Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2003-03-04


King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (Shanachie, 2003) I wonder if the guys who complained Sunny was one of them media hypes are still listening to their Dream Syndicate albums. Maybe they are, the saps. But two decades on the truth is clearly the opposite--though now slightly diminished, he was a titan, one of the great pop musicians of the 20th century. This first stateside attempt to cherry-pick his vinyl outpouring--Ade himself has compiled CDs for his Masterdisc label--mines 1967-74, well before he crowned himself juju king, and although I own many of his African LPs, I'd never heard a cut on it. It's less tuneful than my old favorite The Message and doesn't flow as smoothly as the '80s stuff Chris Blackwell tried to naturalize into the new reggae. Yet thanks in part to ace compiler Randall Grass, it's magnificent through and through: so polymorphous that themes trade off with variations, so light that its guitars seem barely touched by rock sonorities, so percussive that only Nigerians can dance to it. Sweeping a big, ethnically divided country, juju was one of the headiest pop crazes anywhere ever. It was also mother's milk. A+

Bang on a Can: Classics (Cantaloupe, 2002) "a little classical music my friends, 'Cheating, Lying, Stealing' . . ." ("Cheating, Lying, Stealing," "Red Shift") *

Bikutsi Pop: The Songs of So' Forest (Naxos World, 2002) Dud

The Black Keys: The Big Come Up (Alive, 2002) not Jimi yet, but fast approaching Stevie Ray ("She Said, She Said," "I'll Be Your Man") ***

Solomon Burke: Don't Give Up on Me (Fat Possum/Anti-, 2002) The latest Old Person to forge Honest Music in the teeth of a Youth-Orientated Marketplace has lost his legendary voice, so what's the attraction? An egomaniac's deep insight into the human heart? A fat man's heartwarming ability to ambulate to his throne? Or just New Songs by such Respected Veterans as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson, Dan Penn, and Bob Dylan--whose praise of himself as a dance musician I'd love to hear him do himself, proving that Burke would have butchered the thing even if he could still sing? B-

Neko Case: Blacklisted (Bloodshot, 2002) Dud

Manu Chao: Radio Bemba Sound System (Virgin, 2002) live, he sometimes resembles late Steel Pulse more than you'd figure--also the Mighty Mighty Bosstones ("Welcome to Tijuana," "Bongo Bong") *

Craig David: Slicker Than Your Average (Wildstar/Atlantic, 2002) In Britain he's got the dogs of clubland on his faithless black ass--2step made him and 2step will bring him down. Because the Neptunes couldn't fit him into their crowded schedule, the assassination was called off, but really, Sting backing a rewrite of his own fusty tune? And Beatles harmonies, how naff is that? Over here, where we're not sure there is such a thing as 2step anymore (was there, even?), he sweats a different kind of cred, because he's, you know, English. Ignore these irrelevancies. As does happen, the songs thin out, and right, "You Don't Miss Your Water" is an idea whose time has gone. Nevertheless, this gentle, suave, insistent smoothie parlayed his direct lyrics and tricky beats into a strong straight r&b album in a year when contenders Raphael Saadiq and Me'shell NdegéOcello got tangled up in form. He has the voice and he has the mind, and sooner or later he'll have the Neptunes too. A-

CeDell Davis and Friends: When Lightnin' Struck the Pine (Fast Horse, 2002) Like most "primitivism," slide-drone band boogie is never as easy as people think, and this version isn't the true raw-cooked, meaning it isn't Hound Dog Taylor no matter what Peter Buck and company hoped. But it'll sure stick to your ribs longer than what Jon Spencer stewed up with R.L. Burnside--long enough to take you back to Davis's 1994 Fat Possum comp, where his suppler voice is asked to carry the purist aesthetic and understated beat. Wish Buck had thought of this then. B+

DJ DB: DB 10 (Breakbeat Science, 2002) he was DB before we knew drum 'n' bass's name, and he still believes in, try to remember, "audio and sensory awakening" (Hatiras, "Spaced Invader--High Contrast Remix--J Malik Remix--Optical Remix"; Nasty Habits, "Shadow Boxing [Remix]") **

