Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Hail Fellow Well Set

Preemptive readers of article tags know that I have a temporary gig, which limits my writing if not my listening. I'm unreasonably pleased to note that said gig lasts past Thanksgiving. What might we call an Easter Turkey Shoot? A Ham Roast? A Bunny Stomp?

AMERICAN POLKA (Trikont import) The first decent polka comp I've ever heard was masterminded by a record-collecting German American statistics prof who moonlights as the leader of Chicago's Polkaholics and can't resist boosting fellow hobbyists' novelties and burlesques. While these are often delicious--my personal jelly doughnut is the Happy Schnapps Combo's "You Can't Teach the Japanese to Polka"--they swamp the quaint delicacy and straightforward fun of the scant older selections, as I learned when (with much guesswork and difficulty) I programmed a chronological version from this vaguely annotated 25-track hodgepodge. Still, as someone who'd always found that polka was happy in theory and corny in practice, I'm ready for a more scholarly job--on Putumayo/Smithsonian, produced by Charles Keil, and please, not a box. B PLUS

BURNT SUGAR: That Depends on What You Know: Fubractive: Since Antiquity Suite (Trugroid) If electric Miles could make the double-LP his métier, why shouldn't eclectic Greg try triple-CDs? Especially since he's got the humanity and business sense to sell each disc singly. This Lester Bowie tribute is the hit because within the permissive parameters of Burnt Sugar's art-ensemble ambience it's the loudest and fastest, and because the blood never leaves its pulse. As does happen on these discs, the best theme was written elsewhere (by Monk, with Miles immortalizing). But the whole thing will fill your earhole from the moment its chant-and-percussion rises out of the ooze. MVP: pianist Vijay Iyer. A MINUS

LUNA: Close Cover Before Striking (Jetset) Once it seemed they'd roll out good songs in perpetuity, then that they'd struggle competently till near misses did them part. Now it's talent will out. The best of these seven songs is a Stones cover, only not by as much as you first think, and the second-best is the opener, ditto. Later a teenager hypnotizes a pancake while getting a girl to stick his hand down her did-he-say-pants. Later a guitar instrumental justifies the title "Drunken Whistler." Later there's an alibi, a song that namechecks New Haven, and a guitar instrumental that justifies the title "Neon Lights" until a lyric takes over the job. A MINUS

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Nothing's in Vain (Coono du réér) (Nonesuch) Missing any metallic mbalax edge as Jean-Philippe Rykiel squished around in the background, I mistook this for a variation on the fusion compromises of N'Dour's Columbia years. In fact it's an acoustic roots move--hardly a conceptual coup, only often they work. As I've said before and will say again, Super Étoile are the best band in the world. But their function on record is to showcase a heroic voice that gains stature from its willingness to serve the band. Here the voice just serves the songs--the melodies are the most fetching of N'Dour's career, and the roots he embraces include a Parisian chanson he floats through trailing accordion and percussion. First time he reached one of those English-language homilies he always founders on, I cringed. But here "so much to do and so much to give today" are words to live by. A

ORCHESTRA BAOBAB: Specialist in All Styles (Nonesuch) Cut 30 years after they formed and 15 yearsafter they hung up their tumba and timbales, this Nick Gold reunion party is the ideal introduction to Baobab's relaxed mastery of American instruments, Cuban rhythms, and Senegalese form-and-content. Barthelemy Attisso's guitar is surer than when he was a big bandleader, Issa Cissoko's saxophone slyer than when he was a crazy kid. The four remakes from Bamba and On Verra Ça are richer and mellower, not just as recordings, where money helped, but performances--Attisso must have missed that guitar he stashed to go off and lawyer in Togo. And when Youssou N'Dour and Ibrahim Ferrer conjoin on the same track, Afro-Cuban is made flesh and goes to heaven. A

