Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It's probably a glitch, but the vast middle ground I call Honorable Mention shrunk this month. Several records were too good for it, and even more not quite good enough. As if to reproach the guy band called Girls, many actual women made the cut. Quite a few Roma, too.

Mulatu Astatke: New York-Addis-London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975 (Strut) Astatke's "Heliocentrics" album rules because like most fusioneers he's too interested in upward mobility to state the groove in the vulgar manner of a committed dance musician. But hear enough variations on those fermented Ethiopian scales and you'll learn to savor the piquancy of his voicings. Unlike the purely Addis Ethiopiques 4 collection, which provides eight of these 20 tracks, this overview dips into his montunos and charangas, his flute and steel drum hires, his vibraphone excursions. When I crave those scales straight I may well return to the Abyssinian source. But this is longer--and more flavorsome as well. A MINUS

Eva & the Heartmaker: Let's Keep This Up Forever (Sony) In which a Norwegian sexpot or credible simulation of same devises ditties along the lines of "I've got a credit card/Big as a whale/I want to buy your love/Is it for sale?" By the stringent standards of the Black Eyed Peas, not deep, although "Life Still Goes On" tries. Not beatwise, either. But less well-fixed than she pretends, I bet. And seductively catchy, in which sexy helps. B PLUS

Girls: Album (True Panther/Fantasy Trashcan) Sometimes a backstory is more than a lead or a peg. Sometimes biographical tidbits situate a newcomer the way geopolitical scraps contextualize a style from a faraway land. So it is with Christopher Owens's history as a teenage escapee from a sexually abusive, culturally separatist cult. Delivered in Owens's throaty, childish wheedle, the tunes make themselves felt even before the grand, low-rent music starts evoking Spector and Brian Wilson sans budget or studio savvy. They suit the love laments too. And when you ask yourself what right this sad sack has to such retro escapism, the knowledge that he liberated himself into a world where '60s pop even existed legitimizes his yearning for innocence and may well be what put the ache in his voice, too. This renders his songs deeper and more moving. Now if only they didn't tail off vacantly at the end. A MINUS

Veda Hille: This Riot Life (Ape House) With a dozen unheralded albums behind her, a piano-playing Vancouver theater composer bases an incomplete song cycle on her departed grandma's hymnal, records it with a chamber orchestra, and attracts funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and ex-XTC label head Andy Partridge. Yet the starchy smell of money getting into bed with gentility is overwhelmed by Hille's melodicism--if how persistently a song runs through your head is the test, my hook of the year award goes to "Book of Saints," its theme the refusal of martyrdom by Saints Agnes and Clare (and a damn fine theme it is). The tunes sag toward the end the way tunes do, and shame on Hille for sticking in that ringer from "Sexual Practices of the Japanese". But if you can imagine the McGarrigles belting, you'll have some sense of how strong Hille comes on. Although she's less acerbic than the Montrealers, she's no simp, and a Christian mostly by association. A MINUS

Nirvana: Live at Reading (DGC) Nirvana's outtakes retain more jam than most, in part because they've been doled out so sparingly. Even the detritus-happy three-CD/one-DVD With the Lights Out box is not only fascinating but pleasurable. A side effect of this restraint is that, except for the subdued and hence one-of-a-kind MTV Unplugged, this is the band's very first concert album--one show beginning to end rather than the hither-and-yon performances unified into From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah in 1996. Half these 24 songs aren't on that record anyway, but even if most of them were, the sustained mood and energy flow would be something new and precious. The arrangements offer few surprises, though check the guitar intro to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"; the Mudhoney cover and unfinalized "D-7" at the end are there to tamp the crowd down a little. So what? This one proceeds directly to the canon. A

