Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: January 2015

January 2, 2015

Link: Beyoncé / D'Angelo

Beyoncé: Beyoncé (Platinum Edition) (Columbia) Set me back 30 bucks, but shit--the box itself has a nice velvety feel. True, the booklet collects 20 video stills that squeeze the credits onto a single pink-on-black page, the 2015 calendar shows off a mostly b&w pin-up girl whose cunningly unkempt designer outfits we'll meet again when we get to the videos, and the elaborately overworked videos themselves should be approached with extreme caution--after you know the music, please. But where most live DVDs are de trop, this one rules, not just for Ms. Knowles's legendary stage discipline and expert dance routines but for a star-time visage further beautified by how readily it projects empathy, humor, and fun to fans who get it all. And of course, the reason to forswear the videos is to give the songs time to breathe, which they will--especially but not exclusively the sex sequence, which over seven well-differentiated tracks performs the unlikely feat of conveying an open-ended eroticism that varies because Mrs. Carter knows eroticism does, for each of us in our individual responses as well as for her. So let's agree that Queen Bey is at best a useful metaphor--when she tries to sing the part and gets all regal on our ass, her majesty quickly becomes a bore. Representing lust, on the other hand, loosens her up. Enter the bonus disc called "More": filthier "Drunk in Love," nastier "Flawless," cuter "Blow," high-rolling party song "7/11," Caribbean outtake "Standing in the Sun," and the sisterly, daughterly "Ring Off," in which the queen mother leaves her doggish husband and about time too. Best Bey ever. A

D'Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah (RCA) Comparisons to Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On pertain--like that end-of-year funk bombshell, this music is disruptive, a little forbidding. But a-b the two albums and recall or discover how much cleaner music was supposed to sound in 1971. Proudly antidigital though he may be, D'Angelo knows damn well that he's competing in a funk soundscape epitomized for the nonce by the dense computerized pastiche of Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy--a soundscape in which gearhead murk and gorgeous complexity coexist a tweak or two apart. His response, almost as far from Voodoo as Riot was from Stand!, is a thick, sui generis jazz-funk in which Questlove and Pino Palladino avant around with the kind of bottom they already change up as flexibly as anyone in the pop sphere while guitarist Isaiah Sharkey and horn maestro Roy Hargrove interject from the jazz side. Instrumentally, it's more virtuosic, more surprising, more conceptual, and more physical than Riot's "Africa" jams. But D'Angelo isn't just being conceptual when he buries his murmurs, moans, pleas, regrets, and imprecations so deep in the mix that the words are indecipherable, because not a song here stands as tall as "Family Affair," "Just Like a Baby," or "You Caught Me Smilin'." Which is to say that the talk about how profoundly D'Angelo articulates his racial awareness and romantic struggle is mostly guff, although both are certainly present. I'm very glad this album finally came. But I also very much hope there are more. Because it's distinctly possible that he has more to tell us. A MINUS

January 9, 2015

Link: Kool A.D. / Kool & Kass

Kool A.D.: Word O.K. (Bandcamp mixtape) After releasing six mixtapes between February 2013 and March 2014, the multicultural who broke up Das Racist rested, and this was a good place to stop--a culmination, temporary or maybe not. Splitting the difference between modest confidence and cool diffidence, he claims "best rapper in the world" as a joke because these days a joke is a lot better than nothing if it's brainy and benevolent and keeps you in food, shelter, and airplane travel. Old materials you won't mind hearing again are recycled occasionally. First-string cameo providers Lady Bug, Talib Kweli, and Del the Funkee Whatever add class. Amaze 88 and the beatmaking corps keep the flow relaxed, strange, and thrift-store lush. Near the end of the opening "Open Letter," this best rapper in the world tosses off a metaphor that rhymes with "metaphor": "If you headed for a wall you better set a course through a door." Clearly, that's what he thinks he's done. Here's hoping that door either stays open or led him into a room where he can get his work done when he's in the mood. A

