Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: August 2013

Odds and Ends 034

Hanging in there
Friday, August 2, 2013  

Shemekia Copeland: 33 1/3 (Telarc)
The title refers to her age, which she's come of ("Can't Let Go," "Somebody Else's Jesus") ***

Tricky: False Idols (!K7)
Illbient slimmed into smoove groove, a conscious maturity move less escapist than you'd fear and less vital than you'd hope ("Tribal Drums," "Hey Love") ***

Moby: Destroyed (Mute)
The 18 to Wait for Me's Play--only not by as decisive a margin, these things are subtle (too subtle) ("The Broken Places," "The Day") ***

David Murray Infinity Quartet: Be My Monster Love (Motema)
If cocktail quartet with vocals is your concept, be sure to get paper on that chick singer you snagged ("Be My Monster Love," "Stressology") **

LL Cool J: Authentic (429)
Cooler as Captain Lifer than Mr. Goodbar, but surprisingly likable either way ("Bath Salt," "We Came to Party") **

Big Boi/Killer Mike: Trackstar the DJ Presents the Shoes for Running Tour Mixtape (free Trackstar download)
Many rare old collabs here, a number of them also fine, the finest not so rare as all that ("The Whole World," "Oh No") **

Iggy and the Stooges: Ready to Die (Fat Possum)
His first album worth noticing in longer than one need determine proves that even facing death with his best buds he'll rely on the shtick that has served him so profitably for so long ("Job," "Dirty Deal") **

John Fogerty: Wrote a Song for Everyone (Vanguard)
Best cameos by Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and, hmm, the Foo Fighters, and as a few solo shots prove, he needs 'em ("Fortunate Son," "Wrote a Song for Everyone," "Hot Rod Heart") *

Hailu Mergia/Spoek Mathambo

Africa in 1985--from a distance
Tuesday, August 6, 2013  

Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanay (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
Informative yet silly notes to the contrary, this Ethiopian one-off, recorded in Washington in 1985, isn't "lush," "futuristic," or, please God, "psychedelic." It's spare, nostalgic, and passing strange: accordion plus Rhodes plus Moog plus drum machine with which one-man-band Mergia, a successful professional in his homeland who wasn't a fan of the genocidal Mengistu "Marxist" regime then steadily expunging Addis's nightlife, recalls and recapitulates the modal melodies of his youth. Basically it's cocktail music, but with two big differences: a tune base like no cocktail music anywhere, and the necessity of reducing music Americans now know primarily from Éthiopiques horn bands to simple pattern, momentary idiosyncrasy, and painful longing. Mergia tried music promoting in D.C. for a while. He now drives a cab there. A MINUS

Spoek Mathambo: Escape From '85 (free download)
Insofar as I even know what these remixed hits from the year of Mathambo's Soweto birth are--"Like a Virgin," got it; "Centipede," don't tell me you forgot Rebbie Jackson; "Shikisha," must be Cape Town's Razz Brothers; "We Can Dance," search me; "Future," ditto--the resemblance is minimal, often based on some beat element DJs notice so we don't have to. All are transformed into rap-disco lite that bears Mathambo's Afropop-futurist stamp no matter who his collaborators. So airy it's perfect when you need a lift. Also so airy it threatens to float away altogether. B PLUS

Turn Around Bright Eyes

By Rob Sheffield/It Books/2013
Friday, August 9, 2013  

Rob Sheffield's bestselling 2007 Love Is a Mix Tape was his farewell song to his adored wife Renee Crist, dead of an embolism in under a minute in May 1997 with her helpless husband calling 911 at her side. They were both 31. It's one of the few books I've ever read while crying, and although in late 2006 Sheffield remarried, I figured it wasn't so much wise as sane for him to sidestep that complex event and instead follow up with Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, a musical prequel that takes place in the '80s. But now it appears that that wasn't sanity, it was patience, something he's good at. Turn Around Bright Eyes is a fond and funny reflection on his second marriage--not a happy ending, because nothing's ended, but a work in progress.

Sheffield has been a Rolling Stone reviewer and culture columnist for over a decade now, and what's doubly remarkable about both marriage memoirs is that they're also rock criticism. Love Is a Mix Tape chronicles indie-rock, the music he and Renee were so passionate about they kept making each other the mixtapes that keynote each chapter. Turn Around Bright Eyes celebrates a musical form that has obsessed both Sheffield and his wife Ally for the entire decade or so they've been together: karaoke.

