Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Laptop for Desktoppers

Music so unlikely it could be written and performed rather than researched and found

MAHMOUD AHMED: Alèmyé (Buda Musique) In 1974, a world-class singer in a small world made a pretty darn good album in his local style. Am I smart enough to distinguish said work, marketed here as Éthiopiques 19, from the 1973 and 1975 Mahmoud Ahmed albums that have caught my ear over the years? No. Do I listen with pleased attention as his commanding and arresting if never quite unique or exquisite voice declaims over the Ibex Band's two-sax tchik-tchik-ka from scene-setting "Alèmyé" to relaxed, drawn-out "Tezeta"? Almost every time. B PLUS

THE BOOKS: Lost and Safe (Tomlab) What new subspecies of wankery is this? Guitar and cello contextualized to sound like laptop doodling? Spoken-word samples so unlikely they might be written and performed rather than researched and found? Plus many minutes of actual singing, or sing-talking, who knows what exactly, about what who knows exactly? If these were actual songs I'd scoff at their inaudible indecisiveness: listen hard now, "Our heads approach a density reminiscent of the infinite connectivity of the center of the sun" in under five seconds. But though this may be pretension, it's also delight, strange and humorous verbally and aurally. It's not catchy, right. Merely memorable and enchanting in the manner of Another Green World--which stays well within the lines by comparison. A MINUS

ENCRE (Clapping Music) In the studio--live, he has a combo, documented on a less interesting bonus EP--Frenchman Yann Tambour is a solo laptopper whose works are invariably described by the few Anglophones who know they exist as mysterious and depressing. I say they're moody, and note for the record that the mood they evoked on a recent European sojourn was always comforting--notably during a jet-lagged rush hour as we sought lodgings in a language we do not speak on an Appian Way that was more picturesque back in the day. Tambour's music is slow and textural, deploying glitches and ostinatos in the service of a better-grounded groove than is laptop practice. Over this Tambour whispers now and then in a French it's just as well I can't make out, although my multilingual wife believes that on the first track he says either "there is still a time" or "there is still a liver," both of which seem chipper enough to me. Unless--uh-oh--it's "there isn't yet a time" (or liver). Oh well. A MINUS

FOUR TET: Everything Ecstatic (Domino) Kieran Hebden does pack a lot of ideas, or maybe they're really just sounds, into a song, or maybe the term is album cut. But he's always lyrical. There's never that Conlon-Nancarrow-meets-Squarepusher sense of machine-scale speed exploited to evoke the workings of a mind that should take it easy already. Rounds was so lyrical, in fact, that it drove genre obsessives to the neologism "folktronica." Many such folks are disquieted by Hebden's constitutionally protected decision to dabble in the usages of drum'n'bass, which are every laptopper's roots, after all. The drums get busy at times, but never fear--this sounds more like Rounds than it does like anything else. Just a little funkier. A MINUS

GLOBAL HIP HOP (Manteca) You want beats, they got world beats, finally. Whatever they're rapping about--and when they break into English, which happens, it'll seem real enough unless humanism's not your way--the 14 non-U.S. crews on this U.K. comp are funking some different shit, usually looped tunelets that are common currency there and fresh here. Front-loaded Latin, it excludes European materials till the final track, which saunters past with its arm around the shoulder of a casually mesmeric Greek guitar or bouzouki figure. Lots of Africans, a German Turk, and some U.K. Indians headline; Sergent Garcia and Oumou Sangare guest. Watch out, homeboys--they're learning, and they're very eager. A MINUS

MC HAWKING: A Brief History of Rhyme: MC Hawking's Greatest Hits (Brash) Absurdist comedy in which the virtually immobilized "young, gifted and tenured" theoretical physicist raps via a text-to-speech conversion program--about bitch-slapping his T.A. and drive-bying six "punk ass bitches from MIT," about a bizang bigger than "the sound of my gatt," about entropy and the end of all things, about the idiocy of creationists and others: "New age motherfuckers/Don't get me started,/I made more sense than them,/Last time I farted." It's not all equally mind-boggling, but the concept, which the real Hawking finds funnier than shizzit, is glorious. As creator Ken Leavitt-Lawrence must know, it's an affirmation not only of the primacy of reason but of its nihilistic gangsta power. A MINUS

THE PERNICE BROTHERS: Discover a Lovelier You (Ashmont) Trying to be a better person," swears Joe Pernice. But though he provides examples, the title on that one is the all too typical "Saddest Quo." So in the end, he proves his good intentions the only way he knows how. Guitars chime, harmonies glide, hooks and choruses stroll by as easily as extras in an impressionist painting--all in the service of such topics as abject poverty, killing someone in a car accident, and our old friend the loss of love. On the loveliest album of Pernice's pretty career, the most eloquent song of all is the wordless title tune. A MINUS

