Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2012

Sleigh Bells/Cloud Nothings

Sometimes/I Feel I Gotta Get Away/Bells Chime/I Know I Gotta Get Away
Friday, March 2, 2012  

Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (Mom + Pop)
I'm happier than I would have figured that they've cut down on their distortion-flaunting pile-of-sound shtick. Several times, in fact, Derek Miller makes me love guitar sounds as bell-like as Alexis Krauss's crystalline soprano, as tapered as her gorgeous gams. Then there's the dying siren that repeats addictively through "You Lost Me"--the one that makes me say, So what if the lyric is about singing from the grave, death is real, and anyway, I really want to hear that sound again right about--yeah! After all, "Comeback Kid" does stay positive no matter how brutally Miller pummels his own riffs with that drum sample. That's nice, right? Elsewhere it's just sweet sensation. Succumb--succumb. A MINUS

Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory (Carpark)
Although his voice is lower and his guitar solos are longer, the idea that Dylan Baldi has therefore achieved some sort of maturity is silly. Come on--the guy's 20. His attack on memory isn't a young hero jousting with history, it's a callow confusenik trying to forget: that It's all been done before, sure, but that's the least of it. How about: Life is hard and then you die? Or: Old people have all the stuff? Or: I don't have a clue what the world will be like when I'm 40? Or merely: 40--that's two times 20, God!? These are all honorable thoughts that have required reiteration and adjustment for as long as I've been alive. Slight individual recalibrations of the noize-toon continuum have oft proved useful in getting them under control. Such recalibrations are harder than they look and much harder than most confuseniks assume. Congrats to Baldi for getting one right. A MINUS

Todd Snider/The Magnetic Fields

What's So Funny?
Tuesday, March 6, 2012  

Todd Snider: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless/Thirty Tigers)
Musically, these are not complex songs, and although Snider's boyish air never seems forced and his good humor always comes with laughs, his 45-year-old voice bears the gravelly traces of many sleepless nights. Yet for the third time since he kicked opiates in 2004, he's scored a full album's worth of new material that remains completely in a character unique to him while adding something new to that character. This time what's new is a band sound shambolically anchored by John Prine's New Orleans-raised drummer Paul Griffith and cunningly colored by fiddler Amanda Shires. What's also new but less surprising is an ever more explicit and uncompromising class animus. One song names the Abacus Fund Goldman Sachs and John Paulson conned unions with. Another begs to differ with the privileged canard that living well is the best revenge. Uh-uh, Snider sez. Revenge is the best revenge. A

The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
These 15 song-puzzles in 34:20 are sophisticated amusements all, although often the amusement is attenuated and one I get bored with before half its 2:38 is over. How amusing they prove over time remains, of course, to be determined. Most amusing: "Your Girlfriend's Face" and "I'll Go Anywhere With Hugh" (tie). Most--sorry, it's the right word--soulful: "Andrew in Drag." I note for the record that all three are among the first five tracks. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 007

Hip-Hop Doesn't Have to Try to Be Hard--It Damn Well Is Hard
Friday, March 9, 2012  

Speech Debelle: Freedom of Speech (Big Dada)
Atmospheric rapper conveys advanced thought and warm feelings with pliant voice, enveloping beats, and lyrics that have their sharper moments ("Studio Backpack Rap," "Collapse," "Shawshank") ***

Danny Brown: XXX (Fool's Gold)
"No apologies/For the misogyny," although students of the class system and serious cunnilingus fans might forgive him anyway ("Scrap or Die," "I Will") ***

Common: The Dreamer/The Believer (Think Common/Warner Bros.)
Still on a major label, he's damn well gonna act it ("Raw [How You Like It]," "The Believer") ***

Atmosphere: The Family Sign (Rhymesayers)
More memorable than many more interesting rappers as he singsongs medium-tempo of his mature values, his life as an entertainer, and his lost dog ("Became," "She's Enough") ***

K'Naan: More Beautiful Than Silence (A&M/Octone)
Too much to prove, and neither Nelly Furtado nor Nas can help ("Nothing to Lose," "Coming to America") **

Dark Time Sunshine: Vessel (Fake Four Inc.)
Seattle MC Onry Osborne ne Michael Martinez d/b/a Cape Cowen meets Chicago beatmaker Zamara for grown-up illbient that makes the most of the world's and its own incomprehensibility ("Vessel," "All Aboard") **

