Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: August 2012

Chuck Berry

Two Particular Ways to Go
Friday, August 3, 2012  

Chuck Berry: The Chess Box (Chess '88)
Starting at age 29 in 1955, Chuck Berry recorded plenty, mostly for Chess in Chicago, a spin in the Caddy from his St. Louis home. Many of these recordings were epochal, others pretty great. But quite a few fell short. In the golden age of Top 40, his albums were afterthought product, filled out with autopilot instrumentals, threadbare covers, wan novelties, and temperate lounge blues. So Chuck Berry's natural longform is the best-of, compelling fans to buy his classics over and over. This 71-track threefer from the innocent days when box sets meant something slackens slightly on the back half of disc two by indulging Berry's blues dreams. But disc three documents the renaissance that followed his release from an 18-month bid on a trumped-up prostitution charge in late 1963. The unsatisfied "No Particular Place to Go" and the pot-dealing action thriller "Tulane" aren't iconic like "Johnny B. Goode," but their artistry, invention, and humor are unsurpassed, and "Tulane" led directly to "Have Mercy Judge," the only important blues he ever wrote. A

Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection (Geffen/Chess '06)
Greatest Hits. Golden Decade. The Great Twenty-Eight. Fans bought each vinyl comp as its predecessor wore out, but in the uncharted swamp of CD-era Universal reissues they may have missed the best best-of of all. Starting with the motorvating 1955 game-changer "Maybellene" and then fleshing out Berry's double persona--sly brown-eyed handsome man, a projection, and happy-go-lucky lil' 16, an invention--it adds two of Berry's very greatest songs to the formerly definitive Great Twenty-Eight: the completely grown "You Never Can Tell" and the sub rosa history of the Freedom Rides "Promised Land." Half of its 30-tracks-in-75-minutes--terse fellow, Chuck Berry--are pop songs as monumental as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The rest are various shades of excellent. Long-suffering Johnnie Johnson on piano and big boss man Willie Dixon on bass provide essential support. Every song here except the worthy "I Wanna Be Your Driver" is on The Chess Box. But this one's so intense. A PLUS

Linkoban/Owiny Sigoma Band

Tak, Roskilde
Tuesday, August 7, 2012  

Linkoban: Super Into On It (Super Billion)
"Your time on earth is precious/Let's go fast and not go slow/Your time on earth is precious/Let's go high and not go low." Pretty sensible as excited statements of musical purpose go, and we can't get too many of them these days. Because this Vietnamese-Chinese Copenhagener has plenty of spritz rhythmically and personally, she and her band's EP goes fast, four songs in 16 minutes, and aims high. Displaying more flow in English than many American-born Anglophones, she's always on top of the jingly M.I.A. style now designated grime by young people who believe pop electrohop stands in perpetual need of reclassification so they can own it. She's always beaty, always catchy, always cheeky. Not as deep as M.I.A., granted. But not as foolish, either. A MINUS

Owiny Sigoma Band: Owiny Sigoma Band (Brownwood)
The attraction is a Luo elder named Joseph Nyamungu, who plays a droning, mbira-sounding eight-stringed lyre called the nyatiti and sings with built-in momentum and gruff command. His five tracks are all exciting in different ways, solo showcase included. The other five falter in direct correlation to how prominently they feature the white Londoners who brought Nyamungu and the rest of their Kenyan bandmates into the great world, with the all-Londoner instrumental "Nabed Nade El Piny Ka--Rework (How Will I Love in This World)" the nadir (and the Kenyan version of the same song on the somewhat ramshackle Sofrito: International Soundclash comp vastly superior). Kenyan beats carry two English-language songs in which one Londoner reflects on some aspect of modernity I can't make out and another expresses his all-too-patient love. Guest patron Damon Albarn's Farfisa wilds out on the Kenyan-dominated "Odera Lwar" before his Omnichord further dulls "Margaret Okudo--Dub." I know, this is all too schematic. Unfortunately, it's true. Also true: you'll love that nyatiti. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 014

Topics in African History
Friday, August 10, 2012  

Guelewar: Halleli N'Dakarou (Teranga Beat)
A legendary band recorded live--and in Gambia as anywhere else, studio recording can beef up your vocals and frame the rhythm players who do sometimes elevate your songs ("Tara," "Sanehmentereng") ***

