Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2013

Odds and Ends 030

More R than B, that's for sure
Tuesday, June 4, 2013  

Calvin Harris: 18 Months (Ultra/Rocnation/Columbia)
Name EDM producer nabs collabs with near-name pop-dance frontpeople--a great trick when it works ("Bounce," "I Need Your Love") ***

Rihanna: Unapologetic (Def Jam)
So much more provocative as an android than as a human being ("Phresh Out the Runway," "Diamonds," "Numb") ***

Lucy Love: Kilo (Superbillion)
Poison-hearted one track and into you for life the next, Anglo-Zambian Dane claims rapper as opposed to pop star but may not really know ("Poison," "Thunder") **

Lucy Love: Superbillion (Superbillion)
Her daddy was a DJ and she makes the most of it ("No V.I.P.," "Daddy Was a DJ") **

Alicia Keys: Girl on Fire (RCA)
Heartfelt, lively, and sweet--as r&b maturity statements go ("Girl on Fire," "One Thing") **

Frank Ocean: The Lonny Breaux Collection (free download)
Alienated love songs just barely set apart by their specifics ("When I'm Done," "Scared of Beautiful") **

K'naan: Country, God or the Girl (A&M/Octone)
Goes all-out pop as if pop meant sing-song catchy rather than complicated catchy, and only when he raps or someone else sings does the musicality intensify ("Nothing to Lose," "Is Anybody Out There") **

Justin Timberlake: The 20/20 Experience (RCA)
He's as cute as you want him to be, and he really lasts a long time ("Let the Groove Get In," "Pusher Love Girl") *

Rachid Taha/Mariem Hassan

Double nickels from the sand
Friday, June 7, 2013  

Rachid Taha: Zoom (Wrasse)
This is the sixth solo studio album for the trilingual but mostly Arabic-singing 55-year-old French-Algerian since 1998's breakthrough Diwan. Every one has been first-rate, every one just different enough; even the live entry fills out what I hesitate to call his oeuvre, a word that feels sillier than usual in a scrappy rock lifer who just wants to make a little money here--while subtly addressing major political and cultural issues in the most legible desert crossover yet devised. This time the change-ups come from juju trancemaster Justin Adams, Mick Jones honoring his youth, a chanteuse sweetening "It's Now or Never," and a sample from the Egyptian goddess whose name is rendered not as Um Kulthum but as the old-school, rhymes-with-zoom Oum Kalsoum. Taha's rough attack can't match the rough-attack greats--Springsteen, say, or Fogerty--much less such fluent, gritty-when-necessary rivals to the south as Rochereau and N'Dour. For that reason, his excellent records may feel less essential to the English speaker in the long run. But I'll play this one remembering that my favorite track on sound alone is number three, "Jamila," which attacks forced marriage and bears as title an Arabic name that translates as "pretty." A

Mariem Hassan: El Aaiún Egdat (Nubenegra)
Now pursuing an active musical career from Catalonia, this ex-nurse from the Western Saharan possesses the most remarkable vocal instrument to emerge from northern Africa--a searing contralto, serious yet excitable and often transported, that can cut into anyone's indifference. Born in 1958 like Rachid Taha, she's had it a lot harder--refugee camp, divorce, breast cancer, guitarist lost to leukemia. Nor does she project much of Taha's showbiz pragmatism--her calling is the Sahrawi style called haul, which on 2010's Shouka she and a new guitarist showcased in all its chorus-driven, prayerlike, insular intensity. By comparison, this one's forgiving enough to lift a tourist's spirits--there's some saxophone, and the melodies bid buenas dias. And then, two thirds of the way in, guitar and harmonica state a theme that may take a while to ID--holy moley, it's Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman," plus ululations and a friendly sax solo--and the rest of the album loosens up some more before climaxing with seven minutes of avant closer. Back in camp they may think that makes her a sinner. Folkies may grouse as folkies will. But I say she's trying to have some fun, and that she and we deserve it. A MINUS

Fat Tony/Young Fathers

Post Akon, K'naan, Shad
Tuesday, June 11, 2013  

Fat Tony: Smart Ass Black Boy (Young One)
Like so many alt types before him, the half-Nigerian Houston rapper relocates to Brooklyn--with no audible Nigeria in his flow and, beyond the slight drawl some young black New Yorkers also retain, not much Houston either. Or much alt, come to think on it. Mostly he recounts sexual-romantic and other contretemps--not conquests, not adventures, just situations, humanely and humorously understood, which some might say is kind of African after all. Even the lovely "Father's Day" has that vibe. The beats by his man Tom Cruz skip explicit melody to achieve textural continuity with electronically simulated and approximated drums, shakers, scrapers, and the like. All pretty homespun and imaginative. Like alt should be, come to think on it. A MINUS

