Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: December 2011

Pietra Montecorvino/The Sway Machinery

Drinking Deep From the Maghreb
Friday, December 2, 2011  

Pietra Montecorvino: Napoli Mediterranea (Taranta Power/Rai Trade)
A featured artist in the John Turturro documentary Passione!, Montecorvino is a Neapolitan actress born in 1962 whose recording career began at 30. This album, dated 2003 on my copy, has seen at least four releases since then, and as music solely, with no lyrical clues beyond titles with "luna" and "mare" in them, its understatement is riveting. What Montecorvino wants the world to hear is the beatwise romantic grit of the Maghreb, where so many of her home port's most recent immigrants began their hard lives, reinvigorating the sweet romantic melody Napoli's emigrants sentimentalize. Though usually the percussion and guitar sound Euro-American, at times you can hear ouds and darbukas in there, and Elvis fans need to know what she makes of "O sole mio." A MINUS

The Sway Machinery: The House of Friendly Ghosts, Vol. 1: Featuring Khaira Arby (JDub)
This strange record would mean less without the bound booklet written by guitarist-vocalist, cantor's grandson, and transcultural seeker Jeremiah Lockwood. And it would mean rather less than that without the three songs by Saharan diva Khaira Arby, whose own Timbuktu Tarab is more consistent but less gripping. The band comprises Lockwood, a drummer, and three horn players who add major oomph to Arby's stately, impassioned showcases. Camels grunt, children trill, women chant. And then there's Lockwood, a deeply pretentious guy who sometimes puts his transculturalism over, but don't count on it. Thank Allah that Arby contributes some backup vocals as well. Thank Jahweh too, I suppose. B PLUS

The Roots/Action Bronson

Improvements on Hip-Hop Materialism
Tuesday, December 6, 2011  

The Roots: Undun (Def Jam)
It speaks well for their strength of mind that Jimmy Fallon hasn't just been good for their economic viability--he's been good for their music. But superb though their 2008 and 2010 records were, and admirable though their equipoise has been, concept albums are such sinkholes that the partial success of this reverse-chronological tale of a doomed small-time hood is more surprising than its partial failure. Maybe I could work out plausible meanings for every song like some exegete brushing the cobwebs off "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." But all song cycles have holes in them, and really, just exactly what level of sagacity do we expect from Black Thought--or Bob Dylan, for that matter? What I get from Black Thought, as usual, is flashes of insight and articulated feeling. The sharpest verse here is Dice Raw's on "One Time," which along with "The Otherside" is the closest the song cycle comes to a stand-alone song. So what I get from the album as a whole isn't a feel for the fictional Redford Stephens. It's the pop refrains, Euro orchestrations, and simplified drumming absorbed by a sound that shows no sign of standing pat. B PLUS

Action Bronson: Dr. Lecter (Fine Fabric Delegates)
So much more consumable than Jacob or Hublot, the food Bronson fixates on never gets fancier than heirloom tomatoes or seared Ahi tuna--no cross-hatched merganser breast with lychee infusion and truffle garnis for this fat guy. With crucial propulsion and more crucial fun from no-name Tommy Mas's unfashionably sampled, unfashionably funky beats, his gluttony humanizes hip-hop materialism at an economically accessible level. If only he didn't treat women as meat like thousands of hip-hop hungries before him, I might even play it for my favorite cook at dinnertime. Instead, the follow-up Well Done trades in his homie Tommy on the more renowned and predictable Statik Selektah as it seeks revenge for the bad romance the fat guy had coming. B PLUS

Lookin' Fine on Television

By Nadya & Bob Gruen (MVDvisual)
Friday, December 9, 2011  

Nadya & Bob Gruen: Lookin' Fine on Television (MVDvisual)

"You had to see them live," say people trying to explain why everyone doesn't love the New York Dolls. I've always thought this was bushwa myself. The Dolls put out two great, enduring albums on Mercury in the '70s--New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon--and more than three decades later followed with an even more unlikely masterpiece: 2006's prophetically entitled One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. Many people love these albums without benefit of live exposure, and as someone who saw them many times between 1972 and 1975, I have dutifully checked out club recordings of varying legitimacy without finding one I played again after the pan was finished. Yet I do know several converts who went back to the Mercurys after the reunion shows of the '00s: David Johansen and Syl Sylvain plus sidemen, the other three having died by then. So if you've never gotten the Dolls, maybe you should give this DVD a try.

