Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Salaam

Some may cock an eyebrow at my Arabic-pop timing, but Tea in Marrakech and Hakim were long in the pipeline, scheduled for an October release that came too late. Party Music, on the other hand, was pushed back in August from its scheduled 9/11 release by corporate shenanigans, and arrives not a moment too soon.

AESOP ROCK: Labor Days (Def Jux) Like most alt-rappers, he's got the logorrhea bad, and although he's figured out a lot for a 25-year-old, only a 21-year-old is gonna get that much smarter parsing every last detail of whatever the fuck he's talking about. But sometimes his meanings are there for the taking, as on the thematic "9-5ers Anthem," and the self-fulfilling "No Regrets," about an 87-year-old outsider artist on her obscure and happy deathbed. The beats have a subtle logic of their own, like the medina saxophone on one cut that sets up the heavenly houris on the next. And anybody (well, this being alt-rap, any heterosexual male) can use this Inspirational Verse: "Life's not a bitch/Life is a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy." A MINUS

BULLFROG (Ropeadope) They claim jazz so hard that either they're inordinately proud of that stupid flute feature or they don't know what they're doing, which is nailing an instrumental funk situated somewhere between the MG's and the Meters. Master DJ Kid Koala is one crucial attraction--probably supplied the cracker-barrel riffs on their name. Another is rapper James "Blurum 13" Sobers, whose "Reverse Psychology" mines a tradition that goes back to Dr. Hook's "Levitate." B PLUS

THE COUP: Party Music (75 Ark) Imperfect musically (two slow ones) and politically (too anti-Amerikkkan). And right, this is the album with the withdrawn cover of Boots Riley detonating the WTC--a pun gone terribly wrong, tracks "blowing up," get it? Fortunately, most of the jokes are less doctrinaire--there are dozens better in "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O." alone, like "We could let him change a flat tire/Or we could all at once retire." The title's a pun, too, signifying Black Panther or Communist (or necktie), only not only, because the tracks blow up: The live band, the male and female choruses, and DJ Pam the Funkstress do here commit a positive groove worthy of Frankie Beverly, Digital Underground, Chuck Brown. Similarly, the slogans-to-go that begin with the first verse--"Every death is an abrupt one/Every cop is a corrupt one/Without no cash up in a trust fund/Every cat with a gat wants to bust one/Every guest wants a plus-one"--are underpinned by songs wise beyond anybody's years, such as the woman-friendly tale of the girl who convinced a fumbling 17-year-old Boots that he'd fathered her child. Imperfect, definitely. But only because perfection is on the table. A

BUDDY GUY: Sweet Tea (Silvertone) Dragged bitching and moaning down to Fat Possum, Mississippi, to sing a sheaf of nonhits written by rubes in overalls he'd never heard of, the great totem of Chicago blues gets large on the pop process in which a producer induces an artist with more talent than concept to make a good album. That Dennis Herring boasts among his credits Counting Crows and Jars of Clay only proves George Martin's Law: You can lead a horse with no name to the mic, but you can't hum a few bars of "Love Me Do" and expect him to sing it for you. And since this producer also collects antique amplifiers, not only did he introduce his new property to the untapped songbook of Junior Kimbrough et al., he hooked the property's snazzy guitar to machines so raunchy they make his old Chess stuff sound like Motown. Adding a showman's drama to the kind of material that normally requires a porch or roadhouse, he created a landmark of neoprimitivism. May it outsell every soul record he's ever made soon enough for him to try it again. A MINUS

HAKIM: Live in America: The Lion Roars (Mondo Melodia) The Egyptian sha'bi style reigned over by this good-looking country lad cum college grad remains sufficiently exotic stateside to resist piddling distinctions, but one thing can surely be said about his 95-minute virtual best-of: It never stops. The Cairo horns that sound so stately in most Middle Eastern pop are riotous, and while I couldn't tell you which percussion interlude goes where without consulting a scorecard, any one can get you going. What it evokes for me is a classic James Brown show with fewer rest stops and a less brilliantly elaborated bottom--the kind of high-energy ritual fools think primitive but we know as a specialty of urban society in the electric age. A MINUS

