Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2012

Staff Benda Bilili/Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang

Afro-Grooves Modernized
Tuesday, September 4, 2012  

Staff Benda Bilili: Bouger Le Monde (Crammed Discs)
Insofar as these beggars and thieves qualify as "roots revivalists," those roots are pop not folk, urban not rural: the liveliest revision of Kinshasa's rumba groove since the speed soukous of Mobutu's mad decline. Horns would be extravagances to professional musicians glad enough not to be sleeping rough anymore, and the guitar parts are rudimentary, with sebene duty done by the vaults and darts of a whining homemade lute that jolts rather than lilts much less flows. But though capable lead vocalist Ricky Likabu and startling high tenor Theo Nzonza don't soar on record the way they do live, both lift audibly out of the wheeled conveyances from which a gang of polio survivors articulated their humanity and launched their inspired hustle. A MINUS

Janka Nabay & the Bubu Gang: En Yay Sah (Luaka Bop)
Before he left a war-wrecked Sierra Leone in 2002, Nabay made a name for himself by "modernizing" a Temne music called bubu. Maybe that just means electrifying, maybe more; in either case, this version suggests minimalist juju, only juju singing tends mellow where Nabay's vocals have a near-spoken roughness, with crucial melodic counterpoint from Boshra Alsaadi's sweet soprano. Translations provided notwithstanding, half the songs are basically grooves, with keyboard, guitar, bass, and electric drums all manned by Brooklyn hipsters of some renown. But these grooves vary structurally--hooked by a bass drone, an insistent drum pattern, some fetching keyb. And they always move. Given how stiffly white guys usually execute African beats, Brooklyn should be proud. A MINUS

Divine Fits/Yeasayer

Bite Their American Bytes, Hot Chip
Friday, September 7, 2012  

Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge)
Before we proceed to the principals, give it up to garage-punk drummer Sam Brown, who does more than Handsome Furs/Wolf Parade yeoman Dan Boeckner to blast Spoon's Britt Daniel out of his self-contained art-funk bubble. Although the songwriting is split evenly, most of the lead vocals go to Boeckner, one of many recent singers to make straight-leaning rock seem duller (Handsome Furs) or sillier (Wolf Parade) than need be. Not good, you might think. Only soon you realize how much Daniel's spiky synths, still the strongest presence musically, benefit from Boeckner's adherance to emotional convention (and Brown's drumming). Never has Spoon conveyed so much heft or breathing room. In short, this rocks differently in a year when it's been hard to use that verb without reflecting on the mortality of all things. A MINUS

Yeasayer: Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian)
Most of the time you can half make out the lyrics and then occasionally parse them too--whaddaya know, "Reagan's Skeleton" is about the election, sort of, and neither "Longevity" nor "Henrietta" would mind if it died before it got old or reached 100, whichever came second. But I only made sense of this album when I decided to enjoy its sonic trickerations the way I do African music in which the verbal sentiments might compromise my pleasure if I knew what they were. It's not a groove record, that's for sure, but it has some bump and even funk to it, a dark density years away from the evolved Depeche Mode of the proudly proggy Odd Blood. And almost every track offers up at least a snatch of melody you're always glad to hear again. B PLUS

Pet Shop Boys/Bob Dylan

Sages Risk Stasis
Tuesday, September 11, 2012  

Pet Shop Boys: Elysium (Astralwerks)
The music may well seem too restrained, presumably because Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe figured that on an album where 11 songs find 11 different ways to mock, rue, ponder, and accept their professional mortality, the entitled glee of their full-on disco productions is off the table. Even the explicit "Your Early Stuff" and the valedictory "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" keep a lid on it, the better to fit in with the ones that go "Look at me, the absentee," "Say it's not so/That you'd rather lose me," "Our love is dead/But the dead don't go away," and everything else except the pounding "A Face Like That," which also boasts the only lyric that doesn't follow the program. Whether metaphysical ("Everything means something") or bitchy ("There's got to be a future/Or the world will end today"), they're at peace with the fate of their fame and their retirement accounts. And the understated beats suit their elysian equanimity. A MINUS

Bob Dylan: Tempest (Columbia)
Although his voice is crumbling audibly and his band is too often static, Dylan remains one of our more thoughtful wordslingers in the ever-changing trad mode he's made his own. Still, the meme that this album is a major statement where Together Through Life was a holding action bespeaks the unseen hand of the autohype machine and the superstitious fears that attend 70th birthdays. Although the four trad relationship numbers that open build nicely on Together Through Life's strategy and groove, the closers aim higher with dubious-to-disgraceful results. For all its well-borrowed tune and well-digested details, nobody's putting the 14-minute Titanic ballad on repeat, and the seven-minute John Lennon dirge says nothing at half speed just like the naysayers neigh. That leaves four tracks, and how much you admire this record will depend on how redolent you find two of them: the quiet jeremiad "Scarlet Town" and the quieter love-triangle cut-'em-up "Tin Angel." I say they'd be better faster, possibly. As for "Early Roman Kings," a black-comedy dis of the rich and richer, and "Pay in Blood," folk-music death metal via sanguinary imagery and microphone placement, you gotta love 'em. B PLUS

