Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: 2001 Gets Better

Ryan Adams got 80 Pazz & Jop mentions, Amy Allison one. So I investigated in that order. If I hadn't, the Dean's List would have been one album longer.

AESOP ROCK: Daylight EP (Def Jux) Less experimental beatwise than his boys, less literate bookwise than his rep, but, like his namesake, fabulously wise: "When I was 16 I was taping Bobbito and trying to find out who was newest and was trying to be the dopest, now I don't care if I'm the dopest." I don't know much about dope, I just know what I like: his beats, which average out to deep organ funk; his rhymes, which half-parse no matter how twisted; and his class consciousness--unlike "Bulletproof Wallets," his "Nickel Plated Pockets" are stuffed (they wish) with spare change. Title track gave us the great verse on Labor Days: "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/Maybe she just didn't feel y'all shared similar interests/Maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet-talk a princess." Second track makes her a biyutch and concludes: "Maybe you're just an asshole, and maybe I'm just an asshole." He isn't. He's dope. A MINUS

AMY ALLISON: Sad Girl (Diesel Only) Mose's daughter grew up listening to Schoenberg on Long Island and sings with the piercing twang of a less urbane Victoria Williams. She writes what seem to be country songs with the same stylized simplicity her dad favors in blues, but the country part is just aura, a way to convince you the singer is as unsophisticated as you think her lyrics are until you think some more. Only the rowdy "Shadow of a Man" and the cheatin' "Sad State of Affairs" come equipped with Nashville markers. The rest are just well-turned songs of the heart. Two illustrate the title all too well, but the best make something of it, especially "One Thing in Mind," about what every mother tells every daughter men want, with consequences. A MINUS

ISSA BAGAYOGO: Timbuktu (Six Degrees) After surfacing as a singer expert on the three-stringed kamalÚ ngoni droning over a drum machine so spare the naive might call it primitive, he leaves the settings to Ali Farka Toure sideman Koko DembÚlÚ and label owner Yves Wernert, who fashion a world music amalgam slyer and slinkier than any kora fusion. True, there are moments when the production almost drowns in comforting gestures. But the groove always rights itself, and the sound effects are obtrusive enough to give kora fans a salutary case of the jitters. A MINUS

BJÍRK: Vespertine (Elektra) I liked this a lot better once I heard how it was entirely about sex, which since it often buries its pulse took a while. Sex, not fucking. I'm nervous so you'd better pet me awhile sex. Lick the backs of my knees sex. OK, where my buttcheeks join my thighs sex. I'm still a little jumpy so you'd better pet me some more sex. How many different ways can we open our mouths together sex. We came 20 minutes ago and have Sunday morning ahead of us sex. Or, if fucking, tantric--the one where you don't move and let vaginal peristalsis do the work (yeah sure). The atmospherics, glitch techno, harps, glockenspiels, and shades of Hilmar Om Hilmarsson float free sometimes, and when she gets all soprano on your ass you could accuse her of spirituality. But with somebody this freaky you could get used to that. English lyrics provided, most of them dirty if you want. A MINUS

KASEY CHAMBERS: Barricades & Brickwalls (Warner Bros.) I got into the lizard-slow "Nullarbor Song" only after determining that Nullarbor is the southern Australian desert, its name Latin for "no trees"--did wonders for the "river of tears" line. That's the kind of price you pay for the saving strangeness built into Chambers's achieved, imagined stylistic commitment. Sure the outback can turn you into a country singer, especially if your dad is a professional folkie who's romanticized the natural his whole life (and you're not really a rebel). Sure the difficulty of the leap can mitigate the folk/country corn factor, especially if your voice is a wonder of nature (and you have enough sass in you). But represent your roots honestly, as you're smart enough to know you must, and sometimes you'll lose the folks you romanticize. A MINUS

