Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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As usual around this time, I've expended more energy checking back into last year than picking up on releases timed to fill the January publicity vacuum. (Very) attentive readers will note that one result of my researches was an upgrade: The Very Best mixtape, formerly a Dud, has moved up to Honorable Mention.

The Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (Domino) Yale music major David Longstreth greets his well-distributed new label, in timing I'm sure is sheer coincidence, with nine striking songs that are recognizable as such. Not only will you hum snatches, you'll parse lyrical bits, too: a basement-dwelling twentysomething high on Gatorade in an underpopulated housing development, a waitressing job for Solange Knowles. Jumpy and off-kilter harmonically and structurally, such songs would have seemed more suitable to a concert hall than a rock club 10 years ago. But those were such crude times. Only a boor like me would wonder why the hocketing purity of the voices and the parts-not-grooves of the drums approach the music's user-friendly amenities from a higher plane. B PLUS

Fruit Bats: The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop) The fourth and best-by-a-mile folk-rock album from sometime Shin Eric Johnson and his cud-chewing sidemen is a message to the freak-folk from "a broke-legged paint in a herd full of unicorns." With kind melodies and pointed wordplay, he sings the abiding skepticism of someone who believes we live again as soil, not soul. With a sweetness firmly attached to the things of this world, he celebrates the granite peak, the will-o'-the-wisp, and too much love. A MINUS

Group Bombino: Guitars From Agadez Vol. 2 (Sublime Frequencies) Like their pals in Group Inerane, with whom they share equipment and personnel as the occasion demands, Oumara AlMoctar's band are big fans of Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré, only humbler, rougher, more local. Here, AlMoctar's mastery of "dry guitar," which becomes almost a pretty thing in his hands, is showcased on the four private recordings that lead into a ferocious five-track live set. Souvenir of a war zone now cut off by landmines from the rest of Niger, this music would speak unmistakably of human resilience even if it was the kind of thing outsiders merely appreciate. But in fact it's lovely and grooveful in terms anyone with open ears and heart can hear. A MINUS

Paul Kelly: Greatest Hits: Songs From the South; Volumes 1 & 2 (Capitol) Fifteen quite terrific songs out of 40 don't add up to a full rave for a straight-ahead folk-rocker's 40-track import-only double-CD. But they damn well should have broken him out of Australia. Always clear and concise, he can tell a story, and sings plain broad Aussie with barely a hint of blather. Please try to hear, in descending order: "Everything's Turning to White," "Bradman," "To Her Door," "Every F---ing City," "Sweet Guy," "From Little Things Big Things Grow," "How to Make Gravy," "They Thought I Was Asleep," "When First I Met Your Ma," "Deeper Water," "Dumb Things," "Song of the Old Rake," "Be Careful What You Pray For," "Shane Warne," and "The Oldest Story in the Book." B PLUS

Jeffrey Lewis & the Junkyard: Em Are I (Rough Trade) Wry and contemplative, suddenly established anti-folkie delivers strophic tunes about the riddles of eternity, a pet pig of questionable historicity, trying to catch some Z's on a Greyhound bus, and that greatest of all riddles, love. Aided by his rickety little band, every one flows unimpeded by musical fooforaw, the occasional chorus included. At his worst, Lewis can be a wise-ass scold. At his best he's a vulnerable master of the humorously ineffable and a tribute to the humanism of a SUNY education and the Lower East Side. A MINUS

The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come (4AD) If you want to name your songs "1 Samuel 15:23," "Psalms 40:2," and so forth, perhaps it would be kind to reproduce--not the lyrics, too vulgar I know, but the verses cited. It was only after I took the trouble to read each one before listening that the album came into focus, which blurred within tolerable range when I replayed it without my trusty King James at hand. Some of these songs hold up dandy by themselves: the one keyed to the exit from Eden in which a divorced husband steals back into the house he couldn't make a home, or the "good and faithful servant" one that chronicles a cancer death. But exegesis by contrast is the basic strategy. Message: The punishments God's minions threaten you can count on, but when they promise grace, figure life will trip you up big-time anyway. This is literary rock as it should be. John Darnielle knows it's not enough to write. You have to think, too. A MINUS

