Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Beset by pop volume movers of higher profile than quality, I decided to clean out my hip-hop queue. This yielded only two A's, both by the same old reliable Ghostface Killah, but a great many supporting titles. For reference, let me note eight additional artists, most checked out twice or more and deemed both inoffensive and unworthy: Anti-Pop Consortium, BK-One, Dynas, Fashawn, John Forte, mic King & Chum, Snoop Dogg (not inoffensive, just couldn't get through it), Solillaquists of Sound. Others pend, as usual.

The Chemical Brothers: Brotherhood (Limited Edition) (Virgin) I delayed bearing down on what sounded like an exceptionally useful "definitive singles collection" because: a) I was never in the mood; and, b) I dreaded the "DJ-only white label vinyl" bonus disc. When I did finally return I found that: a) this album is great for my mood, especially when I can play it loud; and, b) the disco discs, as we used to call them, sound great in my apartment even though they were designed for, well, discos. I know, I like my "dance music" cheap--rarely dance to it, truth be told. But the Brothers were always the hookmeistering FX kings of Big Beat, as we used to call it, and though I miss "Song to the Siren," this is longer and deeper than 2003's Singles 93-03. Leads with the only thing they've ever done that tops the Schoolly D-keynoted "Block Rockin' Beats": 2005's Q-Tip-keynoted "Galvanize," which won them a Grammy with techno in decline and them not. You want proof? Next to "It Began in Afrika," the best disco disc here is "Midnight Madness," one of two new bait cuts. I know, the disco discs are probably cheap, too. But I bet when they come on in der club, fools flood the floor. A MINUS

Death Cab for Cutie: The Open Door (Atlantic, EP) Outtake EPs aren't normally where flawed talents come to fruition, and descriptions of one's inability to love aren't normally ruddier than the cherry and riper than the merry month of June. But though Ben Gibbard has self-lacerated before, here he actually seems to have something to get off his chest. Rock-or-die drums power the slow song as well as three atypically fast ones, and, after a Vegas-hookup prelude, Gibbard gets down to cases so unsparingly you'd think he was mad at himself. There's even a mirror metaphor you can look in the eye. A MINUS

Ghostface Killah: Fish N Chips (Mick Boogie Entertainment) Carried beginning to end by force of vocal personality, the songs on this exceptionally unredundant 2007 mixtape are mostly undeveloped, as is standard for mixtapes. What isn't standard is that the guy with his name on the insert card is on all but two of the 23, and that one of the exceptions cuts tedious old Trife da God with excited young Termanology. Authorized Beyonce and unauthorized Amy Winehouse change things up, as does the mellow young thing whose "to be with you my love" replaces tedious young Carl Thomas on a "Never Be the Same" remix. Not that she isn't a two-timing heartsore anyway. B PLUS

Ghostface Killah: Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City (Def Jam) Aware that maybe his true crime mode is getting tired, he makes the potentially ridiculous switch to love man. Anyone who's witnessed his ramshackle Delfonics shtick onstage is forgiven for forgetting the courtly "Camay" and the violently pornographic "Wildflower" from way back in 1995. But rhymewise, this is original work. Eschewing oily sexual details, luxury purchases, and vows of generalized devotion, Ghost mines the same kind of specifics that juice his gangsta repertoire. He doffs paisley pajamas, offers a pregnant honey sauteed shrimp, jots down his regrets while riding to Riker's, carries her groceries up when the elevator goes out. He likes women who read; he praises stretch-mark fat and thick legs; he amplifies his apologies by noting, "I appreciate your concern and support for me." Yes, he shoots the cuckolding cable guy and adds to "Wildflower" the YouPorn special "Stapleton Sex." And, yes, he does occasionally offer a prospect glimpses of hog heaven. But he really seems to like women, which in a love man you gotta love. A MINUS

God Help the Girl: God Help the Girl (Matador) This being a Stuart Murdoch project, the melodies are strong. But it's fresh recruit Catherine Ireton who makes them lovely. Both are yoked to a story that doesn't cohere, at least not yet--there are reports there's a movie coming. But simply as art about the shaky progress of a young woman making do on the margins of art, it's got character and characters. Intelligent, troubled, plucky, and sad, they're a little too good for the world--but not as much as they think. A MINUS