Kool A.D.: 63 (Bandcamp mixtape) Released simultaneously with 19 in early 2013, this is the one that goes down easy. Perpetually amused and perpetually ticked off, unusually well-informed even though he doesn't read enough, his congenially stoned, organically radical, holistically pro-life flow defines without dominating a cast of nearly two dozen, including a couple of junior pimps keeping it whatever they keep it. Few tracks maintain like the picaresque jingle "Airplane Flight" or the Kanyefied autobiography "Exotische Kunst." But every one keeps on bullshittin'. Hip-hop as good conversation. Dinner-rap with PSAs. A MINUS

Kool & Kass: Peaceful Solutions (Bandcamp mixtape) Kool A.D.'s the laff-a-minute one with the throat cured by years of holding his tokes in and the stoned laff to match, Kassa Overall the jazz drummer qua all-over beatmaker and relatively rational and mellow rapper. Kool's more "I gotta think about some shit not to give a fuck about," Kass more "Words from a hat like barely a metaphor/Still finding myself the reason I met her for." Both give "Shouts to our white mothers/Thank God they liked brothers." Bob Marley offers the benediction. Bone Thugs' Bizzy Bone raves about Jesus, money, and sleeping in the bus station for upwards of 10 minutes. A MINUS

Kool A.D.: Not O.K. (Bandcamp mixtape) From the beatless two-finger-piano-plus-sine-wave opener to the minimalist-piano-plus-brushes closer, you'll believe Victor Vazquez is deploying the weirder half of the sessions from which he'll construct two albums. The beats are funkier but never aggressively danceable--synth whistles, skeletal syndrum snatches, organ parts, sandpaper vinyl noise. And the raps are in Spanish and French as well as English, as befits a guy who claims Michael Ondaatje, believes Leonard Maltin and Rick Ross belong in successive 16s, and leads his own prayer circle. B PLUS

Kool & Kass Are . . . Peaceful Solutions: Coke Boys 5 (Bandcamp mixtape) Stoned afternoon in a Berlin hotel room hooked on the samples "Dayum, son, where'd you find this?" and "Maybach music" ("C.R.E.A.M.," "Uoeno") **

Kool A.D.: 19 (Bandcamp mixtape) Hip-hop as clever conversation--gallery-rap ("All Skreets," "Marine World Africa") *

January 16, 2015

Link: Company Freak / Bushwick Gospel Singers / Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce / Chris Butler

Company Freak: Le Disco Social (OpusLabel/Superlatude) You may not want to know that this could be the most intelligent disco album ever made, especially when I go on to amend that to "intellectual" on the grounds that most good music is intelligent one way or the other and usually both. But you must be told that the intellectual in charge is a Ph.D. named Jason King who's long been my boss at NYU's Clive Davis Department/Institute of Recorded Music--and who (now he tells me) studied voice before he went on to more abstruse pursuits. The idea is to reconstitute classic disco as a band music featuring divaweight vocalists--not the original heroines of a style now 35 years past its commercial prime, but their better-paid heirs, Broadway belters like Vivian Reed and Shayna Steele. "Company freak" meant "house hippie" in the biz's pre-disco days, but here, at least according to "Theme From Company Freak," it signifies five-day-week wage slaves whose only recourse is dancing. "Sexaholic" warns them that alcohol can freak your life, and not in the good way. "Do Ya Wanna Funk" is a Sylvester cover that's even more uplifting live. "Crackdown" deploys a cartoonish Bootsy voice to sing the 99 percent and the immigration that founded every nation. "Istanbul Disco" finds a groove in Muslim instrumentation. And "André Leon Talley" escapes into fashion. Jason is quite a dresser. A MINUS

