Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Nothing Major

I leave it to Consumer Guide scholars more diligent than I to ascertain whether any previous edition has been totally devoid of major-label records before Honorable Mention. I can't find one. Only Artemis even has big-five distribution.

AFRICA RAPS (Trikont import) Although there are traces of Wu in what I'd rather call these rhythms or these sonics than these beats, the reason this (not African but) West African collection smashes through the language barrier is that hip hop music as a whole is only a flavor, albeit a prominent one, in a sound that remains Sahel--sometimes looped and sometimes live near as I can tell, mostly mbalax but traditional too, with plenty of live and sampled singing as well as some rapping you'll savor just for the sound. I wanna hear Mystikal battle guttural old schoolers BMG 44. I know I won't, but I wanna. A MINUS

THE BEST BOOTLEGS IN THE WORLD EVER (No Label import) Easily purchased at a St. Marks Place shop that begins with K, the most interesting and enjoyable album so far this year is nothing but music you've heard before, which is not to claim I can effortlessly ID every pop/rap/r&b top or rock/electronica bottom. Most of them, though. Yes, this is that collection of Christina-meets-the-Strokes seizures you've heard tell of, and that one is hardly the big prize, which I would award the Beyoncé-meets-Nirvana "Smells Like Booty" even if the chance to hear "Satisfaction" and "Rockafeller Skank" simultaneously is just as precious. A dubious ethos does prevail, at least on this selection. It's as if the guilty pop pleasure--Eminem, Celine Dion, Salt-n-Pepa, even the rap of "Get Ur Freak On," which once rode the deepest bottom of the millennium--is somehow validated by its juxtaposition to Nirvana, the Clash, the Stones, the Stooges, the fucking Strokes, and for that matter fucking Gary Numan. In theory, I don't approve--how about Iggy on top of RZA or the Bomb Squad? But I also don't believe in feeling guilty about pleasure, and I love this record to pieces. A

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: Spirit of the Century (RealWorld) Gospel as blues, the way you, me, John Hammond, David Lindley, Charley Musselwhite, and two guys from Richard Thompson's band like it. A little manipulative, but just the thing to play Sunday morning without compromising your religious principles--or the Blind Boys', which were never the same after they experimented with pagan ritual in The Gospel at Colonus. The opener equates glory with a brand-new Ford, and the crowning touch is the conversion of "Amazing Grace" into "House of the Rising Sun"--or is that now "Son"? A MINUS

THE BOTTLE ROCKETS: Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot) Not a band out of songs mining a B hero's book--a concept album about the alt-country process. It isn't Rootsman Sahm the Bottle Rockets care about, it's Sir Douglas the Hippie--a simple Texas boy high not just on anything he can smoke or gobble but on the fellowship of strangers he knows would groove on him even if he wasn't slightly famous. "Mendocino" and "Stoned Faces Don't Lie" glow with possibility, evoking '60s utopianism far more concretely than any precious latter-day studio psychedelica. But it has to end. "You Can't Hide a Redneck Underneath That Hippy Hair," Doug realizes. "The changes in this city made a fool of me/I got too free, forgot I had a family," he admits. So, he concludes, "I'm Not That Kat Anymore." Out of options, he turns into an icon whose conjunto country r&b will always be longer on rep than edge. For a taste of the wildman the young Sir Douglas was, try the Music Club comp Son of San Antonio. But believe that Brian Henneman's interpretation says more about his character and his fate. A MINUS

FRED EAGLESMITH: Ralph's Last Show (Signature Sounds) In the studio, musicianship renders this Canadian singer-songwriter one more rough-hewn troubadour with his heart pinned firmly to his hollow-body. On this live double, his need to shout over bar talk and penetrate the sloppy strum-and-thrum of his drumless good-enough-for-folk-rock band combines happily with the best-of effect, resulting in a raucous celebration of male chauvinism Montgomery Gentry should only envy--for its powers of observation, class solidarity, and laugh lines. The fast hard ones are all great, and they outnumber the medium-tempo corny ones, which bottom out at tolerable and memorably honor migrant workers and a good dog. Not counting the song that goes, "When exactly did we become white trash," my three favorite fast ones are all about souped-up gas guzzlers, the finest of which drives up to an old-age home. Never again do I expect to enjoy an album that begins and ends with songs about trains. Then again, I never expected to enjoy this one. A MINUS