DJ Dolores: Contraditório (Sterns Brasil, 2002) "mangue electronica" from Recife, so retro-nuevo his (yes, his) band (yes, band) includes ska trombone and a 400-year-old Lusofiddle ("A Dançada Moda," "Adorela") ***

dj/rupture: Minesweeper Suite (Tigerbeat6, 2002) Rupture's mixes don't groove or chill or teach. They rupture; they scare up anxiety attacks. This one suggests with a few scene-setting North African flourishes the sound of war in the Middle East, only it won't stay there long: toasters out to rob and steal, rappers out for themselves, electronics that could detonate the suspect device in the ladies' room, walls caving after the blast, muttering and moaning, soul divas proffering succor, prayers, a baby's cry, beats like shock waves and machine-gun fire, the single word "Bush," something about socialism once. It's too abstract sometimes. But it's not too alarmist. B+

DJ Vadim: U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening (Ninja Tune, 2002) the international brotherhood of groovus interruptus (TTC, "L'art d'Ecouter"; Slug, "Edie Brikell") **

Swamp Dogg: If I Ever Kiss It . . . He Can Kiss It Goodbye! (S.D.E.G., 2002) "Pass the Sugar" Choice Cuts

Drums & Tuba: Mostly Ape (Righteous Babe, 2002) "Magoo" Choice Cuts

FC/Kahuna: Machine Says Yes (Nettwerk America, 2002) full and funny techno duo, though the synths do take their clothes off in the middle ("Glitterball," "Machine Says Yes") *

Freaky Flow: Keep It Live (Moonshine Music, 2002) drum 'n' bass lives--no doot (DJ Slip, "Ease Yourself"; Freaky Flow, "Here We Go") *

The Free Design: Cosmic Peekaboo (Marina, 2001) Dud

Future Bible Heroes: Eternal Youth (Instinct, 2002) "Losing Your Affection" Choice Cuts

Future Bible Heroes: The Lonely Robot (Instinct, 2002) Dud

Philip Glass: The Hours (Nonesuch, 2002) Dud

Kinky: Kinky (Nettwerk America, 2002) "Más," "Great Spot" Choice Cuts

Bettye Lavette: A Woman Like Me (Blues Express, 2003) From Ann Peebles to Etta Jones, there are dozens of great lost soul divas out there, every one collectible and every one overrated. Lavette resurfaced seriously when she shouted her way into Bubbling Brown Sugar and has inspired a reissue boomlet in elderly nations that don't want to bomb Iraq, but buying the product, even from, is impossible. That said, I intend to keep trying. The mad genius of this album is producer-songwriter Dennis Walker, who having long ago sculpted Robert Cray as an obsessed adulterer-cuckold now turns three of the bluesman's male-chauvinist classics into painful cries of victimization and, with help from guitarist Alan Mirikitani, crafts a batch of long-suffering miniatures that make the record. But Lavette makes the songs--though she's gritty and loves to testify, she never overdoes it. What's more, she's got the psychological equilibrium to find optimistic material she can put across just as passionately. That's why Walker sequenced the material to move Lavette toward independence--and wrote the strong-willed title track with a woman. A

Jesse Malin: The Fine Art of Self Destruction (Artemis, 2003) Not grunge, not punk, not "hard rock," D Generation had positioning problems that songs would have cured in a jiffy. Say they were the part of Aerosmith that loved the Dolls, only so much scruffier and also something else. Which on this Ryan Adams-produced solo debut turns out to be "roots" or "Americana," and before you snort too loud consider David Johansen's progress toward Harry Smith. Those who seek movement in their music will find the arrangements boxy, and Malin may yet learn that real men aren't supposed to keen as if mourning their faithful hound. The voice asserts itself as the record sinks in, however, and not only does each song stand out, but the production variegates a sonic grandeur grounded in the rock verities--check Adams's stutter-step guitar on the title track, or the corrida echoes of "Almost Grown." What Malin mourns has urban roots--a maturing alt dweller's ills, details provided and remedies hopefully adduced. A-

Múm: No We Are No One (Fat Cat, 2002) Icelandic mood music, you know, only with that elvish charm thing down ("Green Grass of Tunnel," "The Land Between Solar Systems") *

