Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: January 2012

Piano Blues/19 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920s

Blues With a Freshness
Tuesday, January 3, 2012  

Piano Blues: A Film by Clint Eastwood (Columbia/Legacy '03)
Branding being a fact of musical life, title listings often cite series overseer Martin Scorsese, who only wishes he had ears like his subcontractor's. The first 16 tracks here are so historically astute--and skip so gracefully from instrumental to occasional vocal, from boogie-woogie to big band--you could almost call them, well, curated. So much of it is absolutely classic that it's kind of a shame that the last four tracks were newly recorded under Eastwood's supervision even though Dr. John co-owns "Big Chief," the Pinetop Perkins-Marcia Ball duet gives the octogenarians and the ladies some, and the other two ain't bad either. This is the record to put on when you feel like some blues but aren't in a guitar mood. "What'd I Say" and "Tipitina" it's hard to hear too many times. The Ellington-Mingus-Roach "Backward Country Boy Blues," which had passed from my mind, is almost as good. A

19 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's: Vol. 9 (Blues Images)
Since 2004 this company has released blues CDs to accompany handsome blues calendars illustrated with old ad, sleeve, and catalog pix. Showcasing the Paramount 78s proprietor John Tefteller collects, those I've heard have been good albeit patchy. This one is better--not perfect, but a surprising country blues and jug band anthology undiminished by eight of the rarities blues collectors dote on and normals yawn at. The three gritty Blind Joel Taggarts are pretty generic, but Lane Hardin's forbearing head voice and Jenny Pope's cutting soprano are as satisfying as anything on the record, adding a freshness even for a duffer like me. Other highlights include two Tampa Red takes on "Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here," with future gospel luminary Georgia Tom Dorsey and vaudeville wise guy Frankie Jaxon; Ora Brown's near-classic "Jinx Blues" and Ida Cox's altogether classic "Fogyism"; Harum Scarum's feet-airing "Come On In (Ain't Nobody Here)"; and a two-sided Blind Blake called "Rope Stretchin' Blues" that equals anything on his best-of. You can buy the CD alone, but at $19.95 I'd spring for the calendar package, which Tefteller warns is going fast. The calendar doubles as liner notes, for one thing. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 003

Ain't No Party Like an Alt-Rap Party 'Cause an Alt-Rap Party's So Unfashionable
Friday, January 6, 2012  

Canibus: C of Tranquility (iM)
He talks too much about how good he is only because nobody else will--and he is, damn it, he is ("Pine Comb Poem," "Golden Terra of Rap") ***

Scroobius Pip: Distraction Pieces (Strange Famous)
MCs all secretly believe they can do it on their own, but even the smart ones are a little too full of their own words ("Let 'Em Come," "Try Dying") ***

Del the Funky Homosapien: Golden Era (The Council)
For three highly listenable CDs--incorporating the previously download-only Automatik Statik and Funk Man--impeccable rapper's electro beats don't stop and only occasionally rise above ("Calculate," "Dzl Funk," "Fit Like a Glove") ***

Murs: Love and Rockets Vol 1: The Transformation (DD172/Bluroc)
Quality alt-rapper tells the world how solid his career is with essential beats from solid careerist Ski Beatz, goes out on uncommonly anti-homophobic finale ("Animal Style," "316 Ways") **

Open Mike Eagle: Unapologetic Art Rap (Mush)
"Ain't no party like an art rap party 'cause an art rap party's so smart" ("Helicopter," "Mole in Your Ministry," "WTF Is Art Rap?") **

Awol One & Factor: The Landmark (Fake Four)
Depressive emo-rapper seeks help--good for him ("Daze Go By," "Don't Be Afraid") **

Lupe Fiasco: Lasers (Atlantic)
Catchier when he's articulating his ill-informed politics than when he's making nice to the big bad record company he doesn't actually defy, now does he? ("All Black Everything," "Words I Never Said") *