Jay Reatard: Watch Me Fall (Matador) Reatard lays more tune on his self-overdubbed g-b-d-and-sometimes-k and fuzzy fake-Brit accent than a Swede in an elevator with Miley Cyrus, all the better to tell the world that "there is no hope for me." That's how he gets to bop less talented fellow sufferers on the head at shows. It isn't just a living, it's a way of life, and he'll take it somewhere or there's no hope for him. Either way this testament of and triumph over dysfunction will remain. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Gypsy Revival (World Music Network) Whatever the title is supposed to signify, this is Roma music trying out some dance/hip-hop fusion--three out of 13 tracks from the dubious Electric Gypsyland ventures. Yet even those are stronger in this context. It does get bland, even duff. But it also showcases worthy second-stringers revving up and getting raw. And it's more of a pick-me-up when the interlopers spur on rather than show off. B PLUS

Tegan and Sara: Sainthood (Vapor/Sire) I prefer Sara, assuming that's her. You know, that one--the jaggedy one, voice slightly narrower, "Arrow" and "On Directing" rather than "Don't Rush" and, er, "Night Watch" I think, even though Sara's the one with the biographical "grounds for divorce," and even though that's my fave thing here. So put it this way. These twin neatniks are wound tight and make something of it. Those who believe loose is the only real may find them prissy or worse. I think their half-enigmatic little songs humanize the neat. They sing of love in perpetual suspension, only partly camouflaged by the emoluments of harmonic closure. A MINUS

tUnE-yArDs: BiRd-BrAiNs (4AD) In a lo-fi universe overloaded with youneek sonic experiments of no consequence to anyone but a small circle of "friends," ex-puppeteer, ex-nanny Merrill Garbus ventures into the great big world and creates a private one built for sharing. Deploying a dictaphone and some sampling shareware, she extracts beats and/or effects from found sounds I know to include kitchen implements, children's voices, and the Martha's Vineyard ferry. She also learns to use a beatbox, plays mucho ukulele, and sings like a folk musicians' daughter who digs show tunes and madrigal, which is what she is. My breakthrough track was a Mbuti pygmy rip that respected the depth of its sources rather than cuting them up, but soon enough very different tracks slipped in alongside. There was a bonus, too. DIY though she may be, Garbus writes a fair number of love or relationship songs. And she's too kind, proud, and down-to-earth to pretend they're anything else. A

The xx: The xx (XL/Young Turks) Their minimalism is so contained that as you warm against your better judgement to the well-spaced notes, subtle depth charges, and ostinato hooks with which they couch their gentle cool, you figure that the matched female-and-male drawls the music sets off will prove unworthy of further commitment. But soon you learn that these two Southwest London 20-year-olds--to leave out their ancillary and now departed guitarist and crucial but probably not generative young producer-drummer--aren't being minimal to prove they're any shade of cool. It's more like they're being minimal because they're shy. Rather than resorting to an obscurantism they're too decent for or feigning a sophistication few achieve, they trade ideas about intimacy as contemporaries, comrades, prospects, lovers, ex-lovers, and friends. It's hard to imagine their music getting much better. But it's not hard to imagine their lives getting much better. Which may be all their music needs. A