Koo Nimo: Highlife Roots Revival (Riverboat)
Nearing 80, Asante palm-wine guardian relaxes with some musicians he knows and demonstrates his less-gentle-than-they-sound guitar tricks for posterity ("See Wo Nom Me [Tsetse Fly You Suck My Blood]," "Efie Ne Fie") ***

The Rough Guide to African Roots Revival (World Music Network)
It was ever thus, ctd.--the poor invent urban folk musics, the better off nurture rural ones (Mbira DzeNharira, "Tozvireva Tingaputike Neshungu"; Shiyani Ngcobo, "Sevalina") ***

Cheikh L˘: Jamm (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Just too nice a guy to make his pan-Africanism panoramic ("Jamm," "Dieuf Dieuf") **

Spoek Mathambo: Nombolo One (Motel11 download)
As much tributes as covers, "township tech" remakes of 40 years of South African hits ("Jacknife," "Melodi") **

I Have My Liberty!: Gospel Sounds From Accra, Ghana (Dust-to-Digital)
Urban field recordings from the refuges where Ghanaian women sing to convince themselves that capitalism works (Divine Healer's Church: Nema Assembly, "I Have My Liberty"; Great Grace Church, "Sunday School") *

Sibiri SamakÚ: Dambe Foli: Bamana Hunters Music (Kanaga System Krush)
Four raw, jamlike, folkloric Mande songs from Mali--one lead singer and three backups playing two ngonis, a scraper, and a shaker, hypnotically but perhaps also forbiddingly ("Fakoli 'Blacksmith Tribe'") *

The Funkees: Dancing Time (Soundway)
Accurate subtitle, take it or leave it: "The Best of Eastern Nigeria's Afro Rock Exponents 1973-77" ("Akpankuro," "Ogbu Achara") *

Ma Rainey

A Real Mother Fuyer
Tuesday, August 14, 2012  

Ma Rainey: Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Ma Rainey (Shout Factory '03)
Because she recorded for the famously cheapjack Paramount label, connecting with the woman that label dubbed "The Mother of the Blues" can be tough--cleaned up though they were, many vinyl-era reissues sound like she's singing behind a closed door. But specialists generally single out Yazoo's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom vinyl as a significant improvement, the CD version improves on that, and this much later collection improves on the Yazoo. This is easy to tell because five of Yazoo's 14 selections are also among Shout! Factory's 16, including the actively catchy warhorse "Oh Papa Blues." Just one example of Rainey's commitment to the Southern tent-show circuit, where she thrived for two decades before she began recording at 37, is her transformation of the lines Bessie Smith rendered as the copyrighted but unidiomatic "And if you care for me/You will listen to my plea" into the wilder "I'm almost goin' insane/I'm forever tryin' to call his name." But her peak was the braggadocious "Prove It on Me Blues," where the third verse catches me up every time: "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must have been women 'cause I don't like no men." Because Rainey was muffled in the studio and assigned second-rate songs, she signifies most readily as history--black history, women's history, musical history. But because she reveled in a roughness avoided by the showgirls who put their names on so much classic blues, and because she felt natural fronting jug bands and ad hoc New Orleans ensembles, the soul, grit, and fun she was full of get closer to the surface with every advance in mastering technology. A MINUS

Ma Rainey: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Yazoo '91)
Kills me to find among the nine songs unavailable on the Shout! Factory alternative neither the jug-band-with-piano "Hustlin' Blues," where she turns her pimp over to the law, nor the loose-limbed New Orleans "Sissy Blues," where her man samples transvestite jellyroll. But they do include the title song, a historically accurate alternative to the identically named August Wilson play without which the album would not exist, "Sleep Talking Blues," in which revenge doesn't cheer her up much, and "Shave 'Em Dry Blues," in which adultery is quick, hard, and good for what ails her. B PLUS