PUBLIC ENEMY: Revolverlution (Koch) Chuck D has always thought fresh beats were for pussies--keeping up with the times is a job for communications technology. So the four remixes were organized over the Internet by hardcore PE fans, who like semipop audiences everywhere accentuate what's most extreme and inaccessible about their faves, and never mind the Bomb Squad's r&b shake-and-bake on He Got Game. Fortunately, the old sound is hard in new ways, from the slow-and-snaky synth DJ Functionalist lays below "Shut Em Down" to "What Good Is a Bomb" raging against the machine. With the preacherly rotundity aged out of Chuck D's larynx and live drums just making "Put It Up" leaner, PE's music has never been so unforgiving. With a son-of-a-Bush leading us to perdition, what's to forgive? You know times are desperate when Griff starts making sense. A MINUS

RED HOT + RIOT (MCA) The latest AIDS-benefit disc is a Fela tribute, and also the best since the Cole Porter tribute that kicked the series off in 1990. If you figure it'll reimagine Fela as a songwriter, as I did, figure again--Cole Porter, he was a songwriter. Instead it establishes Fela's claim to funk godfatherhood more forcefully than any displaced Afrobeat ensemble. Sacrificed is Africa 70's clarity of motion. Gained are the head fakes and back-da-fuck-up that have always made funk beats harder for white people to understand than the four-fours rock and roll appropriated from John Philip Sousa and Chicago blues. Retained are Fela's horn sound, whether replicated whole by Femi's band or reconstituted by the likes of Roy Hargrove and Archie Shepp--and, most of the time, Tony Allen's deceptively light groove. You know how multi-produced hip hop albums hold together sometimes? This is even subtler. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO PARIS CAFÉ MUSIC (World Music Network import) Great food, great wine, great countryside. Beautiful paintings and fine cinema. Bohemia soi-męme. Fairly belle langue. Cool esprit. But then, over on the other side, le snobisme, as epitomized by both the academy (a French invention) and "theory" (a French brand name). As for music, not so hot. In the classical world, nobody would rank France with Germany or Italy, and though chanson's structural and procedural contributions to pop are major, it doesn't travel, in part due to its lyrical raison d'ętre and in part due to whatever gives Italians the tunes and Germans the big ideas. With help from Auvergne laborers and Italian immigrants, chanson evolved into the danceable accordion-equipped style called musette, which flourished in the '20s and '30s and has been compiled on a Paris Musette series I'll dig out again as well as two Music Club discs I'll now bury. This typical Rough Guide potpourri ignores intrastylistic continuities and favors revivalists (hiding the older, simpler stuff at the end). Droll, impassioned, tuneful, gay, its limitations are French limitations--too much cocked eyebrow, not enough baby got back. But as mood music for that mystery merlot or soundtrack for a drive to Quebec City, mais oui--just the travelogue a day tripper needs. B PLUS

TIN HAT TRIO: The Rodeo Eroded (Ropeadope) This rodeo features a new event: bandwagon riding. Gallic-not-Polonian accordion still dominates, as accordions will. But Willie Nelson replaces Tom Waits on guest vocal, a dobro chimes in, and that's no violin, it's a fiddle. In short, Euro-avant background jazz configured to stroke bluegrass dabblers and beguile their dinner guests. B PLUS

YOHIMBE BROTHERS: Front End Lifter (Ropeadope) Wailing and wah-wahing and noisemaking atop a usually bass-enhanced pulse (Doug Wimbish is a close personal friend), Vernon Reid's avant-gardisms prove a wilder and more inventive foil to DJ Logic's grooves and samples than Casey Benjamin's modal funk saxophone, which symbolizes jazz all over Logic's own Anomaly. The Yohimbes' groove never falls beneath the standard of good drum'n'bass/trip-hop/whatchamacallit, and often rises well above it. Nigerian club icon Wunmi takes over one track. On another, Slick Rick and Greg Tate trade raps even up. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