COREY HARRIS: Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder) If Harris had the good sense to be white, he'd be a roots-rock hero. But it would probably help too if he gave the four-piece whose record this is a moniker, so here goes. Those North Nawlins No-Names, dang--they evoke the heart-skip irregularities of Delta blues like gathering moss is for moldy figs. Blend in West Africa like blues came from there or something. And top it off with rock-type poetry that makes like social conditions are as real as love and dreams. Songwriting could be sharper, true. But if you're looking for a sound, they've got one in spades. A MINUS

MONDO SOUKOUS (Mondo Melodia) I know and with a single exception recommend eight of the 10 albums targeted by this obvious 66-minute collection. Buy any one and you'll hear Sam Mangwana, Samba Mapangala, Koffi Olomidé, Kékélé, and others as distinct artists imposing themselves on rhythmic and sonic strategies that conquered a continent. Buy this idealization and you'll conclude they're too gentle and friendly to impose themselves on anything. But if you're only now getting your feet wet, or just have a yen for Afropop gentle and gorgeous, obvious is obviously what you're looking for. A MINUS

PAPA NOEL & PAPI OVIEDO: Bana Congo (Tumi import) Noel's record--Papi, the well-respected tres-playing offspring of tres legend Isaac Oviedo, is on only half the 10 tracks. But collaboration agrees with Noel, the longtime Franco guitarist and recent Kékélé mainstay whose exercises in the son style that fueled Congolese rumba in olden times gain contour from their brushes against Cuba's compatible melodic resources. The tunes are brighter than on his solo album, and Oviedo's angular tres adds bite to the rumba flow. Several lyrics taken by second-rank soneros boil down to "Our classic style beats your newfangled noise," which I'm glad I only know from the booklet. The music makes the case better without them. A MINUS

KOKO TAYLOR: Deluxe Edition (Alligator) Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters were subtle, Etta James is more so; in his wry, unschooled way, so even was Hound Dog Taylor. The long-reigning blues mama still isn't subtle-cf. the original "Man Size Job" by Ann Peebles, hardly Billie Holiday herself. She's no composer, either. But she owns owns owns the gender-switched Bo Diddley rewrite "I'm a Woman," the Johnny Otis obscurity "Beer Bottle Boogie," two Louis Jordan covers, and, most dramatically and impressively, "Wang Dang Doodle"-play her version, not Wolf's, at my damn funeral, 'cause maybe it'll wake me up. Both Chicago and jump blues are dealt a short hand by the houserocking idea. But except for Hound Dog himself, nobody has made as much of it as this leather-lunged trouper. Finally she has an album that proves it. A MINUS

WARREN ZEVON: My Ride's Here (Artemis) The frustrated classical composer turned Everlys bandleader was never much of a folkie, and his sense of rhythm has always cried out for timpani. Which is to say that he was made to write rockist art songs the way Albert Einstein was made to make out like Charlie Sheen--which Zevon claims he was and I believe. Zevon's not above touring acoustic to shore up his collateral, but his records come full regalia, with musical input from his big-ticket studio buddies matching the lyrical input of his literary admirers. He's at his best in the fictional-mythic mode that prevails here--e.g., the title tune, in which Jesus Christ, Charlton Heston, and Warren Zevon know what it is to be dead. His Irving Azoff farewell Mutineer in 1995 and his minor-label debut Life'll Kill Ya were honorable mentions of the honorable kind. This step up comes just two years later, making more good new albums total over that span than Neil Young, Lou Reed, Public Enemy, Madonna, or Bob Dylan. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

