Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2013

Diablos Del Ritmo/The Rough Guide to Senegal

Two ways to cross over
Friday, March 1, 2013  

Diablos Del Ritmo: The Colombian Melting Pot 1960-85 (Analog Africa)
You'll need the physical on this package because the 60-page booklet is part of the attraction: a detailed if not always fluent rundown of musical doings in the "dormant diaspora" of coastal Colombia, where the biggest port on the Colombian Caribbean, Barranquilla, was transformed by forces half understood into a voracious market for African dance music in the '70s and '80s. Although crate-digger obscurantism is big on this scene--Barranquilla is still home to a contest in which DJs compete to play the rarest African record--these two discs are a cherry-pick, and astutely programmed too. I prefer the one where Colombians imitate Africans, which is heavy on short-form soukous derivatives and makes room for Fela and Miriam Makeba rips as well as the sui generis Wasamayé Rock Group. But the jerkier, accordion-heavy "Puya, Porro, Gaita, Cumbiamba, Mapalé, Chandé, [and] Descarga" of the Latin selection has a gritty, fetchingly homemade quality. And if you want something smoother, try J. Alvear's "Cumbia Sincelejana." A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of Senegal (World Music Network)
As someone who mistook Youssou N'Dour's warmup guy for the boss several times back in the day, I agree that Senegal brims with impressive singers. The strategy of showcasing winners by such longtime crossover hopefuls as Cheikh Lo, Ismael Lô, Mansour Seck, and Baaba Maal honors and exploits this plenitude: make sure you check out the Thione Seck, Sister Fa, and Amadou Diagne picks. But put on either of the Music in My Head collections and find out why you could miss them if you didn't make an effort. The bows to Orchestra Baobob and Etoile de Dakar here pop out every time because one band cooked and the other exploded. In fact, even the Westernized folkloricism of Daby Balde's worthy bonus disc powers a more striking collective identity than most of these tracks. B PLUS

Ashley Monroe/Kellie Pickler

Putting in the care
Tuesday, March 5, 2013  

Ashley Monroe: Like a Rose (Warner Bros.)
Run through these nine originals a few times and eventually you'll accept that the Pistol Annies are a trio for good reason and her solo debut is unlikely to top "Two Weeks Late," which is about the rent only in the end it isn't. Then slowly you'll realize just how rare it is for a major-label Nashville hopeful to put this much care into every song even if you're not convinced by the one that connects whipped cream and whips. Then you'll check out co-writes--Guy Clark, Lori McKenna, hmm. And then you'll wonder who Sally Barris is, 'cause she helped out on a heartsong called "Used" that completes if not tops "Two Weeks Late." A MINUS

Kellie Pickler: 100 Proof (XIX/BNA)
American Idol haunts this artistic breakthrough, a sense that she'll always sing what she's told no matter how many composition credits she bags--six out of 11 here, including only one of the three tough-talking openers without which I'd never have gotten to where "Long As I Never See You Again" started showing its muscle. But if making nice comes all too naturally, the ones about the daughter she doesn't have and the father she was stuck with say that love is something she's willing to tough out. B PLUS

A$AP Rocky/Action Bronson

Hip-hop's razor
Friday, March 8, 2013  

A$AP Rocky: Long.Live.A$AP (Polo Grounds/RCA)
For six highly listenable, casually unmatched tracks, every beat hooks without being obvious enough about it--in a telling segue, a track that rides a Clams Casino glitch precedes a track that rides a Clams Casino Santigold cameo. Skillfully but never dazzlingly, congenially but never charismatically, with entertainment value added by a screwed-and-chopped alter ego, Rocky raps over the music without saying a damn thing older, meaner, and sharper rappers haven't said before. Then, bang, three dynamite songs, starting with an attention grabber bearing the asterisks-in-original title and literal message "F**kin' Problems," followed by a f**k-you banger from the Skrillex songbook and the terrific virtual-posse "1 Train": hello goodbye to Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Big K.R.I.T. Then, aww, three tracks that could be more obvious by half. B PLUS

Action Bronson: Blue Chips (free download)
As previously and probably hereafter, I always eat up the food stuff and occasionally retch at the sex stuff, with the "Thug Love Story 2012"/"Hookers at the Point" pairing the test case. Sexist though both are, I'm a fan because like Ghostface's "Wildflower" they come down on the right side of that razor-thin exposure-exploitation dividing line. But where with Eminem's "Kim" I'll argue that case ad nauseum, here no one is obliged to differentiate between those tracks and the one where he makes the "joke"-I-hope-he-claims about sharing a hooker with his three-year-old son--sometimes dumb is just evil, end of story. What nobody should try and deny is this album's accelerating momentum and unstinting silliness--not only does he call the itty-bitty that needs "the surgery" his "pee-pee," he rhymes it with "TV," "CD," "3-D," and "Fiji." Yummiest food-sex confluence: cunnilingus as razorback clams with bucatini. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 025

Now that's what I call Americana!
Tuesday, March 12, 2013  

Chris Knight: Little Victories (Drifter's Church)
"Bring it on get it done don't run s.o.b." explains why white guys don't like Obamacare, and sometimes wish they could ("You Can't Trust No One," "Little Victories") ***