Bushwick Gospel Singers: Songs of Worship Vol. 2 (self-released) Fire-and-brimstone Reverend Peter Phallasy, his wailing soulmate Sister Snow Bunny, and free-thinking third wheel Zoe Stampfel lead the holiness-tinged acoustic assembly in 13 post-bluegrass Satanist hymns about hypocrisy, techno-heathenism, fee-based evangelism, brand worship, money in general, the hard rain that's coming, the war that's coming too, and other things that fill them with a loathing their sardonic glee declines to deliver from their unholy rage. Occasionally genuine Sunday school melodies are commandeered. The finale lasts 10 minutes and is called "Thin the Herd." It tell us that sure as Lucifer, a mass die-off is coming too, and they're not sure that such a cleansing would be a bad thing. Wonder whether they realize that Lucifer runs iTunes, which is the only way you can buy this thing. Hey, maybe that's why they signed on the dotted line. A MINUS

Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce: Complicated Day (Enja/Yellowbird) For three decades on multiple cusps, saxophonist-bandleader-actor-storyteller-educator Nathanson has shown a proclivity for song that he's regularly explored but only once indulged--on the Deborah Harry-showcasing, Elvis Costello-featuring Jazz Passengers showcase Individually Twisted two decades ago. But those were much more arranged and avant--they deliberately didn't flow. This album is relaxed; its jokes are friendlier; companionable vocalist Nathanson cedes the lead often and slips comfortably into his spoken-word shtick. "Simon" recapitulates Simon Says; "Slow Boat to China" is sillier than that; "No Storytelling"'s composed free-jazz messing around generates a satirically overwrought recitation about narrative technique before returning to the previously scheduled program. The topper is a charmingly off-key "I Can See Clearly Now" by Nathanson's 18-year-old son Gabriel. I still prefer Individually Twisted in theory. But this is the one I'll play next. A MINUS

Chris Butler: Easy Life (Future Fossil) It has its slow spots, especially on a few fast-forwards from 1970, but this cobbled-together concept album by a long-scrabbling professional on the rock fringe earns its subtitle: "The Bohemian Dream & American Nightmare of Kent State 1970." The buoyant title track evokes the late-hippie mindset as accurately as Neil Young's melancholy "Don't Let It Bring You Down," and the surrounding historical detail powers an acute portrait of a movement that was simultaneously casual and righteous--a movement of young people who'd never seen their world contract and couldn't believe it actually might. Part one of the long tale that ends the album proper climaxes with a road trip to see the Dead in Cleveland, during which Butler sneaks onstage and plays beer can until Jerry tells him to shut the fuck up. In part two, the bummed-out kid gives his drum kit to Jeff Miller three weeks before Miller becomes one of four Kent State students slaughtered by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. The postscript is Creedence's "Fortunate Son," which lest you've forgotten is about not being one. B PLUS

January 23, 2015

Link: Golem / Lily Allen / Toni Braxton & Babyface / Mary J. Blige / Jonathan Richman / Keyshia Cole / Derek Senn

Golem: Tanz (Corason Digital) Produced by bassist to the weirdos Tony Maimone, this all-acoustic klezmer sextet is amped up only marginally by a guest guitarist you'll hardly notice up against Annette Kogan's accordion and Jeremy Brown's violin. The title song translates "dance," naturally, and is more frenetic than and very nearly as compelling as most of the many African-inspired calls to that activity. Equally compelling are not one, not two, but three Kogan-penned love-songs-with-a-twist: "Mikveh Bath," in which a virgin bride fantasizes about her husband-to-be as she purifies herself; "Miskayt," in which a man and woman "so ugly you could cry" discover each other's good points; and "Love You All the Time," in which a perpetually worried Kogan implores her husband not to run with scissors or go on Facebook. Inspirational Verse: "We don't believe in heaven/We just want to die happy." A MINUS

