Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2012

Standard Fare/Allo Darlin'

Jangle On
Tuesday, May 1, 2012  

Standard Fare: Out of Sight, Out of Town (Melodic)
Tighter and/or tougher--the guys sharper and bigger, the gal exploiting her nasality to cut through. But unless you care that the objects of Emma Kupa's lust have become more explicitly female, which she herself makes very little of, what really differentiates this from 2010's The Noyelle Beat is that Kupa's now an old pal even if you didn't think about her once since then. Which she suspects maybe you didn't, because right beneath her forthright specificity lurks an edge of anxiety that portends trouble down the road--trouble that may be your fault. Kupa gets around not because she has a taste for the orgiastic like fellow janglers Los Campesinos! but because relationships go awry. She really wishes they wouldn't, or at least that's what she thinks. But partner by partner, she's still figuring it out. A MINUS

Allo Darlin': Europe (Slumberland)
The magic of the debut wasn't just that thing that happens with young bands when everything is new and bliss is just around the corner. It's that Elizabeth Morris recognized this illusion as an illusion and entered wholeheartedly into its ebullience anyway. But now the Old World's cold weather and cramped spaces are getting her down--her most irresistible new song, taken solo with ukulele, recalls a blistering summer day down under when they found a Go-Betweens tape in the car. Though her tempos have slowed half a turn, reducing the twee factor if that was a problem for you, her melodies are still very much there and her lyrics are sharp throughout. But she's no longer at all confident that talent will out or love endures--her "This is life, this is livin'" is more resigned than celebratory, copping to her suspicion that a great night in bed will never be repeated. So let me assure her that at least she hasn't "already met all the people that'll mean something." Some of them haven't even been born yet. And I don't mean the kids I bet she's not sure she'll ever have. A MINUS

Dr. John

A Full-Time Professional Since 1956
Friday, May 4, 2012  

Dr. John: The Very Best of Dr. John (Rhino '95)
Mac Rebennack was a studio musician for a full decade before launching his Night Tripper hustle, and that doesn't count the two years he spent in stir. Then and later, monkey perched perpetually on his back, he wrote a whole lot of songs, and too many of them are hackwork. Even on the two-CD Mos' Scocious the writing becomes a problem. But with one or two exceptions, this CD never lets up, epitomizing his biz-wise mastery of rhumba boogie and the second line. The two pop hits lead. The gris-gris tracks are songs not shtick. The three selections from Gumbo don't come near to exhausting it--couldn't expect him to pass up the wickedest "Junko Partner" ever recorded or the touchstone "Tipitina," which re-emerges in his whiskey-piano dash through Joe Liggins's "Honeydripper." And if you consider it suspicious that he chooses to climax with the same song that climaxed a dubious concept album three years before, see below. A

Dr. John: Goin' Back to New Orleans (Warner Bros. '92)
Seems dead in the water, a foregone conclusion waiting to happen. A cleaned-up Dr. consorts with Warner jazz guys and a numerically big band to erect "a tribute to the music of my hometown"--not his first, and hardly his last. Yet once again it seldom stumbles, not even when a femme quartet led by the distaff half of Shirley & Lee warbles the chorus of "Good Night Irene"--which, the Dr.'s expansive notes notwithstanding, wasn't written by Leadbelly at Angola Penitentiary or anywhere else (he adapted it much earlier from a 1880s minstrel tune by a biracial NYC duo, and that's what I love about the South). Rarely has the Dr. sung with more gusto, especially on the four comic songs about murder, infidelity, or both, and his cockamamy notion of hitching a gris-gris chant to a Louis Moreau Gottschalk composition sets a properly improbable mood. "Fess Up" is one of his trickiest Roy Byrd rips ever. Two Jelly Roll Mortons is about right. Even "Since I Fell for You" kind of fits. A MINUS