Young Fathers: Tape Two (Anticon)
Say these three Scots--rapper-singers African-born blacks, beatmaker white Edinburgh native--cross Shabazz Palaces and Tricky, only they're dirtier sonically than either, and also more emotional, energetic, even tuneful. Noticing the range of such fundamentally grim lines as "Inside I'm feelin' dirty/It's only 'cause I'm hurtin'," "Work your life don't know why," "She's looking for love/She's looking for trouble/In the wrong places," "She couldn't give a fuck if the exchange rate's down," you'll soon feel how all those slight musical differentials hoist the group's collective spirit, and how courageously the music's depressive candor strengthens their will to be alive. "We can unite ourselves"? I wouldn't bet on it. But a stirring effect regardless. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to African Disco/Fela Kuti

Afrobeat, Afrobeat, who's got the Afrobeat?
Friday, June 14, 2013  

The Rough Guide to African Disco (World Music Network)
Africans are obviously funky in their own way. But they did without trap drums and electric bass for so long that their attempts to imitate James Brown and his bootyspawn impressed only Afros coveting modernity and, a generation later, Euros too young to have experienced funk the genre in its time and place. As this belated showcase establishes, disco was much easier to copy, and while a few selections force it--the repurposed Mahlathini, for instance--most strike the right balance between cheap commercialism and heartfelt ambition. I'm especially grateful to find a use for the great lost Afro-rock venture Osibisa and yet another example of African trap master Tony Allen's versatility. And then--and then!--there's the bonus disc: a straight reissue of the 34-minute 1988 Soul on Fire, in which Camerounian guitarist Vincent Nguini covers seven soul classics (including "In the Midnight Hour" twice) as Syran M'Benza inundates faux disco arrangements in virtuoso soukous billows. It's very makeshift--tracks don't even fade, just stop. But Nguini sure does make soul journeyman Tommy Lepson sound like he coulda been a contender. A MINUS

Fela Kuti: The Best of the Black President 2 (Knitting Factory)
Compiled by U.K. Afropop advocate turned Fela specialist Chris May, this follow-up to the first volume (which adds naught but a DVD to MCA's essential 2000 Best Best of Fela Kuti) sets itself to showcasing the hero's stylistic range and political significance--rather than, for example, selecting another dozen slightly less compelling jams to spread over another two slightly less compelling CDs. There's a soulful slow track, a hoarse late track, a longer version of the first volume's "Sorrow Tears and Blood," and not one but two Ginger Baker features, the earlier of which is, by the artist's very high standard, untogether groovewise. Fela's striking clarity reflects an arrogance his singing progeny Femi and Seul can't duplicate. His power to project like the rebel son of a politically prestigious mother he was lends authority to his ideas whether right-minded or wrong-headed. Most righteous by me is the song May can't resist repeating, an attack on state repression where Fela repeats "Sorrow tears and blood" again and again and a council of men and women chants back "Dem regular trademark." Why shouldn't it go on for 17 minutes? A MINUS

Nas/The Roots

Mo' meta reviews
Tuesday, June 18, 2013  

Nas: Illmatic (Columbia '94)
In Mo' Meta Blues, Questlove describes "hip hop's funeral": the battle of the debuts at the Source Awards, when Biggie's Ready to Die buried Nas's Illmatic, already a critical and in-crowd legend, and he watched Nas "wilt in defeat" in the Tommy Hilfiger shirt his manager had just financed. Sez Quest to Black Thought: "He's never going to be the same. You just watch." And he was right. Nas immediately transformed himself into a hit-seeking faux gangsta of depressing conventionality and didn't make another good record for eight years. That still begs the question, however, of exactly how good this spartan effort was and is. Better than I thought at the time for sure--as happens with aesthetes sometimes, the purists heard subtleties principled vulgarians like me were disinclined to enjoy, especially beatmaking where Large Professor along with such fellow New York smoothies as Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and the great Premier convert samples into haunting looped groove elements. Also enjoyable is Nas's ability to transform simple lines like "I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death," "I'm out for presidents to represent me," "The world is yours," and even "One love, one love" into de facto hooks. And my mind tells me that I have to admire how cagily he walks the line between doing the crime and hanging with homies for whom nothing else is "real" even if my heart isn't in it. All that said, however, Ready to Die still gets my vote. A MINUS