Bessie Smith/Men Are Like Streetcars

Many Classic, Some Not So Much
Friday, August 17, 2012  

Bessie Smith: The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia '97)
Smith was the best-selling and best-recorded artist of so-called classic blues. She got top sidemen from her royalty-skimming a&r boss Clarence Williams--Armstrong, Hawkins, Henderson, Goodman, Teagarden--and A-shelf material by the standards of her market. But musically, she's a bigger puzzle than is admitted, and although there may be a better compilation out there, I'll settle for this even though it omits, among other standouts I'm sure, the class-conscious "Washwoman Blues," the guitar-featuring "Mean Old Bedbug Blues," the horncatting "Empty Bed Blues," and the trifling "It Makes My Love Come Down." Records certainly spread her fame with the Southern-identified black audience she proudly entertained. But they didn't come near to capturing the live charisma of a funny lady with a big ego and a bigger heart who knew how to shake her big bones. Her singing was more about shading microtones than delivering a tune or powering a groove--she loved medium tempos and she's sometimes, sorry, too subtle. So while blues mavens wish she would sing nothing but, I say the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "After You've Gone" is a standout here, and find she benefits in general from the cheap marginal distinction of pop material right down to "It Makes My Love Come Down," a number otherwise uncelebrated in Bessie Smith scholarship--unlike "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Backwater Blues," "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness," "Aggravatin' Papa," "Gimme a Pigfoot," and whatever else you justifiably believe demolishes such quibbles. A MINUS

Men Are Like Streetcars . . . Women Blues Singers 1928-1969 (MCA '99)
All but seven of these 46 choices are from the Decca, Chess, and Duke catalogs MCA controls, and that's a shame. No Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, OK--they cut albums' worth of classics on their own. But the absent Lil Green always deserves a plug and, come on, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" is the archetypal seminal one-shot--a debut single she never equalled that sparked every other side collected here. Still, sometimes a tasty mouthful is all these singers had in them (see my unpublished monograph Big Mama Thornton: Who Owes Who?), and on the first disc especially, folkie lifer Mary Katherine Aldin's picks rarely lag. Maybe they'll inspire you to seek out more Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, and Rosetta Tharpe, or maybe you'll just say thank-you-ma'am to the lost sin songs of Georgia White, Blue Lu Barker, Rosetta Howard. Second disc is easier to lose track of, so let me direct your attention to the Margie Day feature. Aldin seems a little embarrassed by this "quirky ditty." Me, my day was made by a song that begins "Take out you false teeth daddy, your mommy wants to scratch your gums." And with such lip-smacking gusto, too. A MINUS

Ry Cooder/Serengeti

Getting Down to Cases
Tuesday, August 21, 2012  

Ry Cooder: Election Special (Nonesuch/Perro Verde)
Protest songs are hard to nail even in the moment, and I can't promise that the three bull's-eyes here will sound as dead on in five years, or one. Cooder's innovation is reapplying the Popular Front mindset to the messy compromises of electoral politics, and all the must-hears illuminate the 2012 presidential election rather than merely referencing it: "Mutt Romney Blues," where the Republican standard bearer does to his dog precisely what he'll do to us; "Cold Cold Feeling," where a black man in the White House details his blues; and especially "The 90 and the 9," where the singer explains why he's repurposing that gospel song about this may be the last time. "Going to Tampa" slaps on too broad a burlesque, "Guantanamo" wanders off message, and others just don't twist the screw tight enough. But I give him extra credit for both preaching to the converted and doing his damnedest to rally the holier-than-thou. B PLUS

Serengeti: C.A.R. (Anticon)
He sleeps on a friend's couch in Berkeley and imagines possible lives. "Your wife having a secret family in Gary/A second spouse, sorta looks like Neneh Cherry." "I want a simple life/Where we milk cows and cobras." "Buy my own street cart/Specialize in beef hearts." "Have sex with a horse./Reconsider divorce." "The antibiotics made me hallucinate/Cops arresting patients, Arabian spiders inside my arms./And then my wife got shot/She was seeing him for a year, I had no idea." "Hey, can I borrow your mind?/I really need a hit, it's been a long time." "I wish was my name was Otto/Everybody has a dream that they'll win the Lotto." Anticon minimalist Odd Nosdam provides all the beats Geti needs, and when your mind wanders, quite often the music alone carries you along. For good measure, other alienated acquaintances drop by and pitch in. Eleven tracks, half an hour. Is there anybody else who can do this? A MINUS

Elle Varner/Saint Etienne

Songs of Experience and of More Experience
Friday, August 24, 2012  

Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect (RCA)
Especially by the standards of r&b divas who share management with Lauryn and Alicia, she's funny--referring to her liver as "her" in "Oh What a Night," requesting an erectile version of the title item in "Refill," bemoaning her looks in a closer she presumably wrote well before the cover shoot. She's disciplined--10 of 11 songs between 3:07 and 4:09. She hones her God-given vocal intensity with no recourse to belting or melisma, and she keeps the grit under control, although the final minute of "Damn Good Friends" should have been crooned or even cooed. And with help from an actual-count 18 confederates, she sharpens herself some hooks--by my count, six of the 11 tracks connect instantly, with the heart songs lagging as usual. Just pray she sticks with her strengths and continues to confederate exactly as much as she needs. A MINUS