ETTA JAMES: Blue Gardenia (Private Music) Churning out an album a year as she advances on 65, James has actually gotten better, settling into her iconicity more confidently than, for instance, Buddy Guy. Next to Aretha, she's the greatest black woman singer of the rock era hands down. Yet rock doesn't bring out the best in her, because it tempts her to overstate, and resisting temptation has never been her gift. On this straightforward standards collection, cut like the 1994 Billie Holiday tribute Mystery Lady with Cedar Walton and friends, she takes it easy, letting the songs do the talking and leaving you to wonder whether her modest melodic variations bespeak sly musicality or weathered pipes. Both, bank on it. In 1994, the Billie shtick seemed slightly presumptuous. No more. A MINUS

MUSH FILMSTRIP (FRAME 1) (Shadow) Eighteen bites of the vinyl-friendly "downtempo instrumental" and/or "abstract hiphop" Mush Music label featuring precisely one artist in my recall vocabulary, Aesop Rock. Starts with three instrumentals faster and more content-conscious than was the illbient norm back when there was illbient. Since all are deeply funky in a DJ Shadow Attends Handsome Boy Modeling School kind of way, the rap tracks are like gravel folding into asphalt. And although the two acid jazz demonstrations shoulda stayed in Chi-town, the sax and Hammond B-3 moments later are just more displaced sonics in a waking dreamscape of nothing but. A MINUS

NEW ORDER: Get Ready (Reprise) Obviously it's not perky enough, funky enough either, but their best (and third) album in 15 years (and probably last ever) sounds an awful lot like what kids today call pop. Electronic aura, hooks up front, Bernard Albrecht as boyish as Damon Albarn if not an actual young person, and generalized lyrics affirming a pre-9/11 reality. Give "Crystal" or the attempted Billy Corgan comeback "Turn My Way" a host of video cuties and innocents will think the mysterioso raveups are a new species of fun. Which in the better world we all deserve they'd deserve to be. A MINUS

THE STROKES: Is This It (RCA) Great groove band, end of story--I wish. True grooves extend toward infinity, for one thing; here the beats implode, clashing/resolving with punky brevity and gnarly faux simplicity. Their grooves carry melody, too--and not all of it, not hardly. The Strokes' privileged formalism is annoying, so too their delight in romantic dysfunction. But they're smarter than the playa haters who aren't smart enough to target these blatant shortcomings--and also than, for instance, Firewater, who didn't start a bidding war because they do lots less with the same attitude. A MINUS

TEA IN MARRAKECH (Stern's/Earthworks) These 15 songs are Muslim like Philip Roth is Jewish-irreverently, idiosyncratically, and to the marrow. Their North African provenance means their sense of Islam is at least unorthodox and often cosmopolitan/European-and so, of course, does their pop provenance. East-West instrument mixing is standard, mystical intensity a hook. Women hold their own. Some of these professional entertainers are seekers after the catchy tune, others folkloric types who sound authentic to us and impure to adepts, and as many come from Paris or Barcelona as from Cairo or Marrakech. You wouldn't think to listen that they're all championing a cultural tendency under attack. But Islamists hate them as much as they hate us, if not more. A

TIDIANE ET LES DIEUF DIEUL: Salimita (Justin Time import) Either they're the best Senegalese band to surface since Baaba Maal's or David Murray has gotten a hell of a record out of them. A conflict-primed groove launches Tidiane Gaye's tenor into transports of falsetto, and jazz-steeped guest altoist Abdoulaye N'Diaye links Dakar to New York more idiomatically than Murray could have. Their name, meaning something like Work-Reward, is the slogan of Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, a leader of the same Sufilike Muridist brotherhood that counts among its adherents Youssou N'Dour and Senegal's current president. We have much to learn. Indigenous yet cosmopolitan, reveling in difference, this is why it's always been worth the effort. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

