Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Harmonies and Abysses

Across the sky sheet the impossible birds in a steady illiterate movement homewards

THE ARCADE FIRE: Funeral (Merge) First you notice that the opener really is kinda gorgeous, with its twin-xylophone-echoed piano flourish and all. Then you isolate Win Butler's sob and fantasize about throttling the twit, an immature impulse unmitigated by the lyrics, which are histrionic even for a guy who's just lost a grandparent (or whoever). But if you keep at it till the next song, which tells the story of his runaway older brother getting bitten by a vampire, you begin to admire his resilience--he's retained a sense of the ridiculous, which is more than you can say of most young twits who sing about losing a grandparent (or whoever). And that's how the album goes--too fond of drama, but aware of its small place in the big world, and usually beautiful. N.B.: if you're considering Montreal, which is certainly my favorite Canadian place, the ex-Texans and -Haitian here want to make clear that it's horribly cold. A MINUS

BUCK 65: This Right Here Is Buck 65 (V2) Since four standout tracks come from one of my favorite albums of the millennium, the Canada-only Talkin' Honky Blues, I have my doubts about the best-of route taken by Richard Terfry's long-delayed U.S.-major debut. Only it's not a best-of. Listening back to such worthy alt-rap cult items as Square, Vertex, and Man Overboard, I was amazed at how willowy he once sounded--a mere stripling, with a voice macho chauvinists could call nerdy even if he was a hell of a shortstop. Everything here projects his new gruff 'n' gravelly persona, including a remake of the best song in hip-hop history about a big dick (which utilizes a John Fahey-type sample rather than the electronics he has a knack for). Three are from two 2004 Canada-only EPs; another, the striking if overwrought "Cries a Girl," is now a live staple. The collection doesn't cohere the way it should, and I still say seek out Talkin' Honky Blues. But wherever you start, he's a major rhymer, performer, storyteller, humanist visionary, and student of the DJ arts. A MINUS

JOANNA NEWSOM: The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) Not only does she sing in a fey little voice and fingerpick a damn harp, she hangs out with the wrong crowd--hippie folkies, basically. So snub her on principle if you like, but note this quatrain (yes, quatrain): "And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers/and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words/while across the sky sheet the impossible birds/in a steady illiterate movement homewards." Sorry, folks, that's s-m-a-r-t whether you like its drift or not, and there's plenty more where it came from. Right, she's chronically whimsical--the final song adduces dragons. But her whimsy is genuinely funny, and though the melodies fade on the second half, which damages the poetry, there at the end of the faintest one comes the wise warning: "Never get so attached to a poem/you forget truth that lacks lyricism." So I won't. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO BRAZILIAN HIP-HOP (World Music Network import) As with most foreign-language rapping, you may wonder what the point is, especially given liner notes so devoid of lyrical clues I assume the compiler's Portuguese is mucho shaky. But if like me you're prey to the vulgar prejudice that most carioca rhythms run a little lite, the straightforward beats here are intensely pleasurable whether indigenous or r&b--imbued with the rhythmic sophistication of their culture, the vocalists just naturally provide enough variety to keep a North American clod like me going. Often the rappers work chorally, augmenting the r&b feel. One of the soupiest tracks, a love letter recited over Rammelzee's "Bon Bon Vie" variation, is by two guys who were doing 10 years for armed assault when it was recorded. A MINUS

SEPTETO RODRIGUEZ: Baila! Gitano Baila! (Tzadik) Longer on violins this time, Rodriguez's Cuban klezmer packs less thrill, with David Krakauer and Craig Taborn missed. But it's smoother too, and with international mix-and-match feeling so crucial these days, that's educational. The pomo aesthete in us craves disruptive kicks as inoculation against an undoing world. The weary traveler will settle gratefully for some social harmony. A MINUS

MATTHEW SHIPP: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear) My tastes in piano run to five-fingered banging, my tastes in ambience to rhythm massage. So although I've admired several of Shipp's many albums, Nu Bop especially, this one I identify with. The hard-driving "Galaxy 105" tinkles jazzily at times, and "Invisible Light" contributes a free interlude, but mostly Shipp and his certified-jazzbo drums-and-bass--plus, crucially, programmer FLAM--explore pulses and textures: all distinct, some quite jazzlike but most on the trip-hop side. Remember "acid jazz"? This is what it wasn't tough enough for. A MINUS

VIKTOR VAUGHN: (VV:2): Venomous Villain (Insomniac, Inc.) Stuffed-up flow. Championship scratching. A lid on the C-movie dialogue. "Titty fat"/"kitty cat"/"pretty hat"/"pitty-pat"/"kiddies, brats"/"shitty gats"/"where they at"/"city rats"/"gritty stats"/"chicks be at"/"chitty-chat"/"pity that." "Instincts"/"pink drinks." Any questions? A MINUS

YOHIMBE BROTHERS: The Tao of Yo (Thirsty Ear) Where the debut emulated drum'n'bass, this time their avant-funk puts its sonics across by spacing out four compelling vocals: Chuck D stand-in Traz's "More From Life" ("economic equality"), Flavor Flav stand-in Bos Omega's "TV" ("and a big old chair"), Rubén Blades stand-in Ricky Quinones's "No Pistolas" ("Si tu quieres bailar/Si tu quieres gozar/Es bien, pero . . . "), and Bobby McFerrin stand-in Taylor McFerrin's "Words They Choose" (he's worried, unhappy). In the new millennium, you see, we use liberal politics to sell music. It has that aura of the forbidden. A MINUS