Don't Talk to the Cops/Death Grips

But It's a Good Idea to Yell at Them in a Really Scary Way!
Tuesday, May 8, 2012  

Don't Talk to the Cops!: Let's Quit (Greedhead download)
Not so easy to describe this Seattle duo, so just say dance-pop performance art that dares Justin Timberlake to take SNL into the studio with him. The very silly third track "Murderburger--Official Motion Picture Trailer" suggests that their true calling is sketch comedy, but then the "Laos! Laos! Laos! Laos!" mini-chant leads to "Swag Treated Treated Swag"'s "I know you like my glasses" leads to the electro-jumpy "Tip Toe Right By 'Em." And soon you realize that this electro has more pop than most. B PLUS

Death Grips: The Money Store (Epic)
Nobody comes out and says Skrillex-as-Unabomber or Skrillex-sans-fun because Skrillex is uncool. But that's what it is: aggro keyboards by Andy Morin d/b/a Flatlander, spitfire raps by MC Ride d/b/a Stefan Burnett, and crazed drumming by Zach Hill d/b/a you-know-him-from-Hella. Hill gets the attention because you (may) know him from Hella, and also because he's always been a hyperactive math-rocker who carries many slide rules. But the key to this triad is Morin, known if at all as one of Hella's engineers. Excoriating as Burnett and Hill are, the real abrasive is Flatlander--the shrieking trills that attack from above toward the end of "The Fever (Aye Aye)," the armored vehicle gone haywire that is "System Blower." As for what exactly Burnett's so mad about, the booklet that comes with the physical is a great help, and anyway, why ask? In case you hadn't noticed, the title's a metonym for postmodern capitalism. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 10

If, That Is, You Actually Have a Head to Blow
Friday, May 11, 2012  

Katy B: On a Mission (Columbia)
The Diana Ross to Adele's Aretha Franklin, the Vicki Sue Robinson to Adele's Gloria Gaynor, or--most likely--the Vicki Sue Robinson to Adele's Gladys Knight ("Katy on a Mission," "Why You Always Here") ***

Chromeo: Business Casual (Big Beat/Atlantic/Vice)
Great move to bring Solange in midway through, only she immediately steps to the front of the personality parade ("When the Night Falls," "Night by Night") ***

Blow Your Head Vol. 2: Dave Nada Presents Moombahton (Downtown/Mad Decent)
I love one of these fashioners of listenable reggaeton derivatives so much that he tempts me to fib about the others (Dillon Francis, "Masta Blasta"; Dillon Francis & Diplo Featuring Maluca, "Que Que") ***

SBTRKT: SBTRKT (Young Turks)
Hot Chip he's not, though from what I hear he's hiring ("Wildfire," "Something Goes Right") **

Santigold: Master of My Make-Believe (Atlantic/Downtown)
Deep in neither beats nor conceits ("Disparate Youth," "Go!") **

Tracey Thorn: Love and Its Opposite (Merge)
IDM, midlife midtempo edition ("Singles Bar," "Hormones") **

The Ting Tings: Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia)
Fun enough example of arty equaling shallow and maybe vice versa ("Guggenheim," "Day to Day") *

Lana Del Rey: Born to Die (Polydor)
Convincing and occasionally compelling proof that money can't buy happiness ("Video Games," "This Is What Makes Us Girls") *

Cornershop/Amadou & Mariam

Multiculturalism--Very Multi
Tuesday, May 15, 2012  

Cornershop: Urban Turban (Ample Play)
Ever ecumenical, Tjinder Singh loves Europop thrushes no less than Bollywood thrushes: one cameo apiece to a pop hopeful from Bordeaux née Sokolinski, a U.K.-based music teacher-gospel singer, Celeste with a French accent, Katie without one, a Swedish nightingale, the British-Indian daughter of a singer poetically but also inconveniently named Mangal Singh, und so weiter. Several distinguish themselves--SoKo all breathy, Lorraine nice and rough--as does (Tjinder) Singh, changing up the rhythms as he "milks" his usual tiny store of melody. Leading and closing with the same unpasteurized song are the five-year-olds of Castle Hill Primary. "What Did the Hippie Have in His Bag?" they ask again and again--perhaps because, as the visiting dignitary knows full well, for five-year-olds hippies are approximately as real as wizards. B PLUS

