Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2011

Kate & Anna McGarrigle

Vaults Yield Waltz and Hail Hippie History
Tuesday, May 3, 2011  

Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Tell My Sister (Nonesuch)
Since these "demos and unreleased recordings 1971-1974" are part of a superbly designed and moderately priced little box that also includes their extraordinary Warner Bros. albums of 1976 and 1977, I should specify that my grade is for the bonus disc, which although it includes only five titles unavailable in later versions is one of the most useful I know. Much as I love the debut, its intelligent gloss is no longer needed to put the music across; on the demos, spare piano highlights voices we now know to be delectable without the subtlest sweetening. Proudly selling herself, Kate especially is more forthright and less cunning--and also, poignantly, younger. In a few cases--I'd name "Kiss & Say Goodbye," "Tell My Sister," and "Blues in E"--the demos are even preferable. Special thanks too for Chaim Tannenbaum's unheard "Annie." And then there's the great prize: Kate's newly unearthed "Saratoga Summer Song," a fond, funny, ruefully dissolute chronicle of a hippie summer that casually epitomizes both concepts--not just "hippie," but "summer." A

Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Odditties (Querbeservice)
A hodgepodge segmented to make sense as a sampler, all recorded by 1990 and most well before, consisting of: 1) Four Stephen Foster weepers, two Civil War and two early death, harmonized prettily instead of tartly. They're saccharine, yes, but wittingly so, and exposure plus comparison with a Foster comp I like convinced me that this was the most effective rendering of 19th-century parlor music I knew. 2) Two by Canadian folk icon Wade Hemsworth, a McGarrigles staple in their Mountain City Four days--the first a waltz that motorvates plenty after those weepers, the second in 5/4 and over my fundament. 3) A Quebecois encore done live in '76 and a Cajun two-step studio-stomped. Both leap the language barrier. 4) Four lost McGarrigles songs, three by Anna and a collaborator, one by Kate alone. All are worthy, two wondrous: Anna's threnody for her cat Louis, which is slight, and Kate's love song to Martha and her dolls, which is wiry. Play it for someone you love on Mother's Day. But be sure to check it out yourself first. A MINUS

An Horse/PJ Harvey

There'll Always Be an Australia--Also a Canada
Friday, May 6, 2011  

An Horse: Walls (Mom + Pop)
"You get up when I go to sleep/But that's just me and geography," expostulates Aussie expat Kate Cooper, who's now migrated to Montreal, at Aussie pat Damon Cox, currently situated in Melbourne, and to cover the distance she strums furiously as he barrages his kit. First emailed across the seas, then finalized in Vancouver, their music is to pop as hardcore is to punk, with the Joey Ramone fillip of Cooper's bizarre pronunciation. Search me whether they really say "Yaw hawt it seems just foine" down Brisbane way. Believe me when I say it's a hook even if they don't. B PLUS

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant)
Polly Jean Harvey was major when she meant to shake the world, a life project she gave up on after releasing her finest album in 2000--much of it set, as must be mere coincidence, in New York City. Creating a suite of well-turned if unnecessarily understated antiwar songs, she's a gifted, strong-willed minor artist bent on shaking England in particular. How much that work enriches anyone's understanding of World War I is open to a debate too niggling to pursue. What's certain is that her special interest in the Great War reflects the changing contours of her chosen chauvinism no less than her evolution from the rough-hewn Howlin Wolf she absorbed in downhome Dorsetshire toward the dulcet clarity of Lancashire's prog-folk Annie Haslam. "I live and die/through England/I live and die/through England"? You said it, lady--twice. B PLUS

Raphael Saadiq/Beastie Boys

Fight for Your Right to Forty (or Actually, Forty-Five)
Tuesday, May 10, 2011  

Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin' (Columbia)
One problem with dropping a tour de force out of the blue is that it sends expectations skyrocketing. So as we should have figured, the hook density is down three years after The Way I See It as the former Ray Wiggins declines to provide another dozen perfect Holland-Dozier-Holland songs. In fact, the born bassist now seems obsessed with groove rather than song. More Prince than Ray Parker Jr., he plays with himself to beat the band, and makes these 10 tracks bump and pulse. And then you notice even the less pneumatic ones connecting as songs. Fearing hell or working two jobs or fixing to buy what he can't afford, Saadiq sounds something like natural. Only when you do the math--three tracks a year, hmm--do you remember that natural's not in it. A MINUS

Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol)
More light-hearted than their Gotham-cheering album of 2004, and if you think light-hearted means shallow--especially for a rapper with a tumor threatening his salivary glands at age 42, which was where MCA found himself last July--you've come to the wrong art form. With a push from Nas and a whoosh from Santigold and new life from their chorusing kids, the beats spritz and submarine in signature Beasties style as the rhymes claim contexts high-living and low-life. But when they need to state their business, here come two old reliables: "Like Willis Reed or Elton John/We done been in the game and our game's still on." A MINUS

Gurf Morlix/Blaze Foley

Friday, May 13, 2011  

Gurf Morlix: Blaze Foley's 113th Wet Dream (Rootball)
Eccentric even for a city that brags about its eccentrics, Austinite Blaze Foley inspired Lucinda Williams's "Drunken Angel" and had the best luck of his star-crossed career when Merle Haggard made "If I Could Only Fly" the title song of an excellent 2000 comeback album that didn't sell much. By then he'd been dead a decade, killed by the gun-toting son of a friend he was standing up for. His legend hasn't been helped by master tapes that kept getting lost, stolen, or seized by federal agents, but on these 15 songs his guitarist friend Gurf gets to cherry-pick and hook up with a drummer. Irresistible as John Prine for an opening section capped by the homelessness ditty "No Goodwill Stores in Waikiki," they sink into a slough of despond that starts feeling right comfy before the record rises up with "Small Town Hero," in which the duct tape abuser gets the last word on the high school sports star. Foley never mistook his dysfunction for a cause or felt sorry for himself about anything but women, and even there not much. He made his bed wherever. A MINUS

Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah (Lost Art)
With Foley's posthumous albums patchier than need be, this documentary soundtrack is where to pay your respects. Before he passed at 39, Foley's resonant voice had been roughed up by alcohol and the crusty life, but his easy flow was always something to hear. Without the five keepers it shares with the Morlix tribute, its slow ones would be hard to take--"Our Little Town" makes six minutes feel like a sermon so long the roast gets burnt--but Morlix doesn't do "Let Me Ride in Your Big Cadillac," "Living in the Woods in a Tree," or "Cosmic Doo Doo," and all are candidates for canonization. Too bad both records pass on "WW III," "Oval Room," and the jokingly, shockingly sadistic "Springtime in Uganda." Foley clearly never thought living in a car diminished his citizenship one little bit. B PLUS

Let's Wrestle/The Henry Clay People

Craploads of 20-Somethings
Tuesday, May 17, 2011  

Let's Wrestle: Nursing Home (Merge)
Hiring Steve Albini in a doomed attempt to stave off those twee rumors, these three London slacker-punks or whatever they are do what s.-p.o.w.t.a. always do--mature. Fortunately, they also do what all maturing s.-p.o.w.t.a. wish they could do--write better songs. I noticed the guitar roar first and the tunes second. But I stayed for the lyrics. "There's a Rockstar in My Room": "But they wouldn't want to stay." "I Forgot": "I may be a few hours late." "In the Suburbs": "I'll have dinner with my mother then play computer games all night." "For My Mother": "If the children need to go to school/Well I'll do that." And my favorite, "I Am Useful": "I will not let my big emotions get ahold of me today/I'm gonna put an English face on this." A MINUS

The Henry Clay People: Somewhere on the Golden Coast (TBD)
Although their new EP sounds suspiciously like a reject pile, this talky 2010 tunefest showcases a six-years-running LA g-g-b-d who like Neil Young, Tom Petty, and especially the Replacements, the latter of whom they resemble but fall well short of matching, as goes without saying for the first two. Says chief songwriter Andy Siara: "The situations I find myself are situations that a whole crapload of 20-somethings who don't know what they're doing are in as well." Their gift is transforming these situations into songs that don't have quite the juice to inspire a movement, including songs with titles like "Working Parttime" and "End of an Empire." They named themselves after The Great Compromiser because they wanted something historical-political, adjudged the Forgotten Presidency of Chester A. Arthur too long for a marquee, and settled--too soon, as compromisers will. I think of them as the Displacements myself. B PLUS

