Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Turkey Shoot 2001

The month proved rife with fowl even if the year wasn't ideal for focusing on the bad-to-worse. So before you protest, remember this--if my bile seems inappropriate, the terrorists have already won.

MICHELLE BRANCH: The Spirit Room (Maverick) Only in a biz discombobulated by teenpop could an 18-year-old with an acoustic guitar be plausibly promoted as "the anti-Britney." Don't you remember? Writing Your Own Songs means zip, zilch, nada. By now, literally millions of human beings WTOS, and while Branch may be among the top 5000 (and may not), note that her hit, like most of the front-loaded material, was co-composed by her producer. In this she precisely resembles arrant bimbo Willa Ford, who made her mark batting her plump lips at Nick Carter and Carson Daly and may yet prove the more interesting artist. Britney sure is. C

DAFT PUNK: Discovery (Virgin) These guys are so French I want to force-feed them and cut out their livers. Young moderns who've made the Detroit-Berlin adjustment may find their squelchy synth sounds humanistic; young moderns whose asses sport parallel ports may dance till they crash. But Yank fun is much less spirituel, so that God bless America, "One More Time" is merely an annoying novelty stateside. The way our butts plug in, there are better beats on the damn Jadakiss CD. C PLUS

ANI DIFRANCO: Revelling/Reckoning (Righteous Babe) "The songs/they come out more slowly/Now that I am the bad guy," she allows in the best song-not-track here. But maybe admitting that you require more patience than the average lover has in him or her is a way of evading harder truths--namely, that songs also come out more slowly when you're selling as opposed to defining yourself, as she did for so long with such charm, chutzpah, wit, grit, and politics. This is a double album where the best songwriting never meshes with the best horn writing, which is what gets her juices going these days. That is, it's a double album marking a year she should have taken off. Intelligence you can count on. Integrity you can foster. But inspiration requires more patience than the average genius has in her, and let us not forget the average label owner. B MINUS

D-12: Devil's Night (Shady/Interscope) The worst thing I know about Eminem is the African Americans he chooses to hang with. And at least Dr. Dre serves a commercial function--these ill jockeys are just a two-inch ruler for Marshall Mathers to measure his dick against. In the worst minstrel tradition of ignorant fantasies projected onto a dark-skinned Other, D-12's bum-fuck brutality and dumber-than-Durst humor provide a baseline Eminem can rise above in his sleep, as he promptly does. If you have to hear the backward rapping and "Fight Music," put money back into the community--buy a bootleg. C

ENYA: A Day Without Rain (Reprise) Pondering the fate of post-September 11 pop, everyone predicted what they already wished for--Slipknot undone, Britney in hiding. What happened instead was the unthinkable--sales of Enya's first album since 1995 spiked 10 months after release. (And she thought that movie where Charlize Theron fucked Keanu Reeves and died of cancer was a promotional coup!) Two years in the making with the artiste playing every synthesizer, the 11 songs here last a resounding 34 minutes and represent a significant downsizing of her New Age exoticism since 1988's breakthrough, Watermark--it's goopier, more simplistic. Yanni is Tchaikovsky by comparison, Sarah McLachlan Ella Fitzgerald, treacle Smithfield ham. Right, whatever gets folks through the night. But Enya's the kind of artist who makes you think, if this piffle got them through it, how dark could their night have been? Like Master P or Michael Bolton only worse, she tests one's faith in democracy itself. D MINUS

INCUBUS: Morning View (Epic/Immortal) This late entry shot up on the outside of our annual Young White Males in Extremis sweepstakes over Static-X (nuevo no wave), P.O.D. (plodding in riddim), Five for Fighting (I forget), and heavy favorites Staind, who seemed so sincerely depressed I couldn't bear to add to their woes. Incubus's wrinkle on awful points up how old-fashioned the death-metal and rap-fusion approaches to hard rock have become. The new menace is prog-variegated structures, tempo shifts, lyric interludes, DJ flava, and (daringly) love songs. This nets a lovely eight-minute closer featuring Steve Vai's "ko-kyu," which sounds like a koto to me. It also nets many mediocre pop songs with pretensions. C PLUS

JIMMY EAT WORLD: Bleed American (DreamWorks) Jimmy Eat World are who Blink-182 want to be when they grow up--even played B-182 frontman Tom DeLonge's wedding. Since JEW frontman Jim Adkins specializes in sensitive leaps and catches, this bodes well for DeLonge's visits to the marriage counselor, but it'll ruin his whine. Like most emo bands only at a higher level of tunecraft, JEW are so surprised to discover that punks become adults that they're impressed by feelings even a folksinger would know were banal. Their label hopes that pop fans won't care--that if this band can't be maturity's answer to 'N Sync, it can be patriotism's answer to Travis. C PLUS

MATCHBOX TWENTY: Mad Season (Atlantic) Back when he was one more nothing bandleader riding a chart fluke, there was something likable about Rob Thomas--something common, something dork-gets-lucky. Carlos Santana changed that fast, and with this album well into its second year on the Billboard 200, Thomas is now officially a menace. He's always emoting some new excuse with his not-bad voice, and he looks like he spends a couple grand a month on haircuts alone--a neat cross between Michael McDonald and Gregg Allman who'll be doing duets for decades. Next chapter: the solo debut. C PLUS

