Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2010

This Blog--The Whats, Whys, and Wherefores

The Return of Consumer Guide
Monday, November 22, 2010  

As some readers will know and others will not, I had a column at MSN Music until June, 2010: the Consumer Guide, which compiled letter-graded capsule record reviews at The Village Voice, Creem, the Voice again, and finally MSN for 41 years. This blog continues a part of that work I'd feel musically deprived to give up. The idea is to skip the reviews of good but ultimately marginal albums I called Honorable Mentions. Though they filled out the column conceptually, these required a lot of work without commensurate musical reward, and since no blogger gets paid enough to put in that kind of time I intend to break myself of the habit (though there'll be exceptions). What I don't want to give up is "A records": albums graded A+ (the rare masterwork), A (the meat of my leisure listening), A- (well over half the total), and B+ (too close not to get half a cigar). That's because these judgments are the gut and backbone of my musical pleasure--by the time I'm done writing a capsule, I know and understand the record in a way I didn't before, which prepares me to revisit it in the future, as I usually will. It's time-consuming work, but so rewarding psychologically that I'm happy to do it at blogger's rates.

The way the blog will work is this: two posts a week, Tuesday and Friday most of the time, usually comprising reviews of two A records. Since that would require me to find 16 or 18 A new records a month when there are seldom more than a dozen, I'll augment these with reissues, older records new to me, once in a while a live report, maybe a book review, and occasionally one of those flights of fancy that make blogging the inchoate free-for-all it is. But I've been off the album beat for so long that for a while I'll mostly be catching up, leading with two of the most widely reviewed albums of 2010, both of which I've written essays about elsewhere. My hope is to keep self-indulgence to a minimum. Forty years ago I dubbed myself the Dean of American Rock Critics. That was a joke with legs. The blog title Expert Witness is not a joke. It's a boast that in criticism, knowledge counts, and that I have a load and a half.

M.I.A./The Arcade Fire

Long Hot Summer Topics
Wednesday, November 24, 2010  

M.I.A.: Maya (Deluxe Edition) (Interscope)
Since self-made celebrities with pretensions always stumble eventually, I figure it's my place in the food chain not to act like a hyena when they do. So I kept listening, and concluded that while this is no Kala, what is? Arular is the analogy, only there she strove to ingratiate and here she elects not to--with immensely more success than MGMT on Congratulations and rather more success than Kanye West on 808s and Heartbreak. The stark beats take some getting used to, and there are lyrical miscues that still make me wince when they catch my ear--only it's been a while, because I'm too busy loving those beats and the spunky, shape-shifting, stubbornly political, nouveau riche bundle of nerves who holds them together. I admit that I'm now less inclined to hear "Teqkilla" as a lust song for her just plain rich honey and more as a red flag about her alcohol consumption. But if you've ever been a fan, this isn't where to stop. Just play it a few more times than the fools who clocked dollars for the job and you'll get your money's worth. And I do mean on all 16 new songs--three of the four bonus tracks are upper 50th percentile for sure. A

The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Merge)
With beats this straight and stolid, you'd better keep the anthems coming, and they do, almost. Acclimate yourself and maybe you'll check in with track three (at 1:20, the "chosen few" stuff) or even track two (just 29 seconds until "Businessmen they drink my wine"). Certainly track four, the sub-four-minutes reproach "Rococo" ("ro-co-co-ro-co-co-ro-co-co-ro-co-co," although that rendering shortchanges the rhythmic nuances). Then you'll put the record aside for a week or two, and when you return you'll be back to backgrounding it till track five, six seconds of violin pre-climax to the speedy intro to the sub-three-minutes Régine Chassagne feature "Empty Room," followed hard on by the determined "City With No Children." After that it'll be as back-and-forth as Win Butler's thematics till Ms. Chassagne climaxes the opus with the wholehearted "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)." Then you'll remember just why you wanted to put it on, and soon you'll be coming in at "Rococo" yet again. A MINUS