Tinie Tempah: Disc-Overy (Capitol)
Finally grime-ragga-whatevs produces one of the mildly likable commercial rappers we thought we had such a monopoly on ("Till I'm Gone," "Simply Unstoppable") *

Buck 65: 20 Odd Years Volume 4: Ostranenie (Warner Music Canada)
Maybe it's me--well, almost definitely it's me--but I like him better on baseball than on romance and on album than on EP ("Joey Bats," "Legendary") *

Karantamba/Rolling Stones

Rocking the Vaults
Tuesday, March 13, 2012  

Karantamba: Ndigal (Teranga Beat)
Gambian guitarist Bai Janha is best known as the leader of Guelewar, whose murky 2011-reissued Halleli N'Dakarou is slotted "psych" because some striver scored himself an organ. Much better this previously unreleased testament of Janha's last band, recorded in 1984 by the Malian-Danish bassist Moussa Diallo during Karantamba's residence at his club in Thiès, 35 miles east of Dakar. The personnel are unidentified young proteges of Janha who I surmise are mostly Senegalese, because no matter what Janha does or doesn't call it, these kids are playing some kind of mbalax--Islamic singing over sabar drums rattling away, horns adding sour decoration and commentary, Janha wailing. There was only one Étoile de Dakar. But this is a find, well-rehearsed yet bold and untamed. A MINUS

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls: Deluxe Edition (Universal Republic)
A major album, you knew that. But my grade is for the bonus disc, which--as I'd never have guessed after those drab Exile extras--has dibs on major as well. It outstrips not just It's Only Rock 'n Roll and Goats Head Soup but Tattoo You and probably Emotional Rescue (which several advisors insist I revisit). Where the regular album is musically quirky and lyrically either risky ("Some Girls," "Far Away Eyes") or generalized ("Respectable," "Beast of Burden," damn right "When the Whip Comes Down"), the bonus disc is musically classic-Stones and lyrically small-scale, including NYC specifics that warm my heart. Beginning with the Stu-does-Jerry-Lee bootleg fave "Claudine" and ending with the atypically near-political "Petrol Blues," its star player is a horny guy who just got divorced--a familiar character the classic Stones were made for. Mick's Hank Williams cover trumps Keith's Waylon Jennings cover. His Freddy Cannon cover trumps them both. A MINUS

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown

ByRJ Smith/Gotham Books/2012
Friday, March 16, 2012  

My favorite of the many excellent stories in RJ Smith's The One describes a gun hustle devised by James Brown's father Joe Brown, to whom Smith devotes more detailed and unfavorable attention than any other Brown biographer to date. Joe Brown and a confederate would approach any man visibly packing and challenge him to shoot them. When he didn't, they would take his gun. Simple once you think of it, right?

This story told me something I hadn't fully grasped about the roots of Brown's arrogance, which was as unmatched as his sense of rhythm in a calling that has made self-regard its currency since long before Little Richard or Al Jolson--since Charles Dibdin, say, or one of the Himalayan shamans Smith links plausibly to Brown. The One tells us more than we may want to know about Brown's people skills. It establishes that Joe Brown brutalized his son, who loved him all his life, as well as James's mother, who Smith believes was less absent than the singer always claimed. It documents James Brown's lifelong gun use, sometimes on the women he brutalized in turn--the Tammi Terrell sequence, which involves a hammer, is especially hard to take. It makes clear that he always supplemented his income from the multiple jobs he was working as of age eight by stealing whatever he could, and argues convincingly that his three years in youth detention taught him what he needed to know about the discipline he imposed on his bands for 50 years. It reports that his faithful guitarist Jimmy Nolen ordered his wife to convey to Brown his dying wish: that Brown treat his replacement better than he treated Jimmy Nolen.

