Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: August 2011

Neil Young/David Bowie

Reclaim Men
Tuesday, August 2, 2011  

Neil Young International Harvesters: A Treasure (Reprise)
Two remakes from Old Ways, two from Re-ac-tor, one from Harvest, and one from Buffalo Springfield, plus six more or less "new" songs, all recorded a quarter century ago. Reads like the profit-taking vault dig it is. What it sounds like, however, is the redemption of Young's lost mid-'80s--the countryish album Old Ways was supposed to be, neither rote like Re-ac-tor nor static like that sacred cow Harvest. Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, and Tim Drummond know Nashville but can play whatever, in this case a loping rock bent and flavored by Rufus Thibodeaux's Cajun fiddle. You bet Young knew how thematic the superb "Nothing Is Perfect" was when he stuck it just before the farewell "Grey Riders," a spooky signal that deep down he was the same nut he'd always been. A MINUS

David Bowie: Station to Station (Special Edition) (EMI)
Normally I ignore "enhanced" classics, as should you, so to distinguish among iterations, this is the three-CD boxlet released in 2010. It includes three color photos of the Thin White Duke, a flier hawking Geoff MacCormack's "signed, limited edition" Travels With Bowie 1973-76, informative notes, the original album in its own wee sleeve, and--the bait, in a wee double sleeve--Bowie's March 23, 1976 performance at Nassau Coliseum, warm New York Times review by John Rockwell included, hot Village Voice review by Robert Christgau not. In addition to an echoing momentum with no precedent or aftermath in Bowie's melodramatic oeuvre, highlights include "I'm Waiting for the Man" with blues uptick, "TVC-15" with New Orleans accent, and a set list that stumbles only on the stone in his passway that is "Word on a Wing." It nails a galvanizing arena-rock that you can almost hear hitting a groove that had dissipated disappointingly just three days later at Madison Square Garden. But please note that I said "almost hear." As we all should know by now, rarely do galvanizing performances live on in artifact the way they do in memory. Whether this one you missed is worth your 25 bucks depends, I suspect, on just how seriously you credit the artiste's Anglophiliac legend. A MINUS


The Big Beat Got Me Dancing in My Seat
Friday, August 5, 2011  

SebastiAn: Total (Big Beat/Atlantic/Ed Banger)
I like my dance music cheap and with a sense of humor, as on this debut album by a fashionable French DJ with Ed Banger connections. Imagine the not-bad Justice keeping 22 tracks under four minutes as it mixes and matches hardish club fads you lived without going back to 2005. Committed to synth squelch and chary of synth tweedle, it's basically instrumental except when transforming Mayer Hawthorne into the generic soul falsetto he was born to be and M.I.A. into the cheeky disco dolly she's too conscious to become. Even the interludes are catchy. In my favorite musical moment, it segues from switched-on baroque to a speedboat engine. A MINUS

Skrillex: Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (Big Beat/Atlantic)
Having blown his scream fronting drama kings From First to Last, Sonny Moore dialed it down, launching a solo career that has endeared him to Lady Gaga and the Black Eyes Peas. True, he does enjoy turning synthesizers into doom dybbuks and hiring chipmunks to sing "I want to kill everybody in the world." But he also gets winning girlpop out of a sprite named Penny. This EP could use the two new songs on the all too accurately entitled More Monsters and Sprites EP, and Moore should stop milking that woman who goes "Oh my God." But when he swears rock n' roll will take you to the mountain, he's being sincere. B PLUS