And if you're a fan, you definitely should, because unlike those lousy club tapes this document does convey aspects of the Dolls' magic during their brief heyday that the studio albums hint at indirectly if at all. Don't expect crystalline sound or snazzy visuals from this footage, which was shot in blurry black-and-white on portable video cameras by ace rock photographer and passionate Dolls fan Bob Gruen and his wife Nadia Beck. But augmented by offstage business and a few interviews, including one by ace rock reporter and passionate Dolls fan Lisa Robinson, it reminded me and my date from back then of just how vital and unprecedented this band was. Johnny Thunders, whose junkie years falling off the stage on the beat with the Heartbreakers left quite an impression, is especially heartbreaking: neither tall nor a muscleman, he exudes the confidence that comes with a naturally sculpted torso, healthy skin tone, and Roman-schnozzed good looks. What happened to his pre-Dolls band? "They kicked me out because I was a creep."

The Dolls, of course, made being a creep an art form. Says their most experienced musician, drummer Jerry Nolan: "I've been playing so long and I never advanced. That's why I'm with these guys." The polka-dotted Sylvain represents for "good old Queens." Arthur Kane, a big geeky guy wearing sunglasses approximately the size of his head, speaks of his dreams in a faint lisp. And Johansen camps it up shamelessly even if he stole some of his moves from Mick Jagger. With glam still mostly a rumor, the Dolls wave hippiedom goodbye by accentuating genuine gender ambiguity at a moment when mere long hair was identified with Samson, Tecumseh, and Robert Plant. Yet the crowd up front is dominated by the same kind of girls-gone-wild blondes who regularly show up on individual Dolls' arms.

The greatest secret of Lookin' Fine on Television is that the Gruens were such fans, and as such shot so many shows they easily avoided the built-in tedium of live video. Instead of cutting to closeups of the guitarist's deft fingerwork and the drummer's ferocious barrage, ha ha ha, they cut to other performances of the same song. The sound being what it is, you can sometimes detect lip-synching anomalies, but not often--Johansen was unpredictable, but he knew what he was doing. Instead what you get is the wittiest clothes sense in pop history. All of them had a knack for costume--Sylvain now designs accessories professionally. But Johansen is the focus for good reason. By my count, which may be compromised by the soft focus and by Johansen's tendency to doff and don hats and such while performing, the Gruens meld eight different performances into the opening "Lookin' for a Kiss," during which Johansen wears black training bra over slim-cut pants, gray Edwardian jacket, illustrated glitter jacket, fur-and-glitter jacket, top hat with white coat-and-tails, tailored black jacket with ruffled shirt, broad suspenders over white shirt, and tight white top. Later come shirtless-with-bowtie, shirtless-with-dickie, shirtless-with-suspenders, shirtless-with-painter-pants, sailor cap with short black jacket, vertical-striped shirt-and-pants, sheer red (I'm guessing) wet-look shirt, cowboy hat with bandanna, Marilyn T, pearl choker.

Farewell to hippiedom indeed. Now do you see why it was so much fun to see them? There are 14 songs all told here, and they're great too. But for them you can buy the albums.

Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits/Wee Hairy Beasts

The 12 shopping Days Till Christmas
Tuesday, December 13, 2011  

Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits (1955-Present) (Rhino '89)
"Present" was a misrepresentation even in 1989--nine of these 10 songs in 27 minutes were hits between 1956 and 1964, and will presumably mean more to those who were young back then. I was, and I play this record with pleasure every "holiday season," cough cough. Between the mildly defiant rock and roll compromises of Bobby Helms and Brenda Lee, the kiddie novelties proved durable even though you never liked the Chipmunks and never heard of Barry Gordon, the Drifters' alternative "White Christmas," Charles Brown and Elvis Presley sexing it up, and the secular piety of the Harrys Simeon and Belafonte, it's a testimony to pop culture's eternal need to put mildly untraditional twists on the holy holy holy (and why the hell wasn't there a "Twistin' Santa"?). Then there's the capper and chronological ringer, Elmo 'n Patsy's 1983 smash "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"--a cornily deadpan, cheerfully macabre tall tale that will have romantics idealizing the old weird America for as long as Christmas is commercialized. A

