Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2011

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton/Nils Petter Molvaer

Gabriel's Guitars
Tuesday, November 1, 2011  

Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton: Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center (Reprise Jazz)
This isn't just figureheads rising to the occasion or getting back to where they once belonged, although both models pertain--especially for Marsalis, who enjoys the blues enough that his monster chops masticate them lip-smackingly rather than chewing them up and spitting them out. What's decisive, however, is a conception in which the members of a blues horn section interact polyphonically rather than uniting in the soulful Texas manner while blues polymath Clapton dictates as well as plays and sings a repertoire that includes Memphis Minnie and Howlin Wolf as well as W.C. Handy and Johnny Dodd. The juxtaposition may discomfit at first--we're not used to blues so jaunty and effervescent. But let it and it'll lift you right up. A MINUS

Nils Petter Molvaer: Baboon Moon (Thirsty Ear)
Recorded live in the studio with a worldly-wise drummer and a sonic guitarist who adds some modest Teo Macero moves, this is less techno and dubby than the trumpeter's norm, in its many quieter moments evoking the exotica stylings of Jon Hassell. "Recoil" lifts into a riff-driven guitar workout at track three before the music recedes back into contemplation, with Molvaer varying his embouchure and the drums all demonstrative as the guitar seeks out effects. Then the seven-minute title track goes all in on a crowd-pleasing finale. He's always a little too subtle. But in a way that's always the point. A MINUS

Mayer Hawthorne/J. Cole

Sex in the City
Friday, November 4, 2011  

Mayer Hawthorne: How Do You Do (Universal Republic)
The best punk revivalists understand that without catchy songs they might never have fallen for the style to begin with. Ditto the best honky tonk revivalists. Soul revivalists, not so much. So maybe Detroiter Andrew Cohen's civically revivalist Motown/Ford homage inspired him to hone a bunch of hooks and get an assembly line up and running. What we're hearing here is the Temptations turning into the Delfonics--the way his midrange gives up the verse and his falsetto takes the chorus is as nice as his boyish sexism. In the best song, he spills his coffee and misses his bus yet is lifted by a cellphone call where she says she loves him. In a good one Snoop Dogg sings. A MINUS

J. Cole: Cole World: The Sideline Story (Roc Nation/Columbia)
Smart about abortion's complexities and MLK's infidelities and weed's propensities, so aware of how "mornin'" spawns "moanin'" and "wet shit" swallows "next shit" that the sex rhymes hit a nerve, toned up by Drake and Jay-Z's 16s not to mention Trey Songz's and Missy Elliott's hooks, he's worth the shot Jay couldn't resist giving him. But he's still not comfortable enough or clever enough. Ask yourself, kid--are you having fun yet? If not, why not? Ultimately, isn't that what flow is about? B PLUS

Black Stars/Sofrito

Disco Sin, Sans, and Without Dollars
Tuesday, November 8, 2011  

Black Stars: Ghanas Hiplife Generation (Out Here '08)
The African ability to manufacture major exhilaration out of marginal economics is a skill young American musos should wrap their minds around. These 14 tracks, selected by ace German compiler-annotator Georg Milz from the decade-plus history of a broadly conceived genre that's not about to quit, modernize highlife with electronics, rap, and the occasional excursion into reggae. Their only program is getting parties started. These parties are as raunchy as they wanna be--"Toto Mechanic" means "Pussy Mechanic" in Ga. But they're markedly more relaxed than, for instance, the HI-NRG bashes evoked by VP's new Ultimate Soca Gold Collection--as if they've figured out that the toto feels better to both partners when all day and all night includes breathers. A MINUS

Sofrito: Tropical Discotheque (Strut)
The title means exactly what it says. Selected by a London dance collective called Sofrito, which is also the name of a fatback-based Puerto Rican staple, two-thirds of these 15 obscurish dance tracks are from the disco era of 1976-1980, almost all sound it a little, and all are from Africa, Colombia, and the Caribbean. Like a DJ set designed to blast rather than lure you out of your seat, they start strong, end classic, and let you sit down in the middle. Whether they achieve their pan-tropical goals is unclear; I probably prefer the African tracks--especially the Zaiko Langa Langa spinoff "Je Ne Bois Pas Beaucoup"--because I always prefer the African tracks. So let me now praise two barn burners I would never otherwise have checked out: a lead cut featuring cumbia stalwart Lisandro Meza and--from Guadeloupe, whose music generally leaves me feeling like I haven't eaten--a speedy call-and-response workout by gwo ka drummer Ti CÚleste. DJ-annotator Hugo reports that this is his crate-digging crew's most-played track. You can hear why. A MINUS

