Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2011

Sonny Rollins

Half a Century of Live Colossus
Friday, April 1, 2011  

Sonny Rollins: Road Shows Vol. 1 (Doxy/Emarcy '08)
As definitive as the Silver City comp in a different way, this decades-spanning live album, which looked like the first of an endless series of exhumations, remains the most recent release from the still-active 80-year-old, although a second volume is expected in the fall. It's living proof of the truism that his Fantasy studio output didn't do justice to what happened in concert enchanted evening after enchanted evening, and demonstrates in addition that just like Louis Armstrong, Rollins was as invaluable in his audience-pleasing mature period as in his questing youth. Beyond the top-drawer drummers--Al Foster, Roy Haynes, Steve Jordan--are such serviceable sidemen as bassist Bob Cranshaw and electric (!) piano player Mark Soskin. But because the concept foregrounds melody and straight-ahead swing, this may even be a plus, because it leaves the focus on the star of the show. His tenor sound grown huge and warm without a hint of corn syrup, Rollins is more inventive and risk-prone than the older Armstrong. But since his audience expects nothing less, his astonishing cadenzas and unaccompanied improvs are the most generous kind of high shtick. Seven tracks, the shortest 7:50 and the longest 12:26, make you feel that he could do this forever. He can't, of course. But that's where he wants to leave you. A PLUS

Sonny Rollins: A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note '99)
This 1957 date is the Rollins virtuoso fanciers fancy: two-plus hours on the Sunday of Sputnik 2, the tenor colossus braving the harmonic void in the closest thing to free jazz a bebop saxophonist essaying Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and his beloved Hammerstein can rev into. Backed by retro-rocketing Monk bassist Wilbur Ware and a young Elvin Jones testing his launching capacity, Rollins is charged with venturing far out from these tunes without severing the harmonic moorings normally secured by a piano. He does it again and again--but not without a certain cost in ebullience, texture, and fullness of breath. Impressive always, fun in passing, his improvisations are what avant-garde jazz is for. The drum solos are a club convention that let him idle his engines a little. A MINUS

Generation Bass/Yuck

Cultural Imperialism
Tuesday, April 5, 2011  

Generation Bass Presents: Transnational Dubstep (Six Degrees)
In 1994 Wax Trax' Ethnotechno proved a politely polyrhythmic techno reachout to straightforward international dance musics it secretly found quaint. It listened well and stuck poorly, the "ethnotechno" tag itself its main contribution to international understanding. Conceived, assigned, and sequenced by DJ Umb, the London-born son of Kashmiri exiles who promotes such all-embracing terms as "transnational bass" at his Generation Bass blog, this array of whomping exotica reflects its creator's appetite for any Third World dance movement he can get his ears on, including such new ones on me as kuduro, barefoot, and--from the mysterious depths of the District of Columbia--Moombahton! Plus, of course, the bassy evolution of techno beatmaking since 1994. Speaking as someone who will never enter a barefoot club (my doctor prescribed those orthotics, dammit), I hereby extend my thanks to whoever invented that shuddering synth low end that turns background music into foreground fun without requiring you to kiss your ass goodbye. And I also testify that not a damn thing here sounds quaint. Which is to make no predictions as to how any of them will sound 17 years from now. A MINUS

Yuck: Yuck (Fat Possum)
These four Brits are compared to so many '80s-'90s bands you should figure they don't sound much like any of them--and that they recall every one more than they do such modern tunemongers as Best Coast or Sleigh Bells. But in the end modern tunemongers is how they sort out, Amerindie-style because guitars stopped being indie over there before Oasis broke. Adding a wistful variation on Best Coast's forlorn romanticism to a sunstruck variation on Sleigh Bells' principled distortion, they seem like nice kids with talent who may have the spiritual wherewithal to stop vaguing out and go somewhere. A MINUS

Saigon/Ski Beatz

Give the Beatmakerz Some
Friday, April 8, 2011  

Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told (Suburban Noize
After mixtapes I liked, mixtapes I heard, and mixtapes that passed me by, this is the Saigon and Just Blaze album I've been waiting for since a student tipped me to them five years ago--heroic post-gangstaism, with the conscious ex-con forthright as rhymer and rapper and the Jay-Z sideman bigging him up with soul singers and cinematic beats (and also with Jay-Z). Saigon don't play. He's a social realist and a realist moralist who makes his seriousness work for him. Behind Blaze's say-so, he sounds like the kind of person it's always interesting to get to know. A MINUS