Honorable Mentions

  • Kottarashky: Opa Hey! (Asphalt Tango) From Sofia and the sampled Bulgarian countryside, Gypsy ethnotechno more Middle Eastern than Balkan, more Gaby Kerpel than Shantel ("Long Song," "Myanman").
  • Gogol Bordello: Live From Axis Mundi (Side One Dummy) Very live BBC session plus odds and sods plus DVD worth seeing for more than its very very live climax ("Troubled Friends," "Ultimate").
  • Joe Nichols: Old Things New (Universal South) Nothing makes a formalist bare his heart like a 12-step program and some marital enlightenment ("It's Me I'm Worried About," "Cheaper Than a Shrink").
  • NOFX: Coaster (Fat Wreck Chords) "I define success as not working/And I live like a king" ("Creeping Out Sara," "My Orphan Year").
  • The Asteroids Galaxy Tour: Fruit (Small Giants) Mette Lindberg puts everything she's got into her casual, shallow, doomsaying baby doll act--including the three songs on her now superfluous EP ("The Golden Age," "Sunshine Coolin'").
  • BalkanBeats: A Night in Berlin (Piranha) Bosnian expat DJs a Balkan disco night (Al Lindrum & His Magic Hat, "Come Together"; Shantel, "Disko Partizani [Marcus Darius Meets Tricky Cris Remix]").
  • The Raveonettes: In and Out of Control (Vice) In control of (their romance with) the out of control ("Boys Who Rape [Should All Be Destroyed]," "Bang!").
  • The Black Crowes: Before the Frost . . . (Silver Arrow) Finally the lyricism their South deserves--sometimes even the songs ("Been a Long Time [Waiting on Love]," "What Is Home?").
  • Scream Along With Billy: Scream Along With Billy (garageDog) Gay street-hustler-once-removed rough-rides the rock canon and tells drug stories that'll make you chortle as your hair stands on end ("I'm Waiting for the Man/Walk on the Wild Side/You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Scream Along With Billy Theme").
  • Talk Normal: Sugarland (Rare Book Room) Imagine Kim Gordon and Gina Birch marking out turf between DNA and Swans ("Boldface," "Uniforms").
  • Sam Baker: Cotton (Music Road) Some hard times come again, others never leave ("Palestine II," "Cotton").
  • Tom Waits: Glitter and Doom Live (Anti-) The monologue disc needs track divisions and the songs aren't improved by his bellow-and-groan, but in concert Waits generates a groove even with his son manning the kit ("Get Behind the Mule," "Goin' Out West").
  • Bob Dylan: Christmas in the Heart (Columbia) Funnier than the Chipmunks, give him that ("Must Be Santa," "Winter Wonderland").
  • The Ettes: Do You Want Power (Take Root) Growing girlpunks get heavy as they go roots-garage, yet sometimes they're wistful about it ("I'll Be Your Lover [But I Can't Be Your Baby]," "Take It With You").
  • A Hawk and a Hacksaw: Delivrance (Leaf) Funny that--the two best tunes by these Budapest-schooled Brits are marked "Traditional" ("Raggle Taggle," "Lassu").
  • Vivian Girls: Everything Goes Wrong (In the Red) Noize-toon energy fights lo-fi breakdown to a draw ("Can't Get Over You," "I Have No Fun").
  • Tommy T: The Prester John Sessions (Easy Star) Bordello's bassist beckons ancestral Abysinnian atmospheres ("The Response," "Beyond Fasiladas").

Choice Cuts

  • Tim McGraw, "Southern Voice," "You Had to Be There" (Southern Voice, Curb)
  • Asylum Street Spankers, "Volkswagen Thing" (God's Favorite Band, Yellow Dog)
  • Musafir, "Barish" (The Rough Guide to Gypsy Music, World Music Network)
  • Toby Keith, "Ballad of Balad," "Cryin' for Me (Wayman's Song)" (American Ride, Show Dog)
  • Kitka, "Nani, Nani, Kitka Mou" (Cradle Songs, Diaphonica)
  • Taylor Swift, "Jump Then Fall" (Fearless: Platinum Edition, Big Machine)
  • James McMurtry, "Bayou Tortue" (Live in Europe, Lightning Rod)

Dud of the Month

Lynyrd Skynyrd: God & Guns (RoadRunner/Loud & Proud) "You can take your change on down the road/And leave me here with mine," Johnny Van Zant begins one of the two songs that take up the title theme after has run through the pleasures of home, the perfidy of woman, and the mixed blessings of the music business for the umpteenth time. Like the wary younger sibling he's always been, Johnny will always hold onto a quarter and settle for what he knows, or thinks he does. Really, he ought to have some inkling that nobody worthy of his trepidation wants to ban hunting, burn the Bible, or slam old Uncle Sam, although actually that no smoking sign means exactly what it says. On the other hand, "Unwrite That Song" would make a nice B side for Darius Rucker. C PLUS

More Duds

  • Ingrid Michaelson: Everybody (Cabin 24)
  • Noisettes: Wild Young Hearts (Mercury)
  • Karen O and the Kids: Where the Wild Things Are (Interscope)
  • Susanna and the Magical Orchestra: 3 (Rune Grammofon)
  • Wavves: Wavvves (Fat Possum)
  • Wye Oak: The Knot (Merge)

MSN Music, December 2009

November 2009 January 2010