Richard Hell: Destiny Street Repaired ( Preserving the backing tracks from the excellent 1982 album, which Hell disdains for murky reasons that may have to do with who owns it, while adding new guitar solos and new lead vocals, this offended me by expunging from the public record a major chunk of the late, nonpareil, under-recorded Robert Quine's tiny cache of rock solos. But Hell the 59-year-old arts professional renders the yelping anxiety of Hell the 31-year-old punk junkie with such sympathy it's hard to know who's who sometimes, and Marc Ribot, who doesn't record enough rock solos himself, is the nearest parallel to Quine extant. The original album, selling online as I write for $38 used and $153 new in CD form, sounds better than ever. I'm glad to own it and probably wouldn't buy both. But this is its own reward. A MINUS

A Place to Bury Strangers: Exploding Head (Mute) Do people play this skulbustium on their pathetic little computer speakers? What's the point? No sensible person wants to list Jesus and Mary Chain imitators after the trademark holders spent a whole career imitating themselves. But these guys also get to cite My Bloody Valentine's holy name. Bigger and cleaner and catchier, yet noisy and filthy and weird, they sing about various murky unpleasantnesses they don't expect us to comprehend. You know how some hypester always says Play Loud, and what's the point? Well, PLAY LOUD. After you BUY THE RECORD. So you can FEEL THE PURGE. A MINUS

Shakira: She Wolf (Epic) Finally, a much-delayed album is spiffed up instead of diddled around. The four songs added after it was finished lift the back end decisively: the first collab does Kid Cudi a favor, the second accepts one from Lil Wayne, and the two in Spanish come with her strongest melodies (translations, please!). Not that the rest is flat, exactly; "She Wolf" and "Spy" warble as winningly as anything on "Oral Fixation." But though I love her vibrato and hear the unidiomatic lilt of her English as a species of music, even I often felt in need of more. Admittedly, though, it wasn't just the extra tracks that swayed me. It was all the different ways she promised to love me. With Shakira, you figure different really means different. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Amerie: In Love & War (Def Jam) Four terrific funk jams and one terrific ballad followed by a bunch more, you guessed it, ballads ("Tell Me You Love Me," "Heard 'Em All").
  • Mi Loco Tango: Del Diablo y Del Angel (Essay) Frankfurt "Quartett" does Piazzolla with more dramatic dynamics and less loco pizzazz ("La Resurreccion Del Angel," "Tango Del Diablo").
  • God Help the Girl: Stills (Matador) Lesser title tracks have anchored lesser EPs than this prematurely deleted outtakes wrap-up ("Stills," "Baby's Just Waiting").
  • Ralph Carney's Serious Jass Project: Ralph Carney's Serious Jass Project (Akron Cracker) Serious by Carney's standards, which means teaching '40s honker Big Jay McNeely "Futuristic Rhythm," a Fields-McHugh song written in 1929 ("Backtrackin'," "Blow Big Ralph [aka Blow Big Jay]").
  • Soulico: Exotic on the Speaker (JDub) Tel Aviv DJ crew throw a multicultural rap/R&B party that's hottest at its most Arab ("El Nur," "Exotic on the Speaker").
  • Regenerated Headpiece: The New Animal (Headsnack) Brainiac monkeys sit at keyboards, write cross between "Jabberwocky," "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa," and Marx's "Eighteenth Brumaire" ("Everybody Come On," "Active Galactic Nuclei").
  • Wyclef Jean: From the Hut, to the Projects to the Mansion (MRI) As ex-stars' moralizing post/anti-gangsta rhymes go, medium hard and sufficiently scientific ("Slumdog Millionaire," "Walk Away").
  • Khingz: From Slaveships to Spaceships (Fresh Chopped Beats/MADK) Long-grinding Seattle MC thinks hip-hop is just beginning and has the grand beats and cheap nachos to prove it ("Pony Boy," "Blaq Han Solo").
  • Massive Attack: Splitting the Atom (Virgin) Four different ways of revisiting a trip-hop ("Bulletproof Love [Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid Remix]," "Psyche [Flash Treatment]").
  • Themselves: CrownsDown (Anticon) Anticonspirator Jel's oldschool-schooled percussion figures and scattershot virtual orchestrations impart apparent coherence to Anticonspirator Doseone's verbalized personality disorders and scaredycore image-slinging ("BackIIburn," "Roman Is As Roman Does").
  • M.O.P.: Foundation (E1) "Hostile on a good day," hip-hop's most adamant hards show hard rock blowhards how antisocial is done ("I'm a Brownsvillian," "Rude Bastard").
  • John Mayer: Battle Studies (Columbia) Same kind of problems as Ben Gibbard, only more concise about them (which doesn't necessarily mean smarter, y'know) ("War of My Life," "Perfectly Lonely").
  • Rihanna: Rated R (Def Jam) Concocting a persona of interest out of one dynamite musical trick and a bad patch I wouldn't wish on Lindsay Lohan ("Hard," "Rude Boy").
  • Jamie T: Kings & Queens (Astralwerks) London logorrheic milks the romance of punk for hooks and pathos ("368," "Castro Dies").
  • Themselves: theFREEhoudini Deluxe (Anticon) Hither-and-yon mixtape featuring a number of indie-rappers doper than Doseone ("Keys to Ignition," "The Medicine").
  • Clipse: Til the Casket Drops (Columbia) In the crack game, maybe "if the good die young then the great go to jail" (and maybe not); in the rap game, these two have done neither ("Freedom," "Counseling").
  • A Place to Bury Strangers: A Place to Bury Strangers (Killer Pimp) DIY sonics weaken music that knows how strong loud can be ("Don't Think Lover," "Ocean").
  • Brother Ali: Us (Rhymesayers Entertainment) No longer poor but still righteous "preacher" and "luckiest son of a bitch that ever lived" asks band for soul and takes the corn he's a sucker for ("House Keys," "Slippin' Away").
  • Rakim: The Seventh Seal (SMC) Essential things his specialty ("Holy Are You," "Dedicated").
  • Q-Tip: Abstract Innovations (free download) Rhythm experiments, and later for the improvisation experiments ("Black Boy," "I Got Rhythm").
  • KRS-One & Buckshot: Survival Skills (Duck Down Music) Basically an old-school mixtape, wiser when it instructs the fathers than when it criticizes the sons ("Think of All the Things," "Runnin Away").
  • Grand Puba: RetroActive (Babygrande) His first album in eight conscious years leads one to wonder how he makes the mortgage, if mortgage there be ("It Is What It Is," "Reality Check").
  • Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino) After three CDs of collectorama, Disc 4 documents a 1973 show mere admirers might try to isolate ("Hot Burrito #2," "Slut").
  • Third Eye Blind: Ursa Major (Megaforce) Let's hear it for rock bands that speak kindly of social workers ("About to Break," "One in Ten").

