Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2016

March 4, 2016

Link: South America Shines: Meridian Brothers / Tom Zé / Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cumbia/Cumbia/Caribbean Cafe / Vintage Latino / Haiti Direct / Sidestepper / Anibal Valasquez

The Meridian Brothers: Devoción (Works 2005-2011) (Staubgold) My only context for this obscure best-of, the "band"'s first non-Colombian release, is Tom Zé, like mastermind Eblis Álvarez an adept of the deconstructed Latin groove and arguably its inventor. The "Brothers" were a concept 2005-2011--Danish-trained electronics whiz Álvarez plays and sings every sound on every strange, sprightly track here. His treated voice is more boyish than Zé's ever was, and I wish I understood the lyrics, because I get the feeling every one is waggish or at least smart. Post-2011, however, he assembled a real band so he could play out and hence turn to salsa and tropicalia, where he's less of a find. That's why only this collection grabs me when I dip into his catalogue on The best-of--so cool when done right. A MINUS

Tom Zé: Tropicália Lixo Lógico (self-released) I've never heard a bad Tom Zé album, which doesn't mean I just ordered the two repackages from his youth (I think) now perched atop his page (although maybe I should--consumer guidance welcome). This 2012 item, a free or cheap download an advisor sent my way in late 2014, has its peculiarities, such as tracks cutting off a few seconds before they should. But given that it's free or cheap, it might serve as an introduction almost as efficient as Luaka Bop's you betcha classic Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé, not least because it lightens up on the female choruses Zé isn't the only aging songpoet to lean on. Try the lyrical "Capitais E Tais" or the grunted "Năo Tenha Ódio no Verăo" or the string quartet and soprano mercies and "motocar" phoneme of "O Motobói e Maria Clara." Or "NYC Subway Poetry Department," a joke in English--set up, I'm guessing, by "Aviso Aos Passageiros." A MINUS

Tom Zé: Vira Lata na Via Láctea (self-released) So in 2014, the 78-year-old Zé--he turns 80 October 11--dropped this 50-minute collection even further beneath the radar than Tropicália Lixo Lógico, which at least got a few reviews in English. Coverage has been paltry in substance, spirit, and length as well as entirely in Portuguese; as with the Meridian Brothers only more so, translated lyrics would be such a boon. I did ask my Lusophone nephew to provide an English track listing for an album he renders as A Dog in the Milky Way, an image that adds salt and substance to the assonant V's, L's, and T's of the sounded-out Portuguese. Enticing titles include "Newsstand," "Left, Money and Right," "The Little Woman From the Suburbs," and my favorite, "Pope Pardons Tom Zé." This is the artist's first album in many years to collect songs rather than explore a concept, a good idea on nonverbal evidence that includes the warmth of the vocals, the stickiness of the tunes, and poignant, unpredictable arrangements featuring Sao Paolo rock and circus riffs and Nascimento Veloso and the Philip Glassy background break that starts at 1:43 of "Salva a Humanidade." Zé seems to have rehabbed his vocal chops, and if the pope has his way, there'll be more self-releases. But I can't help suspecting that were I ever to glom the lyrics of this particular sonic construction, it would rise close to the top of one of the most remarkable bodies of work in all of semipop. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cumbia (World Music Network) That's psychedelic as in organ and wah-wah and Arthur Lee, also as in recorded in the late '60s or whatever that time back there was they're too stoned to Google it, like for instance, well, surf music. The brief notes offer clues--although Colombia was cumbia's base, it was really in Peru and to a lesser extent Mexico that a genuine surf-rock influence weirded up kids' dance music. What the notes don't mention is that cumbia was never as rhythmically complex as Puerto Rican salsa and Peruvian chicha was never as rhythmically complex as Colombian cumbia, rendering the Ventures' automotive vroom-vroom--chart run, well, 1960-1964, plus "Hawaii 5-0" in 1969--a better fit. Just to round things out, some half a dozen modern cumbia outfits toss their sound effects into the bong. Chicha Libre's Arthur Lee cover is definitely a highlight. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Cumbia (World Music Network) Sidestepping cumbia's sameyness and sideswiping its groove by showcasing its adaptability--folklorico and big horns, salsa and chicha, New York and Buenos Aires (Los Caporales del Magdalena, "Fiesta En Corraleja"; Medardo Padilla y Sus Conjunto, "La Guacharaca") ***

Vintage Latino (Putumayo) Does actually enable one to reaccess "the tropical nightclubs of Latin America in the 1950s," usually via revivalists--a Cuban engineering student long resettled in Mexico, a femme trio from vibrantly multicultural Brooklyn, like that (Trio Melodicos, "Perfidia"; Néstor Torres, "Tierra Colorá") ***

