Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Shadows in the Cave

Folkies Multiply in a Time When So Many Are Singer-Songwriters and So Few Admit It

MAHMOUD AHMED: Almaz (Buda Musique import) Full-voiced and emotional, the strong Middle Eastern cast of his delivery evoking soul shout as well, Ahmed is the biggest singing star Ethiopia has produced, a young comer who negotiated the insane political particularities of his ancient land to become a respected pro. These muscular early recordings from 1972 or so, a/k/a Éthiopiques 6, sound rougher but no less fevered and distinct than the circa-1975 stuff collected on his certified classic Ere Mela Mela. On both I love the sour two-man sax sections and crudely insistent rhythms. On both I wish I knew what he was trying to tell his world. B PLUS

AMY ALLISON: No Frills Friend (Diesel Only) The Maudlin Years? Sad Girl? Here's where she gets really bereft. After declaring abject loneliness in the title tune--"If you want to take a walk downtown/I'd be happy just to move my legs around/We don't have to say a word, but then again/We could just make comments now and then"--she makes a principle of dashing her own hopes, song by song. The wanly jubilant "Baby, You're the One" leads directly to "What will we do when the money runs out?" "Don't String Me Along" generates "Say It Isn't So." "Dreaming's Killing Me," she knows it, only then it's "Thank God for the wine/That made me lose my mind" and also "loosened up his tongue." The finale is a love duet with her producer in which she proposes they "leave the world behind." It'll never work out. A MINUS

THE BLUE SERIES CONTINUUM: GoodandEvil Sessions (Thirsty Ear) Jazz musicians so often try and fail to modernize their rhythms that I wondered what the secret of the latest Matthew Shipp-William Parker collaboration might be. Clever devils--no drummer. All beats electronic, generated by Brooklyn production duo Danny Blume and Chris Kelly, who relax into cunning patterns that leave room for Parker to bend his bass toward an equivalent of the reassuring body groove that jazz folk associate with swing. Only this groove doesn't swing--it's more like techno that realized acid jazz was garbage and went back home to mama. Shipp riffs, hooks, and decorates, leaving theme and cognitively dissonant variation to name trumpeter Roy Campbell and two trombonists, who have most of the fun. Not deep, not intense. But for atmosphere, it hangs on there, and it keeps growing on you. A MINUS

KIMYA DAWSON: My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess (Important) Mommy and Daddy, your baby is grown," she overtaxes her child-soprano to proclaim at the end of the first song. "This isn't a come-on, but come on, let's face it/The come on your face is really just mayonnaise," she singsongs flatly in the hooked-on-phonics second. "The air is filled with computers and carpets/Skin and bones and telephones and file cabinets," she whispers dreamily in the anthrax-nightmare fifth. There's a song about small-town hell and a song about alcoholic hell and a song about how cool it is not wanting to be cool, and then the invention wears down a bit. I note disdainfully that her first CDR-gone-legit had better homemade music and no one noticed, I warn that the simultaneously released Knock-Knock Who? is as insular as boors will think this one is, I insist that these are major songs, and I hope she's just getting started. A MINUS

THE KLEZMATICS: Rise Up!/Shteyt Oyf! (Rounder) Their first true album in six years would have arrived in 2002 if the release date had survived whatever squabbles delayed it. But with only violinist Alicia Svigals gone her own way, blame the mood shift on history rather than personality--lots of slow ones to go with lots of grief. Leaning on the mournful Eastern European modalities the shtetl assimilated long ago--check especially the Matt Darriau threnody and Frank London prayer--the Klezmatics conjure an album as soaked in 9/11 as The Rising, whose similar title is no coincidence. But this doesn't mean they jettison the jazz passages and upful wedding tunes. The marriage of heaven and hell, Blake called it. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO SOUTH AFRICAN GOSPEL (World Music Network import) The competing Gospel According to Earthworks is softer and slicker, with six pieces by two well-groomed Joseph Dumako groups who get the two they deserve on a 22-track mosaic replete with weird mbube, rough jive, one-shots the annotator can barely account for, and joyful affirmations of a belief system that's done black South Africans almost as much good as the union movement and considerably more bad. Praise God you can't understand the words. A MINUS

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: No Escape From the Blues (Hyena) Vernon Reid's first bid to turn Ulmer into the ranking 21st-century bluesman mined Memphis and claimed classics. Phase two knows New York and articulates arcana. Whether it's Reid's banjo cakewalking away with the obscure "Goin' to New York" or the tap solo and Olu Dara cameo that break up the famed "Bright Lights, Big City," production and selection strive to outdo each other, and not just on Jimmy Reed songs. Also, Ulmer takes some hellacious solos. That's how he got here. A MINUS

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: So Damn Happy (Sanctuary) His 1993 Career Moves did the live folkie best-of as right as it's ever been done. A decade on he's more half-assed--men's-lib lite from History, redundant third "Westchester County," nothing off 2001's Last Man on Earth because his label changed (again). But with a couple of exceptions the songs were strong to start and improve in context, and there are five (out of 17) new ones--every one a winner, three played for laughs if you count "Something for Nothing," which is about file-sharing. Know what? The old fart's against it, although he's too sarcastic to come out and say so straight. Know what else? He may convince you. This is a man who's been making mincemeat out of hippie muscleheads since Timothy Leary was a visionary. B PLUS