Steve Cropper/The 5 Royales

This Is Dedi-Cated to Mr. Lowman Pauling
Tuesday, August 9, 2011  

Steve Cropper: Dedicated: A Salute to the 5 Royales (429)
This tribute record isn't designed for nostalgic old folks or curious young folks. The 5 Royales never attracted many of either. Yet without once cracking the top 40, they recorded more first-rate songs than any of their rivals except the Coasters, and unlike the Coasters they wrote their own. That is, Lowman Pauling did, and remarkably for a '50s vocal group, Pauling was primarily a guitarist. So here paying his respects comes the guitarist who co-invented Stax-Volt and co-wrote "Knock on Wood" and "In the Midnight Hour." Short on context for decades now, he proves Pauling's book is deeper than his own with assistance from such serial oversingers as Steve Winwood, Bettye LaVette, Delbert McClinton, John Popper, and Sharon Jones. Lucinda Williams takes "Dedicated to the One I Love" with Dan Penn manning the bridge. Cropper has the hubris and common sense to transform what you thought was James Brown's "Think" into an instrumental. A MINUS

The 5 Royales: The Very Best of the 5 Royales (Collectables '04)
Rhino's Ed Ward-picked Monkey Hips and Rice exemplifies the compiler's craft. It doesn't rank with Robert Palmer's Elmore James or Ken Braun's Franco only because the 5 Royales aren't quite in that league. But these North Carolinians certainly outshone such oft-mourned '50s also-rans as Charlie Feathers and Orioles, as anyone who owns Ward's long-deleted 1995 comp is aware. Anyone who doesn't, however, may be put off by collector prices that start at $45 for two used CDs and quickly rise into triple figures. So here's a starter kit, which adds 11 good-to-excellent tracks to 14 of the 41 keepers Ward chose. Presumably the idea was to target doowop nuts, who like things slow, and skip uptempo finds--although not such essentials as "The Slummer the Slum" or "Monkey Hips and Rice." Even the more generic new selections demonstrate that Lowman Pauling wasn't the group's only weapon--singer Johnny Tanner presages doowop's evolution into soul with a lot less market calculation than Ben E. King. And it's really too bad Ward didn't squeeze in the four-minute group workout "I'm With You" or the barely articulate "My Wants for Love," where Johnny lets his brother Eugene grab the lead and the opportunity moves him very much. A MINUS

Mamani Keita

Assez Facile
Friday, August 12, 2011  

Mamani Keita: Gagner l'Argent Franšais (No Format)
After studying a video featuring a photo of Ms. Keita, abstract renditions of industrial worksites, and the lyrics in big block letters, I realized that I know enough French to follow a title song that goes, "Gagner l'argent franšais/Pas facile, pas facile"--"Earning French money/Isn't easy, isn't easy." I even learned a new piece of French slang: bosser, which according to means "to work, slog/slave away." That's a song-of-the-year candidate pour moi. Unfortunately, the rest of the lyrics are almost exclusively in Bambara, which in the absence of trots renders the album atmospheric by definition--spare and lovely, but not supernally so. Mastermind Nicolas Repac favors trap drums physical or otherwise, kora, and spookily ethnic-once-removed synths. A duet with gruff-voiced ngoni master Adama Coulibaly changes things up at just the right moment. B PLUS

Mamani Keita: Yelema (No Format '06)
On his first album with Keita, Nicolas Repac distinguished himself from her original svengali--Marc Minelli, who eased her into a loungey Euro-Africana whose acuity and integrity defied all odds--by balancing canny synth inventions with a wealth of Malian instruments and voices. Its charm, which in retrospect helps explain Minelli's success as well--and which eludes analysis because the grooves and melodic contours are so un-American--is the uncanny way Keita's own voice recalls the young Billie Holiday's plush, unpushy croon. The effect is about sound, not meaning--far from suggesting Holiday's irony or humor, the unrhymed summations the package provides are long on Afro-homilies, though the straightforward adoption advice and disdain for clueless elders have a sharpness to them. But after half a century of hopeless Holiday imitators, the physical fact is exceptionally seductive--and clearly not an imitation at all. A MINUS