The Roots: Game Theory (Def Jam '06)
On The Tipping Point, Black Thought establishes his prerogatives with well-honed braggadoccio that's kinda dull anyway. Here, freed from Jimmy Iovine and told by Jay-Z to do what he wants, he recedes toward the background, an observer looking out at a black Philly that hasn't risen like he has and just "Don't Feel Right," as he calls the first of three straight ominous, drum-powered, social-realist reports whose tone maintains until the J. Dilla encomium that closes. Even the summery "Livin' in the New World" turns out to be about the surveillance state. Not hooky enough, as it doesn't take Jimmy Iovine to figure out. Strong enough to compensate, though. A MINUS

Louis Armstrong House Museum

30-X-100 for the people
Friday, June 21, 2013  

It's under an hour from my apartment--mostly on the 7 train, which on its northern side affords a fine view of the 5 Pointz graffiti park in Long Island City--but until this Father's Day I'd never kept my promise to myself and visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens (34-56 107th Street, Corona, 718-478-5297). That was dumb. It's magnificent, and tourists--who tend to equate New York with Manhattan although the outer boroughs are more redolent of the city small-D democrats love--are strongly advised to make the effort.

Arriving at 3:45 in time to catch one of the hourly forty-minute tours, which are the only way visitors can view the interior, we had a few minutes to explore the tiny screening room, which featured a special exhibition about Pops and baseball that's up till August 25. There I learned that Pops was a Mets fan who wished someone would ask him to perform the national anthem at Shea Stadium a mile away, although he was an honored guest at a few games and could have attended more if he'd wanted. Pops also "admired" the Yankees, his manager Joe Glaser's team. There's a 1950 photo of him with first baseman Joe Collins and my hero Phil Rizzuto at a Chicago night spot.

Also in the screening room was a hand-written five-page screed praising his neighbors on 107th Street. When he wasn't on the road, Armstrong spent the last 28 years of his life in this house. It was chosen for him before he laid eyes on it by his fourth wife, Lucille. The block is now predominantly Hispanic in the vast North Queens barrio that follows Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard from Elmhurst all the way to the Flushing River. But when I attended Junior High School 16 half a mile away it was Italian with Puerto Rican and African-American admixtures, and to call it "middle-class," as the terrific guide did, is to pump its status slightly. Armstrong loved it and by all accounts was loved in return. Famously, he hung out with, played ball with, and bought ice cream for the local kids, as well as handing bills to the random needy. When there was a death nearby, Lucille would bake a turkey or casserole for the bereaved.

But though Armstrong fans know most of this stuff, to visit the house is different from reading about it. It's charming, funny, beautiful, touching, eloquent. By my look-see it's not the typical Queens 40-X-100 I grew up in but a 30-X-100, maybe even 25--quite cramped, its many amenities tucked into walls and up to the ceilings in the manner of a ship-shape houseboat. This is especially true in the kitchen, with its built-in blender that converts into other appliances and its paper towel and aluminum foil dispensers folding out near the sink. Originally a two-family, it was converted by sole designer Lucille into a one-family. The rear first-floor bedroom became a breakfast nook and an upstairs living room Louis's den, where he practiced, wrote, catalogued, listened to the radio, played along with the radio, home-taped himself, and entertained friends. At moments I was reminded of Monticello, which is also full of gadgets and smaller than you expect.

Armstrong never made the money he should have--Glaser kept most of it. But he could have afforded a far grander place, and that he chose not to says something telling about a genius who never aspired to rise above a common station except in the notes he played. Within the limits he laid out for himself, however, Armstrong didn't stint. Reading about the mirrored bathroom, gold-plated toilet fixtures, cheetah-print stair carpet, and aquamarine everything, you may fear the house is pretentious or embarrassing, but it's not at all, at least not to someone who grew up in Queens when Armstrong lived there. On the contrary, it's an object lesson in limited luxury. With its careful period authenticity--even the air conditioners are very 1970, although their guts have been replaced--the museum is a vivid reminder of how much more acquisitive, pretentious, and would-be hip wealth has become since the days of the affluent society.