WARREN ZEVON: The Wind (Artemis) Naturally he fends off death-the-fact the way he fended off death-the-theme--with black humor. "I'm looking for a woman with low self-esteem" is how he sums up the succor he craves, and he finishes off a painful "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" with impatient cries of "Open up, open up, open up." But "El Amor de Mi Vida," "She's Too Good for Me," "Please Stay," and "Keep Me in Your Heart" mean what their titles say. Only by hearing them can you grasp their tenderness, or understand that the absolute Spanish one seems to be for the wife he left behind, or muse that while the finale addresses his current succor provider, it also reaches out to the rest of us. Everyone who says this isn't a sentimental record is right. But it admits sentiment, hold the hygiene, and suggests that he knows more about love dying than he did when he was immortal. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

MY MORNING JACKET: It Still Moves (ATO) It's touching to watch the latest indie-rock generation flail around in search of a form, spouting sincerely all the while. But it's also depressing. Like the emo guys, Louisville's Neil-ish Jim James has the advantage of normal feelings and ambition--he's not content to remain subcultural. He claims his Dave Matthews-sponsored major- label debut was his chance to make a true band record, and I guess his boys are trickier than Crazy Horse, just not in any way you haven't heard before. Then there's his filtered drawl, his straitened tune sense, his lyrics you feel cheated straining for, his 12 songs in 72 minutes. For what? For the horrible Memphis Horns coda of "Easy Morning Rebel," plodding on funklessly for two minutes after the vocal has gone the way of all reverb? C

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Greendale (Reprise): His politics have never been clearer, but they have been terser ("Leave the Driving," "Devil's Sidewalk").
  • Rodney Crowell: Fate's Right Hand (DMX/Epic): Commercial instincts undimmed, he does Americana AC confessionally, thinking hard all the while ("Earthbound," "Preachin' to the Choir").
  • Yerba Buena: President Alien (Razor & Tie): The whole Nuyolatino empanada ("Guajira," "Tu Casa, Mi Casa").
  • Shesus: Loves You . . . Loves You Not (Narnack): Femmenoizetoonfrom Ohio--less surprising than prime Breeders, every bit as catchy ("Holidazed," "B-Side Radio").
  • The Bangles: Doll Revolution (Koch): Their name was always the cheapest thing about them, and finally they write the respectable songs to prove it ("Single by Choice," "Song for a Good Son").
  • Hoosier Hotshots: The Definitive Hoosier Hotshots Collection (Collectors' Choice): Runs on half a dozen Columbia/Legacy classics, way long on covers, instrumentals, and wife jokes ("She Was a Washout in the Blackout," "Them Hill-Billies Is Sweet Williams Now").
  • Bad Boys II (Bad Boy): Bodyguards or producers, Sean Combs hires the best (P. Diddy, Lenny Kravitz, Pharrell Williams, Loon, "Show Me Your Soul"; Jay-Z, "La-La-La").
  • Hamell on Trial: Tough Love (Righteous Babe): Say this for near-death experiences--they tune up the sensitivities ("Don't Kill," "Downs").
  • Ralph Carney: This Is! Ralph Carney (Black Beauty): A Buckeye Hornman--not quite as funny as a Hoosier Hotshot, but sweeter ("Turkey Neck," "Jug Gland Music").
  • Jeffrey Lewis: It's the Ones Who've Cracked That the Light Shines Through (Rough Trade): Doubles as a cartoonist, where it's harder to cram so many words in ("Don't Let the Record Company Take You Out to Lunch," "You Don't Have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart").
  • Marshall Crenshaw: What's in the Bag? (Razor & Tie): Worked-over meditations on the persistence of romance ("Will We Ever?," "Where Homes Used to Be").
  • The Neptunes Present . . . Clones (Star Trak): It takes more than groovemastery to make a hodgepodge flow (Dirt McGirt, "Pop Sh*t"; Kelis, "Popular Thug").
  • Led Zeppelin: How the West Was Won (Atlantic): Solid live versions, curious guitar extravaganza, dire drum solo, ace covers ("Bring It On Home," "Whole Lotta Love").
  • Grandaddy: Sumday (V2): Here's the clue you're not facin', the robot is Jason ("The Group Who Couldn't Say," "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake").
  • Rainer Maria: Long Knives Drawn (Polyvinyl): She learns to sing love-songs-with-backup and indie boys think she's regressed (even though she's still pretentious!) ("Ears Ring," "The Awful Truth of Loving").
  • Tricky: Vulnerable (Sanctuary): Obscure Italian chanteuse finds producer of dreams ("Moody," "Search and Destroy").
  • Nada Surf: Let Go (Barsuk): Right, they do Coldplay better than they did Weezer ("Inside of Love," "Blizzard of '77").
Choice Cuts
  • Kimya Dawson, "I'm Fine," "For Boxer" (Knock-Knock Who?, Important)
  • Chris Smither, "Let It Go" (Train Home, HighTone)
  • Josh Joplin Group, "Dishes" (The Future That Was, Artemis)
  • Josh Rouse, "Flight Attendant" (1972, Ryko)
  • Chingy, "Chingy Jackpot" (Jackpot, Capitol)
  • Josh Ritter, "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" (Hello Starling, Signature Sounds)
  • Thomas Anderson, "Gypsy Magdalena" (Norman, Oklahoma, Red River)
  • Joan Armatrading, Lovers Speak (Denon)
  • Guy Davis, Chocolate to the Bone (Red House)
  • Jay Farrar, Terroir Blues (Act/Resist)
  • Josh Kelley, For the Ride Home (Hollywood)
  • Living Things, Turn In Your Friends and Neighbors (3AM)
  • Snoop Dogg, Paid Tha Cost to Be Da Boss (Capitol/Priority)
  • Don White, Live in Michigan (Don White)

Village Voice, Sept. 16, 2003

Aug. 5, 2003 Oct. 28, 2003