The Rough Guide to Caribbean Cafe (World Music Network) Nor corn nor horns nor even schlock can quell its storm-sheltered intricacy (Un Solo Pueblo, "Woman Del Callao"; Ska Cubano, "Cumbia Del Monte") ***

Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 (Strut) How useful you find these 28 exhaustively curated dance tracks depends on just how excited you get about the terms "big band" and "mini jazz" (Les Loups Noirs, "Pile Ou Face"; Raoul Guillaume et Son Groupe, "Mal Élevé") **

Sidestepper: Supernatural Love (RealWorld) Finesses the distinction between Latin lovely and Latin schlock, only not when the guy in charge takes the lead ("Fuego Que Te Llama," "Come See Us Play") *

Anibal Velasquez y Su Conjunto: Mambo Loco (Analog Africa) Drum-driven guaracha created a sensation in early-'60s Colombia, signifies as minor accordion variant today ("Carruseles," "Mambo Loco") *

March 11, 2016

Link: Guitar Rock Grooves: Beauty Pill / Wussy / Ezra Furman / Animal Collective / The Dead Weather / Adult Books

Beauty Pill: Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are (Butterscotch) Not a groove record, and not a hook record either. An instrumentally fluent texture record serving an articulately sung melody record, led to its sweetly clamorous fate by Dischord art-pop hand Chad Clark, whose last album came out in 2004. Since then he's taken up the laptop sampling that dominates so gorgeously here, in part to occupy months if not years spent laid out by a cardiac virus and its open-heart surgeries. All his gentle tunes and surprising sounds contextualize lyrics that both parse and come at you from trick angles. The song about his heart, for instance, begins with a woman fixing her makeup in the rear-view two miles before she crashes to her death; in other news, a frozen mastodon swears never again, Malawi gays flee police, and an Afrikaner barista is assured "origin's not destination." (Haven't mentioned--Clark is black.) Foremost among the many who pitch in is the lovely Jean Cook on violin, samisen, and voice. It's she who delivers this Inspirational Verse: "You'll find that money is noise / This--us, together!--is wealth / The body is just cosines and vectors / Love is the real health." A

Wussy: Forever Sounds (Shake It) This is the big-guitar record I've been expecting from my favorite band since Strawberry led with the space-rock "Asteroids" and assigned big-drum recruit Joe Klug to thump his tubs all over "Pulverized." When Attica! led with a "Baba O'Riley" tribute and added steel-driving man John Erhardt to the din, I half thought their arena phase had arrived. But this 40-minute barrage is the immersive boom-vroom itself--to use the technical term Chuck Cleaver laid on the release party, it's "noisy." This being Wussy, that means noisy as a means to arranged, collective support for songs that do slowly manifest themselves just like on every other album by this devout album band. But here it's the sound you come back for, and partly as a consequence, the songs don't signify as sharply as usual. Which doesn't stop me from devoutly hoping that Chuck's catchiest-in-show "Hello, I'm a Ghost" is nothing like autobiographical. A MINUS

Ezra Furman: Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union) Anxious seeker hires horns to tickle his playful side, also his female side. ("Body Was Made," "Lousy Connection") ***

Animal Collective: Painting With (Domino) Pomo neocommunalism's snazziest joke band keeps the laffs coming. ("FloriDada," "Recycling") **

The Dead Weather: Dodge and Burn (Third Man) How much you need the latest Jack White move depends on how much you've been missing Queens of the Stone Age, which for me was more than I'd thought but, get real, not much. ("Open Up," "Three Dollar Hat") **

Adult Books: Running From the Blows (Lolipop) LA "surf-punk" unit tops off medium-catchy full-length with Ramones-worthy scene chant and mock-escapist teen dream. ("Silverlake Goths," "Suburban Girlfriend") *

March 18, 2016

Link: West Coast Warriors: Kendrick Lamar / Anderson .Paak / Kyle

Kendrick Lamar: O.verly D.edicated (DatPiff download) Despite Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, the incomparable Lil Wayne, etc., my working assumption is that mixtapes are uneven-by-design promotional come-ons doubling as status markers for early adopters. But with the artist formerly known as K-Dot so iconic he's marketing outtakes as a concept album, it was clearly time to check out this easily downloaded 2010 double-dare-ya, the crown jewel of more freebies than I can list. And soon I found it was on a par with official debut Section.80. Only three classics: the besotted "Alien Girl," the merely sexed-up "P&P 1.5," and "Average Joe," a position paper for the gangsta realism to follow. But the many cameos document a party-crashing crew utterly delighted by how good they are at this shit. There's a sense of fun and antic possibility here Lamar abjured on his road to iconicity. In pop music, that's a spiritual resource there's never enough of. A&mbsp;MINUS