Pharoahe Monch: W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (W.A.R. Media/Duck Down Music Inc.)
"Our revolutionaries want Grammys and Oscars/Making a mockery of the music to be pop stars," so this revolutionary makes a sermon of it instead, which doesn't work either until Jean Grae adds her mojo ("Assassins," "Haile Selassie Karate") *

Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx/Gorillaz

Tinkering With the Funky Homosapien
Tuesday, January 10, 2012  

Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx: We're New Here (XL)
The Richard Russell-produced original of the revolutionary-poet-turned-brokedown-crack-addict's first studio album in 16 years strove respectfully to put a good face on--who exactly? The "survivor"? The "outsider"? The "revolutionary"? The hip-hop godfather? The colorful old black guy? Granting that the moving force was Russell, my Honorable Mention stands: "The premise isn't 'I'm new here,' it's 'I'm not dead,' and he strains mightily to get 28 spare minutes out of it." A year later Scott-Heron was in fact dead, and a year after that came this radical remix, which to my mind respects Scott-Heron more truthfully by chopping him to bits. This Scott-Heron is a drug fiend of considerable perversity and tremendous intelligence who's gonna be dead soon. Jamie xx hears in his last testament an irreversible disintegration that he translates into heavily sampled minimalist electro marked indelibly by Scott-Heron's weariness, arrogance, and wit. In part it's just a young man's bad dream about mortality, and of interest as such. But the snatches of Scott-Heron's voice, cracked for sure but deeper than night nonetheless, delivers it from callow generalization and foregone conclusion. A MINUS

Gorillaz: The Singles Collection 2001-2011 (Virgin)
Their synthbeat-meets-comix concept got over as pop because it found a mildly playful and pleasurable way to enact well-meaning self-effacement, which was how Damon Albarn disarmed the world well before designing a virtual band for the era of electronic interpersonal multi-tasking between unknowable avatars. As far as he's concerned, that isn't humanity sitting up "On Melancholy Hill"--it's a manatee, who got there by means only a cartoonist could grasp. Note, however, that he invokes real-life humanity in an all too traditional way: via such living persons of African descent as Bobby Womack, Neneh Cherry, De La Soul, and the affably virtuosic Del the Funky Homosapien. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 004

Afro-Beat Byways
Friday, January 13, 2012  

Yes We Can: Songs About Leaving Africa (Out Here)
The new Afropop reality--a continent's worth of emigre Afrorap (Afrikan Boy, "Lidl"; Matador Feat. Gor Mak, "Xippol Xol") ***

Afro-Beat Airways (Analog Africa)
Best proof yet that there was Afrobeat beyond Fela--though no frontmen like Fela, and some of it's kinda highlife, and some of it's from Togo, and there's loads of organ throughout (K. Frimpong & His Cubano Fiestas, "Me Yee Owu Den"; Orchestre Abass, "Awula Bo Fee Ene") ***

The Rough Guide to African Guitar Legends (World Music Network)
Less than the sum of its oft-familiar parts, several of which you can do without a lot easier than you can Syran M'Benza's bonus Franco album (Eric Agyeman, "Nea Abe Beto"; Henry Makobi, "Omulanga Wamuka") ***

Boubacar Traoré: Mali Denhou (Lusafrica)
When you're pushing 70 and your voice sounds it, you earn fewer charm and texture points in Bambara than in English ("Mali Denhou," "N'Dianamogo") **

Seun Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt 80: From Africa With Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory)
Heir apparent with less to prove and nothing new to prove it with--except, uh-oh, new musicians ("African Soldier," "Mr. Big Thief") **

Sia Tolno: My Life (Lusafrica)
She's from Sierra Leone, she's trilingual, and it sounds more like her career than her life to me ("Blamah Blamah," "Ayiboh") *

Femi Kuti: Africa for Africa (Knitting Factory)
Still too entitled, still too grand, at long last a little smarter ("Obasanjo Don Play Yoy Wayo," "Politics in Africa") *

Sidi Touré & Friends: Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey)
Pretty much what the title would lead you to figure, which is far from everything you'd hope ("Haallah," "Waya zarrabo 'Women Madness'") *


