Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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In which two bands with albums in my top 25 of the '00s achieve major-label distribution and Honorable Mention shortfall simultaneously. Sometimes this job can break your heart. In which two country coots even older than me, one gone and one hanging in there, release albums that should make anyone grateful to be alive. Sometimes this job can brace your heart.

Balkan Beat Box: Blue Eyed Black Boy (Nat Geo Music) Give these Brooklyn immigrants credit for holding off on album three till they had enough songs to put meat on their Israeli-Palestinian-Gypsy world music of the mind, and enough ideas to lift its spirit. Instrumentals called "Kabulectro" and "Balcumbia" triangulate their ambitions. There's live Gypsy brass and fabricated Gypsy brass. There's an anti-racist reggae and an anti-gun reggae and one called "Buhala" that's haunted by chants from some souk at the end of the unmarked road. There's even a love song: "Dancing With the Moon." Sashays along over organ and castanet sounds. Ends with dubbed-up horns. A MINUS

Beatles Beginnings (Rhythmand Blues) The young may find the second, "rock 'n' roll" volume educational, though not as educational as best-ofs by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, etc. But this misleadingly billed predecessor will enlighten and entertain almost any American, not with its perfectly OK roots-style material, which is less country than blues, but with its pop, especially its British pop. Top of which are some terrific skiffle records, the greatest of them Lonnie Donegan's runaway version of Huddie Ledbetter's "Rock Island Line," a novelty smash Stateside in 1956. But the choicest are names more read about than heard: George Formby, Humphrey Lyttelton, Chris Barber--every one proof of life on radio for eager '50s British kids. And then there are a dozen tracks illustrating pop's unpredictable fecundity in any period or context: "Your Feet's Too Big" and "Sheik of Araby," Marlene Dietrich and "Third Man Theme," Ray Charles' "My Bonnie" and Gene Vincent's "Summertime," even Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly joining in on "True Love." I hated that record when I was a musically rebellious teen. But as the notes point out, it's the direct source of John Lennon's "Good Night." Pick and choose, pick and choose--it's the way of pop genius. A MINUS

Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain't No Grave (American) One of those nearness-of-death albums, a category that for me includes not only Warren Zevon's The Wind and John Hurt's Last Sessions, but also Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Neil Young's Prairie Wind. Definitely both the grimmest and the most hopeful, which taken together means maybe the best. The big difference is that it's more direct than any of them, keyed to Cash's rewrite of I Corinthians 15:55: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory." Fortified by his Christian faith, he lends a cracked gravity to souvenirs of cornball sentiment ranging in tone from Ed McCurdy's political "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" to Queen Lili'uokalani's escapist "Aloha Oe," which close an album that also includes the traditional title song, a Sheryl Crow number about redemption, "Cool Water," and the tenderest "For the Good Times" I've ever heard. Never mind sex under the stars--John will settle for a sickbed cuddle. As Queen Lili'uokalani put it, it'll be a solace "until we meet again." A

Cornershop: Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast (Ample Play) Tjinder Singh isn't the most outgoing fellow, but I hope some investigative reporter from Upper Blogovia reveals just what he's been doing since the last time he put out an album, which was 2002. Can you really keep body and soul together hustling chess and counting the royalties from "Brimful of Asha"? Especially since the new one sounds a lot like the old one: casually pancultural, mixing "rock" and "disco" sounds, political supersmarts trailing off into apparent trivialities. R&B sitar. Manfred Mann cover masquerading as Dylan cover. Obscure '80s Brit faux-soul reference. "The Roll Off Characteristics (of History in the Making)." Looks thrown together and thrown away. Takes forever to think of, even with an IQ like Tjinder Singh's. A MINUS

Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip: The Logic of Chance (Sunday Best) Pip's as unapologetic about being a self-conscious artist as he is about being a words-first artist, so he begins with a recitation on the unpromising subject of writer's block that becomes genuinely rousing as the words build momentum willy-nilly. There's also a chorus for kids consisting entirely of the words "get better." And there's "The Beat": "This one ain't about the words the words the words the words." As well it shouldn't be: Just because Dan le Sac knows where his synths and samples belong doesn't mean he isn't an equal partner. Great Britain doesn't make "the best music in the world," you silly beardo. But A Tribe Called Quest should be proud they got you going. A MINUS