Rail Band: Rail Band 2: Mansa (Belle Epoque) Formed by the Malian government in 1970 to beguile visiting businessmen and long recognized as the equal of Orchestra Baobab and Étoile de Dakar, Bamako's Rail Band was sparked initially by future crossover pioneer Salif Keita, who quit shortly after the 1973 arrival of vocalist-instrumentalist Mory Kante. Its presiding genius is master guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, backbone of the three maddening double-CDs that now constitute the band's legacy. Each set is dominated by four-to-10-minute recordings from 1973 to 1977, with synthed-up '80s tracks snuck in here and there, and though it's possible true cognoscenti can fathom an organizational logic that goes unexplained in the notes, I cannot. My mind tells me that the first volume is the least accessible not because it's appreciably earlier but because it seeks out deep-Malian lyrical content. And my ears tell me that all three volumes lag when third banana Makan Ganessy takes the mike, though various fourth bananas acquit themselves with distinction. In the absence of the jaw-dropping best-of this project has in it, Keita's inspirational "Mansa," Kante's gorgeous "Mamadou Boutiqui," and grooves reliably vigorous and hypnotic by turn make Vol. 2 where to start. A MINUS

Rail Band: Rail Band 3: Dioba (Belle Epoque) Figure the final volume is odds and ends. Mory Kante's embrace of rumba is relaxed and weird, his stab at Afrobeat merely spacy. Makan Ganessy will lose you everywhere but the entranced "Mady Guindo"; Salif Keita will make life worth living on "Maki" even if "Soyomba" then disappoints. The first three tracks on Disc 1 wander toward obscure destinations. The last two tracks on Disc 2 reach better places faster, harder, and in different rhythms. B PLUS

Peter Stampfel: Dook of the Beatniks (Piety Street Files & Archaic) Having caught half these songs on the fly at gigs, I was so eager for the 1999 recordings to reach the marketplace that I volunteered to help Stampfel clean up his liner notes. Run through the excitable yelp that's mellowed and roughened only slightly in the ex-rounder's hi-NRG dotage, the lyrics get better still when you're able to dial back and make sure that that's what he just said. Two big sloppy marital love songs flank two outbursts of wordplay to kick-start the proceedings at a high that trails off for nine relatively mortal tracks. But the last four songs are zoom zoom zoom zoom, climaxing with a New Year's Eve rewrite of Little Richard's "Keep a Knockin'" and a morning-after rewrite of what those notes call "the wackest and most amazing gospel song" Stampfel's ever heard. Its sole remaining original line: "Holy terror's gonna blow you up for Jesus." A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • I See Hawks in L.A.: Shoulda Been Gold: 2001-2009 (American Beat) A more relaxed--too relaxed--Gram-era Flying Burrito Brothers with tales to tell when they're on it, which isn't as often as those tales make you hope ("Byrd From West Virginia," "Raised by Hippies").
  • Vieux Farka Touré: Fondo (Six Degrees) The easier, more worldly version of his father you'd expect, more interested in pleasure than edge ("Fafa," "Sarama").
  • The Very Best: Warm Heart of Africa (Green Owl) Seeking and sometimes finding a dialectical synthesis of prime Coldplay and "The Lion King" ("Kamphopo," "Warm Heart of Africa").
  • Jill Sobule: California Years (Pinko) One-hit lipstick lesbian looks back at her life and/or career, swears she's got nothing to prove, and proves it ("Wendell Lee," "Nothing to Prove").
  • Group Doueh: Treeg Salaam (Sublime Frequencies) Two startlingly chaotic burners, two declarations of noisy spiritual devotion, and 20 minutes of sun-dazed head music wavering woozily over the bright desert sand ("Beatte Harab," "Ragsa Jaguar").
  • Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions (World Village) For non-Tuaregs, the "purest" of three rather similar studio albums is also the driest ("Tenhert," "Lulla").
  • Willowz: Everyone (Dim Mak) Garage punk as art movement, with "Break your back on this world/Have some fun on your way" its manifesto ("Break Your Back," "I Know").
  • Dr. Boogie Presents Heavy Jelly: Essential Instrumentals 8 (Sub Rosa) Belgian super-collector proves that while great sax and/or organ singles were rare in pre-Beatles Eden, good ones weren't (Rudy & the Reno Boy's, "7-11"; Baby Earl & the Trinidads, "Blackslop").
  • Freedy Johnston: Rain on the City (Bar/None) Old wisdom, new chord structures ("Don't Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl," "What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight").
  • Tea Cozies: Hot Probs (So Hard) Such as getting mauled by bears, getting overwhelmed by Paris, and foreseeing the end of grrrlpop civilization as they know it ("Huffy Walrus," "Paris Syndrome").
  • The Very Best: Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit Are the Very Best (Ghettopop/Green Owl) Samples you love and others you don't know validated by a friendly African voice you don't understand ("Kamphopo," "Boyz").
  • The Red Krayola With Art & Language: Five American Portraits (Drag City) The visages of Wile E. Coyote, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and Ad Reinhardt rendered in detailed words sung-spoken over thematic background and Mayo Thompson weirdness--now that's what I call art-rock ("President George W. Bush," "Ad Reinhardt").
  • Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues (SoundWay) Two discs of rarities encompassing the usual scintillating oddities, odd oddities, and slightly substandard generics (Pagadeja, "Tamale"; Basa Basa Sounds feat. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, "Dr. Solutsu").
  • Chuck Prophet: ˇLet Freedom Ring! (Yep Roc) Things are so bad out there that the Amerindie old-timer ups and writes "political songs for non-political people" ("ˇ¬Let Freedom Ring!" "Hot Talk").
  • Rosanne Cash: The List (Manhattan) The songs her dad told her to master are too familiar, but give her time and she'll open most of them up pretty good ("Motherless Children," "I'm Movin' On").
  • La Drivers Union Por Por Group: Klebo! (VoxLox) Squeeze-horn standard-bearers make pop move with Jah-praising African unity jam before returning to "I have no sibling," "you spat in the soup," and other traditionally Ghanaian but no less universal concerns ("Sunshine in Africa," "Klebo!").
  • Thao With the Get Down Stay Down: Know Better Learn Faster (Kill Rock Stars) Cheerfully braving love's unpleasant surprises with a lot of help from her friends ("When We Swam," "The Give").
  • Bibio: Ambivalence Avenue (Warp) Foraging among competing styles and mannerisms, glitch-ambient mixmeister finds chipmunk voices a pick-me-up ("S'Vive," "Lovers' Carvings").

