Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Who Needs Boxes 2005

That's not counting Johnny Cash, of course, but New Orleans finds are worth seeking out

JOHNNY CASH: The Legend (Columbia/Legacy) Cash recorded almost as much as Elvis and has been reissued more than God, but this quadruple will satisfy most of us, in part because we can think of things we miss--"Next in Line"! "Come In Stranger"! "Singin' in Viet Nam Talking Blues"! "The Mystery of Life"! We all have our own Johnny Cash, that's one of his strengths, which means we learn a little something from other people's, as in the previously unreleased Billy Joe Shaver duet "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ." The box omits the stark Rick Rubin stuff of his old age, which made him a "legend" if anything did. But when I test-drove the confusingly titled single-disc The Legend of Johnny Cash, topped off with a few renowned Rubin songs, the sudden dropoff reinforced my reservations about his late-life need to let his charisma stand in for his voice. A

ROSANNE CASH: The Very Best of Rosanne Cash (Columbia/Legacy) Rosanne's Nashville-to-Manhattan career bifurcates so cleanly that you'd think skipping around between the halves would be a bad idea. But it's the opposite. She could always be formulaically chipper early and painstakingly cerebral late, only not here. Carefully folded together, nine pre-Interiors songs and seven post-Interiors songs feed off each other. Chipper-vs.-cerebral softens to chin-up-vs.-pensive; country soul proves no deeper than classic-pop warmth. A

FINGER POPPIN' AND STOMPIN' FEET (EMI/Capitol) This 1960-1962 Allen Toussaint comp starts with two essentials Charlie Gillett failed to bag: the Showmen's "It Will Stand," a show-then-tell improvement on Danny & the Juniors' "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay," and Ernie K-Doe's "Mother-in-Law," ranked with "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the artist himself. Beyond those and "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," however, it's longer on delicacy than impact. The obscurities are trifles, and as gifted as the young Irma Thomas and Aaron Neville were, the young Toussaint was right to slot them pop. The man is the definitive producer of New Orleans rock and roll. He gave us Lee Dorsey, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, striking solo work. But his signature is a genial accommodation that presaged the tourist mecca the town became. A MINUS

JOHN FOGERTY: The Long Road Home (Fantasy) Every 60-year-old rocker wants to prove he can still bring it with a chronology-defying overview. Juxtaposing gritty youth and spiritual maturity, early songs you can't forget and late ones you think you remember, the clumsy group he came to hate and the crusty self he can't live without, John Fogerty reels in that dream. His formal compass is so narrow and the Creedence sound so replicable that whatever a track's provenance--some classics get the live-in-aught-five treatment, including a second "Fortunate Son"--he's always the original roots-rocker displaying the modest facets of his less than glittering personality. Nostalgists may gripe that he sacrifices "Grapevine" and "Suzie Q" to his creativity and royalty statements. But face it, the covers went on too long. They were the band and the band warn't him. Get it? A

THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: Gold (Geffen) Influenced by the Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Hi-Los, and invisible demons who crept up on them when they didn't score the right drugs, the M&Ps were as sick as they were slick, and although this could accommodate more dark secrets, it proves how sharply their nonhits stick. Their elaborate harmonies and lattice-of-sound arrangements sound super- innocuous until you notice the love bad love of "Got a Feelin' " and "Go Where You Wanna Go," the plastic-hippie savvy of "Creeque Alley" and "Twelve-Thirty," the junkie come-on of "Straight Shooter" and the narco tips of "Free Advice" ("Vice, vice"). They play "Do You Wanna Dance" as sweet romance, "Twist and Shout" as lubricious slow jam, "The 'In' Crowd" as vicious elitism. They do show tunes. They do Shirley Temple and ersatz Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. They do one of the greatest Beatles covers ever. A

THELONIOUS MONK: The Very Best (Blue Note) Everything El Supremo did for Blue Note is worth owning and these foundational recordings of his best-known tunes--13 in all, running just under 40 minutes--aren't always as forcefully shaped or incandescently accompanied as in their more practiced Prestige, Riverside, and Columbia incarnations. I miss "Skippy," Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Rouse; hell, I miss Ernie Henry. Nevertheless, there is no simpler or cheaper way to access Monk's compositional genius in its naked glory, and here more than anywhere his playing gives the Sinatra-like sense that he both knows exactly what he wants to do and is always shifting slightly at the last millisecond. A powerful thinker with a wicked sense of humor, he can't resist seeking perfection--or is it playin' with ya? A