Phil Spector/Etta James

Girl You Are a Woman Now
Friday, May 20, 2011  

Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966 (Phil Spector/Legacy)
This one-CD Philles comp reflects the murderer's loss of his mad grip on his overrated legacy and brings its limitations front and center. Of course there are great records among these 19 oddly sequenced selections--by a generous count, as many as a dozen. But there are also three Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans tracks, including the regrettable "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." Especially given the Crystals classics here that feature La La Brooks or Barbara Alston, these should be enough to convince you to skip the simultaneously released Darlene Love best-of. The Ronettes songs are the only ones in which the lead singer is personable enough to carry material less inspired than "He's a Rebel," "Uptown," and "A Fine Fine Boy." Sometimes, anyway--their much better best-of is spotty nonetheless. Too often, Spector's wall of sound was a miasma. Respect him as a girl-group maestro even more gifted than the Shirelles' Luther Dixon. The great exception isn't the Righteous Brothers, who have worn poorly. It's "River Deep Mountain High." A

Etta James: The Essential Modern Records Collection (Virgin)
With awe for the atypical Arlene Smith and respect to the late-breaking Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, Jamesetta Hawkins had the most physically remarkable female voice of the '50s. "So gritty it was filthy and so sweet it was filthier than that" is what I came up with to promote 2000's Chess Box. But on these 15 pre-Chess tracks, the first recorded when she was 15 and the last before she was 20, the grit is sometimes a gurgle in a soprano on its way down to alto, a serration in an instrument she used to cut--quite a weapon for jailbait whose flirty ways survived well into her long junkie decades. Relieved by straight novelties like "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and "The Pick-Up," where Harold Battiste's tenor sax plays the part of the mack, the material tends boilerplate r&b, and half a century later, Leiber-Stoller's "Tears of Joy" doesn't sound all that much craftier than Davis-Josea's "Good Lookin'." There's too much of the same on Flair's 25-year-old R&B Dynamite, which omits "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and adds only the very early "Be My Lovey Dovey" to her A list, though it includes all the obvious keepers. I prefer this in part because it's shorter. Makes the voice easier to treasure. A MINUS

Brad Paisley/The Lonely Island

The Wages of Saturday Night Live
Tuesday, May 24, 2011  

Brad Paisley: This Is Country Music (Arista Nashville)
Having touted multiculturalism and Saturday Night Live to open his 2009 album, Paisley cuts his sails, making nice to Nashville on a lead/title/theme track that touts salvation and Lee Greenwood (among other things), and then for an encore singing the praises of Alabama the group and Tennessee the state. But Paisley has always been Nashville--I'm more put off by the ones about drowning your sorrows in Mexico, a locale Nashville should leave to the Cancun crowd, and that hottie who's working on a tan, only unfortunately I can't stop humming it. Horny for his wife but not horny enough, loving her like she's leaving because he thinks that might help, his songcraft is undiminished, and he remains the smartest and nicest guy in his world. After those two openers comes one that defines hell as "payments you can't make on a house that you can't sell" (among other things). Patterson Hood has never said it better. A MINUS

The Lonely Island: Turtleneck & Chain (Universal Republic)
Here's a bonus DVD you'll want to waste a little time with. Funny thing is, though, some of these songs are funnier without the videos that are their reason for being. The Mr. Softee boasts of "We're Back!" need no visualization in a musical mode that's pumped phallocentric nonsense since Eazy-E was a woman beater, and "I Just Had Sex" seems less pathetic than it deserves when you glom the hotties who are putting bags over our antiheroes' heads. Then again, the over-the-top "Motherlover" is cut down to size when you glom its confident middle-aged sex objects, whereas Michael Bolton's "Jack Sparrow" feature falls flat without the movie takeoffs you can only find online. Parody is hard to sustain. That this follow-up provides so many laughs without flailing around in can-you-top-this? is a tribute to the comedians' musicality and their musician friends' sense of comedy. A MINUS

