Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Old Fashioned Amenities

Track after track of sincere classicism, internationalist anarchism, and foiled espionage

BELL ORCHESTRE: Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light (Rough Trade) More Sufjan Stevens or Bang on a Can than Tortoise or Juan McLean, this chamber-pop quintet with Arcade Fire connections varies its cunningly sequenced, gratifyingly brief instrumental tracks with such old-fashioned amenities as textured melodies, pleasing dynamic shifts, and passages that, if they don't actually r-o-c-k, at least bound down the road in an excited manner. One advantage of sincere young things who believe ancient history directly preceded MTV is that for them Gil Evans and Terry Riley are as classical as Mozart and Debussy--and Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky are cornballs. A MINUS

KÉKÉLÉ: Kinavana (Stern's Africa) The gray-haired Congolese-rumba revivalists solve their songwriting problems with an album of Cuban classics associated with "celestial" guajiro de salon god Guillermo Portabales. Not knowing the originals, I suspect I'd prefer these remakes, which have been Africanized rhythmically and linguistically and given all-new Lingala lyrics--the one I'd like to understand decries the efforts of African born-againers to ban non-Christian music. Extra flavor is provided by Franco star Madilu System, kinshasa queen Mbilia Bel, and saxophone hero Manu Dibango. One of those Congolese records that seems totally dedicated to the worship of beauty. A MINUS

JENNY LEWIS WITH THE WATSON TWINS: Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love) More autobiographical, less dynamic--that is, a solo debut. Fortunately, the story outlined in the blurred title tune has the virtue of setting the record straight if you take it literally, always a chancy tack. Child actress or no, the Rilo Kiley frontperson says she grew up poor. Last time she heard (or is this just narrative compression?), her mom was living in her car and putting stuff up her nose. And though the singer-with-backup music relies on formula that won't set anyone's life straight, her melodic chops--sweet as a writer, supple as a singer--put the songs across. Dramatic and literary chops also help. A MINUS

LIVING THINGS: Ahead of the Lions (Jive/Zomba) Sooner than I figured, given their anger management problems, a U.S. rejigger of the politically explosive Black Skies in Broad Daylight, which DreamWorks sat on nervously in explosive 2004. The new "Bom Bom Bom" is the pick of the seven songs involved in the substitution game played to sell mad fans the same record twice. But the deleted "Standard Oil Trust" is more than a good title. Sane fans will just have to do without. A MINUS

FRANK LONDON'S KLEZMER BRASS ALLSTARS: Carnival Conspiracy (Piranha) It's a conspiracy because it requires confederates. Without them, the trumpeting Klezmatic would lead one more blotto wedding band. Aided not just by such co-klezmerists as singing Klezmatic Lorin Sklamberg and singing Brave Old Worlder Michael Alpert but by a Brazilian drumming school and a Ukrainian avant-folksinger and nine Orthodox women set on defying the Orthodox ban on men hearing women sing, he unleashes track after track of internationalist anarchism. Lead elements shift, but every song partakes of the Eastern European breakout Gogol Bordello rocks so hard--and Gypsy-Jewish-Moorish myth London promotes so well. A MINUS

THE MIGHTY SPARROW: First Flight (Smithsonian Folkways) The writing here rarely approaches the finished wit of the Ice anthologies, and just because Volume One is still available, don't assume it always will be. But consider that all this material dates to before he was 25. Most of the songs--recounting news stories, local happenings, life in the yard--are homely moments of social music, the sole love song a Christmas postcard to a spouse back home. But the homeliness isn't just charming. Singing about Bermuda shorts, a peeping Tom, Laika the satellite dog, or the Eric Williams government, Sparrow embodies a musical culture unlike any that's existed in the U.S., even in the South. It's like a griot society too irreverent for praise songs, with an admixture of pseudo-Brit sophistication that would suggest Anglo-India if it wasn't so earthy. And the studio bands definitely have some jam, as in the unkempt fanfare to the opening "No, Doctor, No" or the brief sax solo on "Gun Slingers" or the chorus crooning the title refrain to my favorite, "Harry in the Piggery." A MINUS

RHETT MILLER: The Believer (Verve Forecast) Miller betrays not a hint of hesitation on his second solo album. He thinks he belongs up there in front of that expert new band, singing or shouting whatever banality, profundity, or turn of phrase he's written down, and his level of enthusiasm combined with his level of craft will convince anyone who still likes, you know, songs. "Blame it on the moonlight/Blame it on plate tectonics"--either one is fine with him. But if you insist on knowing exactly what this believer believes in, it's both. A MINUS

PATTI SMITH: Horses/Horses (Columbia/Legacy) A live version of a revered studio album is de trop. Packaging the two together, so that anyone likely to be interested has to buy a remastered original, is wretched--what Ralph Nader was put on earth to prevent, as both he and Smith tragically forgot. However. The live version is different and in no way worse. It's bigger and fuller yet not more pretentious--more passionate, maybe. Obviously but crucially, it's also older--she's Johnny's mother, consumed by empathy rather than ecstasy. In short, Horses is now a piece of repertoire, subject to two competing interpretations. I'm glad I own both. B PLUS