Songs for Desert Refugees/The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia

You Think Marcus Garvey Prophesied This?
Friday, September 14, 2012  

Songs for Desert Refugees (Glitterhouse)
All proceeds from this charity comp go to two NGOs serving a war zone created in part by the Tuaregs whose music it puts to use--music more humane by definition than Tuareg nationalism, but just as fierce in its cultural pride. Since that music can seem as unvaried as one of the desert vistas the Tuaregs see in a detail we can't, the multi-artist format provides easeful marginal differentiation rather than jarring stylistic disparity. As with 2005's Rough Guide to the Sahara, the 12 tracks, most previously unreleased and all postdating that prophetic piece of genre-making, progress like a single expression toward the showy new jack guitars of Tadalat and Bombino and the overdue female voices of Toumast and Tamikrest. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of Ethiopia (World Music Network)
The latest of the label's unlabeled updates/Second Editions/Volume 2s of national overviews they did well by the first time (catalogue number: 1286CD) favors 21st-century material whether it's quinquagenarian Dutch punks inviting a septuagenarian saxophonist up from Addis or Tirudel Zenebe's abrasive Ethiopian disco. On some of the 13 tracks, the beats and tonalities first documented by the completist overkill of Buda Musique's Selassie-era Éthiopiques collections are infused with a funkier feel, but the old-school stuff also sounds pretty fresh--my favorite is a contemplative workout on a buzzing lyre called the begena by Zerfu Demissie, one of many artists here better served as a taste on a sampler than an album-length meal. Which in turn is provided by Anglo-Ethiopian Invisible System's bonus disc, a best-of that often surpasses their track on the overview. Start with "Gondar Sub," or "Dark Entries." A MINUS

Patterson Hood/Dylan Hicks

Tuesday, September 18, 2012  

Patterson Hood: Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance (ATO)
Hood earned this avowedly autobiographical album by creating fictional and fictionalized characters for 20 years. Its dozen songs were conceived to bait a memoiristic account of a turbulent period or two in his twenties, but the book stopped coming midway through so he made an album out of them instead. Sweetly skeletal arrangements featuring various bandmates and his bassist dad underpin the quietest and most winning singing of his career, with lyrics so crystalline you never need the booklet. But you can bet their import would be clearer if the book was there too. B PLUS

Dylan Hicks: Sings Bolling Greene (Two Deuces)
This is complicated. Minneapolis critic and singer-songwriter Hicks recently published a debut novel called Boarded Windows, about which you can believe Dana Spiotta ("eloquent and unusual") and Greil Marcus ("whispered, confided, mused") or you can believe me ("buncha bohos wax clever about art until you want to paste someone"). Its seventh most important character is a country-singing aesthete of implausible renown named Bolling Greene. But these aren't simply Hicks's renditions of Greene's previously nonexistent songs. They're also songs about goings on in the novel itself to which Greene couldn't have been privy as well as a leftover about a golf course that, as Greene's widow complains in the notes, it's impossible to imagine the vaguely delineated cult hero writing. I love the first four and like all 10, because the same fine distinctions that make my teeth hurt at 252 pages are piquant at a hooky half hour of rhymes I can ignore at will. If you crave concrete detail in your songwriting, here's your fix, from "West Texas wind/Blowing headlines in my lap/Lonely Man Takes Nap/Chubby Girl Learns Tap" to "The musty olive carpet/The sticky minibar/The grainy baby movie/The broken VCR." A MINUS

P.S. Eliot

Before Swearin' and Waxahatchee, There Was This
Friday, September 21, 2012  

P.S. Eliot: Sadie (Salinas)
With one slow and excellent exception and a few deviations, all 13 punky songs on the second album by the first (recorded) band built around Alabama's twin Crutchfield sisters are defined by a crude, catchy, commonplace guitar riff and proceed over drumming that keeps its figuration simple and repetitive when it doesn't bang outright. Simultaneously hesitant and forthright, singer Katie Crutchfield sounds above all brave as she pronounces and occasionally mispronounces her lyrics, which dwell on botched communication both verbal and emotional. Her language is usually plain ("Your eyes go crossed like mine/You'll regret that when you're older") but sometimes gawkily high-flown ("Your endeared negligence," "The cold and correlated closely flock"). On my favorite track, "Pink Sheets," it combines the two: "Rose quartz, star charts/We heal our broken hearts/With warped reality/And practical psychology." But always there is the sound of becoming that the young treasure for one reason and the ex-young value for quite another. A MINUS