Amadou & Mariam: Folila (Nonesuch)
As if their charming calculation has become routine--maybe for them, maybe for us--this never takes off the way Welcome to Mali did. But it does hang in there, and rewards attention, especially as regards its many cameos: less big names Santigold and TV on the Radio than Tuareg guitarist Abdallah Oumbadougou shredding louder than Nick Zinner or Scissor Sister Jake Shears disco and proud. Not so welcome is perpetual guest Bertrand Cantat, a lapsed French rocker-activist who did a mere four years for beating his girlfriend to death in 2003. True, Cantat's harmonica tenses nicely against Ahmed Fofana's ngoni in "Sans Toi." But mostly he sings, and he's no Tunde Adebimpe or Kyp Malone. There's such a thing as taking tolerance too far. A MINUS

Beach House/Best Coast

Friday, May 18, 2012  

Beach House: Bloom (Sub Pop)
Since Victoria Legrand is from France, figure the beach house belongs to Alex Scally's parents--a safe haven of keepsakes and used furniture, a temporary site that leaves a person free to laze and dream, kind of like youth in the old days. In 2010 the duo's Teen Dream clarified their tunes and expressed their personal confusion in bad poetry. But though this sounds similar at a distance, in fact it's quite distinct, cultivating a gauziness that intensifies their lo-fi while keeping the imagery plain if not always straightforward. Verbally, both albums play the dark card, only now Legrand's anxiety is existential and universal--"Wouldn't you like to know how far you've got to go," "The voices in the hall/Will carry on their talking." The simple, deliberate chords and anthemic repetitions that give the anxiety form would be damn pretty at a minimum if she was counting seashells. Countering the depressive undertow, that form is both a spiritual triumph and the aural equivalent of Jesus and Mary Chain frosting a birthday cake. A MINUS

Best Coast: The Only Place (Mexican Summer)
The chirpy opener about fun in the sun is a feint--the lyrics that follow are so depressive that the consistent cheer and conservatism of the tunes is like some perverse minimalist art move. Problem is, nothing in Beth Cosentino's self-inflicted boy problems and palpable longing for a childhood when she didn't have to deal with them suggests that she's got the guts for such a concept. Melodically and verbally, her clarity is a gift. But until she bucks up and tells that jerk to take a hike, it's not going to do her much good. Nobody loves a doormat. B PLUS

Jack White/The White Stripes

White Man's Burden
Tuesday, May 22, 2012  

Jack White: Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
Two factors underlie the profitability of a lifelong conceptual art project devoted to woman-friendly roots-rock: the pop market's naked hunger for tune, which the conceptmaster respects as a roots-rock essential, and its recidivist hankering for blues-based guitar, which the conceptmaster reconstitutes more snazzily than his coequal Derek Trucks--who, you will note, does his most meaningful work in his uncle's band, and that includes the roots-rock corn he sows with the gifted blues musician he married. Trucks has more chops, but White has more audacity, and his nominal solo debut is as striking sonically as any album he's ever authorized. His respect for tune notwithstanding, however, its most fetching song by far is Rudy Toombs's "I'm Shakin'," covered in a version that resembles the Blasters' rocker far more than Little Willie John's shiftier original. I blame this shortfall on White's disregard for a roots-rock essential called groove. Carla Azar does have more jam than Meg White, but not enough. With hip-hop ever beyond him, maybe he should give Cindy Blackman a call. A MINUS

The White Stripes: Elephant (V2 '03)
Everybody else's favorite White Stripes album still isn't mine, but I admit I underrated it. This was because I sensed Jack White was the annoying neoprimitivist scold we now know him to be, but hadn't figured out how to process it, which is to ignore his content while giving it up to his formal imagination and command. The game changer here was what we'll call the "Blitzkrieg Bop" effect. When a riff turns into a stadium slam jam the way "Seven Nation Army" has, fools just hate it forever. Me, I lay my offering at the feet of the populist gods and tip my baseball cap to people a lot worse than Jack White. Gary Glitter, most prominently. Hell, Metallica. A MINUS