Yet The One is no debunk, as even those who worship this incomparably crucial musician should understand. That's because--unlike Michael Jackson, say--Brown isn't loved as a saint but admired as a titan. All Smith does is put flesh on the control freak we already knew was there. And that isn't by any means the best, freshest, or most diligently researched thing about The One, because Smith excels in both his portrayal of Brown's specifically "Georgialina" and then also "Affrilachia" southernness and, even more important, his comprehension of Brown's art. He uncovers two crucial early Brown drummers: French Quarter-born Charles Connor and Clayton Fillyau, a Tampa-based Creole who got a life-changing lesson in the rhythmic concept of The One from Huey "Piano" Smith drummer Charles "Hungry" Williams. This prepares the way for a superb breakdown of the decisive tandem of the late '60s, when Brown was inventing funk and modern music: Mobile's Jabo Starks, steeped in both New Orleans second line and the stuttering float of Holiness soul-clapping, and Memphis's Clyde Stubblefield, whose straight eight provided a "strong, broad back for New Orleans drummers to climb on." But he's equally good on cheerful, acid-tripping troublemaker Bootsy Collins, who transferred the funk first from the drums to the bass and then from James Brown to George Clinton.

Although Brown got religion as his public power diminished, Smith makes the crucial point that when it came to gospel Brown "was of the music, but not quite of the faith." This is another way of saying he was his own God, his cape ritual an enacted rebirth that does indeed track back to shamanism even though Brown thought it up himself. He makes the link between Brown's nonstop touring and his prowess as a dancer who incorporated local moves from all over America into a single ever-evolving routine. He demonstrates that for all Brown's talk of black capitalism he was a terrible businessman--"analytic" to his bones, he couldn't delegate because he couldn't trust. But though he treated most of his musicians even worse than he treated Jimmy Nolen, his bandleading was beyond genius. "If you were with Brown for any length of time," Smith writes, "you understood what you would get out of it, and what would never be yours. If you wanted to be a star, this was not the place to be. If you wanted to get rich, or record your own music, or see your name on an album, that was not likely to happen. But if you wanted to see the world and play some amazing music for crowds huge and small, you could not do much better."

In fact, you could not do any better. Amen, Jimmy. Amen, Jabo. Amen, Clyde. Amen, Bootsy. Amen, Mr. Brown.

Fatoumata Diawara/The Lijadu Sisters

Sister Africa
Tuesday, March 20, 2012  

Fatoumata Diawara: Fatou (World Circuit)
A Wassoulou speaker who was born in Côte d'Ivoire and raised in Mali before pursuing an acting career in France, the subtlest desert diva to date is softer and warmer than the not dissimilar Rokia Traoré. Coming down as it does on the sleepy side of the line between entrancing and lulling that's walked by so many world-music hopefuls, her subtlety isn't necessarily a plus, and those who'd prefer a safer, cheaper taste can opt for Nonesuch's download-only Kanou EP, which highlights three of her more distinguished songs. But as it happens, my two favorites--the livelier "Bakanoba" and the twistier "Boloko"--are on this Nick Gold-produced import. And I promise I only found out "Boloko" opposed female circumcision after I'd connected to the music. B PLUS

The Lijadu Sisters: Mother Africa (Knitting Factory)
There was apparently a Shanachie best-of I never heard back in '84, but in this heyday of obscurantist crate-digging, now the entire four-album catalogue of these beauteous second cousins of Fela and Wole Soyinka will be released over a one-year span. The debut was Danger and it's lame, English-language moralism further weakening wan attempts at the pop equanimity the Shirelles and lesser females achieved so sweetly so long before. On this follow-up, though, the sustaining grooves the title half-promises buoy gentle soprano harmonies attached to messages I know enough not to be curious about. Instead there are the thrumming pressure drums, the clarinet obbligato that could be a soprano sax obbligato, the guitar solo that could be a synth solo, the spoken praise of the moon delivered by multi-instrumental mastermind Biddy Wright. All of which, I suspect, could be readily accommodated by a new best-of that also isolated a keeper on Danger itself. B PLUS

Tommy Womack

No, Not That Womack & Womack
Friday, March 23, 2012  

Tommy Womack: There, I Said It! (Cedar Creek '07)
Rising from the icky depths of the lyrically, vocally, and harmonically abject "A Songwriter's Prayer," a 40-year-old Nashville lifer finds solace in a forgotten WTF he wrote at 28 and by age 44 comes up with a bunch of new ones about bad jobs, fluorescent lighting, and low-grade cigarette, beer, and Xanax dependency. The climax would be the proud admission "I'm Never Gonna Be a Rock Star" except that the climax is the seven-minute must-hear "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood," a world-historically unromantic rocker about rock after 40. Also crucial is "Nice Day," about his boy and his wife and a friend's swimming pool. It won a prize. A MINUS