Ski Beatz: 24 Hour Karate School (DD172 New York)
North Carolinan David Willis is a journeyman beatmaker-producer--big credit: no-big-deal Camp Lo--who's spent the major chunks of his two-decade career in New York. Recently he oversaw two official releases by Young Money second-stringer Curren$y, the kind of thug lite who's admired by Rick Ross's real-fake claque. Those who prefer those albums bemoan the loss here of two Mos Def raps I crashed my search engine seeking out. They're probably good--Mos Def has it all over mos of the nonentities who provide the vocal sounds on this beats-first showcase. Not Jean Grae, though--here's hoping Willis lures her out of her apartment. And note that the Mos Def songs in question, "Cream of the Planet" and "Taxi," finish this off on the upswing as sayonora instrumentals. I listen to hip-hop for the rapping. But I've spent a lot of time dwelling on the music here, which combines beats per se with grandiosities like the dramatic intro to "Nothing but Us," the guitar hook of "Scaling the Building," and the full-on movie theme that carries "Cream of the Planet." Sayonora instrumentals fit right in. B PLUS

Paul Simon/TV on the Radio

And God Said, Let There Be Light: And There Was Light
Tuesday, April 12, 2011  

Paul Simon: So Beautiful or So What (Hear Music)
A good bet to turn 70 before year's end, the patient craftsman surrounds a 96-second acoustic guitar moment with nine four-minute songs about eternity. The mood is melancholy. yet suffused with gratitude--for his wife's love first of all, but even more for God's gifts, with the Divinity Himself an actor in several lyrics and close by in most of the others. Fundamentally general and speculative language is always pinned down by a specific or two--a blizzard near Chicago, Jay-Z hawking Roc-a-Wear, a banker's pockets, a CAT scan and the Montauk Highway, gumbo in the pot and Dr. King shot, the form you have to fill out before you get into heaven. The music is the mild, irregular folk-rock he's explored for decades, graced with global colors that sound as natural as that guitar. I've had many disagreements with my homeboy Paulie, plus I'm an atheist. But here my main quarrel is the identity of the "fragment of song" whose title you can't quite recall as the Divinity Himself sets you "swimming in an ocean of love." Simon seems to think it's "Be-Bop-a-Lula." I vote for the competing "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," in part because I want God to keep creating a disturbance in my mind. A

TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light (Interscope)
The rumor that this is their love album will come as news to the woman who let him go and the woman who thinks they're incompatible and maybe even the woman whose heart he's gonna keep when the world falls apart. Not to mention the mother robbed blind and the fish washed up on the shore and the blues that keeps him on the shelf and the megaquake that's a force of nature and maybe even the killer crane that's not a piece of malfunctioning construction equipment. Because these guys were lovers before this war, a ceaselessly shifting conflict that has dominated their entire artistic life, love has always been part of their coping mechanism. But it'll obviously never be as big for them as music. In this iteration, that music is a trifle gentler and several times encourages dancing on the floor you've been knocked to. But it remains set on complexity, contemplation, and the interactions of art-rock texture, pan-rock rhythm, and African falsetto. Beautiful, especially if you like your beauty grand. And beauty is good. But how about some jokes? Jokes help people get through wars too. A MINUS

Rainbow Arabia/Britney Spears

Girly Women
Friday, April 15, 2011  

Rainbow Arabia: Boys and Diamonds (Kompakt)
Arabia? What Arabia? Euro synth duo, tuneful and sometimes haunting, always droney fun--textured, beaty lines under an unnaturally high-voiced girly-woman singing lyrics of no importance when you can make them out, which isn't often. Then I learned: L.A. husband-and-wife duo, latter named Tiffany, her accented English one affectation among many. They hit upon their sound after purchasing a Casio preprogrammed with microtonal scales and Middle Eastern rhythm bits, both of which loom larger on their two mildly enjoyable EPs. Hence a hopefully intentioned band name unlikely to further the cause of peace in a war-torn world where those scales and rhythms have been adopted as silly pop staples already. Think Fever Ray sans dark side. Better still, don't think at all. A MINUS

Britney Spears: Femme Fatale (Deluxe Edition) (Jive)
The pitch-corrected giggle "I think I like you" and the straightforward proposition "You can be my fuck tonight" pack an amyl nitrite charge it would be pretentious to deny, and the poppers keep on coming right through the bonus tracks of porn-lite funk-lite that's quirky and clever front to back. Moreover, it's possible the stupidity of the sex symbol up front is an illusion exploited by her legal guardians and maybe even the symbol herself. But it's such a convincing illusion that any guy who goes all the way with it has too much libido invested in the bimbo fantasy. She's just too straight-faced with the botched Bellamy Brothers joke, the nauseous "Your body look so sick I think I got the flu," the abstemious "Steaming like a pot full of vegetables," the concupiscent "I'm a little selfish" become the childish "I'm a little sailfish." As for her female fans, let's call the attraction the bimbo strategy--the slut who calls the shots. Good luck with that one, ladies. I mean it. B PLUS