Merle Haggard: I Am What I Am (Vanguard) Although Haggard recorded many more good albums in the '00s than in the '90s, his songwriting hasn't been this sharp since 2000's If I Could Only Fly. Not that every song flies, and not that he creaks so noticeably on the December-December "We're Falling in Love Again" just to make sure he conveys how "making love 'neath the stars" actually feels at 73. But his good-old-days laments taste sweet where once they curdled. You'd almost think he's grateful to be alive, which may just be why Johnny Cash's ghost gets to croak "I watched it all completely fall apart" on the lead track. B PLUS

MC Esoteric: Saving Seamus Ryan (Fly Casual) Indie-rap concept album about, what else, the perils of indie-rap--only it's also about loving a dog who'll let you do anything, loving a woman who won't, the vagaries of conscience, imagining violence, and the perils of any musical profession. Guru picks him up in a cab, Gary Numan turns him down for a job at Guitar Center, and his hero Premier won't even finish the drop Esoteric buys because he can't afford a whole beat. But though his beats aren't Premo quality, they're more than enough to keep an album moving when the plot slows down. A MINUS

Quasi: American Gong (Kill Rock Stars) A mere 15 years after the fact, Northwest duo enlist bassist, rev whine into shout, and churn out a darn good grunge album. The new member's female backing vocals and the old partner's Dave-Grohl-not-Ralph-Molina drums move things along. Sam Coomes is still disgruntled: with whoever he's sleeping with, with running away, with dystopia itself. But he's catchier about it, and rockier. Maturity comes in many forms. A MINUS

Surfer Blood: Astro Coast (Kanine) There are always lacerations in store when you try to catch new wave after new wave, and even in Florida John Paul Pitts knows he can't avoid them. But there's something relaxing about the warm air, ocean access, and bikinis of West Palm Beach. That's why the statement of purpose isn't the sound-setting "Floating Vibes" or the breaker-breaching "Swim" but a "Take It Easy" so much more kind and less arrogant than the Eagles song he may never have heard. Is the "mama" who melts the ice in him and keeps him up shivering a crush or, as indicated, a song? My guess is a song; a song so simple it only has two sections, both catchy. The crushes will come later, and they'll lacerate too. "My love is a carnivore," Pitts croons like he's loving some Beach Boys high part. But he delivers a reprise of the same B part in a more forceful, normal voice: "Why is everything a chore?/I'm too young to be defeated." So far, he isn't. Wish him luck with that riptide. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Gogol Bordello: Trans-Continental Hustle (Columbia) Hmm--the two catchiest new songs by the now Brazil-based Eugene Hutz are the two with Latin titles ("Companjera," "Uma Menina Uma Cigana").
  • Hot Chip: One Life Stand (Astralwerks) Voices so sweet and melodies so convincing they could make you think a banality was a serious truth--and sometimes you'd be right ("One Life Stand," "I Feel Better").
  • Drive-By Truckers: The Big To-Do (ATO) Patterson Hood learns the hard way that great songs are never an inexhaustible resource ("Birthday Boy," "Eyes Like Glue").
  • Texas Tornados: Esta Bueno (Bismeaux) Spitting image Shawn Sahm and raised-from-the-vault Freddy Fender resurrect lost supergroup's good humor and Tex-Mex pride ("Chicano," "Esta Bueno").
  • Jaguar Love: Hologram Jams (Fat Possum) Wreaking havoc the piercing, rocking, 808-fueled, screaming-meemie way ("I Started a Fire," "Cherry Soda").
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch) Three actual "Negroes" reconstitute "genuine" African-American fiddle band--sprightly and lyrical and a trifle polite, as perforce such bands must be ("Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine," "Trouble in Your Mind").
  • The Holmes Brothers: Feed My Soul (Alligator) Gospel-soaked revivalists stretch their net wide and land an uncommonly savory soul-blues album--a cancer survivor's soul-blues album, which makes a difference ("Edge of the Ledge," "Feed My Soul").
  • Danny Barnes: Pizza Box (ATO) Banjo-toting songman chronicles the homely-to-criminal travails of the downwardly mobile majority ("TSA," "Broken Clock").
  • Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart: Unreleased Tracks: Africa Sessions Part 2 (Acoustic Planet) Outtakes worth preserving, but the great lost keepers do dry up as the banjo takes over ("Chant," "Spirit Song").
  • Broken Bells: Broken Bells (Columbia) Who knew James Mercer and Danger Mouse were both such big Dandy Warhols fans? ("Trap Doors," "October").
  • Lyle Lovett: Natural Forces (Lost Highway) Note with relief that he's papering over his spiritual limitations with covers and cowrites ("Pantry," "Loretta").
  • Drakkar Sauna: 20009 (Marriage) Kansas roots-rockers-twice-removed stuff philosophical-satiric songs about the 21st century into putative concept album about rocket science, which it ain't ("Song for the Unborn [Cursory Shaker]," "When Old People Die [I'll Still Love You]").
  • James Hand: Shadow on the Ground (Rounder) Low lonesome honky-tonker uses the term "work of art" in two straight songs and declares undying love for his parakeet ("Don't Want Me Too," "The Parakeet").
  • Willie Nelson: Country Music (Rounder) Defining the genre according to T Bone Burnett, but not the songs ("Pistol Packin' Mama," "Seaman's Blues").
  • Peter Karp & Sue Foley: He Said She Said (Blind Pig) Good couple--she needs his words, but not as much as he needs her voice ("Mm Hmm," "Ready for Your Love").
  • Easton Corbin: Easton Corbin (Mercury Nashville) New traditionalism as regular traditionalism, and there'll be plenty more ("The Way Love Looks," "Roll With It").
  • St. Vincent: Actor (4AD) Polyphonic Spree spin-off indulges her long-thwarted fondness for crystalline melody and fetching enunciation ("Laughing With a Mouth of Blood," "Black Rainbow").
  • The Reverend Horton Heat: Laughin' & Cryin' With the Reverend Horton Heat (Yep Roc) Psychobilly Andrew Dice Clay matures into borscht-belt Robbie Fulks ("Death Metal Guys," "Crazy Ex-Boyfriend").
  • 7L & Esoteric: Esoteric vs. Japan: Pterodactyl Takes Tokyo (Fly Casual) Action-figure manga-rap at its most toon ("Mecha Mecha," "Gigantor Says Anything").
  • Beach House: Teen Dream (Sub Pop) Teeny-weeny dreamy-themey pokey-wokey tune-a-rooney ("Lover of Mine," "Norway").