Pete Seeger/The Weavers

The Kumbaya Moment
Friday, May 25, 2012  

Pete Seeger: The Complete Bowdoin College Concert 1960 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Aesthetically and politically, Seeger has his soft and sometimes dishonest sides. But he's a titan nonetheless, and as rock criticism's longest-running anti-folkie I'm qualified to swear that such standards as "Good Night Irene, "Wimoweh," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and the magnificent "Bells of Rhymney" are as much a part of the American songbook as "White Christmas" and "Summertime"--which latter, as it happens, Seeger anointed at Bowdoin in 1960, one of the thousands of solo shows he played during his 17-year blacklist. There are Harry Smith picks, "Old Dan Tucker," "Big Rock Candy Mountain," a just-germinating "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," a cutting soldiers-as-workers song called "D-Day Dodgers," and not much dreck at all--luckily, Malvina Reynolds hasn't written "Little Boxes" yet. Impeccable yet conversational, as avuncular singing as talking, Seeger evokes the folk far more cannily than most patricians, and his beloved banjo provides exactly as much unassuming musicality as he needs. He recorded hundreds more songs. But these two discs serve his legend well. A MINUS

The Weavers: Best of the Vanguard Years (Vanguard '01)
The Weavers brought Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly to the agora. They're where Jimmie Rodgers II learned "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," where the Tokens learned "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," where Peter, Paul & Mary learned "If I Had a Hammer," where the Sandpipers learned "Guantanamera," where the Beach Boys learned "Sloop John B." True, Tennessee Ernie Ford didn't need them for "Sixteen Tons" nor Lonnie Donegan for "Rock Island Line"; true, p.c. sentimentality was their stock in trade; true, female principle Ronnie Gilbert had heard too much Odetta and designated guitarist Fred Hellerman had heard too much Theodore Bikel. But Gilbert was a vital force anyway, and Arkansas bass man Lee Hays was as charismatic as Pete Seeger himself when they let him out. The Weavers' Vanguard years followed their icky pop run with Gordon Jenkins at Decca. Their radio viability kaput courtesy of Joe McCarthy, they made their living on a folk circuit they created, and their recordings from the period reflect that enforced simplicity to the songs' benefit. In deep hindsight, I find their re-recorded greatest hits no less energetic and enjoyable than the Byrds'. Starting but not ending with Seeger, they had something. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco/Balkan Beat Box (B-B-B)

Rap the Casbah
Tuesday, May 29, 2012  

The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco (World Music Network)
The 2012 release, not to be confused with 2004's The Rough Guide to the Music of Morocco, especially if you know the new one is 1266CD and the old one is 1128CD. Without a single artist repetition, they cover pretty much the same range. On both you get cafe trad and hip-hop derivatives and devotional gravity; on both you get a Jewish expatriate, in 2004 a refugee Israeli cantor born 1954, in 2012 a Canadian emigre practitioner of his own impure Andalusian classicism born 1922. Yet eight years later the overall mood seems more aggressive. The added hip-hop is a major musical improvement because Arabic gutturals rock when rapped, even over beats played on traditional instruments, with the glitched-up syllabics of Amira Saqati's "El Aloua" providing a hint of pomo lurch. The bonus disc is by the "chaabi-groove" generalists Mazagan, who encompass most of these tendencies with pleasant-to-pleasing success. A MINUS

Balkan Beat Box (B-B-B): Give (Nat Geo Music)
An add-on at first, rapper Tomer Yosef has moved to the center of what initially presented itself as an Israeli-American Gypsy brass band making nice to a Stateside shaabi shaabi market that existed only in its dreams. Now Ori Kaplan's horns surface regularly, but doing hook duty, with the drummed and synthesized beats Tamir Muskat throws up around Yosef's militant raps providing core musical identity. Something has been lost, but what's left beats most "world" hip-hop a kilometer, and the hooks help--as do the likes of "Money," "Enemy in Economy," and "Urge to Be Violent" keeping the wordplay simple but not simpleminded. A MINUS

MSN Music, May 2012

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