MONTGOMERY GENTRY: Carryin' On (Columbia) A tuneful, hard-hitting case study in the conservatism of the "rock" claimed by studio hotshots wherever popular music is manufactured in our once-great land. It's possible to imagine the identical beats and licks vitalized by, say, a younger John Anderson. But mixing them with male chauvinist reaction makes more sense, and turns them rancid. At a time when female spunk has become a Nashville cliché, these two putative roadhouse rats, one the brother of cowboy-hat millionaire John Michael Montgomery, inhabit a world where women are either saintly or compliant. They "rock" because they're "rebels," only what they rebel against is the present, in male-specific terms: "They say this way of life is done/But not for my father's son." Like their antecedent Charlie Daniels, they beg the question of whether they're also that kind of rebel. But attention ought be paid another high-profile couplet: "It ain't nobody's business what kind of flag I fly/'Cause that's my right." Uh-uh, stupid. The way flags work is that they're the business of everybody who sees them. That's why you fly them high--and why the other side tears them down. B MINUS

SHUGGIE OTIS: Inspiration Information: World Psychedelic Classics 2: California Soul (Luaka Bop) What a waste. With a bigger boost from his hustler-bandleader dad, who started recording Johnny Jr. at 17 and got Al Kooper to produce the lad's first album, this genius in disguise might have become a very successful studio guitarist. You get to keep meeting the stars, and if you're biz-savvy, ad work eventually provides a reliable income stream. Instead Shug merely created what experts from the High Llamas all the way to Tortoise agree was "almost like a new style of music that could have developed but never did." Given his vocal inferiority to AWB, Hall & Oates, and the Brothers Johnson, this presumably refers to the funk-lite fusion experts from the High Llamas all the way to Tortoise have taken it upon themselves to defunkify, with cultural consequences not yet detectable. C PLUS

PEACHES: The Teaches of Peaches (Kitty-Yo import) Not cock-rock, bukkake-rock. And though you may be lucky enough not to know what that means, Peaches had better. Doesn't matter whether she's a performance artist, a concept rocker, a bored schoolteacher, or an expat with a gimmick. "Come on, hot rod/Give me your wad" etc. is prosex postfeminism for the age of Internet porn, in which thousands of women a day prove how cool they are by smiling through their semen facials. It's wish fulfillment for boys who make passes at girls who wear glasses. And given a beat by Chilly Gonzales's low-techno bump and grind, it's perfect for a fashion industry finally past the embarrassment of junkie chic. B MINUS

PROJECT PAT: Mista Don't Play Everythangs Workin (Loud) I don't try to play every horrible hip hop record--certainly not to the end. But this lump of thug gold got extra horrible after the single, so I stuck with it. He raps like your downstairs neighbor banging a broom on the ceiling, with beats to match. If a ho comes down from the suburbs and shoots him in the mouth, it'll only be poetic justice. D PLUS

RAINER MARIA: A Better Version of Me (Polyvinyl) Structurally, indie-rock is as healthy as any other unsubsidized commodity in a panic economy. Clubs will fail, arty fans feel the pinch, but the infrastructure won't blow away. Musically, however, it's just limping along, especially when it declines the crutch of genre homage. Take this high-buzz Wisconsin-to-Gotham brainchild of ex-Ezra Pound guitarist William Kuehn. Compared by one admirer to "pop bands like Versus, Verbena, and of course Superchunk" while another cites its "male/female vocals a la Velocity Girl (minus the pop)" (and neither mentions Veruca Salt or Värttinä), Rainer Maria is the genuine collegiate article: impressionistic and overwrought. Emo is a male preserve. But emo fans are woman-friendly enough to sit still for music contoured to the vocal stylings of Caithlin De Marrais, who came in knowing poetry doesn't have to rhyme and picked up the bass as she went along. C

SISQO: Return of Dragon (Def Soul) The little man had a big hit. His solo debut went quadruple platinum, making him the quota-pumping toast of many media. But he wanted more than fame and fortune. He wanted the Grammy snobs denied "Thong Song." So his follow-up crossed PG-13 thug and subpar Luther Vandross. Certified platinum shortly after its June release, it was off the charts by September. Let's hope we all last until 2004. It would be truly terrible if militant Islam were to deny us our Dru Hill reunion. C

TOOL: Lateralus (Volcano) What am I supposed to say about the latest in meaning-mongering for the fantasy fiction set? That they are not as good as King Crimson? That I do not like my Billy Cobham comp even less? That this is not progress? That I am not a virgin? All of the above. Plus I never liked Crimson much to begin with. C

TRAIN: Drops of Jupiter (Columbia) Managed by the same music lovers who gave the world Matchbox 20/Twenty and Better Than Ezra. Went platinum. That should triangulate them for you. Bombs away. C MINUS

PETE YORN: Musicforthemorningafter (Columbia) The younger brother of a bigtimeentertainment lawyer and the hottest agent in Hollywood is as neotraditionalist as Gillian Welch, only his chosen tradition is the El Lay sound perfected by Peter Asher and Chuck Plotkin: kempt guitar hooks atop solid drum parts he lays down himself, with some Mitchell Froom-style studio murk for hipness and atmosphere. If you love rock and roll it'll make your skin crawl on contact. If you have a weakness for tune it'll grow on you. Only then, if you have any brains left, you'll wonder why you haven't connected with a single phrase and find more El Lay on the lyric sheet--a fusion of old-style singer-songwriter indirection and new-style song-doctor ur-banality. Honors the diction and cadences of ordinary speech, 'tis said--until there are scansion problems, when up pop anti-idioms like "the look upon your face" and "you were never fond of anything I said." You said it, buster. B MINUS

Village Voice, Nov. 27, 2001

Nov. 20, 2001 Dec. 25, 2001