Lily Allen: Sheezus (Warner Bros.) The key's in a multivalent lyric she balances with a surehandedness that isn't guaranteed the way it was when she was single: "Life for Me," a tuneful rendering among many tuneful renderings (hell, all five bonus misses are tuneful) about feeling nostalgic for the discontented days marital bliss has put behind her forever, or so she usually thinks. Even when that bliss devolves into a painful argument, she can put it into song, and though the bite that was her premarital specialty has softened, give her credit--marital bliss is a theme few lyricists sharpen much at all. Opposites that attract: "Our Time," in which single working girls get wasted on Friday night, and the scornful celebrity-feminist "Hard Out Here." A MINUS

Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage & Divorce (Motown) Through one number-one album, two number-two albums, one Vegas run, two Disney-on-Broadway runs, one season of Dancing With the Stars, two bankruptcies, and, absolutely, one divorce, Braxton has been as content-free as a soul diva can be. No wonder Kenny Edmunds grabbed her early on--she was platinum putty in his hands. But recall that Edmunds hasn't been Mr. Magic himself for a while, and assume Braxton would try anything. Bingo. Pretend they're writing/singing from experience. That's their line, and since each is but once-divorced, it has a patina. Weathered now, their mellow voices retain some lustre, and there's narrative arc and emotional texture to the well-doctored material--hurting the one you don't want to hurt, worrying about how she's doing, makeup sex, post-split attraction. Yet amid these consistent songs, the single sole-composer credit stands out, and it's Braxton's: "I Wish," about just how bad she hopes the other woman treats him. Inspirational Verse: "I hope she gives you a disease/So that you will see/But not enough to make you die/But only make you cry/Like you did me." A MINUS

Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions (Capitol) Blige's Brit pick-me-up has the general effect of taking a load off. Hooks of neither Swedish nor American manufacture provide a freshness--try Disclosure's on "Follow" or Naughty Boy's on "Pick Me Up"--and when she's beset by doubt, as is always going to happen with Mary, she doesn't get overwrought about it. Matched by the spare piano-and-drums of her countryman Rodney Jerkins, she contains herself even on the pain-wracked "Whole Damn Year." But though I love "Therapy" for telling us exactly where she's coming from, I wish I didn't suspect that the heal-thyself nostrum "Not Loving You" was ghostwritten by her therapist. A MINUS

Jonathan Richman: No Me Quiejo De Mi Estrella (Vapor/Munster) Digs Leonard Cohen, digs his wife more, is so big in Spain he's learning the language, and--one more thing--will never own a cell ("Here It Is," "You Can Have a Cell Phone That's OK but Not Me") ***

Keyshia Cole: Point of No Return (Interscope) Never actually tied the knot, I'm inferring, which might have tightened things up ("Rick James," "Heat of Passion") **

Derek Senn: The Technological Breakthrough ( Intelligently, uncomfortably, ex-boho singer-songwriter excavates his generational malaise ("Bless Her Insecurity," "Darlin' I'm Not Earning Enough") *

January 30, 2015

Link: Burial / Steve Reich / Boozoo Bajou / Khun Narin Electric Phin Band / Jaipur Kawa Brass Band / Oneohtrix Point Never / Moody Good / Philip Glass Remixed / Flying Lotus / Sunmonx / Skrillex / Sam Shalabi

Burial: Rival Dealer (Hyperdub) A year into a relationship that began admiring, went on hiatus, and returned passively and then actively pleasurable, this half hour of music now generates something like that satisfied feeling I get when I spend time with, say, Into the Music or Rokku Mi Rakka. Despite the reflexively dark title it shares with the lead track, despite the glitched electronics that will always scare off my generational cohort, despite the consoling females who will just as inevitably trip cynics' corn alarms, its gestalt is intelligently humanistic and fucking uplifting well before the quiet, awkward self-acceptance speech that serves as a coda. The final track goes by "Come Down to Us." Good album title, I'd reckon. A