SHĂNI: Call of the Wild (Ark 21) Even back in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Shăni Rigsbee (Christian name: probably Sandy) mourned the tragic missed opportunity of Arab-American relations: the failure of Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract" to stave off the Gulf War. Instead the great Abdul fell into legal and matrimonial entanglements and sank from the scene. Rigsbee, I mean Shăni, had every intention of filling that void with 11 songs whose unimpeachable insipidity was only heightened by two lyrics in Spanish and one in Farsi. Her Orientalist string flavorings were guaranteed to bring the Beirut Hilton into homes all over suburbia. And then what happened happened. Please Mr. Ashcroft sir, don't call her in. She obviously doesn't know a thing. D

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Tommy Boy Essentials: Hip Hop Vol. 1 (Tommy Boy): from the age of linear funk, three great collectibles and many good ones (Uptown, "Dope on Plastic"; Prince Rakeem, "Ooh I Love You Rakeem"; Too Poetic, "God Made Me Funky")
  • Rufus Wainwright, Poses (DreamWorks): if he's not really a singer-songwriter, how come he always writes to the tune of his own voice? ("Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," "One Man Guy," "Greek Song")
  • Jay-Z, The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella): still having fun somehow, in his mean-spirited, self-serving way ("Renagade," "Hola' Hovito," "Izzo [H.O.V.A.]") [Later: A-]
  • Loudon Wainwright III, Last Man on Earth (Red House): his mother died and he's gonna ("White Winos," "Bed")
  • Cannibal Ox, The Cold Vein (Def Jux): more entertaining than Anthony Braxton and Wallace Stevens put together ("Raspberry Fields," "Painkillers")
  • DJ? Acucrack, Sorted (E-Magine): a stay-at-home's fantasy of club music, all jet propulsion, turn-it-up texture, and sonic thickness ("Fulcrum Torque," "The Test")
  • Hasidic New Wave/Yakar Rhythms, From the Belly of Abraham (Knitting Factory): Senegalese drummers add jam and Muhammad to klezmer jazz ("Waaw Waaw," "Yemin Heshim")
  • Gorillaz (Virgin): a goof not a concept, except insofar as they deny there's a difference ("Re-Hash," "Clint Eastwood")
  • R.L. Burnside, Burnside on Burnside (Fat Possum): letting things slide, live ("Alice Mae," "Jumper on the Line")
  • Low, Christmas (Tugboat import): beats committing suicide, if that's your holiday fancy ("Just Like Christmas," "Blue Christmas")
  • Ike Reilly, Salesmen and Racists (Republic/Universal): takes his rock so straight he could almost make you believe it ("Hip Hop Thighs #17," "Last Night")
  • Freedy Johnston, Right Between the Promises (Elektra): will never get the girl till he proves he believes in himself ("Waste Your Time," "That's Alright With Me")
Choice Cuts:
  • Saul Williams, "La La La" (Amethyst Rock Star, American)
  • Click Tha Supah-Latin, "The Park," "Family Freestyle" (Square Won, Wild West/Fluid)
  • P. Diddy & the Bad Boy Family, "That's Crazy" (The Saga Continues . . . , Bad Boy)
  • Jadakiss, "Nasty Girl" (Kiss Da Game Goodbye, Ruff Ryders/Interscope)
  • Kool Keith, "Darth Vadar" (Spankmaster, Overcore)
  • Bigg Jus, Plantation Rhymes EP (Sub Verse)
  • Eyedea & Abilities, First Born (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
  • Redman, Malpractice (Def Jam)
  • Utah Saints, Two (Nettwerk America)

Village Voice, Nov. 20, 2001

Oct. 16, 2001 Nov. 27, 2001