LEE MORGAN: The Very Best (Blue Note) Morgan's 1963 "The Sidewinder" was a perfect piece of jazz funk and very nearly his ruination. He kept trying to repeat it and couldn't, because an inspired pop-jazz instrumental is a far rarer thing than, for instance, an inspired bebop solo. Meanwhile, the bebop faithful, who were too refined for "The Sidewinder" anyway, accused him of following formula, beating his grandmother, and so forth. Capitol should assemble a collection of attempted repetitions--"Cornbread" and "Sneaky Pete" are my nominations--but this isn't it. Instead it balances a compromise on the fulcrum of the catchy-yet-complex "Ceora." Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter understood both sides like few other saxophonists, and Morgan's bright, robust trumpet deserves to remembered by "I Remember Clifford." Funky enough. A

MOTOWN CLASSICS GOLD (Motown) Gold is a budget-priced two-CD UniMoth reissue series that only the fallible will confuse with its Millennium/Ultimate/Chronicles predecessors/competitors. Needless to say, some entries are too much, others too little, others the wrong stuff. For instance, Disco: Gold sucks, while this entry is exactly the same as 2000's glorious Motown: The Classic Years, except--is this possible?-- cheaper. So if you missed it . . . A PLUS

CHARLIE PATTON: The Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo) Although Revenant's seven-disc Patton box remains reissuedom's preeminent fetish object, its completism, including its massive documentation, turns the principled crowd-pleaser into a confusing combination of obscure great artist and pro who led the Delta in studio time. The JSP label is selling all the Patton titles on Revenant's first five CDs, in reportedly superior audio, for a fraction of Revenant's price, but you can live with a single disc like this improvement on Yazoo's Founder of the Delta Blues. The sound is no harsher or dimmer than Revenant's, and the seven new selections emphasize tune, humanizing Patton's raw power--he's a formal wellspring, but also an independent songster with a lot of ideas. Docked a notch for cutting "High Water Everywhere" off at the knees. A MINUS

PIXIES: Best of Pixies: Wave of Mutilation (4AD) The title tune is the catchiest of the 23, but not by much: just one more piece of sensationalism, its fingernail grip on profundity pried away by the unpretentious business sense of a comeback-keyed one-disc best-of. Proudly it claims its central place in what boils down to an amusing and nearly flawless exercise in s&m bubblegum--and not a damn thing more. A

HORACE SILVER: The Very Best (Blue Note) His beat stronger than Monk's, Powell's, or Jamal's, his themes as solidly catchy as any r&b master's, Silver was the soul of hard bop. As iterated by his own piano and various not-quite-scintillating trumpet-sax complements, at least five of the eight heads on this useful selection--"The Preacher," "The Jody Grind," "Doodlin'," "The Cape Verdean Blues," and, best of all, "Song for My Father"--never wear out. They're so simple they elicit gratifying solos even from his old boss Hank Mobley, which is more than Miles Davis could do. A

THE SOUND OF THE CITY: NEW ORLEANS (EMI) Surely some exploiter will step forward, or wouldn't it be nice if the Smithsonian strong-armed licensors into sluicing royalties right to the Ninth Ward? But with Rhino's three-LP canon long ago put under and Shout! Factory's four-CD Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens tourist-board hype, this Charlie Gillett creation is easily the finest available overview of the lost city's rock and roll heritage even if you have to e-mail England to get one. On what is essentially a rock-era survey, the New Orleans tinge sustains a perilous segue from "Let the Good Times Roll" to "West End Blues" to (Bobby Bland's) "St. James' Infirmary." No Mardi Gras krewes, but Gillett does remember every major artist as well as irreplaceable one-shots from Jessie Hill's high-principled "Ooh Poo Pah Doo" to the Animals' carpetbagging "House of the Rising Sun." And though he deals a few sixes and sevens, ace finds start with Archibald's boogie-woogieing "Stack O Lee," Jerry Byrne's frenetic "Lights Out," Willie Tee's pimping "Thank You John," and two very different Bobby Charles songs--one young, dumb, and itching to be free, the other disabused, disabusing, and longing to make love work. A

HANK WILLIAMS: The Essential Hank Williams Collection: Turn Back the Years (Mercury) Musically as well as lyrically, Williams was so simple he was profound--Irving Berlin was Brecht-Weill by comparison. Without benefit of drums, his pulse was livelier than that of any competing country singer even when he was very sad, which whatever the tempo was most of the time. But he was also mawkish and austere, and his best-known titles have been played to death. So truth to tell, I generally pull out Lefty Frizzell when I want me some honky-tonk. Now maybe I won't. Although this triple has room for more than the 60 titles it gives up, and the 10 CDs of his box set include major performances it passes by, its size feels just right. First it breaks up the classics with beguiling semi- obscurities. Then it breaks up the semi-obscurities with classics. A

Village Voice, Dec. 27, 2005

Nov. 29, 2005 Jan. 10, 2006