Historical Alienation Reconsidered
Tuesday, January 17, 2012  

Mekons: Ancient & Modern: 1911-2011 (Sin)
I had to play this two dozen times on faith before it came clear--too many, don't you think? What kept me on it was the ingrained musicality of a bunch of jokers who've evolved into a sonic organism even though they never see each other anymore, defined by "afar and forlorn" Welshman-for-life Tom Greenhalgh, who three decades in is a singer you love or you don't. Having given up on changing the world and without much hope of comprehending it before it kills them, they convene here to record 11 obscure, fraught, forlorn songs written, near as one can tell, from the POV of middle-to-ruling class Britons negotiating the political turmoil before World War I. There will be victories for a working class that's called by its rightful name. But they won't be enough. They never are. Near as one can tell. A MINUS

Destroyer: Kaputt (Merge)
With Daniel Bejar's latest band sound already compared to everything from Aja and Avalon to late New Order, I'll take, um--Pet Shop Boys! Forgoing the rock expressionism he lacks the heart or chops for, Bejar bends Neil Tennant's bemused calm toward an acerbic subtlety suitable for deflecting one's historical anomie. Mix in a smoove groove suitable for deflecting others' disinterest in one's historical anomie and you have intelligent lounge music for 21st-century depressives. The X factor is trumpeter JP Carter, who no one will mistake for Chuck Mangione because he's there not for jazz cred but to stick it to the guitars Bejar lacks the heart and chops to stand up against. This is how the pleasure principle feels to an alienated unbeliever resigned to engaging the world on his own perverse terms. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 005

Pazz & Jop Comments 2011
Friday, January 20, 2012  

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy (4AD)
Adele and Gaga watch your backs, lest she take art-rock pop ("Cheerleader," "Dilettante," "Cruel") ***

The Weeknd: House of Balloons (XO download)
If coming leaves your penis feeling that bad, fella, remember that they're not called narcotics for nothing ("Wicked Games," "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls") ***

Adele: 21 (XL/Columbia)
Part of me likes how many albums this proud white-soul normal has sold, but the part that likes fast ones wins ("Rolling in the Deep," "Rumour Has It") **

Drake: Take Care (Cash Money/Universal Republic)
Musical docudrama proves conclusively that having too much money is bad for you, so how come no one gets the point? ("Make Me Proud," "Headlines") **

Girls: Record 3: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (True Panther/Fantasy Trashcan)
Phil Spector overstated his feelings too, and look where it got him ("Honey Bunny," "Magic") **

Wye Oak: Civilian (Merge)
Rising into exultation, fading into doubt ("Holy Holy," "Civilian") **

Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
Darker and more socially conscious than their escapist admirers or their ideological detractors are equipped to notice ("Helplessness Blues," "Someone You Admire") *

The Black Keys: El Camino (Thrill Jockey)
With advice from Master of All Soundscapes Danger Mouse, they construct a loud blooze-rawk one, complete with song outlines ("Lonely Boy," "Run Right Back") *

Ani DiFranco/Bhi Bhiman

Two Albums That Begin With Excellent Songs About Homelessness, and There Will Be More
Tuesday, January 24, 2012  

Ani DiFranco: ¿Which Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe)
After a decade of futzing around, of music so overthought that even her best-of couldn't make a case for it, this one's like re-encountering a friend who drifted away after she took a bad job or married a jerk. Both of which might have happened--nobody she signed to Righteous Babe did much for her bottom line, and the nuptials that ruffled her feminist faithful in 1998 ended badly in 2003. Now, finally, her first album since she married her five-year-old's father is as fresh as Lisa Lee at the top of the key. With Uncle Pete signing on via banjogram, the title song announces a political renewal so focused on the three-syllable F-word that it includes an E.R.A. anthem. But for DiFranco the political has always been personal, which doesn't mean private and can mean intellectualized, as in "Promiscuity." The singing on the homelessness tale that opens is as emotionally accomplished as its assumed first-person is formally atypical. The one that reads "If yr not getting happier as you get older/then yr fucking up" is her true credo. A MINUS