ZAMBUSH VOL. 1 (SWP import) "Zambian Hits from the 80s"--hence, geographically and musically midway between Congolese rhumba and Zimbabwean chimurenga, which contained rhumba to begin with. Population under 6 million then, close to 10 million now--though the great preponderance of these musicians died in between, AIDS and the local kachasu homebrew having taken their occupational toll and then some. Cheerful in affect, moralistic in content--the brightest warns against kachasu itself. But though I'm glad its creator survived, I wish there was more evidence that these musical homilies made a difference in the lives of those who created or heard them--after the musical moment itself, when they clearly did what they were supposed to. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

GREEN DAY: American Idiot (Reprise) If you're wondering what this concept album means, don't labor over the lyric booklet. As Billie Joe knows even if he doesn't come out and say it--he doesn't come out and say lots of obvious stuff--this is a visual culture. So examine the cover. That red grenade in the upraised fist? It's also a heart--a bleeding heart. Which he heaves as if it'll explode, only it won't, because he doesn't have what it takes to pull the pin. The emotional travails of two clueless punks--one passive, one aggressive, both projections of the auteur--stand in for the sociopolitical content that the vague references to Bush, Schwarzenegger, and war (not any special war, just war) are thought to indicate. There's no economics, no race, hardly any compassion. Joe name-checks America as if his hometown of Berkeley was in the middle of it, then name-checks Jesus as if he's never met anyone who's attended church. And to lend his maunderings rock grandeur, he ties them together with devices that sunk under their own weight back when the Who invented them. Sole rhetorical coup: makes being called a "faggot" something to aspire to, which in this terrible time it is. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Tom Waits: Real Gone (Anti-): Shtick fights funk to the death, yielding both a circus spiel with some laughs in it and a battlefield habanera worthy of Motörhead ("Hoist That Rag," "Top of the Hill").
  • This Moment in Black History: Midwesterncuttalistick (Version City): Seventeen songs in 33 minutes by Cleveland Voidoids/Fugazi fans who still read the newspaper ("Beans and Rice," "Art Project," "Paint Me a Picture").
  • The Rough Guide to Mediterranean Café Music (World Music Network import): Worldly Christians meet secular Muslims, often in joints swank enough to feature a piano (Maurice El Médioni, "Bienvenue --Abiadi"; Eda Zari, "Ra Faja").
  • MF Doom: Mm . . Food? (Rhymesayers Entertainment): Eat the theme up with your mouth Doom ("Hoecakes," "Kon Queso").
  • Tribal Bahia: The Best of Timbalada (Universal): Carlinhos Brown and associates do their drum-and-chant thing (Carlinhos Brown, "Canto Pro Mar"; Carlinhos Brown/Cicero Menenez, "Margarida Perfumada").
  • Craig Taborn: Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear): In a noisy way ("Mystero," "The Golden Age").
  • Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats (Essay import): In Brazil as anywhere else, the sound of poverty can be a stark thing (Bonde do Tiagro, "O Baile Todo"; Furacao 2000, "Mengao 2000").
  • U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope): Pop music as spiritual balm--there are worse ideas ("Miracle Drug," "Vertigo").
  • Mannie Fresh: The Mind of Mannie Fresh (Cash Money/Universal): "From Mexico to China/All I want is vagina" ("Not Tonight," "We Fresh").
  • Darryl Worley (DreamWorks): Has good enough values as long as he doesn't apply them too far from home ("I Love Her, She Hates Me," "Work and Worry").
  • Killers: Hot Fuss (Island): If only A Flock of Seagulls could do their hair ("Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," "Somebody Told Me").
  • Randy Travis: Passing Through (Word/Curb/Warner Bros.): Decency is its own reward ("My Daddy Never Was," "That Was Us").
  • U.S.: The Necessary Evil (Reality Check): Rapper dresses Unabomber, name-checks Che ("Brooklyn," "Rome Too Burned").

Choice Cuts:

  • Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, "The Lyre of Orpheus," "There She Goes, My Beautiful World," "Hiding All Away" (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Mute)
  • LCD Soundsystem, "Losing My Edge" (LCD Soundsystem, DFA) [Later: *]
  • Björk, "Triumph of a Heart" (Medulla, Elektra)
  • Alan Jackson, "The Talkin' Song Repair Blues," "To Do What I Do" (What I Do, Arista)
  • Interpol, "Next Exit" (Antics, Matador)


  • The Cure (Geffen)
  • Hope of the States: The Lost Riots (Epic)
  • Montgomery Gentry: You Do Your Thing (Columbia)
  • New Found Glory: Catalyst (Drive-Thru)
  • Simple Plan: Still Not Getting Any . . . (Lava)
  • Elliott Smith: From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-)
  • Sum 41: Chuck (Island)
  • Three Days Grace (Jive)
  • The Von Bondies: Pawn Shoppe Heart (Sire)

Village Voice, Feb. 8, 2005

Jan. 18, 2005 Mar. 22, 2005