Pistol Annies/Miranda Lambert

Bad Girl Craves Heartsongs
Friday, November 11, 2011  

Pistol Annies: Hell on Heels (Columbia)
Slight, bright, and perfect--Ramones for bad girls, country edition. The ringleader is Miranda Lambert in "Gunpowder & Lead" mode, but they're definitely a trio--Ashley Monroe has a co-write on seven of Lambert's eight songs and Angaleena Presley's "Lemon Drop" is the catchiest of all even if she stole it from John Prine, as is her damn right. After the gold-digging title track, they're poorer than punks even on "Takin' Pills," a road song about three bad girls making their career move. Chirping their expertly executed tunes, scorning the guitar swagger good old boys think makes them so sexy, they're a pop cartoon worth more than gold. Dig? A

Miranda Lambert: Four the Record (RCA)
Lambert's not in it for another "Kerosene," not with the Pistol Annies ready whenever she feels like a joy ride. She's in it for another "The House That Built Me"--a heartsong that lets housewives-they-wish forget their day jobs for the length of a bathroom break. She's too brand-savvy to lead with the soft stuff: "All Kinds of Kinds" stars a cross-dressing congressman, "Fine Tune" links Auto-Tune to sexual excitation, and the Angeleena Presley-assisted "Fastest Girl in Town" ends with Miranda abandoning her man for the cop who caught them speeding. But this does wind down into your basic quality country album. Corn is fine with me--the two-sided "Safe," say. "Dear Diamond," "Oklahoma Sky," the oh-so-soulful Blake collab "Better in the Long Run"--they're cornball. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 002

Notes for a Revised Paleontology
Tuesday, November 15, 2011  

Wilco: The Whole Love (Anti-)
Full-on Radiohead electronica Americanized with aw-shucks diffidence, red-blooded guitar, sharp tunes, and exceptionally dull poetry ("Standing O," "One Sunday Morning") ***

The Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck (Merge)
Four great songs, all of which address mortality directly instead of implying it the way the nine merely ambitious ones do ("Estate Sale Sign," "For Charles Bronson," "Sourdoire Valley Song," "Beautiful Gas Mask") ***

Radiohead: The King of Limbs (XL/TBD)
So much more fun than Eno these days ("Little by Little," "Bloom") **

Comet Gain: Howl of the Lonely Crowd (What's Your Rupture?)
Desperate times catch up with desperate punk love poetry ("Clang of the Concrete Swans," "Ballad of Frankie Machine") **

Giant Sand: Blurry Blue Mountain (Fire)
With nothing much at stake but the shape of his life, Howe Gelb keeps his slow hand in ("Fields of Green," "Better Man Than Me") **

Faust: Something Dirty (Bureau B)
Synth-free after lo these many decades, their experiments have more oomph, especially the Hawkwind homages ("Tell the Bitch to Go Home," "Dampfauslass 2") **

Wire: Red Barked Tree (Pink Flag)
Even formalists get the grays--well, especially formalists ("Bad Worn Thing," "Please Take") **

New York Dolls: Dancing Backwards in High Heels (429)
Weary blues from trying ("Talk to Me Baby," "End of the Summer") *


Rockers. Folkies.
Friday, November 18, 2011  

Wussy: Strawberry (Shake It)
The first Wussy album in which louder, heavier tub thumper Joe Klug replaces Mo Tucker fan Dawn Burman is also the first he co-produced. There's more distortion, less naturalism; Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker yowl more, as when Chuck's aging head voice rises to the challenge of Mark Messerly's organ on "Pulverized." These alienation effects help define a rock that generalizes the connubial agony at the band's core, and if this is alienating for those of us who love them as well, it's also comforting, because it distances us from real-life couple Chuck and Lisa's real lives. I'd as soon assume the co-written "Fly Fly Fly" was inspired by a dumb young couple they know. I'm glad "Pizza King"'s tale of permanently adolescent disarray takes place in Indiana, not Ohio. And it's fine with me that "Asteroids" is so spacey--it means the heart "floating in the frozen void" might be metaphorical. A