Out Hud: S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D. (Kranky, 2002) music machine with its works on the surface, all the better to delight and annoy you ("Dad, There's a Little Phrase Called Too Much Information," "Hair Dude, You're Stepping on My Mystique") ***

Queens of the Stone Age: Songs for the Deaf (Interscope, 2002) would rawk more unremittingly on one's stereo without the transmission interruptions claiming rawk's banned from one's radio ("You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire," "Hangin' Tree") **

Saint Etienne: Finisterre (Mantra, 2002) "I've been searching for/All the people/I used to turn to/All the people/Who knew the answer/Let's get the feeling again" ("Soft Like Me," "Rock Palast") **

Tammy Faye Starlite: Used Country Female (Diesel Only, 2003) if Jews for Jesus could see the hussy now ("Don't You Hear Jerusalem Moan," "I Got Jesus Looking After Me") ***

Steinski: Nothing to Fear (Soul Ting, 2002) The man who invented the bootleg mix has an ear that predates the Sugarhill Gang and a borscht-belt sense of humor. He flows records into a linear funk devoid of depth charges, liminal sounds, and other perversities on the cognitive dissonance tip. This radio show turned so-sue-me CD leans heavily on dance-friendly hip hop both commercial and underground, older r&b, and known spoken-word--Eve and Blackalicious, JB's and Marvin Gaye, Marx Brothers and Music Man. What I can't ID I'll live with enjoying. But I would like to know the real-life identity of the rapper who plays the inept role model and whatnot. If Steinski didn't script him, who did? 'Cause he's got a future in situation comedy. A-

2 Many DJ's: As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 (PIAS, 2002) clever electro mix with artists more interesting than Peaches on it--and Peaches up top ("Polyester, 'J'Aime Regard les Mecs'/Sly and the Family Stone, 'Dance to the Music'/Ready for the World, 'Oh Sheila [A Capella],'" "Skee-Lo, 'I Wish [A Capella]'/Maurice Fulton Presents Stress, 'My Gigolo'/the Breeders, 'Cannonball'") **

Big Beach Boutique II (Southern Fried, 2002) if I review this and ignore those remix EPs, you think F. Slim will DJ my daughter's prom? (Lo Fidelity All Stars, "Tied to the Mast"; Fusion Orchestra, "Farfisa") **

The Bug Vs The Rootsman Feat. Daddy Freddy/Dj/Rupture (Tigerbeat6, 2003) Dud

Extra Yard (Big Dada, 2002) Documenting a "bouncement revolution" that exists only in the perfidy of its promotional imagination, this U.K. label comp is the hottest mix CD I heard in 2002. "Dancehall flavoured hip hop," writes one lukewarm listener, but in fact the two elements are equal and the flavor's in the arrangements: spoken Brit-Jamaican English of varying local provenance and no verbal distinction over beats that I guess are "garage," their big attraction keyb-generated horn or organ or guitar bits laying on the rhythmic dissonance and harmonic frisson. These never get better than on the first song, Gamma's "Killer Apps," and wear down midway through. But their momentum sweeps the record all the way to Roots Manuva's "Witness the Swords" and its keyb-generated harp, by which I do not mean harmonica. A-

The Rough Guide to Highlife (World Music Network, 2003) The original Afropop has always been mysteriously difficult to access stateside, so this genre survey, divvied up between Ghana and Nigeria, is your chance to become an informed reissue agitator. Will you get behind Celestine Ukwu? Victor Uwaifo? Not to be confused with Victor Olaiya? How about the legendary Rex Lawson? It wouldn't be a Rough Guide without ringers (Orlando Julius), revivals (Stephen Osita Osadebe), and anachronisms (Joe Mensah synth part I think), but near as I can tell--to compiler Graeme Ewens's credit, many of these artists are familiar only to aficionados--the preponderance comes from the '60s and '70s. In other words, it's both postindependence, which means feeling its kenkey, and not stuck on the swing era, which means livelying up itself. It's more uneven than the revivalist The Highlife Allstars: Sankofa, but sometimes uneven equals eccentric, which is good--hits that got heard because they were different. A-

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