Afro Latin

The Documentation Is in the Reclaimed Grooves
Friday, May 27, 2011  

Afro Latin Via Dakar (Syllart Productions/Discograph)
With its ill-organized, ill-translated notes and obscure sequencing, this two-CD collectorama is a puzzle to think about. But not to hear--it listens great. Dates run late '60s to early '80s, though without a decent scorecard it can be hard to tell what's when, and tempos trend medium, presumably to flatter the dignity of Senegal's post-independence elite, which was the core audience for what we'll call Senegalese salsa even though it was made by musicians from all over West Africa and often recorded in Abidjan. This elite audience the notes don't note amid their oft-told tales of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Cuban sailors bearing precious 78s, but if you'll compare Addis Ababa's mood in the Éthiopiques comps you'll hear what I mean. Even the dance numbers are pretty contained. Key players include Orchestra Baobab in its many iterations (six of the 32 songs, only the climactic "Papa Ndiaye" known to me), master vocalist Laba Sosseh (get this man a best-of), and such relatively big names as Papa Seck, Thione Seck, and droll saxophonist Issa Cissoko, who got around. Though the annotator's boasts of rare 45s and student bands make one fear collectibles for their own sake, there are few clinkers and not many generics. Baobab fans especially will know where this music is coming from and be happy to hear more. A MINUS

Afro Latin Via Kinshasa (Syllart Productions/Discograph)
Instead of a puzzle, the concept's Kinshasa edition gives us a solution. Cuban music was largely Congolese to begin with, and Congo's liquid Lingala lingua franca lubricated its foward motion where guttural Wolof brought out its stops and starts. Moreover, all but two of these 39 tracks are by just four artists: paterfamilias Grand Kallé, Brussels upstart Docteur Nico, and--with 22 between them--our old friends Franco and Rochereau. It's good to have so much Kallé and Nico in one place, though they clearly deserve overviews of their own. But such is the magnitude of the other two's legacy that only one of Rochereau's tracks is duplicated on his Sterns twofer from the same period, and none on Franco's (though there is one from his earlier and less essential Originalité). Chronologically the range is narrower and earlier than on the Dakar set. Demographically it's identified in the notes as upper-crust for Kallé's more sophisticated arrangements and anything but for Franco's cruder and more brilliant output. Guess so, but Kallé at his sweetest never hints at the dignity of the statelier Dakar grooves. Maybe the difference is Islam, or the rain forest, or happenstance. At this distance, we'll really never know. With this music, we're really not supposed to care. A MINUS

Nine 11 Thesaurus/Bombino

War Tested
Tuesday, May 31, 2011  

Nine 11 Thesaurus: Ground Zero Generals (The Social Registry)
I swear I didn't know they were backed by "Representing NYC, a volunteer network of artists interested in youth development in Bushwick, Brooklyn"; such was the cover art that I didn't even absorb their wonderful name at first. I just liked the beats, which as it turns out were overseen by members of Gang Gang Dance and Skeletons--electro with quirkier hooks and more sonic range. Several of these five MCs having lost family members in the WTC attack, they take for their motto "when the towers fell we rose." Consistently political without a hint of truther nutballism, they can rhyme and they can rap. "In the middle of the globe as the earth dies slow dies slow," they sound as disconsolate as they should. Claiming "Rookie of the Year" they cheer up, as they also should. A MINUS

Bombino: Agadez (Cumbancha)
Omara Moctar--the "Al" has fallen into disuse as he internationalizes--remains easily the loveliest of the Tuareg guitarists to come our way, and in fact this album was begun in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home studio of a filmmaker who documented the Tuaregs' battle for autonomy in Niger. He's absorbed many Western guitarists into a style few will hear as Western without a cheat sheet, and sings quietly, like he's thinking about it. Relative to most Tuareg music, the result is pretty tame. But its directness and calm take on spiritual weight when you learn that Bombino lost two members of his band during the most recent phase of the now quiescent and perhaps permanently resolved war. Cumbancha's representatives to the world congress tend polite, but as a corollary the label considers it good manners to offer expanded explanation, documentation, and visualization online. Avail yourself. A MINUS

MSN Music, May 2011

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