Wussy: Funeral Dress II (Shake It)
I'm so skeptical of unplugged Record Store Day thingies it never occurred to me to sample this one when it materialized last April. This means I was an idiot--when you love a record the way I love their debut, you never know when some alternate version might turn into, say, the live Daydream Nation that other couple group assembled. It also means the limited edition is almost sold out by now. What will you miss if you don't buy it--eek!--right this minute? Suffering stripped naked beneath the wit, tune, and transcendent noise you long ago learned to love. Detailed knowledge of how nuanced and expressive Chuck and especially Lisa's voice can be, and how delicately they're capable of interacting. Well-turned lyrics you never before had to concentrate on--and yes, they make sense except when they don't, which why should they always when life doesn't either? Acoustic guitars, brushed drums, occasional accordion. And a finale you never knew was so agonizing. Try to break up to that. I dare you. A

Mates of State

Cute Grows Up
Tuesday, November 22, 2011  

Mates of State: Team Boo (Polyvinyl '03)
Music box. Hurdy-gurdy. Pinball gallery. Turning point of silent movie. Between-innings entertainment at a minor-league ballpark. E Street pseudoclassical. Even, almost, ? and the Mysterians. That's how pop history is conceived by Kory Gardner. Words aren't quite irrelevant--cf. "This is the whiner's bio," or "Set the rocks on fire." But they are ancillary. B PLUS

Mates of State: Re-Arrange Us (Barsuk '08)
Alternia knows two things about this duo: raw biography and raw sound. Married, two kids, publicly affectionate on stage; so tuneful they embarrass coolsters who think babies are icky, but also, due to how hard Kory Gardner pumps her organ and John Hammel meets his match, energetic, rendering the tunes forgivable. And right, sometimes their hooks are sugary enough to give me a tummyache too. But for Gardner to devote herself to piano as Hammel quiets down doesn't justify the consensus diagnosis of, eeuw, domesticity. Musical symptoms just aren't specific enough. Instead one must refer to those supposedly unmusical carriers of specificity, the words. Seldom anything special in the past, now they add up to a painful, unresolved song sequence about a couple who buy a biographically verifiable dream house and then hit the rocks as definitely the husband and possibly the neglected wife seek sexual solace elsewhere. So no, Pitchfork guy, you can't call "Blue and Gold Print" a lullaby just because it's slow and invokes the kiddies. No, Pop Matters guy, you can't praise the "The Re-Arranger"'s arrangement without noting that one thing getting rearranged is lives. Pop hooks deployed to keep up a good front are too complicated for tummyaches. Not heartaches, though. A MINUS

40 Odd Years

By Loudon Wainwright III (Shout Factory)
Friday, November 25, 2011  

Loudon Wainwright III: 40 Odd Years (Shout Factory)
Loudon Wainwright III is a quintessentially minor artist. An upper-middle-class WASP who came up in the folk scene without ever pretending he wanted to be one of the folk, he's the son of a famous journalist who studied acting in college and has the meager intuitive musicality that background would imply (although it's deepened with the years along with his voice, which needed it). In addition, Wainwright is kind of a dick. His dozens upon dozens of intelligent songs about his emotional life never convey the deep decency of his contemporary John Prine or his first wife Kate McGarrigle. He's too jocose, too snide, too repressed.