Rwandan-Canadian, Anglo-Jamaican
Friday, November 26, 2010  

Shad: TSOL (Black Box/Decon)
Why are Canadian rappers so clean? OK, I guess we know--they're Canadian. Still, this second-generation Rwandan Torontan stands a major chance of being confused with the fatally bland K-Os, and that's a shame for somebody who fairly bills himself as "Rakim--North Pole Edition." Seems like a genuine Christian, as in "Listening to Strange Fruit, Jeru, and Beirut/Trying to listen to Je-Sus is hard as fake boobs at times," and for what it's worth, I'm glad he knows how boobs feel, because it undercuts that goody-goody thing. This is especially true because I don't recall previously encountering a rap as pro-woman as the one that goes, "I talk to women/I just can't talk for women, that's for you." But now I'm making him sound like a goody-goody when on top of some serious political smarts he's both clever and funny: "I don't badmouth but I quickly/Put down a cat if he bit me/Like Roy's boy Siegfried./Welcome to the big leagues, where they pitch heat . . ." Yes, he nails those internal rhymes. Nobody's Rakim. But he earns the brag. A MINUS

Tricky: Mixed Race (Domino)
What Massive Attack's stealthiest weapon of ass destruction rightly claims is his most uptempo and clearly conceived album isn't therefore his most songful, though he'd probably disagree, out of habit if nothing else. That's still 2002's criminally neglected Blowback, available as I write used and domestic for under a buck or new and imported for 45 of 'em. The thematic attack here is pretty surgical, cutting most of the time to the gangsta life he's so glad he sidestepped as a youth. The individual pieces are well-defined by his muzzy standards. And the usual lineup of vocal guests you never heard of--in this case Kingston hard Terry Lynn, London patois-slinger Blackman, Tricky's reformed little brother Marlon, Bobby (from Primal Scream, you remember), and most prominently Irish-Italian belle Frankie Riley--certainly stick up for themselves. But things only get catchy when an Arabic speaker who turns out to be Rachid Taha's guitarist--not even backup singer!--grabs the album by the throat and is followed by Riley taking up a "big underground tune" from when Tricky was a teen. It goes "Shiny gun, shiny gun, shiny gun, right now." He can still remember some thug scaring him silly by singing it to him in a shop that happened to stand on disputed turf. A MINUS

The Roots/Kanye West

Hip-Hop Albums of the Year
Tuesday, November 30, 2010  

The Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam)
It's not like hop-hop and anxiety are strangers. But usually that means the mortal fear epitomized by the Notorious B.I.G., or the rampaging neuroses dramatized by Eminem, or the hand-to-mouth worries some alt-rappers cop to. Here it's garden-variety upper-middle-class anxiety. What's next? Am I doing the right thing? Can I pass my accomplishments on to my kids? Is the economy about to go phlooey? Is God on my side? Is God on anyone's side? These are exactly the querulous feelings associated with the alt-rock famously present on the Roots' ninth album in the form of the Dirty Projectors, the Monsters of Folk, and the perfectly sampled Joanna Newsom. Difference is, complex-rhyming Black Thought and his many gifted guest MCs express them more directly, thoughtfully, eloquently, and entertainingly than any of those tyros. And then they up the ante and confront their anxieties with a fortitude and even optimism embodied by Kamal Gray's keyboards, never my idea of this band's strength, and, especially, ?uestlove's drums. I love sampled beats. But 90 percent of the time I'd rather ride Ahmir Thompson's hand, feet, and brain. A

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Roc-a-Fella)
Arrogance per se has never been Yeezy's problem--he has every right to think he's more talented than Nas, Taylor Swift, or me. His problem is that he has no gift for it. Not only is he radically insecure, he didn't come up on the get-it-while-you-can fatalism that armors gangstas street, showbiz, and in between. Cannily and candidly, he acknowledges this on "Monster," where he knows perfectly well that his "profit profit" bling-and-sex brag is about to get blown away by padrone Jay-Z's "All I see is these n****z I made millionaires/Millin' about" and pink-haired Nicki Minaj's "bitch from Sri Lanka"-"Willy Wonka"-"watch the queen conquer" trifecta. Cataloguing the perks of power he sounds as geeky as Mark Zuckerberg, and because grandiosity doesn't suit him deep down, the sonic luxuries of this world-beating return to form have no shot at the grace of The Collede Dropout or Late Registration. But because he's shrewd and large, he knows how to use his profits profits to induce Jay-Z, Pusha T, the RZA, Swizz Beats, and his boy Prince CyHi to admit and indeed complain that the whole deal is "f***in' ridiculous." "Power" doesn't establish his potency and "Gorgeous" isn't quite. But "Hell of a Life"? "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most"? That's his heart, his message, the reason he's so major. It's also why he goes out on a righteous, wacked-out 90-second diatribe by a Gil Scott-Heron so young he hasn't gotten into cocaine--hasn't even signed to a major label. A

MSN Music, November 2010

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