Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Rousing Constituencies

Old dogs singin' slow songs and fairygodmotherfuckers for discerning dilettantes

BJÖRK: Greatest Hits (Elektra) Vintage cabaret stylings in her native Icelandic? Multiple live interpretations of compositions that were barely existent to begin with? Concerts digitized in DVD Vaseline like Matthew Barney's gonads? Old Sugarcubes best-of? I'm not saying they're bad, and I'd be a fool to take the time finding out, because I'm positive they're not for me. But some tribute seems fitting in this Year of the Björk, and this does the trick, with four winners from the pretty good Homogenic, two highlights from the superb Vespertine, and a couple I should have noticed when I was panning Post--especially "Army of Me," trip-hopped for low-end organ massage by Nellee Hooper--as well as a couple I'm glad I didn't. Just the thing to make the discerning dilettante reinvestigate Homogenic. Though not enough to make him go find the one where she remixed every single song on Post. A MINUS

BUCK 65: Talkin' Honky Blues (WEA import) It's hip-hop, all right, only with vocals white as Hank Snow. As this Maritime yokel turned Paris sojourner likes to say, "Street credibility--zero. Dirt road credibility--up the yin-yang." That's despite a black presence in Halifax going back to the Underground Railroad--and also despite dense, bassy beatbeds built the old-fashioned way, from handmade scratches and anonymous samples tweaked and tortured. These nods to tradition are overshadowed by his gravelly murmur, his Jimmy Stewart accent, his single steady cadence, his guitars without a trace of funk--and above all by his independence of hip-hop orthodoxy. His art wouldn't exist without hip-hop and he knows it, but it's also bigger than hip-hop, and at some level he knows that too. Begins with a boast, ends with a gun, and in between come allegories and tall tales, travel vignettes, a romantic confession of uncommon delicacy and candor, detailed first-person portraits of a perfectionist bootblack and a "roadhog with an old dog singin' slow songs tryin' to hold on." You say you want funny too? You got it. A

THE FEVER: Pink on Pink (Kemado) With lyrics that evolve from screeching hiccups through "I'd walk on my hands for you" through "Bridge and tunnel nights" through "I'm down on my knees" (played as cliché) to glam-garage claim on Sheila E.'s "Glamorous Life," I wouldn't bet that this particular late-'70s/early-'80s rehab will lead anywhere deep. Nor would I expect that Geremy Jasper is now or ever will be Richard Hell. But for the duration of an EP, he's just the imp of the perverse guitarist Sanchez Esquire needs. Esq. doesn't have Robert Quine's chops, or even Ivan Julian's yet. But he shares the tonal irresponsibility, sly speed, and penchant for disruption that made them so hard to tell apart and so easy to love. A MINUS

ARETHA FRANKLIN: So Damn Happy (Arista) No, not that "Ain't No Way," or that "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" either. New ones, shorter on tune hence longer on voice--a musical correlative of the way she blurs the erotic-domestic details of the relationships the songs are about. Instead, her singing embodies relatedness itself: the experience of human proximity, of emotion expressed subject-to-object. B PLUS

JEAN GRAE: The Bootleg of the Bootleg EP (Babygrande) As with so many progressives, her ambition is more profound than her compassion. But this is a worse paradox in politicos than in musicians. Abdullah Ibrahim's American daughter knows she can outrhyme and outrap the competition, and she's mad as hell it hasn't made her famous yet. "Liquid content may cause your faggots' frames to burst," she begins, unable to resist the proper use of "faggot" (Webster's: "a bundle of sticks") to ignite the incendiary metaphors that set off "Hater's Anthem." Throughout the six official songs she's all rage, bile, and despair, 150 degrees from the bootstraps autobiography and positive shout-outs of her debut; throughout, her dense, explosive literacy gurgles from the beats like an underground brook. Whereupon, her commercial obligations behind her, she delivers a ghost "cut," some half-dozen songs plus guest contributions that go on for 40 minutes of noblesse oblige--looser in theme and execution, and also better than the debut. She's right. She should be famous. A MINUS

GABY KERPEL: Carnabailito (Nonesuch) Structurally and emotionally, this soundtrack sans movie recalls Another Green World, only without Eno's unifying vocals or cute tunes. What you go back for are the instruments from South America and samples from anywhere, the same stuff the Latin Playboys and Manu Chao play as raw materials to provide atmosphere and context. Here, the vocals and tunes--even the songs per se--are window dressing. Kind of. A MINUS

NON-PROPHETS: Hope (Lex) From "Life's not a bitch, she's just sick of being personified" to "I attended candlelight vigils for Matthew Shepard/While you put out another fucking faggot record," Sage Francis seems sage enough, aesthetically and politically. But he's also the kind of hip-hopper who boasts, "I go to Fugazi shows requesting Minor Threat songs"--an old school purist insofar as he's a hip-hopper at all, with woman problems for club cred. So a nice round of applause for Joe Beats, whose fresh new sounds and spare old beats make "life of the search party," "scent of death threats," and "fairygodmotherfucker" seem like wordplay rather than the one-upmanship that is Francis's reason for rapping. B PLUS