BEAU JOCQUE: The Best of Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers (Rounder) I won't deny Buckwheat Zydeco's blunt punch or Boozoo Chavis's toothless charm. But tell me this squeezeboxing party animal "invented the contemporary zydeco sound" and I'm on the next bus to Biloxi. How do you play the guitar rhythms of "Tighten Up" on accordion? Approximately, but not so's anyone content with such clueless covers of "Boogie Chillun" and, Lord help us, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" is going to mind. I'll grant you "Cisco Kid" if you'll admit you have trouble remembering anything self-penned beyond "Give Him Cornbread." What sad things have happened to a mythicized Louisiana working for the Yankee dollar. I've heard less touristic music in a hotel lobby in Abidjan. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Alan Jackson, Drive (Arista): when did he become human? I missed it--and I heard his roots album many, many times ("Drive [For Daddy Gene]," "Where Were You [When the World Stopped Turning]")
  • NOFX/Rancid, BYO Split Series/Volume III (BYO): great masters trade fours (Rancid, "Don't Call Me White"; NOFX, "Olympia WA")
  • Guy Davis, Give in Kind (Red House): country blues in the spirit of friendship, like John Hurt did it ("Good Liquor," "I Don't Know")
  • Ballboy, Club Anthems (Manifesto): Edinburgh weed drones and strums his snotty, whimsical, gender-conflicted plaints ("Sex Is Boring," "Donald in the Bushes With a Bag of Glue")
  • Luna, Romantica (Jetset): in which schemes replace dreams and shadows on the wall head for a fall ("René Is Crying," "Orange Peel")
  • Cee-Lo, Cee-Lo Green and the Perfect Imperfections (Arista): not only does he sing, he transcends good-versus-evil! ("Live [Right Now]," "Southern Love")
  • Otis Taylor, White African (Northern Blues): problems in the interrelations of guitar dynamics and racial pride ("My Soul's in Louisiana," "Saint Martha Blues")
  • TTC, Ceci N'Est Pas un Disque (Big Dada Disques import): grands beats, les gars, et je parie que j'aimerais les paroles aussi ("Les Pauvres Riches," "Pollutions")
  • Big Bad Love (Nonesuch): when it's sleepy time down Delta way (R.L. Burnside, "Everything Is Broken"; T-Model Ford, "She Asked Me So I Told Her")
  • Dan the Automator, Wanna Buy a Monkey?: A Mixtape Session (Sequence): best of Lovage, best of Bobby Digital (Lovage, "Stroker Ace"; Bobby Digital, "The Rhumba")
  • Otis Taylor, Respect the Dead (Northern Blues): country blues from the other end of the Underground Railroad ("Ten Million Slaves," "Just Live Your Life")
  • MC Solaar, Cinquième As (Fifth Ace) (Elektra): more vowels, more flow, but the title track kicks hard C's ("Le Cinquième As," "La Belle et le Bad Boy")
  • Nappy Roots, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz (Atlantic): direct from the BET cartoon series to you ("Sholiz," "Po' Folks")
  • Kings County Queens, Big Ideas (Rubric): beneath their warm country-folk exterior lurks bitter urban-folk experience ("Strangers," "Whatchamacallit")
Choice Cuts
  • Suzzy & Maggie Roche, "New York City" (Zero Church, Red House)
  • Olga Tañón and Hakim, "Ah Ya Albi" (Desert Roses -2-, Mondo Melodia)
  • Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise, New Ground (Vanguard)
  • Clem Snide, Moment in the Sun EP (SpinArt)
  • Ben Folds, Rockin' the Suburbs (Epic)
  • The Holmes Brothers, Speaking in Tongues (Alligator)
  • Nick Lowe, The Convincer (Yep Roc)
  • Ludacris, Word of Mouf (Def Jam South) [Later: B-]
  • Neal Pollack & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature (Bloodshot)
  • Sindicato Argentino del Hip Hop, Un Paso a la Eternidad (Universal)
  • Steve Wynn, Here Come the Miracles (Blue Rose)

Village Voice, May 21, 2002

Apr. 16, 2002 June 18, 2002