P.S. Eliot: Introverted Romance in Our Troubled Minds (Salinas)
Their 2009 debut LP is palpably younger--slightly quicker and considerably more high-flown, the vocals longer on forced scansion and childish drawl. The tune prospecting is almost as astute, however, and topped off lyrically by the 20-is-forever fight song "Tennessee" ("Baby let's push our limits") and the tell-me-your-feelings critique "Like Who You Are" ("We always discontinue what we don't misconstrue"). What will become of them, you can't help wondering, already knowing that in not too long they'll discontinue. B PLUS

Pink/Corin Tucker Band

Married Moms Seek More Love
Tuesday, September 25, 2012  

Pink: The Truth About Love (RCA)
Proving you can get as much variety out of a tempestuous marriage as out of the bar life your temporary breakups leave on the table, Pink and her 21 collaborators fashion a recorded image of her feisty, heartfelt, all-over-the-place love/sex life. Until the last two songs, whose overwrought drama I don't have to like just because I trust its verisimilitude, they hit every time. The comic-only-not title track is perfect if not necessarily the truth, followed for me by the introductory "Are We All We Are" (its title transformed into a chorus-chanted hide-and-seek readymade) and the see-ya "Slut Like You" ("I'm not a slut/I just love love"). Then again, I'm a known sucker for feisty. So note that I'm also taken with the acoustic duet she shares with fellow babymama Lily Allen. And although it's true that I'd rather hear Robyn sing "Try," it's also true that I think "Try" is good enough for Robyn. A

Corin Tucker Band: Kill My Blues (Kill Rock Stars)
After the feminist scolding cum rallying cry, my favorites are the happy love songs, every one about a marriage that has no time for the fantasy that wedlock is boring and may even wish it was sometimes: a health scare, an emotional rupture, a vacation they need every mile and minute of. Mourning Joey Ramone and clearing emotional space for her infant daughter, she's slightly slower and considerably more melodramatic, as is only appropriate. Other times the melodrama appears merely the organic outcome of a larger-than-life voice. A MINUS

Low Cut Connie/Andre Williams & the Sadies

Dirty Deeds Done Cheap
Friday, September 28, 2012  

Low Cut Connie: Call Me Sylvia (
Trying to make ends meet as the bar band of their dreams, they add muscle to their sound and lose a smidgen of edge in their writing. But that doesn't stop them from preserving 15 songs for posterity instead of the 10 they settled for on their equally self-financed debut. Adam Weiner shouldn't feel obliged to prove he's got big ballads in him, and "Cleveland" proves it. Right afterwards, fortunately, the final five tracks turn out to be where the edge takes over: two simultaneously lively and soulful Dan Finnemore love songs and three Weiner numbers, one stranger than the next and all redolent of a piano man's bar-band life. "Scoliosis in Secaucus" breaks up the love songs. The low-key voice-and-guitar envoi "Dreams Don't Come True" speaks for itself and Frank Sinatra. And done as a final-call blues, "(No More) Wet T-Shirt Contest" is Weiner's most twisted fable of the down-and-dirty life to date: "I feel like my Christian phase is comin'/My fans are gettin' pretty bored/But meanwhile I just keep on hummin'/Here in the bosom of the Lord." A MINUS

Andre Williams & the Sadies: Night and Day (Yep Roc)
Despite the occasional charms of albums on such indie-roots imprints as Bloodshot and In the Red, I've never trusted this 75-year-old "legend"'s legend. And indeed, although research indicates that the writing credits on "Twine Time" and "Shake a Tail Feather" check out, the rumored plethora of r&b hits add up to just two as per Joel Whitburn. So he's one of those old bullshit artists young musicians love because they're such great bullshit artists; he's an authenticity marker all the more convincing because he's also a known fraud. Unsurprisingly, his current Bloodshot album, featuring actual Motown-funk legend Dennis Coffey, isn't even worth a check-out. But these 13-songs-in-35-minutes, cut half in 2008 when he was drunk and half in 2010 when he was sober, are shockingly strong for the first eight or nine, which unfortunately include all the drunk ones. Songs about getting your friend out of jail and about moving in on your friend's wife while he's there. Songs about how Africa's even worse than America and how Joliet is Mississippi's sister. A pounding song that begins "The worst thing in the world is a black man being bored." Long beloved of 2010 guardian angel Jon Langford, Ontario's Sadies prove just as rowdy and adaptable under 2008 overseer Jon Spencer, especially with Sally Timms and Kelly Hogan shoring up that young bullshit artist's cred by singing backup. A MINUS

MSN Music, September 2012

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