Steve Reich: Radio Rewrite (Nonesuch) Although I admire Reich in general and love Music for 18 Musicians in particular, he does dig him some austere, and austere I can live without. But here Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood performs one of Reich's more virtuosic pieces and Reich returns the favor by assigning minimalist variations on some cunningly concealed Radiohead themes to the alert experimentalists Alarm Will Sound. Right, no one would call it a party. But the rock sonorities are very much a comfort nonetheless. So I expect to get my secondary Reich fix here from now on. And while sticking with Kid A, I'll probably get my secondary Radiohead fix here too. In prog of any vintage or cultural orientation, minimalist rigor rocks. A MINUS

Boozoo Bajou: 4 (Apollo) As you probably guessed, this is a fourth album, its perpetrators a trip-hoppy German electronic duo whose previous titles have been sportier: Satta, Dust My Broom, Grains. All are "interesting," to resort to a technical term favored by us non-electronicats. But for a lover of Hassell & Eno and Nils Petter Molvaer, this is something grander: "calming" first, that's true, but also "engaging," "sustaining." Marcus Stockhausen's trumpet on the lead "Jan Mayen" sets that Hassell-Molvaer tone, but this isn't the '70s-Miles trip you might sanely anticipate. It's more like Tricky at his best, sans bummed-out or distracted vocals and conveying a spirituality at peace with the turmoil it contains. Hey, I know what we can call it: "beautiful." A MINUS

Khun Narin Electric Phin Band: Khun Narin Electric Phin Band (Innovative Leisure) From rural Thailand, a loose, multigenerational gaggle of musicians play their lively yet quiet and medium-tempo version of something called phin phayuk, a phin being the traditional, long-necked, three-stringed lute they electrify. Why American enthusiasts call the result "Psych & Funk" beats me as it always does. I'm beginning to intuit that "psych" means any vernacular instrumental music that seems to wander a little and isn't the mysterious and antique "jazz." But "funk," well--it's true my wife always guesses that they're from some sub-Saharan place, but the rhythms are both straightforward and more poky than pushy, their trance factor a matter of scale and timbre even when they get tricky. This is probably why phin phayuk has sounded just right at breakfast on three or four occasions. In rural Thailand, it starts parades. In Manhattan, it's wake up and make the tea music. B PLUS

Jaipur Kawa Brass Band: Dance of the Cobra (Riverboat) Classically trained Hindustani tabla player gathers wittingly unkempt and you bet hard-touring Gypsy brass brand from the fountainhead of the Gypsies--Mother India ("Piya Tu Ab To Aaja," "Sonia Dil Da Mamla") ***

Oneohtrix Point Never: R Plus Seven (Warp) Not weird enough--indulges the Jean Michel Jarre tendencies built into his DNA ("Americans," "Inside World") ***

Moody Good: Moody Good (Owsla) U.K. hip-hop beatmaster constructs oft engaging sonic collage in which beats oft shatter flow ("Docbond," "Raindrips") **

Rework: Philip Glass Remixed (Orange Mountain) Electronica all-stars make more beauteous background music from minimalist all-star's compositions than they could with their own (My Great Ghost, "12 Parts--Part 1"; Beck, "NYC 73-78") **

Flying Lotus: You're Dead! (Warp) The problem isn't that it's less than the sum of its parts--the problem is that there is no sum, only parts ("Turkey Dog Coma," "Ready Err Not") **

Sunmonx: Power Salad (Interchill) New Zealand electronicat and Mexican guitarist dub it up with a glitchy thickness in boogie-down Melbourne ("Kow Chow," "Rokkit Snot") **

Skrillex: Recess (Atlantic) No longer going for the jugular, he risks missing pencilnecks like yours truly altogether ("Try It Out [Neon Mix]," "Stranger") **

Sam Shalabi: Music for Arabs (Majmua Music) It is what it is, ambient and arty and alien and amusing all at once--random (??) talk in a language you don't understand overlaid with guitar improv to divert cab drivers in a Cairo traffic jam ("Music for the Egyptians," "The Enemy of My Enemy") *

Medium/Cuepoint, January 2015

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