Todd Snider: Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker (Thirty Tigers/Aimless)
The Godfather's material sounds loopier every time I play this thing--that is, more like the son's, which is a credit to them both ("Continuing Saga of the Classic Bummer or Is This My One Way Bus Ticket to Cleveland," "Pissin' in the Wind") **

Mary Flower: Misery Loves Company (Yellow Dog)
Finger-picking her blues and rags, she doesn't sound all that miserable--she sounds proud and calm, almost like John Hurt himself ("Death Letter Blues," "Jitters") **

Elliott Sharp's Terraplane: Sky Road Songs (Yellowbird)
Attn. Gary Clark Jr.--21st-century blues eclecticism done right, although admittedly an arena-rock anthem would be a nice addition ("Banking Blues," "Endless Path," "Down on the Block") **

Joe Fahey: Bushnell's Turtle (Rough Fish)
Singer-songwriter buys a dictionary and lives to make a joke about it ("I Could Not Steal Her Heart [So I Stole Her Car]," "Delta Pine Blues") **

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Here We Rest (Lightning Rod)
This guy's got talent--some band with their shit together should show him the ropes ("Codeine," "Stopping By") **

Shovels & Rope: O' Be Joyful (Dualtone)
Cary Ann Hearst and helpmate/partner penetrate the South's musical mythos ("Birmingham," "Kemba's Got the Cabbage Moth Blues") *

Chelle Rose: Ghost of Browder Holler (Lil' Damsel)
"Appalachian wildflower" cracks wise as craftily as she speaks her heart--more craftily, in fact ("Alimony," "Rattlesnake in the Road") *

David Greenberger-Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound/J Cole

Spoken word-always a genre for the mature set
Friday, March 15, 2013  

David Greenberger/Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound: They Like Me Around Here (Pel Pel)
I do wonder how reliably I can judge these records, in which Greenberger transforms serious seniors' generally touching, often loopy, and sometimes inspirational musings and recollections into dramatic readings with musical accompaniment. They're pretty numerous by now--I sure haven't heard them all--and risk getting repetitive too. Nevertheless, they do vary, in part because Greenberger shuffles arrangers. Yet though this is billed as a "follow-up" to the 2009 Cebar collaboration Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time, it's very different structurally. There 34 of 38 tracks run under 2:13, where here only three of 19 do, and just because these have more heft, fewer of them skew toward pathos or damage. The steady good humor of the voice the 58-year-old Greenberger has developed to enact his interviewees always imparts dignity, smoothing over hesitations and infirmities. But here the words have extra force, with Cebar's instrumentation fuller too. The proud "She Voted," the prouder "Thank You, Reuben," the skydiving "The Thrill," and the title track "Nemo and Harmony" all inspire mightily. For pathos, try "Telephone": "I don't have anyone to call." A MINUS

J Cole: Truly Yours (free download)
Jay-Z's favorite conscious up-and-comer says these five tracks are rejects from the follow-up album he's now late on, and I'm impressed even though they ignore my advice as regards upping his game, which was to have more fun. No bangers here--everything is thoughtful and midtempo. But everything is also strong and engaging. Having set the tone by rescuing a gorgeous Lauryn Hill sample from terminal sanctitude, he calls out a lost stepfather he can't stop loving for hating, feels a single mother with six years of college, and examines hip-hop's contradictions from three distinct perspectives, one of which is ODB's. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 026

Out of the mouths of coots
Tuesday, March 19, 2013  

Aaron Neville: My True Story (Blue Note)
Doowop neoclassicism so loving and exquisite it lacks but one crucial virtue--innocence ("My True Story," "Ting a Ling") ***

Peter Stampfel & the Ether Frolic Mob: The Sound of America (Red Newt)
Old coots sit around their virtual porches reinventing the hootenanny, young folks step up ("Shake It Break It," "Deep in the Heart of Texas") **

Gurf Morlix: Finds the Present Tense (Rootball)
Lucinda's ex-guitarist "wallow[s] in 'em all night long" and wrote the one about "guns in schools" long before it had a news hook ("My Life's Been Taken," "Bang Bang Bang") **

Willie Nelson: Remember Me, Vol. 1 (R&J)
Great singer renders great songs with 80 to 90 percent of the professionalism his 78 years have imbued ("Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! [That Cigarette]," "Satisfied Mind") **

The Cannanes: Small Batch EP (Exro.FM)
Diehard Australian dream-poppers so wispy I still doubt they can sustain anything longer, although I might check out the right best-of ("Tiny Compartment," "Bumper") **

Pere Ubu: Lady From Shanghai (Fire)
Steals a hook from Anita Ward before resuming his previously announced program of "Smash the Hegemony of Dance/Stand Still" ("Thanks," "Musicians Are Scum") **

Michael Koppy: Ashmore's Store (Good Track)
Inserted in a 112-page minibook and constructed around a seven-section, 27-minute song that was once twice as long, 62-year-old's legacy statement gets an A for Ambition and a C for Corn ("All in the Timing: A Hollywood Romance in Seven Chapters," "Nineteen Years Old") *

