Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Down and Alt

Duty impels me to note that one of the alt-rock albums selected below retains a major-label connection--as does the alt-rock album toward the bottom of Honorable Mention now renowned for having lost one. Justice impels me to point out that the others do not.

BIG LAZY: New Everything (Tasankee) From the Raybeats and Love Tractor and the Dixie Dregs to Tortoise and the Thinking Fellers Union and Frisell Feeling Frisky, guitar-based instrumental groups have long been a fact of the rock and roll life, and generally they split the difference between expert and professional. These three guys--headman Stephen Ulrich playing one guitar at a time, agile Paul Dugan dwarfed by his string bass, and show drummer Tamir Muskat doubling as chief producer--up the ante. They cross genres without making a thing of their eclecticism. They love melody, and they also write it. They seem through-composed even when they're improvising. They're virtuosic and interactive without speed runs or shows of collective sensitivity. Most endearingly, they don't think intelligence requires subtlety. Their last album was soundtrack in mood. This one's more program music--told that one track was called "Train Travel" and the other "Tavern Life," you'd know which was which. You might have more trouble distinguishing "Tavern Life" from "Homesick." But by then you won't care much. A MINUS

THE BREEDERS: Title TK (4AD/Elektra) Skeletal, fragmented, stumblebum, Kim and Kelley retain their knack for righting themselves with a tuneburst just when you thought they'd never do the limbo again, and they've been away so long they still think alt is a sloppy lifestyle rather than an embattled ethos. Through the imagistic baffle of their lyrics, they leave the impression that they subsist off their modest royalties, scattered gig fees, and compromised advances--mostly on beer. A MINUS

CROOKED FINGERS: Reservoir Songs EP (Merge) An excellent joke in which a man out of tunes, utilizing croaking vocals and some well-placed banjo, transforms Kristofferson, Springsteen, Prince, and even Neil Diamond ("Solitary Man," Johnny Cash named an album after it) into alt-country all-depressives. And when he does the same for Queen-Bowie, the dolor is too funny to laugh off. B PLUS

JOHN FORTÉ: i, John (Transparent Music) The way I read the news stories, Forté wasn't framed, he was stung--he probably did transport large quantities of cocaine for large sums of money. And the way I hear the music, this disregard for the social weal didn't destroy his empathy or his spirit. Nothing like a 14-year prison sentence to help you appreciate the simple life. But neither Slick Rick nor Chico DeBarge got the message, and lots of dull and/or overwrought art has come out of other musicians' ordeals. Forté has become a modest singer as opposed to an unremarkable rapper, echoing the eternal Marley, the collaborating Tricky, and his own onetime rabbi Wyclef Jean--whose absence from this project is as notable as the presence of Forté's Martha's Vineyard buddy and former employer Carly Simon, who also put up bail. Redemption songs meet kissoff songs and scores settled meet promises sworn as he sets his human-scale voice to human-scale tunes and his support network provides the comfort he so sorely needs. A MINUS

THE MEAT PURVEYORS: All Relationships Are Doomed to Fail (Bloodshot) One secret of their bluegrass stylings is that they're not virtuosos. Another is that they cover not only Ronee Blakley and Nick Lowe but Abba and Ratt and that their own songs measure up. Frontwoman Jo Walston sounds fragile, dissolute, determined, and mean in unpredictable combinations. She's never more winning than when warning a "little sister" who may or may not be her kin against guys who leave bruises on your arm, and come to think of it men in general are piss-poor, and didn't you like it better living with me anyway? A MINUS

PET SHOP BOYS: Release (Sanctuary) Eventually, the tunes fall into place. What never materialize in sufficient number are the billowing climaxes and cutting remarks that mark their best albums, meaning most of them. Continuing their tragically heartening journey into normality, they provide several highly serviceable straight love songs, and I hope someone explains to me whether "Birthday Boy" is really Jesus or somebody just thinks so. And then there's the Eminem track. The Eminem track is . . . wondrous, transcendent, a blow against rap homophobia, a great work of art. If buying this album is the only way you can hear it, don't hesitate. Form a pool if you have to. B PLUS

WILL RIGBY: Paradoxaholic (Diesel Only) Anybody who believes Will's ex Amy ran out of concepts after transforming their union into a solo debut should try her 18 Again best-of, which leads strong from her divorced period. But anybody who wonders why she married the guy should check out the folk-rock fruitcake he debuts with six years later. The onetime dB drummer also plays keybs as he sings over his guitar buddies in a quavery drawl that knows the difference between funny-eccentric and eccentric-affected; his changeable band clangs and twangs, more Big Pink than dB's or Amy. He also knows the difference between a solid tune and a generic one. And he writes lyrics too. Sometimes they're as simply nutty as ". . . Wheelchair, Drunk," but usually they're also pointed--at Dylan worship, the eschatology of Ricky Skaggs, "The Jerks at Work." Many others bemoan his romantic ineptitude--often humorously, anything but on the come-back-darling "The Sweeter Thing to Do." I doubt it's about Amy. But I haven't researched the question and would just as soon not. Too painful. A MINUS

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: Instant Vintage (Universal) Concentrate on it or fuck to it--anything in between and it'll seem too hookless for pop, too quiet for funk, too slight for words. The structural strategy draws on erotic strategy--start off indirect and bloom into arousal, mouthwork, song. Individual tracks work that way, and so does the album as a whole, which honors the sacred memory of Tony Toni Toné more supplely than Lucy Pearl and may be more woman-friendly to boot. With Lucy Pearl, I could never concentrate long enough to notice--which is why I suspect that, effectively, Saadiq's album may be more woman-friendly than Joi's, too. A MINUS