Saint Etienne: Travel Edition 1990-2005 (Sub Pop '04)
My appetite whetted by their comeback album and my excess weight indicator tripped by the two-CD "All the a-sides and more!" London Conversations, I sought out a used copy of this single-disc best-of and found it good--enjoying the two tracks it lifts from 1998's Good Humor, for instance, more than the two I highlighted in my brief. Saint Etienne's problem has always been melodies and arrangements a little too unobtrusive for Sarah Cracknell's compassionate calm and unshowy smarts. Their everything-but-the-glitz disco asserts itself so subtly that only the early "Mario's Cafe" and the late, atypically (and of course subtly) political "Heart Stopped in the Back of a Taxi" look you square in the eye and say classic. Still, when Cracknell quietly announces "I believe in Donovan over Dylan/Love over cynicism," you begin to wonder whether Donovan's as big a fool as you thought even though you know damn well he is. Cracknell manifestly isn't. Even though many of the love songs here are the sad kind, she's figured out how to keep her mind clear and her chin up. A MINUS

Ab-Soul/Kendrick Lamar

Hippys, Dawgs
Tuesday, August 27, 2012  

Ab-Soul: Control System (Top Dawg download)
"I've got 700 dollars from my last show/And I would spend it all on you," the most suburban of L.A.'s four-man Black Hippy posse/"supergroup" sings haltingly on the tellingly entitled "Empathy," and although initially I was impressed that he knew the word "chattel," in the end that 700 bucks was the clincher--that he can occasionally make some halfway decent money off his art, and that he's ready to blow it on love rather than blow or a blow job. Not that he's above imagining blow jobs like any other healthy young rapper--cf. "SOPA," which insofar as it's about the Online Piracy Act has a special place in its trickerating heart for porn sites. He's just a gifted kid who likes his weed and his words, which he twists with palpable delight around sparse synth beats musical enough to layer on some delight of their own. And then there's the closing trifecta: his beautiful ideals, his tragic life, and a scabrous Black Hippy remix for the fun of it. A MINUS

Kendrick Lamar: Section.80 (Top Dawg download)
The Dr. Dre-anointed Lamar isn't a guy who writes a lot of indelible songs yet, especially if you try to find them toward the top of his much-praised second album. Thus he's liable to leave the curious wondering what the fuss is about. But as I re-relistened I noticed myself perking up with every hook. Not that every track has or wants one, but that, for instance, the sung intros to the cosmetics debate "No Make-Up (Her Vice)," track four, and then the crack generation shout-out "Ronald Reagan Era," track seven, come as well-timed structural respites from his thoughtfully private to defensively street raps, which have their musicality too. And then, just when you're thinking not bad at all, come some songs. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 015

As Always, the Question Remains: What Underground, Exactly?
Friday, August 31, 2012  

Lyrics Born: As U Were (Decon)
"When I was younger I/Used to wonder why/People in the public eye/Always lose their fuckin' minds/Now I'm coming up on 35/They didn't teach this shit in Berkeley High" ("Pillz," "Oh, Baby!") ***

Nas: Life Is Good (Def Jam)
Reflections of a bigshot who, as he mentions several times, is damn big ("Daughters," "Accident Murderers") ***

Big K.R.I.T.: K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (Green Streets Entertainment download)
Endless pride, solid beats, a key credo, and a few hooks ("Gumpshun," "They Got Us," "Children of the World") ***

Bang On!: [Sic] (Big Dada)
"Grime" my arse--musically accented, class-conscious, Liverpudlian, kitchen-sink Brit-rap ("Suttin Like That," "Teeth") **

Radioinactive: The Akashic Record (Flying Carpet Studios download)
Egyptian-American rapper remembers where he came from but has too evolved a sense of humor to just stick it in your face ("Gypsy Shoe," "Antibiotics") **

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Conscious-going-on-political gangsta's laments and celebrations are more tough-minded than his threats, boasts, and analyses ("Willie Burke Sherwood," "Anywhere but Here," "R.A.P. Music") **

Azealia Banks: Fantasea (free download)
Irreverent lip and talent-show talent there, musical follow-through not so much ("Fuck Up the Fun," "Jimanji") **

Big K.R.I.T.: Live From the Underground (Def Jam)
Major-label debut asks the musical question, Who's pimping who ("If I Fall," "Hydroplaning," "Praying Man") *

MSN Music, August 2012

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