David Greenberger & Ralph Carney: Oh, Pa (Pel Pel)
Starring 75-year-old smoker and verbal gymnast Fergie, with everybody else a sideshow ("The Fergie and David Show: The Meaning of Embarrassment," "Fergie's Gilligan's Island," "Reason to Get Up," "The Fergie & David Show: A Recording Session") *

Kitty/Kacey Musgraves

Ingenues who screw
Friday, March 22, 2013  

Kitty: D.A.I.S.Y. Rage (free download)
Atypically, she was just starting a learning curve when haha i'm sorry got her the online attention she craves and braves. She raps better now, shaping her breathy little-girl pout into vulnerability and defiance as circumstances dictate, which often means simultaneously. She rhymes better too, parting ways with fellow K-holes Kreayshawn and Ke$ha by flaunting disgusting conditions unlikely to innarest the audience that licks its chops over barely-legal porn-lite. Which isn't to say she can't brag, or command the beats and collabs to match. This is one of those artists fans worry about--she has not only talent but heart, and too many insecurities. I like Kreayshawn OK myself. But she's not even the kind of artist friends worry about. A MINUS

Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park (Mercury)
Far be it from me to tear down the finest lyricist to rise up out of conscious country since Miranda Lambert, if not Bobby Pinson himself. But "Merry Go 'Round"--which I liked, year-ended, whole thing--was epochal only by the standards of country radio, which is to say of pusillanimity itself. Already I've gotten to where I can't take the homilies of the lead "Silver Lining," where I see that her label bio proudly quotes the same quatrain that made me go yuck--"If you wanna find the honey/You can't be scared of the bees [OK so far]/If you want to see the forest/You're gonna have to look past the trees [oy]." "Dandelion"? "I Miss You"? Does "pat" mean anything to you? "Precious"? "Pert"? I like the trailer song and love the smoking in Vegas song and am impressed by how strong she closes, four quite distinct tracks climaxing with one in which her homilies risk a tolerance her target market could find intolerable that's topped by "It Is What It Is," in which she screws a guy because no better option is currently presenting itself. But someone up there is telling her she'd better play it safe, and it could be her. A MINUS

Kate Nash/Waxahatchee

They're both girl talk--one's a little fancier, that's all
Tuesday, March 26, 2013  

Kate Nash: Girl Talk (Have 10P)
I'm proud when Kitty wets her undies and Kacey screws Mr. Acceptable, but prouder, frankly, when this likable size 12 lets her voice crack all over the big fat scarewords "feminist" and "sexism" on an album that gets dissed for its simplistic songwriting as if that wasn't the point. There are a few duds, and not everything is in the mode of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre--she ends with an a cappella lament finished off with a full orchestra. A lot of it is, however, including one called "Rap for Rejection," and should some jerk claim it's rejection that fuels her militance, she has the balls to leave the cad's gender unstated and write one called "Sister" that opens another possibility. Too bad the grungy "Under-Estimate the Girl" was consigned to YouTube. Check it out. A MINUS

Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (Don Giovanni)
Drums shake her confusion free and burgeoning, 'tho still strummed drone and strainéd syntax drag her down, and ere her sister stun the fragile leaves of their esteem, she'll test her wings and bring the bolewood to the shattered oak that truly needs it. Radio grows big in her imaginings, as she swan dives inside the confines of her car horn house, and sometimes we believe we care, what happens in the tuneful drywall of her shambling dreams. A MINUS

The Lovin' Spoonful

Before he had to make up his mind
Friday, March 29, 2013  

The Lovin' Spoonful: Greatest Hits (Buddha '00)
So what happened to John Sebastian, anyway? Was it the drug busts, the drugs themselves, group hassles, mob-based management? All these and more, but listening back to this slight improvement on Rhino's Anthology, I infer something more fundamental. Figure the reason no one was better at translating the flowery optimism of the middle '60s into folk-flavored pop song--"Do You Believe in Magic," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," "Daydream," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," just look at those titles--was as much spirit as talent. Figure he was so eager, so well-meaning, so fun-loving, so warmhearted, such a simpleton, that when the times demanded cynicism this John--unlike natural-born reprobate Phillips or designated reality principle Lennon--didn't have it in him. The three-four-five dogs among this album's 26 selections barely slow down its historical mission of evoking the balmy upsurge to the Summer of Love like no other body of music. A MINUS

The Lovin' Spoonful: Do You Believe in Magic (Buddha/BMG Heritage '02)
The great originals--keynoted by the title song, which commenced their 1965-66 run of seven straight top 10 singles--are all on the best-of. But on their debut album the filler was prime too, because unlike the Dylan-chiming Byrds, their folk-rock revved a jug-band strain that was plenty lively to begin with. Their "Blues in the Bottle" owed the Holy Modal Rounders and contended with them. And on the best bonus track, Will Shade sneaks away from Beale Street to mastermind the Hollywood Argyles. A MINUS

MSN Music, March 2013

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