FAUDEL: Ba´da (Mondo Melodia) Beautiful voices mean less than beautiful records, so no wonder this second-generation Algerian-Parisian with the tenor in his pants became a star when his 1997 debut blew up. Cut before he was 20 and just released here, it's as shameless as Shakira. The rai hooks aren't always rendered on authentic instruments, which in rai I guess means electric guitar, but the synth tootles and buzzes feed the tune-at-all-costs abandon. This is the Faudel they call "the little prince of rai," throwing all of his toys on the floor at once. The one they call "the Julio Iglesias of rai" got the next album, which came out first here. Super salsa, kid, and I know there's only one "N'Sel Fik." But why not another "version hip hop"? A MINUS

THE HIGHLIFE ALLSTARS: Sankofa (Network import) At first I thought the four credited acts were a de facto aggregation dubbed the Highlife Allstars, and metaphorically they are. The music does change with the billing--vocals are undemonstratively chanted, conversationally emoted, sweetly sung, and instrumentation swells to include organ, horns. Yet whether the named artist is a known oldtimer or one of the small pool of young men who can play the dated style of Ghana's presoukous preeminence, the mood and sound are consistent, rooted in the friendly rhythmic intricacies of palm wine guitar. Juju is too, but the song forms are much clearer here, the commitment to loveliness more straightforward. Until better examples emerge from somebody's vinyl horde, this collection will be a world music template. And N.B.: If the rest of the title seems vaguely familiar, people like the word, which in Akan seems to mean something like, "You must look at the past before you can proceed into the future." Wonder what will happen then. A

JAY-Z: The Blueprint (Roc-A-Fella) What is it pigs like Jigga say as they spread your legs and accuse you of wanting their money? Lay back and enjoy it? Assuming you don't believe this album is great art or reparation for chattel slavery, that's the way it is with Jay-Z's power pop. His flow is fluent, sure. But his confidence reigns supreme. Likewise his hooks, whether purchased, hired, or just what he was feeling at the time, and his rhymes, whose deepest cleverness is in their apparent effortlessness. Like Star Wars or Windows 95, he unlocks the gate to a luxurious passivity that may not be good for you in the long run but does the trick at the time. A MINUS

LIGHTNING BOLT: Ride the Skies (Load) Two pieces, bass and drums-vocalist long ago emigrated from Providence to Brooklyn to lead their Gotham counterpart Black Dice from behind a trap set. But where Black Dice are an s&m noise band like the Swans, Lightning Bolt are a fuck-in-the-doorway noise band. They care about tune, and though they're all-instrumental they're about as "post"-rock as Slayer, Nine Inch Nails, or Sonny Sharrock. Brian Gibson's bass sounds like a guitar half the time, especially when he's stating themes, which tend to be droll, perhaps because they anticipate the cacophony to come, perhaps because you do. The rare brains-in-a-puddle-of-yuck-on-the-floor record actually capable of driving the expressway to your skull. A MINUS

JOEY RAMONE: Don't Worry About Me (Sanctuary) The nicest Ramone, who was revealing his secret identity well before he knew he had cancer, stands tall as a gentle goof, sounding contemplative partly because he's slowed down a little, partly because music has speeded up a little, and partly because he is. Spareness bleeds into vagueness, minimalism into unfinished business, which may be how he would have wanted these songs but isn't necessarily how we want them. Nevertheless, his ashram seeker is the perfect counterweight to his financial analyst, "What a Wonderful World" to "1969." And when he writes from his bed of pain it really hurts. B PLUS

SPOON: Girls Can Tell (Merge) A few songs grab you, the rest grow on you, the lyric sheet makes some sense. Dynamics fill in for groove. But even after you run the hooks through your head for a day--"Take the fifth," "fitted shirt," "that you're next to me"--you don't have much idea what Britt Daniel is on about, except maybe that he wonders why he works so hard on his songs, and (duh) has yet to find true love. And beyond "Take the fifth," no phrases stick out as free-floating signifiers, either. In short, the indie-pop conundrum in a nutshell too slippery to crack--unless you really like filberts. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