Anderson .Paak: Malibu (OBE/Steel Wool/ArtClub/Empire) Between his Afro-Korean roots and his Kendrick-topping Compton cameos, it's tempting to read too much into this long-breaking, genre-busting, musically adept rapper-singer-drummer. Right, he's made an album about enjoying success without overdoing the cars and chains. But the most cultural song here is the staying-alive crowd-pleaser "Celebrate," where the operative metaphor is "fixin' up the tree"--the endangered family tree he husbands belatedly throughout. Culturally, however, the trouble he puts up with from the woman he loves is a bigger deal. Assume she's one woman and assume he loves her as much as ever--the biographical .Paak is married with a son no longer a toddler. Assume too that he was cruising for all the trouble she could give him. A MINUS

Kyle: Smyle (Indie-Pop) What's a fella need to do to catch a break around here? Fluent rapper, textured crooner, sings easier than most fluent rappers, hooks easier than most textured crooners. Frankly funny. Frankly horny. Of good cheer of good cheer of good cheer--vocal array highlights mildly mocking chuckle. Too middle-class, probably. But this kid was was raised with two sibs by a single mom and somebody should get him on the charts. Inspirational Shoutout: "Shout out to Jesus/I wanna thank Jesus one time/Shout out to my nigga Jesus on the couch knuwhatImsayin/Thanks to motherfuckin Jesus/Uh, shout out to my homey Jesus over there chillin yeah/Shout out to Jesus rollin that blunt/And shout out to [garbled] Jesus." A MINUS

Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) I can't stand Bilal's endless Barry White impression, "untitled 07" proves the young artiste is right to question his own self-regard, and to beware of the crappy jazz lesser rappers will soon foist on a gullible marketplace. Right, even these negatives have positives--with Bilal sated "untitled 01" sets an aptly apocalyptic tone, Lamar doesn't wander out of control until the last third of that overblown eight-minute track, and Thundercat's exceptional bass finds drums to match all over the record. Moreover, the darkness of tone suits the connoisseurship and marginality this side project's format and release strategy insist on. So right, said project is worthwhile, occasionally exciting. But in addition to untitled and unmastered, it's unfinished, and a bit of a cheat. A MINUS

Anderson .Paak: Venice (Steel Wool/OBE) Really good at sex, and not only that--also really really good at sex ("I Miss That Whip," "Drugs") *

March 25, 2016

Link: Stoned Soul Quick Picks: Rihanna / The Internet / Esperanza Spalding / Kilo Kish / Erykah Badu

Rihanna: Anti (Deluxe Edition) (Westbury Road/Roc Nation) The reason I like this record beginning to end has zip to do with whether it documents her sexual mood swings more proudly or soulfully. The presentational Rihanna is so unlike anyone I know that she can say anything she wants about her musical punany as long as she leaves Chris Brown out of it--with this artist, sex is figurative, symbolic, the mark of a pleasure taker turned pleasure provider. So Anti is her best album for a reason so simple it's tautological--despite its supposed rejection of track-and-hook mechanics, it features catchier songs. True, the main time they really make me go woo is when she breaks into gibberish at the end of "Work." But then some German hands her "Love on the Brain," the best new doowop song in decades, which segues perfectly to a power entreaty avec drunk violins, after which the album proper goes out on a piano-enhanced coda that adds a nice sweetness. Only instead of savoring this narrative arc, why don't you just proceed to the three bonus tracks, which top an M.I.A. move with none other than "Sex With Me"? A

The Internet: Ego Death (Columbia) It's quite an effect, Syd the Kyd murmuring a love man's "girl" to the object of her sexual desire. It might even be easier for a guy to identify with her, although since women tend both more empathetic and more polymorphous than men, maybe not. But either way there's a healthy temptation to believe Syd's desire is also affection. Her small, confident, capable voice is tough because, as a lesbian competing in a man's world both musically and erotically, she has to be tough. But it's also tender. And although that mainly means she's singer-writer-bandleader enough to make it seem so, please allow me to believe there's more to it. Inspirational Verse: "We don't fight, we just fuck / I'm in like, she's in love / She gave in, I gave up / And we just live in the moment." A MINUS

Esperanza Spalding: Emily's D+Evolution (Concord) At her best here, she sounds like what I think she's aiming for, which is the Joni Mitchell who so wanted to be a jazzbo--not the lyricist prime Mitchell was, obviously, but hey, neither is Mitchell. ("Good Lava," "Ebony and Ivy") ***

Kilo Kish: Reflections in Real Time (Kisha Soundscape + Audio) Philosophical-psychological explorations in her own soft, crystal-clear, personal synth-pop lingo. ("Hello, Lakisha," "Obsessing," "Existential Crisis Hour!") **

Erykah Badu: You Caint Use My Phone (self-released) This free concept mini isn't the armed takedown of the distraction engine we need, but it's good to have those bee statistics out in memeland. ("Dial'Afreaq," "Hello") **

Noisey, March 2016

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