Withered Hand/Lykke Li

Seeking Transcendence and Settling for Melody
Tuesday, August 16, 2011  

Withered Hand: Good News (Absolutely Kosher)
Somebody with more youth cred than me should tell a world that takes EMA seriously about backslid Edinburgh Christian Dan Willson, whose wife bought him an acoustic guitar for his 30th birthday so he'd have something he could sing louder than. Quavering wordy tunes that make Belle and Sebastian sound like the Beach Boys, only he has a band and they really are tunes, he surveys his doubt-ridden world with uneasy resolve and disillusioned, self-deprecating wit. A few couplets of a shaky anthem called "Religious Songs" suggest what he's capable of: "I don't really know what the wine was for/cos if it was Jesus' blood wouldn't there be more"; "Well, I beat myself off when I sleep on your futon/I walk in the rain with my secondhand suit on"; "'How does he expect to be happy/when he listens to death metal bands.'" A MINUS

Lykke Li: Wounded Rhymes (Atlantic)
Since neither sex mystics nor Phil Spector fans favor deep thought or articulated emotion, I'm sure the lissome Li has no more to say in Swedish than in the English she writes in. The meaning's in the music, which to her considerable benefit shares the widespread Stockholm suspicion that the distinction between pop and dance music isn't worth troubling yourself over, but is nonetheless pinned for appearance's sake to the shades of yearning that mark it verbally. Philosophically and psychologically, it's pretty silly. But it would be priggish to show the door to a gal who can add so much pseudotribal percussion to a perfect 10 in the tune department. Ah to be young and full of come. Dumb I'll leave to those who think she's got a bead on tragedy and whatnot. A MINUS

Fountains of Wayne

Thematic Development in the Early Recordings of Fountains of Wayne
Friday, August 19, 2011  

Fountains of Wayne: Fountains of Wayne (TAG/Atlantic '96)
Given that one of the two songwriters who constitute this theoretical band is also their drummer, they're pretty Apollonian. And maybe that's why. Lulled into a formalistic revery by their catchy choruses, you assume their content is as null as their groove. But in fact they're so girl-shy it's thematic, and refreshingly empathetic about women with problems, including the one who needs a sick day. In the closing sequence they ask her to leave the biker; warn him* not to curse at the fairer sex; hope she doesn't rock them tonight; and quietly conclude that for all their efforts "Everything's Ruined." (*Not the biker--for that they don't have the balls.) A MINUS

Fountains of Wayne: Utopia Parkway (Atlantic '99)
Utopia Parkway, I happen to recall, traverses the Manhattan-side portion of Bayside a/k/a Clearview in Queens. Need I add that the view there is no more clear than the parkway is utopian? So while in a sense they've moved on to their suburban album, it ain't really the suburbs. Even "Troubled Times" is a relationship song, albeit a mature one, as for that matter is "Prom Theme," which is really about the last day of your life. The "Go, Hippie"-"A Fine Day for a Parade"-"Amity Gardens" triptych, on the other hand, are kind of suburban. They're also why I've spent my post-prom years in neither Queens nor Wayne. A MINUS

Fountains of Wayne/Stephin Merritt

Songs From Venus and Green Bay, Wisconsin
Tuesday, August 23, 2011  

Fountains of Wayne: Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)
This leads mean, devastatingly so. The family who own "The Summer Place" is tragic and/or pathetic while "Richie and Ruben" and their "bar called Living Hell" are comic and/or repugnant, but both portraits feed off a dismay with the affluent professional world genius hookmeisters are privy to. Eventually the album warms up--"A Road Song," from a tour bus out of Green Bay, is the most touching love song yet from guys who've written more than you think, and "Workingman's Hands" dares Alan Jackson to cover it. What's missing is any sense of why these four songs are on the same album. Genius hookmeisters can do what they please, but here the genius has holes like the sky of the title, which were put there by a 21-gun salute it shouldn't have taken me 12 plays to notice. A MINUS

Stephin Merritt: Obscurities (Merge)
Nine seven-inches etc. plus five previously unreleaseds including three remnants of an abandoned musical obviously add up to an intentional hodgepodge. Still, I wonder whether the intention was to backload. I got dubious tracks four through eight, beginning with a faux Patsy Cline song that some find vrai and sounds like merde to me, only to be swept off my feet by Merritt thoughtfully intoning some little green men's "Song From Venus." Then there's the paranoid-robotic "When I'm Not Looking, You're Not There." It's just made for an arrangement that, according to Merritt, takes "random chord tones in random octaves, and hocket[s] them between dozens of instruments." A MINUS