Minor is a lousy look for somebody hoping to sell a four-CD box plus bonus DVD that will set you back 50 bucks. Who does he think he is--Yes? Yet one odd thing about 40 Odd Years is that the title speaks for itself. Wainwright may not have Prine's heart or McGarrigle's tonsils, but compared to either he's been amazingly persistent and prolific. In 1993 he put out a live best-of called Career Moves. Complain that 11 of those songs are repeated here if you like. I'll note that eight are not, and that any of them would fit right in if it was--he's got a whole lot of material. Career Moves came out 18 years ago, which means that all of the third disc here was recorded later, just as all of the "Rare & Unreleased" fourth was essentially unavailable until the box appeared. Moreover, and extraordinary for these extravaganzas, the fourth disc is not crap--not close. Most of the songs are new to us and many are superb, including the pathetic "Laid" (hers are saggy, his is small), the elegiac "Hank and Fred" (Williams and Rogers as co-equals), the post-9/11 "No Sure Way" (among the victims, a subway stop), and the horseman-pass-by "Dead Man," which mourns his dead father and his soon-dead self with equal dispassion.

What makes Wainwright a good box candidate is that so many of his 24 albums on 14 labels are uneven enough to repay cherry-picking. What makes him a bad one is that quite a few of them are worth hearing on their own--Grown Man, say. Not all of these songs will make you say umm the moment it comes on. But the first half of the first disc is astonishing proof of how much pizzazz he had just joking around, with even less heart and tonsils than he's grown since. And later in the set, many of the songs you don't first recognize grow on you fast and sometimes big. "Hollywood Hopeful" is a hoot, "So Many Songs" anything but, "When I'm at Your House" in between.

Then there's that DVD. It's over three hours, way too long for one sitting and just plain way too long. Beginning with a one-hour Dutch documentary from the '90s and augmented throughout by interviews and patter, it's mostly performance clips that date all the way back to the '70s--some of which offer up keepers the CDs missed, my personal favorite being his best political song, which in a typical twist concerns figure-skating lowlife Tonya Harding. Tour-based as it has to be, this exhaustive and exhausting audiovisual record leaves a powerful overall impression of an odd man out who has spent 40 years alone on the road. It helps you admire his persistence and understand why he's a dick. It strongly suggests that his difficulties with human relationships led to the life he chose rather than vice versa.

The thing is, his difficulties with human relationships have combined with his obsessive craft to produce an unparalleled bunch of songs about family life. "Your Mother and I," "Your Father's Car," his indelible version of Peter Blegvad's "Daughter"--even if your family history is less neurotic than Wainwright's, as it probably is, you can recognize its dynamics in the man's endless self-examination, bitter analysis, and joking around. Some of the more generalized laughs get old eventually--it'll be a while before I need to hear "The Acid Song" again. But "Bein' a Dad" I could play right now.

Whether this experience is worth your 50 bucks is for you to figure out. But I'll tell you one thing. Wainwright didn't have the guts or good sense to include his greatest and most painful family song of all: Grown Man's "That Hospital." Try to check it out. Might clarify your decision, might not.

Tom Waits/Pusha T

Well, They Both Kind of Growl
Tuesday, November 29, 2011  

Tom Waits: Bad as Me (Anti-)
The three strongest tracks on Waits's most rocking album ever all feature not just Keith Richards but Tom's drummer son Casey--Richards alone doesn't rock as hard. Not to equate Casey Waits with Charlie Watts. But since "Chicago" invokes the Great Migration and "Satisfied" namechecks Mick Jagger himself, I believe the grooves on this album are thematic. Of course, the themes are thematic too. The carpet-bombing "Hell Broke Luce" and the one about bailing out millionaires while the rest of us murk around in the mud are low-life chronicles for a time when it would be stupid to ignore the historical connection between low-life and poverty per se. A MINUS

Pusha T: Fear of God II--Let Us Pray (GOOD/Decon/Re-Up Gang)
You know him--runs Clipse Cocaine LLC with his sharp-voiced brother Malice, who want you to know that, in the hallowed tradition of Handsome Dick Manitoba, music is just a hobby for them. The grand beats are safer than the clenched, confining, arrogantly hookless minimalism of Hell Hath No Fury. But every mean word delivers, and with cameos from Tyler the Creator to 50 Cent it's as if he never went solo. Like it or not, the volume dealer who raps for pocket money remains a good act--does he sound miserable in his thousand-dollar sneakers. Of course, we who buy our footwear online may prefer the price of the mixtape where half these tracks surfaced last spring. So maybe it would be poetic to try and obtain this improved version free as well. He won't spray us. That's just talk. A MINUS

MSN Music, November 2011

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