We'll get to karaoke, I promise. But karaoke is not why people should read this book. No doubt too-much-information sophisticates will think, and perhaps write, "Your wife died in your arms. That's a genuine trauma--you're excused on that one. But don't let it go to your head. Now you say you love her replacement just as much? Have you no decency, sir?" Which is baloney. Sheffield has a great theme here. He thought his life had come to an end, and for years it did as his career blossomed. That he passed through this denouement to find love again on the other side neither diminishes the trauma nor merits a sophisticated yawn. It's a miracle of luck and struggle we should be glad and impressed he has the stuff to put into words--tender, grateful, thoughtful, self-mocking, sane, wise words.

As Sheffield knows full well, his first marriage was a bumbling novice's, his second a bumbling veteran's. But though the gain in maturity plus the trauma in between is certainly one reason the two are different, the main one is that the women are different. This isn't necessarily what you'd expect--maybe he's one of those guys who has a type. But he isn't. And this male human who believes he's a better husband than boyfriend found he could love each of these female human beings deeply, unreservedly, and for herself alone.

I can't speak to what these two different women have in common, although I bet there's more information there than Sheffield chooses to divulge--decency is not his problem. But for sure there's one thing. Both loved and love music with a passion pretty much equal to his own. So of course a guy who learned to love Duran Duran by talking to girls is now discovering unsuspected dimensions in the goth-pop Ally loves. More unexpected are the well-woven remains of a misfired rock fantasy camp feature and some dazzling explication de texte on the romantic sensitivity of "She Loves You" that leads to the reasonable conclusion: "John and Paul formed new bands with their wives, and made records where they invited their wives to sing. No other rock stars ever made such a big deal about loving their wives."

Which brings us, yes it does, to karaoke. Rob and and his astrophysicist honey love karaoke. They go out singing every chance they get. Me, I have no interest in karaoke, but also nothing against it. As musical democracy it definitely has something going--among other things, a collectively created alternative version of pop. And insofar as karaoke is the kingdom of schlock I can get with--"Don't Stop Believin'," "Livin' on a Prayer," lesser Rod Stewart, and Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"--it's fun to read about. So I found most of the sizable chunks devoted to Sheffield's thoughts on this democracy engaging as both history and criticism. But toward the end Sheffield devotes a full chapter apiece to what I guess he considers the reigning triumvirate: Neil Diamond, Rush, and David Bowie--Bowie the horrible singer as opposed to Bowie the shape shifter who kept it interesting till Let's Dance. Not only was I unconvinced of their majesty, I found myself uninterested--even, occasionally, nauseous. I would much rather have learned something about, say, Ally's cooking. Or, more likely, Rob's.

Jay-Z/The Lonely Island

This ain't no joke
Tuesday, August 13, 2013  

Jay-Z: Magna Carta Holy Grail (Roc-a-Fella)
After too many plays, this holding action won me over. Deeper than catchy, Timbaland's music is the precondition on an album that pits Basquiat against Blue--black man as artistic rebel versus black man as family stalwart. But the breakthrough only came when I started grinning every time I heard him advise his daughter regarding the Basquiat in his kitchen: "Lean on the shit, Blue, you own it." And though later he swears, "I love my niggas more than my own blood," nowhere is black more beautiful than in the person of his own wife: "Sleep every night with Mona Lisa/The modern version with better features." In short, family wins both times. Give it up to the one where Beyonce pledges gangsta devotion and, best of all, the one where the would-be billionaire looks back at the betrayals of his own departed head of family with something that feels like dread. B PLUS

The Lonely Island: The Wack Album (Republic)
Struggling for cred as aging rappers will, they stumble occasionally. Some of these ideas obviously seemed funnier when they brainstormed them--the Bloomberg rap that could be any cartoon mayor's, the incomprehensible "Spell It Out," the flat conceit of not giving a "honk"--and many come down well on the amusing side of hilarious. But most are amusing, and a few--the Robyn-fueled dance instructions of "Go Kindergarten," the manly boasts of "Diaper Money," the you-only-live-once-(so-watch-it) advisory that builds to "Two words about furniture: killing machines"--are as inspired as anything on Incredibad, where they wouldn't have fit because the rappers were younger then. Best DVD extra: the gay marriage-themed "Spring Break Anthem." B PLUS