OUTKAST: Speakerboxx/The Love Below (Arista) Statistical analysis yields but one conclusion. Better for Andre 3000 to have donated "Roses" ("really smell like poo-poo"), "Spread" (Prince should be so horny), "Hey Ya!" of course ("a-right a-right a-right a-right"), and an oddity of his choosing (say the single-mom "She's Alive") to Speakerboxx, thus rendering it the classic P-Funk rip it ain't quite, and released the rest of The Love Below under a one-off pseudonym that fooled no one, where it would go gold as an avant-funk cult legend long about 2010 (assuming the RIAA exists at that time). But in the absence of compelling economic motivation, this just didn't happen. No "Ms. Jackson," no "Rosa Parks," no "Bombs Over Baghdad," no "The Whole World" either. Just commercial ebullience, creative confidence, and wretched excess, blessed excess, impressive excess. A MINUS

RANCID: Indestructible (Hellcat) The Clash invented punk politics, and got pretty complex about them. Rancid ran with punk politics, which in Berkeley were burned into the subculture as deep as the three-chord forcebeat. Their big ideas and deep convictions are about their scene, not their society, and they devote their warmest album ever to celebrating and justifying that scene, which they rightly see as global. Sure it would be nice if they put their all into offing Bush, but it would also be nice if the Democrats did. Instead, Rancid offer an inside look at a ready-made dissident voting bloc, toggling back and forth from defeated to defiant as they pursue their little happinesses. Wesley Clark is so smart I'm sure he can get this constituency to the polls. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

MS. DYNAMITE: A Little Deeper (Interscope) If all beats are created equal, then Niomi Daley's spare garage is as strong as Kimberley Jones's thick hip-hop. If flow is as flow does, then her earned plasticity is as fresh as Lauryn Hill's easy liquidity. If singing is basically a matter of sincerity, then her straitened cadences express as complexly as Erykah Badu's high-flying scats. If conscious is enough, then "Tell me how many Africans died for the baguettes on your Rolex" will educate as deep as "Black like the perception of who on welfare." But good music isn't the same thing as a catchy feature story, and this Mercury Prize winner has less flavor than a plate of mashed. She's biracial and the eldest of 10 children and manifestly good-hearted, and when she goes ragga on the way out I wish she hadn't been groomed for something bigger and blander. But she made her choice. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Erykah Badu, Worldwide Underground (Motown): If Andre can sing-song hip-hop, so can his babymama ("Love of My Life Worldwide," "Danger").
  • Bubba Sparxxx, Deliverance (Beatclub/Interscope): For the mountains above and the mud below--especially the mud below ("Comin' Round," "Take a Load Off").
  • The Distillers, Coral Fang (Sire): Blood lust meets death wish where punk meets metal ("The Gallow Is God," "Hall of Mirrors").
  • Jedi Mind Tricks, Visions of Gandhi (Babygrande): On crack, maybe--them, not Gandhi, who wasn't an "It's not guns that kill people, it's bullets that kill people" kind of guy ("A Storm of Swords," "The Wolf").
  • Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Rhymesayers/Epitaph): Sometimes he thinks he spends too much time on the road, and he's right ("Always Coming Back Home to You," "Say Shhh").
  • Haggard, Like Never Before (Hag): Rebel, patriot, musician, legend, populist, sentimentalist, small businessman ("That's the News," "Lonesome Day").
  • British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power (Rough Trade): Amid the echoes, Echo & the Bunnymen loom loud, with Iggyfied Bowie shtick on top ("Apologies to Insect Life," "Blackout").
  • Jean Grae, Attack of the Attacking Things (Third Earth Music): Props for both the Stylistics and *NSync--I like that in an undie rapper ("God's Gift," "Live-4-U").
  • Beyoncé, Dangerously in Love (Columbia): With her daddy, the bonus cut reveals--as if we didn't know ("Yes," "Baby Boy").
  • The Preacher's Kids, Wild Emotions (Get Hip): "A boy inside the body of a man" spitting his father's rock and roll readymades--or more likely his uncle's ("Respect Me," "Death of a Rolling Stone").
  • Those Unknown (TKO): Pretty loose for hardcore, pretty loose for militant too ("No Prevail," "Go Where the Kids Go").
  • Black Box Recorder, Passionoia (One Little Indian): Still recites beautifully ("I Ran All the Way Home," "Andrew Ridgley").

Choice Cuts

  • The Evolution Control Committee, "The Fucking Moon," "Rocked by Rape" (Plagiarythm Nation, Seeland)
  • Bitch and Animal, "Croquet" (Sour Juice and Rhyme, Righteous Babe)
  • Dropkick Murphys, "Worker's Song," "Kiss Me I'm #!@*faced" (Blackout, Hellcat)
  • Ginuwine, "Hell Yeah," "Locked Down" (The Senior, Epic)
  • Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, "Coma Girl" (Streetcore, Hellcat)
  • Blu Cantrell, "Make Me Wanna Scream," "Sleep in the Middle" (Bittersweet, Arista)


  • Busdriver & Radioinactive With Daedelus, The Weather (Mush)
  • The Business, Hardcore Hooligans (BYO)
  • Elefant, Gallery Girl (Kemado)
  • Elefant, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid (Kemado)
  • Willie Nelson & Friends, Stars & Guitars (Lost Highway)
  • Randy Newman, The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 (Nonesuch)
  • Ursula Rucker, Silver or Lead (!K7)

Honorable Mention and Choice Cuts in order of preference.

Village Voice, Oct. 28, 2003

Postscript Notes:

Corrected song error in The Distillers.

Sept. 16, 2003 Nov. 18, 2003