CHEB I SABBAH: La Kahena (Six Degrees) Although Bill Laswell is only a bass player on this conceptual compilation, which adds beats to female singers in a panoply of Maghreb traditions, it partakes of Laswell's long-established commitment to celebrating Islamic difference as a strength us guys should respect and draw on. Algerian-born, San Francisco-based dance DJ Sabbah is so skillful, so imbued with rhythm in general and these rhythms in particular, that exotic-in-the-Maghreb underlays from jazz, reggae, and the clubs sound chosen and organic. Well before 9/11, Laswell understood better than most of us that such fusions were a pleasure and a necessity. Now they're also a solace. A MINUS

THE WHITE STRIPES: Get Behind Me Satan (V2) From Lil Jon to Thom Yorke, pop supports many cooler celebrities than Jack White, and though returning primitivism to the hit parade was a neat trick, his aesthetic ideas are as limited as Meg's drum technique. So rather than carp about his failure to lead us to salvation, perhaps we should content ourselves with the hit parade. White's commercial success has nothing to do with de Stijl or da blooze--just a strong, emotive voice delivering simple yet distinctive songs, which are fairly numerous here. "My Doorbell," for instance, finds a fresh route to the abandonment theme and adds a little twist when his friends stop buzzing too. "Take, Take, Take" is that difficult thing, a smart song about what a drag fans are. You may prefer others, that's part of the charm. And when he sticks to electric guitar he still rocks plenty. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

RÖYKSOPP: The Understanding (Astralwerks) Just as jungle tended toward soundtrack music for B thrillers in exotic locales, chill-out tends toward waiting-room music for plastic surgeons who really want you to order that butt implant. Where once these Norwegians were extolled for their subtle melodicism, here their schlock candidly attacks the jugular. If they're Air, Goldie was Tricky. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell: Begonias (Yep Roc): One difference from Gram & Emmylou is they both write the songs ("Two Different Things," "Please Break My Heart").
  • Akon: Trouble (Universal): Ex-con, not gangsta ("Trouble Nobody," "Locked Up").
  • Bar Bhangra (Escondida): Just like one of those dancehall comps named after a beat, which in this case goes surprisingly far but no further (Panjabi MC, "Jogi"; DJ Gem, "Kank Di Rakhi").
  • The Brunettes: Mars Loves Venus (Lil' Chief): That's New Zealander Jonathan Bree, not Jonathan Richman, and his sweetie pie Heather-not-Katherine Mansfield ("Mars Love Venus," "Beautiful Militant").
  • The Black Eyed Peas: Monkey Business (A&M): What all pop might be--so much brighter and kinder than it is ("Pump It," "Don't Phunk With My Heart").
  • Jaguar Wright: Divorcing Neo to Marry Soul (Song/Artemis): The intelligent black woman, from helpmate to party girl ("Woman to Woman," "One More Drink").
  • Dean Martin: Live From Las Vegas (Capitol): "You wanna hear me sing straight, buy an ablium" ("Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes/Pennies From Heaven [Bourbon]/Hello, Dolly [Vegas]," "Monologue").
  • The Chris Stamey Experience: A Question of Temperature (Yep Roc): With Yo La Tengo and wide-ranging covers, and loosened by both inputs ("Venus," "Compared to What").
  • The Adolescents: O.C. Confidential (Finger): If only Green Day were this mad (they wouldn't have gotten near a Grammy) ("Lockdown America," "Monsanto Hayride").
  • Johnny Hickman: Palmhenge (Campstove): Lapsed Cracker after "before the great decline" ("Friends," "Beauregarde's Retreat").
  • Annie: Anniemal (Big Beat): She can't be saying "greatest tits"--she's just too thin ("Chewing Gum," "Greatest Hit").
  • Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cold Roses (Lost Highway): Nine songs per disc, evenly divided good-dull-OK, only the first disc--he's full of surprises--is stronger ("Easy Plateau," "Beautiful Sorta").
  • The Knitters: The Modern Sounds of the Knitters (Zoë): These days folk-country is exactly their speed ("The New Call of the Wreckin' Ball," "Skin Deep Town").

Choice Cuts

  • Sinéad O'Connor With the Blockheads, "Wake Up and Make Love With Me"; Bomb the Bass Featuring Sinéad O'Connor & Benjamin Zephaniah, "Empire" (Sinéad O'Connor: Collaborations, Capitol)
  • Chris Stamey, "Spanish Harlem" (Travels in the South, Yep Roc)


  • The Bravery (Island)
  • Cowboy Troy: Loco Motive (Warner Bros./Raybaw)
  • Brian Eno: Another Day on Earth (Hannibal/Ryko)
  • Ivy: In the Clear (Nettwerk)
  • Junior Boys: Last Exit (Domino)
  • M83: Before the Dawn Heals Us (Mute)
  • Of Montreal: The Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl)
  • Trashcan Sinatras: Weightlifting (SpinArt)
  • The Wannadies: Before and After (Hidden Agenda)

Village Voice, July 26, 2005

Postscript Notes:

As originally published, this reviewed a second Encre album, an EP called Live at Nantes: Oblique Lu Nights (Clapping Music), as a low Honorable Mention. It turns out that this isn't a separate release. It seems to be a bonus disc, so has been dropped here.

June 27, 2005 Aug. 23, 2005