Ornette Coleman/The Prestige Legacy, Vol. 1: The High Priests

Jam bands
Friday, August 16, 2013  

Ornette Coleman: Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street (BGP/Flying Dutchman)
An orphan in Coleman's many-labeled catalogue, this 1970 recording is often overlooked in favor of his somewhat earlier live-in-Stockholm Golden Circle albums on Blue Note, a more reputable imprint than Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman. It had sat unplayed amid my vinyl for 40 years. But when I gave this Eurozone-manufactured CD a trial spin, I fell hard. The Golden Circle records have great moments (the lyrical "Antiques," the site-specific "Faces and Places"). But they're chamber music. This has the overheard quality of a jam, with Coleman's time-tested Charlie Haden-Ed Blackwell rhythm section beefed up by Dewey Redman, whose tenor is always there to add some body when Ornette picks up a trumpet or violin. Cacophonous title track to theme-and-variations "Long Time No See" to trumpet feature "Let's Play" to two-sax "Forgotten Songs" to blowout "Tomorrow," it's all keyed by a very multigenerational chorus singing or if necessary chanting "Friends and neighbors, that's where it's at." A

The Prestige Legacy, Vol. 1: The High Priests (Prestige '00)
Here's an opportunistic little comp I grab when Carola feels like "some jazz." It's a time capsule of how the music was recorded 50 or 60 years ago, with plenty of care and not much conceptual panache. Four tracks apiece to leaders Davis and Coltrane, three to Rollins, five to Monk, and for me it's Monk who's something like a ringer, first because three of his lack saxophone, as does only one of the Davises, and second because this was his classic era. Not so with Davis, better on Columbia, or Coltrane, better on Impulse or Atlantic--both of them sorcerers' apprentices, playing with a youthful ease soon to be honed into singular command but in this context more redolent of the great culture that made their genius possible. And none of Rollins's three, my favorite of which honors a Victor Herbert tune, are on either Silver City or his single-disc Prestige best-of. Also scattered about are ace sax cameos by two sidemen: Charlie Parker, meet Davey Schildkraut. A MINUS

Clay Harper/Superchunk

Southern businessmen find artistic fulfillment in their middle years
Tuesday, August 20, 2013  

Clay Harper: Old Airport Road (Terminus)
In which the Atlanta restaurateur and one-time Coolie hires a female rapper, a blueswoman, an Arabic-singing massage therapist, and Colonel Bruce Hampton to deliver "beautiful songs with a despairing look at the world." In 1986 I called the Coolies "a glaring example of the postmodernist dictum that art about art is boring but junk about kitsch isn't," but although it could be said that all the guests add up to a single distancing technique, they're really there to furnish a fullness of feeling, different in each case, that Harper knows his own vocals aren't up to. Over just half a song, the massage therapist is the show-stopper. But for a restaurateur to let a rapper rhyme the praises of Red Lobster is a sure sign that he's grown in spirit. A MINUS

Superchunk: I Hate Music (Merge)
I believe that what had Mac McCaughan sounding so elated on Majesty Shredding was the excitement of having finally learned how to make an album worthy of his myth. So it's only natural that this is less of the same, and that in "Void" and "Staying Home" early on he's as bummed as a good grunge visionary should be. Not that bummed isn't a valid feeling appropriately expressed. But its validity is put in context by what comes right in the middle: "Trees of Barcelona," about the euphoria of sharing a rock festival in the capital of international bohemia. That's the Merge co-founder's life. Give him credit for knowing it's been a lucky one. A MINUS

Sam Baker

Lifelong comeback
Friday, August 23, 2013  

Sam Baker: Mercy (Music Road '04)
He's an Austin-based singer-songwriter who'll be coming back for the rest of his life from near-death in a 1986 Shining Path bombing. Deafer than not, he also relearned guitar with his left hand, so it would be presumptuous in the extreme to dismiss his quiet, putatively unfinished music as any kind of affectation--John Prine imitator, some might say. Around the middle, the mercy here risks bathos because the sad mood is so unvarying, but soon it rights itself. My two favorites honor marriages, one ended in its natural time by death, the other saved before it's too late by near-death. I also recommend the quiet antiwar tract where the husband gets a kiss for bringing his wife a Coke at the Little League game. And the one about Peru. B PLUS