The tour includes a few snatches of music from Armstrong's enormous and now finally digitized tape library, the most impressive a 1954 hotel-room recording of one verse of "Blueberry Hill." But more precious in a way is 30 seconds of dinner conversation from a much longer tape he made once. Nothing much is said--table banter about Brussels sprouts. But the commonness is what's great about it. Armstrong didn't make this recording because he was a great man whose every utterance should be preserved for history. He made it because he valued the most ordinary moments of a life he was grateful for--and by extension, everyone else's. His museum would make a great combo with the one the Fricks installed in their Fifth Avenue mansion.

Serengeti/J. Cole

Two prolific rap hopefuls
Tuesday, June 25, 2013  

Serengeti: The Kenny Dennis LP (Anticon)
Moving and comic new insights into David Cohn's most beloved character, with the skits precious and the rapping per se provided by KDz--including a bootleg tape by the younger Kenny's House of Pain answer group Tha Grimm Teachaz, which plays faintly behind a traffic stop (luckily, the officer at the window is Kenny's best friend Curtis), and the incomprehensible home recording "Punks." In my favorite skit, Kenny meets his lifelong protegee Ders when he's denied a cash refund on a malfunctioning no-fog shaving mirror and buys the eight-year-old a shower radio with his store credit. In my favorite rap, he celebrates wedded bliss with Jueles: "Buddhists and Cubans fit together like a Rubik's Cube." The narrative matters on this album, and as always, newcomers should hear Dennehy first. But Cohn is one of a kind, and he don't stop. A MINUS

J. Cole: Born Sinner (Roc Nation/Columbia)
You can see why this diligent St. John's magna tops off his make-or-break with the apologetic "Let Nas Down"--the totemic rapper he betrayed, apparently, by tacking the harmless banger "Work Out" onto Cole World, as if Nas rechristening himself Escobar wasn't five times as cheap. Conceptually, this album is an Illmatic move. Musically it's fancied up as it must be from the spare skills of his three mixtapes. But like Illmatic it eschews pop emoluments, and conceptually it's just as canny. Craving street cred while rejecting crime as a hustle or a metaphor, the young man who "couldn't sell crack but I rap good" plays the mack daddy. But just as the younger Nas is fascinated by the pitfalls of a corner-boy lifestyle he's not quite part of, this ambitious youngblood is a chronically repentant horndog. Most of his sex songs are also apologies--to a wife or girlfriend, to the women he discards, to other women wronged by other dogs, he varies the theme with winning empathy. But I still prefer him class-conscious: spitting "I hate rich niggaz goddammit/'Cause I ain't never had a lot dammit" and ending all but one of "Mo Money"'s 24 quick lines with the M-word. On "Crooked Smile," he combines the two themes hauntingly and elusively--helped big time by the historically pop women of TLC. B PLUS

Chance the Rapper/Homeboy Sandman

So what exactly are you afraid of?
Friday, June 28, 2013  

Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap (free download)
His flow a cartoon whine, his wordplay wittily associative, his affect educated ghetto, and his main life experiences rising in the rap game, zonking on cannabis and lysergic, and surviving a battle zone, he projects an anxiety that has recognizable cognates among alt-rock waste-os with a lot less to be afraid of. Amusing though he and his yelp can be, I like him best when anxiety is a mood rather than a subject, particularly on the quasi-political track hidden behind "Pusha Man"--"Paranoia," an anti-summer song, because summer's when people gets shot. I also welcome the two-and-a-half minute "interlude" that praises, yup, "falling in love"--and the one that proves "Clean Up Woman" is his favorite song. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent (Stones Throw)
The guy who cashes "checks for packs of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked" is so skilled he risks being too smart for his own good--a little like Aesop Rock, except that a) he's not white and b) he's not an obscurantist. He wants to set his people on the right path and keeps thinking up explicit ways to say so. But none of them have gotten near that goal so far, not even theoretically, as they might if his skills included the ability to rise to actual hits, as opposed to pleasurable musicality, and also to sink to them. Not that that kind of skill comes any easier than the rhyming and rapping he's so good at. But I'm struck by my favorite song on this EP, "Lonely People," in which a raggedy "Eleanor Rigby" refrain flexes against verses that begin: "Look at all these wannabe famous people/All they talk about is famous people/Every statement be defaming people." True enough, obviously. But it makes me wonder whether fame is really something he's willing to go for. B PLUS

MSN Music, June 2013

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