Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Edges of the Groove

Arguments against education, reclaimed punk rants, electropop with staying power

BROTHER ALI: Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers Entertainment) The voice is anxious--sometimes shrill, sometimes defiant, strong and articulate either way. The beats are soul-simple, not hooky enough for radio or dull enough for old-school. The rhymes are proud, thoughtful, searching, candid, angry, observed. Because Ali is married, he avoids nerd-rap's itchy dick syndrome. Because he's an albino, he knows extra about difference. Because he's a serious Muslim, he's a serious moralist. Because he's a good guy, he's not self-righteous or judgmental. Two of his best songs are about fights. In the funny one he ends up with a bloody eye and a split bicuspid. In the indignant one he clocks a woman-beater and gets arrested. A MINUS

THE GUITAR AND GUN (Stern's/Earthworks) Cut at the same time in the same studio during Ghana's chaotic early '80s, this CD condenses two old LPs but functions as a follow-up to the brave, sunny Electric Highlife comp Naxos World released in 2002. Maybe the music feels slighter and less captivating because it gives equal time to what producer and Afropop chronicler John Collins calls "gospel highlife," created by church-based ensembles whose amateurism is even more palpable than in the "concert party" and "cultural" strains. The only repeater is the most professional, and the best: F. Kenya's Guitar Band, whose four tracks here (and three there) combine loping beats, a lead voice of undeniable presence and indefinable key, and high little guitar figures scuttling along the edges of the groove. A MINUS

NELLIE MCKAY: Get Away From Me (Columbia) Hidden smack in the middle of each of these two nine-track CDs are two forgettable songs, leaving 16 of 18 that are memorable melodically, lyrically, or both, which would be an accomplishment for Randy Newman himself. Not counting Stephin Merritt, no other under-40 approaches McKay's gift for cabaret. The worst you can say is that her satire is shallow--dissing yuppies in the '00s is the precise terminological equivalent of dissing hippies in the '80s. But "Work Song" (bosses), "Inner Peace" (New Ageism), "It's a Pose" ("God you went to Oxford/Head still in your boxers") feel something like classic, and personal notes like the fond "Manhattan Avenue" and the fonder "Dog Song" suggest that soon her egomania will yield emotional complexities worthy of her talent. A MINUS

MEKONS: Punk Rock (Quarterstick) Periodizing their history for fun and mainly profit on their 2002 tour, the Mekons who could remember back that far--namely, trouper Jonboy Langford and sufferer Tom Greenhalgh--relearned the punk rants that set the stage for their transition to faux country. These aren't indelible tunes like "At Home He's a Tourist" or "Suspect Device." But months later they're still getting not just stronger but rawer, which isn't how this game usually works. One comparison is the eponymous hardcore album Rancid dropped in 2000 when ska felt played out, but this is sharper and more varied. Who could not love how "32 Weeks," in which Rico Bell I think it is bellows out how much time it takes to earn the price of a car, a mattress, a bottle of whiskey, leads to "Work All Week," in which Jonboy promises his beloved gold itself? A MINUS

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: We Shall All Be Healed (4AD) Inexhaustible wordslinger, belated bandleader, John Darnielle submits a singer's record. He enunciates so forcefully that any verbal incoherence is your fault, projects so loudly it takes months to notice his backup musicians. This is a record whose idea of poetry is "That's good we can always use more electrical equipment," "I eat a couple of Milky Ways for breakfast," and "Get in the goddamn car." Nothing begins-middles-and-ends like "No Children" or "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" because speed freaks tweaking from one meaningless activity to the next don't generate much narrative logic. Every character is a loser or fuckup whose future is no bleaker than that of the planet we all inhabit. They aren't redeemed by Darnielle's love because he doesn't love a one of them. But they are redeemed by his interest, in them and in the planet we all inhabit. And whenever he flags a little, they're also redeemed by his backup musicians. A

THE POSTAL SERVICE: Give Up (Sub Pop) Dinky where Death Cab for Cutie are merely wimpy, the Benjamin Gibbard-Jimmy Tamborello collab could be designed to put off not just red-blooded testosterone addicts but anyone who thinks music has to feign strength to make itself felt. What it does instead is display staying power. Tunes whose catchiness seemed annoying prove lovely; tunes whose quietude seemed wan prove catchy. Gibbard's delicate voice matches the subtle electro arrangements far more precisely than it does the folky guitars of his real group, and no longer does he express himself in word clusters or dream-state imagery. A female principle keeps giving him what for--in the background, Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis, and up front on the album's centerpiece, Jen Wood--and he needs her too much to mince metaphors. A MINUS

OUMOU SANGARE: Oumou (World Circuit/Nonesuch) A bit of a cheat, interspersing six songs from a Mali-only cassette deemed internationally unviable in 2001 with a dozen from the '90s albums that made her a legend if not a superstar. Nor are the newcomers quite up to quality--the best is a trip-hop remix. But whether colored by full orchestra or sour old indigenous violin, each one fits right in, and the sequencing is so deft that this two-CD set is the Oumou album to define what organic feminism sounds like. A