Choice Cuts

  • Gorillaz, "Some Kind of Nature"; "Superfast Jellyfish" (Plastic Beach, Virgin)
  • Flight of the Conchords, "We're Both in Love With a Sexy Lady"; "Hurt Feelings" (I Told You I Was Freaky, Sub Pop/HBO)
  • Bright Eyes/Neva Dinova, "I Know You" (One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels, Saddle Creek)
  • She & Him, "Gonna Get Along Without You Now"; "Ridin' in My Car" (Volume Two, Merge)

Dud of the Month

MGMT: Congratulations (Columbia) Old enough to know that irony stales on the tongue and dogged enough to notice when the songs peter out before the album is over, I'm less disappointed than the post-graduate pre-adults who were so tickled by the meta-faux hedonism of the Wesleyan duo's debut. After all, this airy prog-psych self-indulgence is merely an elaboration of the back half of that debut--the half I tuned out then but appreciate some now, because, even as self-indulgent elaborations go, the follow-up's a doozy. Last time they pretended they wanted to be frothy, decadent pop-rock stars. This time, with their best new one by far a praisesong for Brian Eno, they reveal that in real life they're wiggy, woolgathering dilettantes. Once they test the depth of the woolgathering market we'll find out whether they wanted to be pop-rock stars more than they knew. Given the tendency of unrecouped production budgets to cut into the royalties generated by one's hedonism, it's probably a good thing Ben Goldwasser's girlfriend is studying dentistry. A more reliable income stream than modeling, you bet. C PLUS

More Duds

  • Bobby Bare Jr.: The American Bread EP (Junket Boy)
  • Built to Spill: There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros.)
  • Jakob Dylan: Women + Country (Columbia)
  • The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)
  • Meth, Ghost and Rae: Wu Massacre (Def Jam)
  • Miike Snow: Miike Snow (Downtown)
  • Rain Machine: Rain Machine (Anti-)
  • 7L & Esoteric: Serve or Suffer (Fly Casual)
  • Blake Shelton: Hillbilly Bone (Warner Bros.)

MSN Music, May 2010

April 2010 June 2010