SILKWORM: Italian Platinum (Touch and Go) Pavement for a diminished millennium, low-end in every way--fewer guitar coruscations, vocal twitters, obscure witticisms, flights of fancy, and cash receipts. Tempos plod meaningfully, lyrics survive and sometimes thrive on biographical detail, tunes poke their heads out of the ground when they're sure you mean no harm. Credo: "I will breathe that dirty air until I die." A MINUS

SOUTH AFRICAN FREEDOM SONGS (Making Music import) No nation on earth can claim a vocal tradition to equal South Africa's, and while Ladysmith are as gorgeous as it gets, their delicacy misrepresents the Nguni styles that germinated out of the makwaya choirs of a century ago. In this package, which comes with a bonus radio documentary, the artists are mostly politicos first, some long based in London or Angola--inauspicious details instantly overrun by the power, esprit, and musical commitment of the singing. Language usually Xhosa, not Zulu. Lots of women for once. Lyrics of defiance, exile, and armed struggle--translate the second track's gruff-sweet call-and-response and you get: "We shall shoot them with rocket launchers. They shall flee." But let me ask this: If South Africa's so righteous, why don't they free Mzwakhe Mbuli? A MINUS

Dud of the Month

SHERYL CROW: C'Mon, C'Mon (A&M) No dolt, she figures it's in her best interest to sound like one--as well as an insider outsider like Gush and Bore, whose horrible lessons in playing it safe she takes to heart. "We got rockstars in the Whitehouse/All our popstars look like porn," she whines on the first track, which the "hit" tops by claiming, "I don't have diddly squat," while dissing her "friend the communist" (who I bet isn't, and I also bet doesn't deserve the putdown). And those are the good songs. Soon here come Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, turns of phrase like "Lay it like it plays [a little dumb, but OK]/Play it like it lays [wha?]" and "With broken wings we'll learn to fly" and (am I missing some irony here?) "Life is what happens when you're making plans." Over this I'd take not the White House (where she'd go in a second if invited politely) but certainly porn (which I note without prejudice she is). C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Los de Abajo, Cybertropic Chilango Power (Luaka Bop): rock en español con son y clave--und oompah (also politics) ("El Loco," "Sr. Judas")
  • Miles Davis, Live at the Fillmore East (March 7, 1970) (Columbia/Legacy): in the predawn of Bitches Brew, Wayne Shorter plays jazz, Chick Corea plays fusion, and Miles Davis plays trumpet ("Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," "It's About That Time/The Theme")
  • Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album (Barsuk): signs of postundergraduate life ("Steadier Footing," "Coney Island")
  • Big Lazy (Tasankee): Henry Mancini as guitar-bass-drums, which undercuts the showbiz and programmatic in his noir ("Just Plain Scared," "Crooked")
  • Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche (Communion): not that the words mean anything, but they create the illusion that the ricocheting guitars do ("Another Clip," "El Cerrito")
  • Bratmobile, Girls Get Busy (Lookout!): "We'll be playing every night/And I'll be punk for the rest of my life" ("I'm in the Band," "What's Wrong With You?")
  • The Flatlanders, Now Again (New West): living in the moment gets old ("Going Away," "Now It's Now Again")
  • Gary Lucas, The Edge of Heaven (Indigo import): "mid-century Chinese pop" that sounds like John Fahey--when nobody's singing ("Please Allow Me to Look at You Again" [track 2], "Please Allow Me to Look at You Again" [track 13])
  • Van Morrison, Down the Road (Universal): "The Beauty of the Days Gone By" ("Georgia on My Mind," "Man Has to Struggle")
  • Don Lennon, Downtown (Secretly Canadian): in-joke after glorious rock-bohemia in-joke ("Mekons Come to Town," "Jean-Michel")
  • Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch): purty music, but I yawn like a lawn when I hear him recite ("Jesus, Etc.," "I Am the Man Who Loves You")
  • Angie Stone, Mahogany Soul (J): longer on groove than song, longer on song than the brothas ("Brotha," "Bottles and Cans")
  • The Wild Seeds, I'm Sorry, I Can't Rock You All Night Long (Aznut): scattered classics like the title tune, outtakes worth hearing ("I Wanna Watch You Age," "I'm Gonna Get Drunk With a Good Friend of Mine")
  • Michael Hall and the Woodpeckers, Lucky Too (Blue Rose): prisoner of the perfect song he never quite gets down ("Sometimes I Wish I'd Never Heard the Rolling Stones," "Autopsy Blues")
  • Sage Francis, Personal Journals (Anticon): as with all well-turned confessional poetry, how interesting you find the poet is up to you ("Inherited Scars," "Crack Pipes")
Choice Cuts
  • Pink (Featuring Redman), "Get the Party Started/Sweet Dreams" (Now That's What I Call Music! 9, UMG)
  • Naughty by Nature, "What U Don't Know," "Wild Muthaf***as" (Iicons, TVT)
  • Billy Bragg and the Blokes, "England, Half English," "St. Monday" (England, Half English, Elektra)
  • Harlow, "Static Cling" (Harlowland, Harlowland)
  • Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men, Out in California (HighTone)
  • Creeper Lagoon, Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday (DreamWorks)
  • Creeper Lagoon, Watering Ghost Garden (SpinArt)
  • Currituck Co., Unpacking My Library (Teenbeat)
  • Death Cab for Cutie, The Stability E.P. (Barsuk)
  • Jaheim, Ghetto Love (Warner Bros.)

Village Voice, June 18, 2002

May 21, 2002 July 16, 2002