DEFINING TECH (Orbisonic) As reactive and exclusionary as loungecore, tech-pop/electroclash/etc. is above all for club snobs, and for such a "fuckable" music (sez Fader) gives off no telltale whiff of mucous membrane. Imagewise, these guys and gals are way too jaded for kiss-me-I'm-ironic--they all sound like their idea of memorable sex involves cumming into a wine glass. I can remember when New Robotics like Spandau Ballet were touted as the future of pop avant, and while tech synths do have more rebop to them, so does the average boy-group ballad. As for the song form some praise, where's the movement's "Cars," its "Warm Leatherette"? Where's the auteur who can write 'em both? C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:
  • Salif Keita, Moffou (Universal): doing his duty to Malian beauty ("Yamore," "Madan")
  • Burnt Sugar, That Depends on What You Know: The Sirens Return: Keep It Real 'Til It Flatlines (Trugroid): atmosphere gathers fitfully into song (and rap), then disperses beautifully ("[Bas] Kiss," "Two Bass Blipsch")
  • The Ökrös Ensemble, I Left My Sweet Homeland (Rounder): Transylvanian laments and jumping dances via hot violins and a cymbalon that sounds like a player piano ("Csabai [Mezóség] Keserves, Szökös, Ritka és Súrú Magyar," "Cigány Csinger Álák")
  • Rod Stewart, It Had to Be You . . . The Great American Songbook (J): he'll do anything to make her come--even hold her hand and gaze into her eyes ("Every Time We Say Goodbye," "The Nearness of You")
  • Wayne Kramer, Adult World (MuscleTone): declaiming his songpoems to (and like) a rock and roll beat ("Nelson Algren Stopped By," "Great Big Amp")
  • Mali Music (Astralwerks): Toumani Diabate and Afel Bacoum make better ethnotechno with Damon Albarn than they could have with Byrne & Eno, or by themselves ("The Djembe," "Bamako City")
  • The Kills, Black Rooster (Dim Mak): blue talk and bluer sounds for the young at heart ("Black Rooster [Fuck and Fight]," "Cat Claw")
  • Sahara Hotnights, Jennie Bomb (Jetset): alright alright keep up the speed girls ("Alright Alright [Here's My Fist Where's the Fight?]," "Keep Up the Speed")
  • Sue Foley, Where the Action Is . . . (Shanachie): dirty old rock and roll gal ("Where the Action Is," "Stupid Girl")
  • Cuisine Non-Stop (Luaka Bop): often clever if you like that sort of thing, only after a dozen plays je still ne sais exactly quoi kind of thing it is (La Tordue, "Les Lolos"; Lo'Jo, "Brulé la Méche")
  • Organic Grooves, Black Cherry (Aum Fidelity): Brooklyn DJs remix William Parker-Hamid Drake jazz for groove, mood, and tiny profit ("Gold Weave," "All Be[Tween]")
  • Badenya: Manden Jaliya in New York City (Smithsonian Folkways): "Manden jaliya" means "Manding griots," "in New York City" means they live here, and despite what you fear they distinguish themselves (Bah Bailo, "Keme Burema"; Super Manden, "Kinzan")
  • Robert Plant, Dreamland (Universal): gonna give you every inch of my erectile dysfunction ("One More Cup of Coffee," "Darkness, Darkness")
Choice Cuts:
  • Dimitris Sakalis, "Simera Gamos Ginete"; Himerini Kolimvites, "Apo To Parko Sti Mirovolo" (The Rough Guide to the Music of Greece, World Music Network import)
  • Gordon Gano, "Hitting the Ground (PJ Harvey: vocals & guitar solo)" (Hitting the Ground, Instinct)
  • Eve, "Figure You Out" (Eve-Olution, Ruff Ryders)
  • Steve Earle, "Breed," "Ellis Unit One," "Time Has Come Today" (Sidetracks, E-Squared/Artemis)
  • Burnt Sugar, "If There's a Hell Below" (That Depends on What You Know: The Crepescularium, Trugroid)
  • Yellow Note vs. Pukka, "Naked, Drunk and Horny" (This Is Tech-Pop, Ministry of Sound)
  • Anouar Brahem, Le Pas du Chat Noir (ECM)
  • Miss Kittin & the Hacker, First Album (Emperor Norton)
  • Mooney Suzuki, Electric Sweat (Gammon)
  • Paris Combo, Attraction (Ark 21)
  • Professor Griff, And the Word Became Flesh (the Right Stuff)

Village Voice, Oct. 22, 2002

Sept. 10, 2002 Dec. 24, 2002