tUnE-yArDs/Ustad Massano Tazi

And the Healing Had Begun
Tuesday, April 19, 2011  

tUnE-yArDs: w h o k i l l (4AD)
Leaping and flowing, growling and crooning, exclaiming and explaining, stopping short for horns and glitches you had no idea were coming, Merrill Garbus's second album has the tune power and groove appeal normal music lovers put on repeat. And if too many normal music lovers think it's abnormal, at least she's hired a bassist, not to mention a studio into which at least a dozen other living musicians are suspected to have ventured. I don't suppose it'll help much to venture that Garbus contains in one person the finest attributes of Captain Beefheart and Phoebe Snow, not with the former a demigod and the latter a footnote. But she does reconstitute roots tonalities and procedures without hermeticism or egomania, and she does roll around in her enormous voice without bathos or undue expressionism. And though you won't wonder about the lyrics until you've had your fill of the music, she tells you what she has to say in the opening "My Country" and explores its ramifications for 10 songs and 42 minutes. "When they have nothing why do you have something?" she asks, with the "you" encompassing both herself and her country. "The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out," she warns, with the "they" encompassing have-nothings everywhere. That is, she deploys her superb music to address an issue so pressing few can stand to think about it: who kills who? A

Ustad Massano Tazi: Musique classique andalouse de Fès (Ocora '88)
Sufi Arab-Andalusian healing music attributed to Ziryab, the legendary "Black Songbird" from Baghdad who Ned Sublette conjectures became a prototypical guitar hero in the court of Cordoba circa 800--a fashion plate and oenophile who supposedly knew 10,000 songs, added a fifth string to his lute, developed his own compositional system, and invented toothpaste. No one knows the facts, of course--the notes say he was based in Granada, for instance--and claims that this is how compositions we're not even positive he wrote sounded a millennium ago seem inflated. Some things are clear, however. The gut-stringed and sometimes hide-backed instruments here haven't been used regularly since the 18th century. The proportion of bowed violins etc. has been reduced from the modern norm. Whatever we think of the theories of humors and elements that underlie Ziryab's system, his cosmology honored timbre above all. And whatever the performers think of those theories, they're Sufi mystics who believe in the music itself. Alternating the vocal and the instrumental, the rhythmic and the arhythmic, the high and the low, the result is lighter and less hypnotic than the Sufi healing music of Oruj Guvenc. Some of its more contemplative sections require dedicated listening, and its timbres take a while to sink in. But that's what timbres are so good at doing, and eventually these calmatives make themselves enjoyable and make themselves felt. A MINUS

No Age/Superchunk

Postpunk as They Wanna Be
Friday, April 22, 2011  

No Age: Everything in Between (Sub Pop)
Having disbanded their punk trio to prove they weren't simply or even primarily punks, Dean Spunt and Randy Randall apply their bag of arty tricks to a punk album with a punk narrative. "I try to make myself seem vague/Cause the words get so engraved"--OK, understood, only not entirely, which is how they want it. Hence 10 of these songs are directed at a "you" that could be a boss, a colleague, an audience, a roommate, or, obviously, a girlfriend, but who is only clearly a female once. There are also three instrumentals, which contextualize the songful riffage of most of the other tracks with the atmospheres in which they've specialized. But the decisive atmosphere is provided by the riffage--hooks and power chords as anthemic as any in punk, only shot through with their atmospheric chops and innovations. In other words, it's a punk album with a difference, which at this late date is the only kind you can count on for a thrill. And what it says beyond its seeming vagueness is: "we" care about "you." A

Superchunk: Majesty Shredding (Merge)
Don't believe old fans with their collective pre-midlife crisis. Believe a codger who has ever thought them an honorable band whose sole great record was damn near their first, the satirically candid "Slack Motherfucker." Here, 20 years after he started trying if trying is what that was, Mac McCaughan finally assembles an album that captures what could be glimpsed in that single and the only live show I ever saw them give (Lollapalooza '95). Eschewing both the lo-fi murk that obscured vocal yowl and guitar roar alike on the early albums and the fruity pop voice he affected as the centuries did their thing, McCaughan and cohort deliver a bunch of loud guitar songs--not anthems, songs--whose unkempt tailoring and melodic uplift are worthy of betters from Nirvana to the Arcade Fire. Providing myth to die for and money to burn respectively, those two bands made this claim on history possible. The hoarse, throaty voice knows its consonants, and the lyrics are full of the everyday breakdowns most of us survive into midlife and beyond--"about nothing and everything," which is what they always wanted even if they were too cool to make it plain. A MINUS