Choice Cuts

  • John Fogerty, "Paradise," "Never Ending Song of Love" (The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, Fortunate Son/Verve Forecast)
  • Wale, "Chillin," "Shades" (Attention Deficit, Allido/Interscope)
  • Ian Hunter, "Girl From the Office" (Man Overboard, New West)
  • Ghostface Killah, "Ghostface X-Mas" (GhostDeini the Great, Def Jam)

Dud of the Month

Q-Tip: Kamaal the Abstract (Battery) Arista didn't pull this jazzmatazz off its 2002 release schedule because major labels are evil. Arista pulled it because it stunk. Buried at Track 7, the developed rhyme, unkiltered time, unsettling keyboards, and Kenny Garrett sax coda of "Abstractionisms" deliver what the flowery "Caring" and the endless "Do You Dig U?" emphatically do not: the "brand new sound" the finale only brags about. In the narrow sense of rhythm tracks, the beats have some ass to them, but as music they revert to fusion kitsch whenever the artiste sees an opening: swamping the bridge of the trifling "Heels," hogging the back end of the working-girl praise song "Even If It Is So." Fact is, without his group this major rapper has been lost musically since 1999. In 2008, he denoodled some on "The Renaissance and the Abstract Innovations" mixtape. But though I'm sure there are other cameos I've forgotten or missed, for me his best work of the decade came fronting the Chemical Brothers and freestyling on Kanye West's "Touch the Sky," first immersed in an alien music, then relying on his naked voice. B MINUS

More Duds

  • Mariah Carey: Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (Island)
  • Chester French: Love the Future (Star Trak)
  • 50 Cent: Before I Self Destruct (Aftermath)
  • M.O.P.: All Out War (Howie McDuffie Music Group)
  • Me'Shell Ndegeocello: Devil's Halo (Mercer Street)
  • Subtle: Exiting Arm (Lex)
  • Swollen Members: Armed to the Teeth (Suburban Noize)
  • Rob Thomas: Cradlesong (Atlantic)

MSN Music, January 2010

December 2009 February 2010