Tommy Womack: Now What! (Cedar Creek)
Reflective without wallowing in might-have-beens, his nasal drawl weary and at ease with itself, he's an established failure who's calmed down considerably for a pimple on Dylan's ass who believes the best thing about ADD is that it never bothers you too long. "90 Miles an Hour on a Dead End Street" is no advertisement for chianti just as "Pot Head Blues" is no advertisement for cannabis. In one strong song, he feels the heat of an old flame on a checkout line and is so glad the burns have healed. In several other strong songs, he pitches woo wifeward. A MINUS

Bruce Springsteen/Madonna

Give the Arena Some
Tuesday, March 27, 2012  

Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball (Columbia)
The first six tracks are all heavy irony shading over into murderous rage, with refurbished arena-rock to slam it home; it's perversely anti-political to lay any other interpretation on the opening "We Take Care of Our Own," which cites places "From the shotgun shack to the Superdome" where we--meaning the U.S.A. so many Americans weren't even born in--documentably haven't taken care of our own. It's protest music, damn right about moral abstractions rather than those finely limned characters good little aesthetes get gooey about, and for me a cathartic up. Second half's less of a scour, which the anti-political find a blessed relief and I find a forgivable nod to humanism and Clarence Clemons--especially since the climactic "We Are Alive" is so vulgar as to assume that all America's oppressed will rise up from the grave they share. To wreak vengeance, y'think? They got a right. A MINUS

Madonna: MDNA (Interscope)
Forget the four "Deluxe" extras, not one of which except maybe the pretty little "I Fucked Up" improves on the updated '90s arena-dance power tracks of the first 43 minutes, although they top the deadly-dreamy closer "Falling Free" as well as the penultimate "Masterpiece," which begins "If you were the Mona Lisa . . . ." Granted, I could mock "Ooh la la you're my superstar/Ooh la la that's what you are" just as easily. But lyrics have never been where she showed off her gorgeous brains, and anyway, the 10-track mix I propose as an alternative goes out on a real song called "Love Spent": "Hold me like your money/Tell me that you want me/Spend your love on me/Spend your love on me." Nikki Minaj shines bright, but she's no more crucial structurally than the cheerleaders who garnish "I'm Addicted" at its close and embellish "Give Me All Your Luvin'" throughout. Play loud. She's smart and she's proud. A MINUS

Albert Ammons/Masters of the Boogie Piano

Them Three Kings
Friday, March 30, 2012  

Albert Ammons: Boogie Woogie Stomp (Delmark '98)
The canonical recording is The First Day, Ammons's first studio session with Meade Lux Lewis, which launched Alfred Lion's even more canonical Blue Note label in 1938. But its status partly reflects the room it makes for Lewis's blues feeling, which in truth is nothing special--there are hundreds of better blues players across the spectrum, from Speckled Red to Otis Spann to Thelonious Monk. For the left-hand speed rolls and right-hand sparklers that are why the world cares about Ammons and Lewis, this knowledgeably annotated excavation tops the Blue Note easily. I'd prefer more duets, but although there may be something better out there, I doubt the improvement would justify the search. Most of it was recorded live at a radio broadcast from a Chicago hotel in 1939, which given how uncomplicated it is to mike a piano is of no sonic consequence; the last four songs are from a stray studio session. Eighteen tracks in all, most under three minutes and three under two, with Lewis taking half a dozen and Pete Johnson a pair. You want blues feeling, try Lewis's "Chapel Blues." You want Ammons to shout for joy, wait till he gets away from those radio guys and lets loose in the studio. A MINUS

Masters of the Boogie Piano (Delmark '03)
Or you could settle for the two tracks commandeered from the Ammons album--one Ammons, one Lewis, both mastered eight seconds faster--on this go-for-the-hips budget comp released to celebrate the Chicago label's golden anniversary. Jumping, as one reviewer wrote, from "fist-fingered old pros" to "lightning revivalists," its most breathless moment comes when Roosevelt Sykes's two-lane "North Gulfport Boogie" is passed on the left by Pete Johnson's four-lanes-and-counting "66 Stomp." And it's topped off by that special thing, an Ammons-Lewis-Johnson trio. A MINUS

MSN Music, March 2012

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