Wee Hairy Beasties: Holidays Gone Crazy (Wee Beatz '08)
Kiddie music risks ick even when a curmudgeon like Jon Langford is cleaning the snot off its nose--cf. too much of 2006's Animal Crackers (although not "I'm an A.N.T," sung to the tune of Muddy Waters's "I'm a Man"). My theory is that by the time of this follow-up, he had a kid old enough to ask, "Hey Dad, what's that little arm sticking out of your bellybutton--looks like there's a little man . . ." There is, and he's "not known for his liberal views," unlike Rick Cookin' Sherry, whose interjected P.S.A.'s warn of the dangers of shoveling snow and eating your vegetables--dangers that pale before those of "Dinosaur Christmas": "Wrapped up in her stocking/There's a human for a pet." That Langford--always with the sense of history. A MINUS

Scott Miller/Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks

Cheese Logs--Yummy
Friday, December 16, 2011  

Scott Miller: Christmas Gift (FAW)
Easy once he thought of it, right? Appalachia-oriented American and Russian history degree holder Miller picks 'em (guitar-banjo "Ode to Joy," harmonica-piano "Holy, Holy, Holy") and picks 'em (John Prine's beloved "Christmas in Prison," Roger Miller's forgotten "Old Toy Trains"). Writes one, too--his very own "Yes, Virginia," about how there is a Santa Claus, and there are also lots of relatives. These are both good things as far as he's concerned. And for the duration of an EP, they are. A MINUS

Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks: Crazy for Christmas (Surfdog)
Crazy because he's always been pleasantly nuts, but also because he's crazy not just as a result of but about Christmas, which as all Christmas fans know is a combination with a shot at making the holiday as full of good cheer as it's supposed to be. Scatting "Here Comes Santa Claus" as one retro strategy among many, Hicks lays out an "Old Fashioned Christmas" complete with "Bethlehem scene on the lawn/And a picture of Rudolph in the john" as the elves in "Santa's Workshop" paint millions of wooden boats and planes. Remember wood? This is a good-humored sixtysomething who wants to teach his grandkids the old-timey verities. Then he'll take a nap. B PLUS

Bachata Roja/Vijana Jazz Band

Oldies but Goodies, Pained and Jocose
Tuesday, December 20, 2011  

Bachata Roja: Amor y Amargue (iASO)
This introduction to Dominican son was "recorded live to 2-track," sniffs the same label's co-released Bachata Legends, in which the original artists re-record decades-old classics smoothly and even beautifully but seldom enthrallingly. What the original vocals lacked in accomplished ease they made up and then some in quirky intensity, and they weren't anything like amateurish. With more at stake professionally and personally, these young singers grabbed onto the "bitterness" at the heart of their barrio-bohemian genre so as to dramatize not only the pain of thwarted love but the hunger for public identity that eats at a people after half a century of tyranny. Sometimes it's almost like they're crying. A MINUS

Vijana Jazz Band: The Koka Koka Sex Battalion: Rumba, Koka Koka & Kamata Sukuma: Music From Tanzania 1975-1980 (Sterns)
One band with two names so it could record over quota when it managed the journey to the studio in Nairobi, Vijana Jazz Band and its Koka Koka Sex Battalion doppelganger favored the typical East African iteration of soukous's rippling guitars. Sometimes this approach is compared to country music, but that's a metaphor, not a musical analogy--these guys aren't true soloists, and rarely is Nashville guitar so ramshackle. In East African rumba, guitars provide atmosphere more than content. The content's in the jocosely hectoring vocals and single-line saxophone interjections, which with this enjoyable little band are numerous and various enough to engage non-Swahili speakers who find some of the melodies warm and others tepid. B PLUS

Rihanna/David Guetta

Good Old Rock and Roll, 2011 Style
Friday, December 23, 2011  

Rihanna: Talk That Talk (Deluxe Edition) (Def Jam)
Musically, this is pop without shame--her hookiest and most dance-targeted album, decorated with a thoughtful assortment of suitably titillating blats, noodles, dubs, groans, hiccups, boom-booms, cut-ups, speed-ups, xx samples, and spoken-word bits. Lyrically, it celebrates the relationship of sex to love rather than pain, dipping predictably on the heart songs and theme statements that slow down the second half, especially on the standard edition. Associating carnality with love as I do, I prefer it to her earlier albums because I find its many porny moments titillating. Sure BeyoncÚ is sexier in principle--I like smart girls, not bad girls, especially bad girls with a thing for worse men. But I believe in taking my titillation wherever it raises its spongy head. A MINUS