Poly Styrene/Gang of Four

No No Future
Tuesday, April 26, 2011  

Poly Styrene: Generation Indigo (Future Noise Music)
Life after "Oh Bondage Up Yours" began with Poly's dreamily unpunk 1980 studio-rock Translucence, a sui generis switcheroo absurdly accused of presaging Everything but the Girl. Now there'll be claims her easy-skanking groove is a "dubstep" breakthrough, once again obscuring the main reason her music has connected since she wore braces, which is that it's exceptionally tuneful, if not the main reason we care, which is that she's an exceptionally good soul. She never tops the vegan opener "I Luv Ur Sneakers." But the four humanist protest songs she rolls out just before an unnecessarily dreamy closer seem so unforced you feel for all those who have striven so hard to do nothing more. Ari, Viv, Exene--because sisterhood is powerful, this one's for you. A MINUS

Gang of Four: Content (Yep Roc)
As they add the quaver of age to Andy Gill's slashes and modernize Jon King's animadversions with cellphone photos, comparison with the 20-year-old Mall quickly reveals how blessed the mainstays are in drummer Mark Heaney, who in the great tradition of Marky Ramone has both the musical sense to respect Hugo Burnham's simplicity and the historical savvy not to attempt an anachronistic replication. Since their consumerist analysis was never that deep and their self-doubt always had a self-aggrandizement to it, all these adjustments are welcome. In fact, my favorite song here is "A Fruitfly in the Beehive," which begins a quiet patch the original band would never have sat still for. It's not the only time they speak of repentance, for what I don't know--not some endorsement, I hope. Inspirational Verse: "Where are we headed for? For a distant shore? Or some brand new war/Don't know why i can't ask for more, don't walk out the door, what am I left here for?" A MINUS

Note: The Poly Styrene capsule above was written several weeks before she died on April 25 of the cancer I was aware she'd been battling but didn't mention in the review. I could now change the tense to "she was an exceptionally good soul" in the only place the review refers to her life as opposed to her work, which lives on in the eternal present she deserves. But I feel as if somehow that would be a kind of hedge, and so decided to let the review stand as written--and also, more strangely I'm aware, the tag. Oh death up yours.

AfroCubism/Monguito El Unico and Laba Sosseh

Like It Says--Salsa Africana
Friday, April 29, 2011  

AfroCubism: AfroCubism (Nonesuch)
Here be Nick Gold's second attempt to come home with the literally Afro-Cuban record he intended when travel screw-ups kept the Afro contingent out of Havana and he concocted the Buena Vista Social Club instead. It was recorded in Madrid, and I hope all involved had a ball. But for those who never found the BVSC's creaky music as remarkable as its rocketing sales, and who know in addition that many of its key principals have passed, it's no surprise that the Africans save this enjoyable but less than historic project. Lassana Diabaté's balafon makes as much difference as Djelimady Tounkara's guitar, and though neither vocalist is prime, ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate packs more energy and gravity than second-stringer Eliades Ochoa even if his own solo album underwhelmed. Still, if you really want to hear an old man knock 'em dead, compare the Nico Saquito original of "Al Vaivén de Mi Carreta." B PLUS

Monguito El Unico and Laba Sosseh: Salsa Africana--Monguito El Unico and Laba Sosseh in U.S.A. (Sacodisc '05)
So my salsa-playing brother-in-law listens for a while and chides me indulgently for once again preferring African clave to the real thing. Not so abashed I don't remain into what I'm into, I think I hear what he means--the groove here is simultaneously more emphatic and more contained than in the Eddie Palmieri he's always promoting and the charanga he pops in now. Only as it turns out, these five tracks, which I have as an unannotated burn, were cherry-picked from circa-1980 sessions in which nasal, Cuba-born Monguito El Unico united chesty, Gambia-born Laba Sosseh with NYC salsa hotshots. In Dakar, Sosseh was a giant, supremely danceable in an era when salsa was the chosen music of the newly independent elite. In U.S.A., he was an exotic. This bypasses Sosseh's signature "Aminata" and "La Bicycletta." But the synergy of the two contrasting voices--plus, assuming the inevitable Nuyorican rub-off, three slightly different conceptions of clave--makes for yet another seductive variation on the Senegambian tinge. Not easy to find, and I've now heard other music by both Sosseh and Monguito that seems worth exploring. But this will always be where I started. A MINUS

MSN Music, April 2011

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