction (and laugh lines) off all the times he fell down ("Shiner Bock and Vicodin," "Burt Reynolds Movie Brawl").
  • Chrisette Michele: Epiphany (Def Jam) Kiss-off songs softened by R&B nice guy de jour Ne-Yo and roughened by the once and future neosoul belter he fails to escort to Hitsville ("Blame It on Me," "Porcelain Doll").
  • The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revolution (World Music Network) Fela acolytes from many nations finally start getting his groove right (the Afromotive, "Lies"; Albino!, "Puppet Boy").
  • Cage: Depart From Me . . . (Definitive Jux) Yes, children, there is rap after Prozac ("Fat Kids Need an Anthem," "Beat Kids").
  • Nickodemus: Sun People (ESL) Brooklyn DJ imagines a pan-subtropicalia stretching from the Caribbean all the way to India, and makes it happen ("N'Dini," "Sun Children").
  • Michael Hurley: Ida Con Snock (Gnomonsong) He's been hitching the eternal to the silly ever since he gave up running for the bus in 1965 ("Ragg Mopp," "I Stole the Right to Live").
  • Slavic Soul Party!: Taketron (Barbès) After 10 years of hard labor, gadje neatniks lively it up Gypsy brass style ("Pavketov Stakato," "Sancti Petri").
  • Maxwell: BLACKsummers'night (Columbia) Really believes that the quality of the sex is measured by its curlicues--and by how long it takes to come true ("Helpsomebody," "Badhabits").
  • Tanya Morgan: Brooklynati (iM) Nice guy hip-hop from the community of the well-meaning mind, its soul in its skits and its smarts in its beats ("Just Not True," "Hardcore Gentlemen").

Choice Cuts

  • Wonderlick, "Love Will Tear Us Apart," "I Disappear" (Wonderlick, People Suck Music)
  • Jamie Foxx, "I Don't Need It," "Number One" (Intuition, J)
  • DJ Quik & Kurupt, "Hey Playa! (Moroccan Blues)," "Exodus," "9X Outta 10" (Blaqkout, Mad Science)
  • They Might Be Giants, "D Is for Drums," "The Vowel Family" (Here Come the ABCs, Disney Sound)
  • Balkan Beat Box, "Ramallah-Tel Aviv" (Nu Made [Remixes], JDub)
  • Robert Earl Keen, "Wireless in Heaven" (The Rose Hotel, Lost Highway)

Dud of the Month

Ginuwine: A Man's Thoughts (Asylum) Even for low-talents and over-the-hills, it's not that hard to force out a halfway decent r&b album--you just buy top-drawer beats like Jamie Foxx, or muster some semblance of attitude like Queen Latifah. So what's become of this minor innovator is kinda sad. It's not as if he overdoes the sexism or sounds like a total lame, although his voice does crack slightly on "Even When I'm Mad." But a man whose only quotable thought is "I'd rather watch cable/Than see you with a negligee on" has obviously gotten pretty dull himself. Even when he does spring for a beat from his onetime partner Timbaland, what he gets is strictly off the rack--unlike his pal Missy's cameo, which reminds you that 33 isn't old at all. But that's all he is. She's 38. C

More Duds

  • Chris Cornell: Scream (Mosley/Interscope)
  • Ledisi: Turn Me Loose (Verve Forecast)
  • LeToya: Lady Love (Capitol)
  • Ziggy Marley: Family Time (Tuff Gong Worldwide)
  • Bobby V: The Rebirth (Blu Kolla Dreams)

MSN Music, October 2009

September 2009 November 2009