Sam Baker: Pretty World (Music Road '07)
A lot of songs get sung on this record--"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Jacob's Ladder," Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die," and only on that last one does Baker decline to borrow the melody for a spell, thus taking some of the pressure off his own. He leaves Texas to consult a Pakistani psychic on the Lower East side. He chronicles a rich kid who gets away with killing a girl in an auto accident he spends the rest of his life drinking about. He relives Macu Picchu once again. And in crucial songs of thanks, he watches his beloved undo her top and needs two languages to celebrate a Christmas calmer than Robert Earl Keen's and happier than anything James McMurtry's likely to tell the world about. A MINUS

Sam Baker/James McMurtry

Deep from the heart of Texas
Tuesday, August 27, 2013  

Sam Baker: Say Grace (self-released)
"Say Grace" itself leads, as well-limned a miniature as he's ever recorded, and he's got a bunch: one of many divorcees he's paid his respects, this one's better off than the orphan who's not an orphan on Pretty World, to say nothing of "Migrants"'s 14 dead with 12 lines in the paper to show for it. But still--there's a hole in her robe, she falls asleep to the TV, and she still hears her mother saying "don't give me that face any more." Baker's voice is no prettier, but his music is less rough-hewn--here cello, brushes, and Leonard Cohen harmonies, there Gurf Morlix's blues-tango guitar. And the literary ambitions are out front--the way "feast" rhymes with "rough beast," the Emily Dickinson quote he sneaks into "Road Crew," the Jimmy Cagney mythos that falls flat as such ideas sometimes do. The third-happiest song is "Ditch": "My crazy-ass wife/nutty as her brother/supposed to marry rich/according to her mother." Second-happiest is "Isn't Love Grand," about a gimpy schoolteacher and her fat husband wearing fishnet and leather when the boys are off at his mother's. The happiest is "Button by Button." Baker does literally believe it's a gift from God when a woman takes off her clothes. A MINUS

James McMurtry: Live in Aught-Three (Compadre '04)
Last time I saw him he was switching off on six guitars, none of which he played with much verve--it was more like they were place holders, delaying tactics, a way through a 90-minute set, proof he wasn't just a writer. But though he does plod here, he also showcases his best early tunes, as a plodder had better. These are more likely attached to sardonically Dylanesque tales of personal inadequacy than to the sociopolitical extended metaphors and local-color narratives that came to the fore as of "We Can't Make It Here." But spurred by a Chuck Berry riff, it's the nine-minute meth-industry saga "Choctaw Bingo" that puts the set in gear, with "60 Acres," "Out Here in the Middle," and "Levelland" riding the same highway. That last one is dedicated to Max Crawford, identified as a member of the American Workers Party: "Max was a communist, so he didn't fit in too good in Floydada." James is a guy who prides himself on getting around. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 035

N.B.: I know members of the two most obscure young acts here (and so may be underrating them)
Friday, August 30, 2013  

The Pozniaks: Pozniak Street (Jamrag)
Hooky pop cheer fails to modulate unbearable falsetto anxiety ("I Think I'd Like You Better if I Loved You," "I Heard It Was a Beautiful Party") ***

Ezra Furman & the Harpoons: Mysterious Power (Minty Fresh '11)
Complete with guitar band and harmonica, throwback chronicles teenage wasteland and America the not so beautiful ("I Killed Myself but I Didn't Die," "Teenage Wasteland") ***

The Child of Lov: The Child of Lov (Domino)
Bedroom soul, as in where this homespun illbient funk is made--the lov's made in the mind of the funkateer ("Give Me," "Owl") ***

Crazy & the Brains: Let Me Go (Baldy Longhair)
Jolly garage punks prove how heedless they are by adding xylophone ("Saturday Night Live," "Beach Bug") **

Kreayshawn: Somethin 'Bout Kreay (Columbia)
Netwise trope-tweaking at its best worst ("Blasé Blasé," "Go Hard [La.La.La]") **

Land of Pines: The Long Defeat 12" EP (Fin)
Crunch and chime, groove and tune, baritone and soprano, elegiac and skeptical, but not dynamite songs, not yet ("Cave Painting," "Dead Feathers") *

Billy Hough & the X-Loves: Venice (Garagedog)
Kissoff jokes so nasty he probably deserved a worse breakup than he got ("Venice," "She's Not Coming Over") *

Wavves: Afraid of Heights (Mom + Pop)
Like Ben Folds--although he's punker than Ben Folds (as is Max Martin)--Nathan Williams proves that a talent for tunes does nothing for one's annoying personality ("Demon to Lean On," "Afraid of Heights") *

MSN Music, August 2013

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