Jay Z Kanye West/Classic Rock Gold

Masters of All They Survey
Friday, August 26, 2011  

Jay Z Kanye West: Watch the Throne (Roc-A-Fella)
The three minutes of silence that rope off the first 12 songs signify that those songs constitute a unity and the deluxe edition's four bonus tracks are too much. Soon, as if on signal, two matched operatic choruses take the project's regal grandiosity over the top. But nowhere else does this gorgeous show of power trigger your gag reflex; in fact, the echoing grunts and swooping oohs of the Pete Rock-produced, Curtis Mayfield-keyed 16th track would have provided a hell of a regular-album finale with no loss of unity whatsoever. The only question is whether these guys' regal glory is of any intrinsic interest to those of us who regard power as something to speak truth to, and the answer is hell yeah, because it's been forever since stars of this magnitude were also so dominant artistically. Predictably, Jay's power is more interesting than Ye's, which was funnier and sicker on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Think the patron's proximity made the protegee nervous? Think the patron figured it would? I do. A MINUS

Classic Rock Gold (Hip-O '05)
Its 33 tracks duplicate only four acts and one song from Dazed and Confused, to which it cedes the mission of recalling a subculture while it does the dirty job of recapitulating a radio format. At first I was theoretically offended by such pop and new wave ringers as Elton John, Eddie Money, Billy Idol, and the Cars. But the only picks that don't fit are Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," because it's too good, and Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again," because it's too godawful. More than a useful compendium of name bands whose albums you may never play again, it's sonic history. Yes, children, there really was a time when whole radio stations were devoted entirely to brawny-sounding white guys bellowing, moaning, and even singing over electric guitars, electric guitars, and electric guitars. "Born to Be Wild," "American Woman," "Show Me the Way," and "Cold as Ice" you know you love. But watch out. "Hair of the Dog" could grow on you. A MINUS


Then Oases, Now Encampments
Tuesday, August 30, 2011  

Terakaft: Aratan N Azawad (World Village)
Of all the Saharan musicians to surface in the past decade--more than any American could have figured, and more than any non-Saharan has much practical use for--this three-man Tinariwen spinoff are the catchiest and most hypnotic. Stay with them a few hours and their every tune will stake a claim as both your trusted companion and the music's reason for being. Stated solo and then reprised in chorus, each is repeated by Diara or Sanou's no-nonsense guitar, supported by Abdallah's trickier bass, and nicely embellished by fourth-wheel French percussionist Matthias Vaguenez. Sanou sings roughly, Diara sweetly, but ample translations revisit the familiar concerns of the once-nomadic Tuaregs: "freedom" and cultural unity to counteract the displacements of African nationalism. It's the music of wise elders, and of restless men economically dependent on a skill that would have meant less to them in better times they still yearn for. A MINUS

Tinariwen: Tassili (Anti-)
The first Saharans to break internationally are forbidding even by the sere standards of the region. But they calm rather than mesmerize, which together with some subtly shameless showmanship helps sell them to peace-out types. Having found 2009's widely praised and supposedly "traditional" Imidiwan too lulling by half, which may be because I joined the caravan before Pitchfork and Entertainment Weekly and is definitely because they should rock out a little, I was disappointed to learn that this one is where they abandon electric guitars. But since there's never been any Agadez ax-god abandon about headman Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the difference is marginal, especially given the help they've gathered on their first album for Epitaph's alt-trad label: Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone on guitar and/or vocals on five of the 12 tracks, Dirty Dozen Brass Band on a sixth. The collaborations are subtle but telling, as are Alhabib's deep melodies. Not "desert blues." Sadder than blues--too sad to be merely calming. A MINUS

MSN Music, August 2011

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