David Guetta: Nothing but the Beat (Astralwerks/Capitol)
In which the Frenchman who inflicted the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" on a hapless America--brute! vulgarian! snailsucker! 'ho!--bids for chart success as if he needs to be more famous than he already is. All power synths and squirmy earworms, dated beats and neutered Snoop Dogg, it offends club sophisticates no less than living-room discophobes. But with four-on-the-floor dance music the nearest the actually popular pop world came to mindless rocking out in 2011, I only wish it had a few "I Gotta Feeling"s. Still, the two Nicki Minaj features come close, Taio Cruz does what he's sposed to for once, the preachment makes its escapist statement, and neutering Snoop is fine with both me and the ASPCA. Front-loaded in this 13-track Americanski version--as a reward for their sophistication, the Europeans get to fatten up on excess instrumentals--it should slim down further by ditching the last two tracks and climaxing with the Jennifer Hudson love anthem "Night of Your Life," where it simulates the soul that elsewhere is so beside the point. B PLUS

Big K.R.I.T./Childish Gambino

Pimps 'n Wimps--Not
Tuesday, December 27, 2011  

Big K.R.I.T.: Return of 4Eva (free download)
"I ain't rap about dope nor do I sell it," raps a Mississippi "country boy" who's more mixed about pimping--maybe unreadable, maybe of two minds, maybe blurring the pimp sound and the pimp hustle. The sound he's definitely got down: a rich, comfortable funk he transports south from Willie Hutch's The Mack. And as befits someone who believes N.I.G.G.E.R. stands for "Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism" and gets life satisfaction from rotating his tires, his sound equals his hustle. Some may think his rhymes are too simple. I find "Some thangs are forever, nothin' ever last/Like the risin' of the sun or when Big Mama pass" pretty deep myself. B PLUS

Childish Gambino: EP (free download)
"Set the game ablaze I'm an arcade fire," Cheezy boasts, but because he "don't wanna be alone," he joins a clique of "freaks and geeks" where he's "down with the black girls of every single culture/Filipino, Armenian girls on my sofa," only they're not thick enough, so he'll "make music for wack blacks to blast back" until he finds "a small chick with a fat ass" ready to "make out with a Gap ad" who's "not a thug a/k/a what they pretend to be." Of course, the Gap ad in question isn't exactly a geek anymore. He's a stand-up comedian bringing intelligent rap to the masses, one one-liner at a time. B PLUS

Childish Gambino

Proving Himself
Friday, December 30, 2011  

Childish Gambino: Culdesac (free download)
Community regular, 30 Rock writer, and stand-up phenom Donald Glover brings more skills to the rap game than any pretender in years, fellow actor Drake included. His rhymes startle and amuse, his flow bubbles and snaps, his beats always get him where he's going, and on the expert pop song "Got This Money" he hits the high notes on his own. One reason hip-hop has no use for him is that high notes are his thing--delivering his rent-a-hook, Lil Jon sounds gangsta on comparative timbre alone. Another is that he didn't buy his $10,000 jacket by dealing rock or fronting about it over beats he bought too. "Welcome to the culdesac this is where the street ends," he taunts, and out of the great goodness of his heart he spent years giving records away and then touring behind them. Right, he's too keen on proving something even if all the success and sexcess stories are true. That's why I like him best when I'm surest he's lying, which is on that pop song: "I wanna feel you for real." A MINUS

Childish Gambino: Camp (Glassnote)
His seventh hip-hop longform--including the 2011 EP and two mixtapes where he rhymes inconclusively over indie-rock loops--is his most official, on quality bizzer Daniel Glass's indie label. Unified by choral and orchestral movie music for "the only black kid at a Sufjan concert," it's less surefire than Culdesac. But it's more satisfying emotionally, because the autobiography reaches deep: "My dad works nights, puttin' on a stone face/He's savin' up so we can get our own place/In the projects, man, that sound fancy to me/They call me fat-nose my mom say, 'You handsome to me'." Nevertheless, this black kid who got called "faggot" plenty--only "spell it right/I got way more than two G's"--still wants to make sure you know how much he gets laid. Fact is, in a textbook case of nerd-gets-famous syndrome, he almost certainly gets laid too much. But later for that. Master of the alphabet though he long has been, his big message is that work comes before women. A MINUS

MSN Music, December 2011

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