SUPER MAMA DJOMBO (Cobiana) From tiny Guinea-Bissau--formerly Portuguese Guinea, wedged between Senegal and Guinea proper, independent since 1974, population well under a million then and well over a million now--came a band that lasted a decade, even played one of Fidel's Havana youth conferences, but recorded only once, leaving six hours of master tape in Lisbon in 1980. Where the music of nearby Cabo Verde is dominated by mestizo variants on Portuguese fado, Guinea-Bissau had few white settlers, and if Super Mama Djombo recall anyone as they mix and match across West Africa, it's early Orchestra Baobab, hold the salsa. Soukous and highlife echo in the guitars, and the notes suggest that these songs in many languages--six tribal tongues in addition to the urban Kriol they favored--needed to be sung. Take for instance the title of the post-independence "Dissan Na M'bera," which means, the notes say, "'Let me walk on the side of the road'--don't run me over with a state car." A MINUS

KANYE WEST: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) What is the fuss about his contradictions? The main difference between him and most hip hop journalists is his money. They'd buy the Benz--so would I, Volvos don't last as long--and probably the gold too. They'd say anything to get laid. They accept the economic rationale of dealing and dig music of dubious moral value. Yet at the same time they do their bit for racial righteousness and know full well how much they need the "single black female addicted to retail." On Easter Sunday, some of them even believe in Jesus Christ. But none of them are as clever or as funny as Kanye West, and these days I'm not so sure about Eminem either. West came up as a beatmaster, but his Alicia Keys and Talib Kweli hits are pretty bland, and neither his voice nor his flow could lead anyone into sin. So he'd better conceptualize, and he does. Not only does he create a unique role model, that role model is dangerous--his arguments against education are as market-targeted as other rappers' arguments for thug life. Don't do what he says, kids, and don't do what he does, because you can't. Just stay in school. Really. I mean it. A

Dud of the Month

JOSS STONE: The Soul Sessions (S-Curve) Sounds like a well-brought-up twentysomething with a sharp band who writes forgettable originals and smothers covers in irrelevant shows of emotion, as on the endless and supposedly climactic Isleys' chestnut "For the Love of You." But as we all now know, there's a backstory. Band, check--Miami legends like Little Beaver and Timmy Thomas, with Miami legend Betty Wright calling the shots. But Stone isn't from Florida, she's from England, and the forgettables are covers too--the kind of soul marginalia Brits have been overrating since Doris Troy was on Apple. She's only 16, which explains the failed climax. And upon reflection she's not so well brought up, else why trade in Aretha's distinct melody for "All the King's Horses" on soul clichés? Norah Jones is herself, give her that. I hate to think what this phenom will have to go through to get that far. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Camera Obscura: Under Achievers Please Try Harder (Merge): Brave indie-pop girl lilts at windbags ("Suspended From Class," "Knee Deep at the NPL")
  • Thicke: A Beautiful World (Interscope): More brains than Justin, which is saying a lot, and more talent than JC, which isn't ("She's Gangsta," "Make a Baby")
  • Murs: Murs 3:16 (Definitive Jux): A black nerd's white audience, knucklehead neighbors, and wayward dick ("And This Is for . . . ," "The Pain")
  • The Majesticons: Beauty Party (Big Dada): Hip-house as meta-irony, bling as stocks and bonds ("Piranha Party," "Dwarf Star Party")
  • 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope): Gets no cuter as his character unfolds ("What Up Gangsta," "Patiently Waiting")
  • Jason Mraz: Waiting for My Rocket to Come (Elektra): Rufus Wainwright in moderation ("Curbside Prophet," "Sleep All Day")
  • Gary Stewart: Live at Billy Bob's Texas (Smith Music): Starts off young and cocky, ends up sad and drunk ("I See the Want To in Your Eyes," "Drinkin' Thing")
  • John Mayer: Heavier Things (Aware/Columbia): Disguise it as an Aztec Camera reunion and the hipoisie would cream ("Daughters," "Home Life")
  • Kekele: Congo Life (Stern's Africa): Plus flute and violin, minus Papa Noel and the thrill of the first second time around ("Delali," "Souvenirs-OK-Jazz")
  • 50 Cent: Guess Who's Back? (Full Clip): Has a mouth on him, which with mix-tape beats he'd better ("U Not Like Me," "Rotten Apple")
Choice Cuts:

  • Twista, "Like a 24" (Kamikaze, Atlantic)
  • Dido, "Mary's in India" (Life for Rent, Arista)
  • The Raveonettes, "Little Animal" (Chain Gang of Love, Columbia)

  • Tywanna Jo Baskette, Fancy Blue (Sweet Tea)
  • Broadcast, Haha Sound (Warp)
  • Eamon, I Don't Want You Back (Jive)
  • Everclear, Slow Motion Daydream (Capitol)
  • G Unit, Beg for Mercy (G Unit/Interscope)
  • Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (Blue Note)
  • Prefuse 73, One Word Extinguisher (Warp)
  • Singapore Sling, The Curse of Singapore Sling (Stinky)

Village Voice, Mar. 23, 2004

Feb. 10, 2004 Apr. 27, 2004