ION PETRE STOICAN: Sounds From a Bygone Age: Vol. 1 (Asphalt Tango) Stoican was a not quite brilliant Romanian Gypsy violinist who in the early '60s personally apprehended a spy on the Black Sea coast. When the authorities offered him a house as a reward, he asked to make a record instead. Four tracks were completed, and his fame grew, but it took over a decade for him to obtain permission to cut this album in Bucharest. Aided by trumpeter Costel Vasilescu, he assembled an all-star 14-piece Lautari orchestra (twice the size of a wedding taraf) around cymbalom virtuoso Toni Iordache. If the later Yuri Yunakov and Taraf de Haďdouks are wilder, the speed and compression here are hard to miss--with 45 minutes to play with, Stoican keeps eight of 16 tracks within 15 seconds of 2:30 and holds another three under two. Emotionally the music evokes a more intense Western swing instrumental or bluegrass breakdown at the higher speeds, tango or perhaps lounge r&b when it slows down. Iordache's cymbalom, a hammer dulcimer that sounds a little like a balafon, tumbles everywhere. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

RYAN ADAMS: 29 (Lost Highway) Adams's fourth and final 2005 CD--Cold Roses was a double, remember?--comprises nine verbose tales and laments. None are fast, six are slow, six amble past five minutes, and all seem to go on forever. Occasional rhythm tracks notwithstanding, the music is dominated by Adams's desultory guitar, please-not-more piano, and sensitive vocals. Although September's Jacksonville City Nights was the mess a lesser talent would have barfed up years ago, puffs of tune and vapor trails of feeling did waft briefly from its twangy swamp. These meanderings are the kind of indulgence that ends label deals. If I were Luke Lewis, all that would stop me would be the outpourings of personal vituperation and musical self-pity certain to ensue. C

Honorable Mention

  • Electric Six: Seńor Smoke (Metropolis): Dance-rock for an "evil generation"--their own, if you can believe them ("Rock and Roll Evacuation," "Jimmy Carter").
  • Compay Segundo: El Compadre Again (Escondida): Recorded well before Buena Vista, when he was a mere septugenarian, and the extra synovial fluid helps the son flow ("Chan Chan," "Me Diras Que Sabroso").
  • Souad Massi: Honeysuckle (Mesk Elil) (Wrasse): Saudade Algerian-exile style--and yes, the translations help ("Inspiration [Ilham]," "Tell Me Why").
  • Regina Spektor: Soviet Kitsch (Sire): Once again, wise-ass New York art-pop (cf. Apple, McKay) outslugs subtle Toronto art-pop (e.g., Stars, Feist) ("Your Honor," "Ode to Divorce").
  • Billy Joe Shaver: The Real Deal (Compadre): Another Christian truth-sayer heard from ("Live Forever," "Slim Chance and the Can't Hardly Playboys").
  • Mahala Rai Banda (Crammed Discs): Roma youth meet Army brass on the outskirts of Bucharest ("Mahalageasca," "Colindat").
  • Rosanne Cash: Black Cadillac (Capitol): Two mothers and one great big dad--that's too much death for two years ("House on the Lake," "Dreams Are Not My Home").
  • Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Long Walk to Freedom (Heads Up International): Works in spite of its prevailing gimmick, which is hooking them up with white female singers ("Long Walk to Freedom," "Hello My Baby").
  • The Elected: Sun, Sun, Sun (Sub Pop): Alt sideman is content with his life and rolls out the tunes to prove it, which takes guts these days ("Would You Come With Me," "The Bank and Trust").
  • Shooting at Unarmed Men: Soon There Will Be Shooting at Unarmed Men (Too Pure): "Hey, hey, doesn't matter what you say" and other pissed-off disillusions ("Taking Care of Business," "Four-Eyed McClayvie").
  • Sound of the World (Wrasse): In the 2005 edition of Charlie Gillett's international sweepstakes, even the 38-man Kenyan hip-hop crew behave (Nairobi Yetu, "Nijenge"; Okna Tsahan Zam, "Edjin Duun").

Choice Cuts

  • Jamey Johnson, "The Dollar" (The Dollar, BNA)
  • Madeleine Peyroux, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," "Dance Me to the End of Love" (Careless Love, Rounder)


  • A.R.E. Weapons: Free in the Streets (Defend)
  • Barbez: Insignificance (Important)
  • Bobby Bare: The Moon Was Blue (Dualtone)
  • Billy Joe Shaver: Billy and the Kid (Compadre)
  • Sigur Rós: Takk . . . (Geffen)
  • Story of the Year: In the Wake of Determination (Maverick)
  • Thrice: Vheissu (Island)

Village Voice, Mar. 7, 2006

Feb. 14, 2006 Apr. 4, 2006