Choice Cuts

  • Menya, "Friends Don't," "Ho's Revenge (3oh!3 Response)" (The Sleepover Series Volume 1,
  • Bruce Robison, "Angry All the Time" (His Greatest, Premium)
  • Julian Casablancas, "Out of the Blue" (Phrazes for the Young, RCA)
  • Norah Jones, "Man of the Hour" (The Fall, Blue Note)
  • Kris Kristofferson, "When You Set Me Free" (Closer to the Bone, New West)

Dud of the Month

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love (Capitol) Derided in such varied precincts as Pitchfork, Blender, and Entertainment Weekly when it stuck its head out of the quicksand last March, The Hazards of Love looked to be where Colin Meloy's obvious bad points permanently swallowed his subtle good points. But still the thing finished top 30 in The Village Voice's big critics' poll, so I can remain silent no longer. Except insofar as Colin Meloy's antiquarianism permits him to use such words as "withers" and "blackguard" (which he pronounces "black-guard"--real pseudo-Elizabethans say "blaggard," Colin), evokes online gaming and crypto-genteel '60s folk ensembles more than it does any kind of literature. He has the conceit to elevate melodies that are the musical equivalent of doggerel into mini-motives. His plot is so preposterous and unempathetic it's more the appearance of a plot, or an elaborate joke about a plot. And yet some fool in Britannia's highly respectable Observer thinks this album is "as dazzling as it is beautiful." Be vigilant. Be ever vigilant. C

More Duds

  • Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (Fat Possum)
  • The Boxer Rebellion: Union (Boxer Rebellion)
  • Dan Deacon: Bromst (Carpark)
  • Deradoorian: Mind Raft EP (Lovepump United)
  • Jolie Holland: The Living and the Dead (Anti-)
  • Noah and the Whale: The First Days of Spring (Interscope)
  • A Sunny Day in Glasgow: Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos)

MSN Music, February 2010

January 2010 March 2010