Bhi Bhiman: Bhiman (Redeye)
In an unruffled show of assimilative will, this Sri Lankan American 29-year-old channels John Hurt and the Staple Singers into sweet, firm folksongs about injustice's cruelty and love's confusions--and is funnier about both than, as a random instance, Van Morrison. The stolid beats define the limits of his Americanization. But from the first strums of "The Guttersnipe," the melodies are universal language at its most outgoing. A MINUS

Himanshu/Tha Grimm Teachaz

Alt-Rap Altered
Friday, January 27, 2012  

Himanshu: Nehru Jackets (free download)
Following his partner Kool A.D.'s more scattered Palm Wine Drinkard mixtape by just a few weeks, Das Racist's Heems comes up with a free album highlighted by two songs as strong as anything on Relax: "Womyn," a theological codicil to the devotional "Booty in the Air," and "NYC Cops," a brutal, fact-filled catalogue of people of color dead by peace officer. It dips in the middle, and though the PSAs from Ravi Shankar and, if I'm not mistaken, the late great Jocko Henderson sustain themselves, the up-and-comer cameos--Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Mr. Muthafuckin Ed, Puerile Gambino--make you wish the new veteran would jump back in. And then, starting with the quasi-autobiographical "Desi Shoegaze Taiko" two thirds of the way in, the material rights itself so smartly you'd think he could do this forever. So remember that he can't and get it while you can. A MINUS

Tha Grimm Teachaz: There's a Situation on the Homefront (Breakfast)
Dennehy: The Prequel--the newly unearthed 1993 album by DKz and his buddy PMDF, later known as Serengeti's phone repairman pal Kenny Dennis and Serengeti's partner in hip-hop-twice-removed Hi-Fidel. It's a typically elaborate joke about the silliness of what some now romanticize as rap's golden age, with its funk loops and Hiroshima-meaner-Regina-schemer-carpet cleaner-Pasadena-Beemer-Ipanema rhymes. Yet as always with Serengeti, it's filled with affection for the things it mocks. A mite specialized, sure. But funny, musical, and also warm. A MINUS

Leonard Cohen/EMA

"And Let the Heavens Hear It/The Penitential Hymn"
Tuesday, January 31, 2012  

Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (Columbia)
So subtly that it takes forever to sink in and so slowly that reading along is a must, Cohen coughs up his first studio album in eight years, meaning his next is due when he's 85 unless he dies first, which seems to be his bet. Except maybe for Johnny Cash's, no death album has ever come across quite this somber. Since Cohen generated the succulent 2009 Live in London as well as the prunelike 2010 Songs From the Road during the never-ending tour that intervened, it's conceivable that he's playing up the fragility of his crumbling baritone to back that bet as the usual panoply of handmaidens provides soul, sweetening, and breathing room. But give it its long chance and you'll find that not only is Cohen's sense of humor alive and kicking from the first words, in which Cohen famously ventriloquizes for Jahweh himself, but that the final song is keyed to the refrain "You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone." Naturally, what he wants to leave alone is left ambiguous--his feckless, lubricious, needy, expert way of making love, or making love itself? If the former, what's this "saved by a blessed fatigue"? And if the latter, what's this "her braids and her blouse all undone"? Eight years younger than Cohen myself, I wouldn't be surprised if it's both, and don't look forward to the relevant critical insights the future will almost certainly afford me. A MINUS

EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions)
Erika Anderson claims "Zen nihilism" is what you get growing up on South Dakota's bleak prairie under South Dakota's endless sky, which sounds reasonable until you start counting how many South Dakotans feel this way: approximately one. So insofar as she pretends her willful pose is the holy truth, she's annoying. What saves that pose is the willful power of a presentation less Courtney Love or Chan Marshall than PJ Harvey--"nothin and nothin and nothin and nothin" as an emotional reality that's her truth whether she's maxing out on free love or playing Russian roulette with a butterfly knife. B PLUS

MSN Music, January 2012

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