BONNIE RAITT: Silver Lining (Capitol) If on 1986's Nine Lives, the first bummer of a three-decade career divided by a cleaning-up period, she was a cynic at the end of her rope, on the second she's a self-remade woman calling the shots. As usual, the few songs she wrote herself outstrip the others. But even those are for roots-rock matures who share her worldview so narrowly that not a note or emotion takes her anywhere she doesn't know like her own night table. The exceptions are a single helping of Malian guitar from Habib Koite and, to an extent, a gospel rouser by Zimbabwean crossover darling Oliver Mtukudzi. More such tracks might have forced a stretch. Instead she starts off by warning the young against "dealing on the street." Somehow I don't think this is gonna win any war on drugs--or get her on TRL. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Lonesome Bob, Things Change (Leaps): country's not his discipline, realism is ("Heather's All Bummed Out," "Dying Breed");
  • Jay-Z, Unplugged (Roc-A-Fella): "Jay-Z's poetry reading"--pronounced "rea-in" not because it's more ghetto but because it's more childish ("Song Cry," "Izzo [H.O.V.A.]");
  • dj/rupture, Gold Teeth Thief (Soot import): weirdo hards from North Africa to St. Louis Mo ("Missy Elliot 'Get Ur Freak On'/Nas 'Oochie Wallie Instrumental'/Ricky Dog aka Bling Dog 'Risen to the Top,'" "Project Pat 'Chickenhead'/Nettle 'Duppy'");
  • Spirit of Africa (RealWorld): do-gooders put the best face on their condescending Afrofusion and, way to go, fight AIDS too (Hamid Baroudi, "Baraka"; Zawose & Brook, "Kuna Kunguni/The Bedbugs Bite");
  • Taha/Khaled/Faudel: 1, 2, 3 Soleils (Mondo Melodia): North African Parisians get rowdy, live ("Comme d'Habitude," "Eray");
  • Local H, Here Comes the Zoo (Palm): Jack Douglas replaces Roy Thomas Baker at the helm, and if you know the difference it sounds that way ("Rock & Roll Professionals," "Keep Your Girlfriend");
  • Dan Melchior's Broke Revue, Heavy Dirt (In the Red): singing the blooze like Wilko Johnson or Roger Chapman--and he isn't even British! ("Witch on Fire," "War All the Time");
  • Ryan Adams, Gold (Lost Highway): asked for Gram Parsons, they gave me Billy Joel ("Somehow, Someday," "The Rescue Blues");
  • Farewell Fondle 'Em (Def Jux): Bobbito Garcia's far-flung posse and dream of life (M.F. Grimm, "Scars & Memories"; Cenobites f/ Bobbito, "Kick a Dope Verse");
  • Whiskeytown, Pneumonia (Lost Highway): wallowing in nostalgia as only a 25-year-old can--a 25-year-old with a voice sweeter than his soul and tunes coming out of his ass ("My Hometown," "Jacksonville Skyline," "Paper Moon");
  • Faudel, Samra (Mondo Melodia): his debut here, his follow-up there, and shorter on hit-'em-with-your-best-shot as a result ("Salsa ra´," "Samra");
  • Dilated Peoples, Expansion Team (Capitol): especially for Evidence, who tempers the cold steel in Ice-T's flow ("Trade Money," "Night Life");
  • Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator) (Acony): forget Elvis--the Steve Miller mention is the real giveaway, and breath of fresh air ("My First Lover," "Ruination Day Part 2");
  • The Murder City Devils, Thelema (Sub Pop): howling for their supper ("That's What You Get," "364 Days").

Choice Cuts:

  • El-P, "Stepfather Factory" (Definitive Jux Presents II, Def Jux);
  • Diana Krall, "S'Wonderful," "The Look of Love" (The Look of Love, Verve);
  • Aerosmith, "Jaded" (Just Push Play, Columbia);
  • Norah Jones, "Cold Cold Heart" (Come Away With Me, Blue Note);
  • Kid Rock, "Lay It on Me" (Cocky, Lava/Atlantic).


  • Col. Parker, Rock n Roll Music (V2);
  • Nas, Stillmatic (Columbia);
  • Sam Phillips, Fan Dance (Nonesuch);
  • Powderfinger, Odyssey Number Five (Republic/Universal);
  • Beanie Sigel, The Reason (Roc-A-Fella);
  • Smash Mouth (Interscope).

Village Voice, Mar. 12, 2002

Jan. 29, 2002 Apr. 16, 2002