Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2005-06-01


Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O/Verve, 2005) Billie Holiday stands at or near the top of any knowledgeable short list of American singers. Not even Aretha, Elvis, or Al Green is in her class--her only competition is Louis Armstrong, whose improvisational smarts she emulated, and Frank Sinatra, who adored her. Yet Holiday had a much smaller voice than any of these titans, and by 1958, when she died of alcohol abuse at 43, it was a wreck. Her magic is all in her languid timing, subtle melodic variations, unmatched conversational intimacy, and above all physical timbre--young and buttery or brandy on the rocks, it goes down so easy. For licensing reasons, this overview offers just a taste of the buoyant '30s Billie, already worldly yet set on fun, while doing better by the careworn '50s Billie. What makes it invaluable is the way it bridges the two periods. Though interrupted by wartime recording bans and a federal prison stint for heroin, the 1940s found Holiday no longer feigning innocence but still clear-voiced, captured by producer Milt Gabler first on his Commodore indie and then in hit-seeking mode on Decca. The strings Holiday invited and the big-band conventions Gabler applied can be hard to take in large doses. These tracks are so astutely selected, however, that their star-time phase seems natural--a strength, even. Because Holiday destroyed her body and couldn't resist mean mistreaters, she's come to symbolize female victimization. But even in suffering she was vibrant, and this collection gets the proportions right. Not all these songs are sad, and she owns every one--a fathomless artist guaranteed to reward as many hours as you can invest in her. [Blender: 5]

Jefferson Airplane: The Essential Jefferson Airplane (RCA/Legacy, 2005) Jefferson Airplane was a San Francisco folk-rock band that in its hit-making phase comprised two clandestinely showbiz vocalists (Grace Slick and Marty Balin), a snazzy enough lead guitarist who never did anything else with his life (Paul Kantner), a clunky drummer on a scene rife with them, and Hot Tuna. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers still busy symbolizing the Summer of Love almost four decades later, they released this two-CD compilation in honor of the BMG-Sony merger, and it's not bad. The Airplane wrote some good tunes even if they oversang and overarranged them. And while they could get pretty ridiculous--anyone for "Have You Seen the Saucers?"--they adapted better than many competing ex-folkies to the psychedelic space jam that was the Haight-Ashbury ballrooms' enduring footnote to musical history. [Blender: 3]

Lucinda Williams: Live at the Fillmore (Lost Highway, 2005) There's no point questioning Lucinda Williams's talent, or her perfectionism. Of course her first live album sounds dandy. There isn't a bad song or performance on it. Unfortunately, there isn't a new song or performance on it either. Every one of its 22 tracks appears in pretty much the same form on one of her painstaking studio albums--including, in an apparent world record, all 13 of the titles on 2003's mildly underrated World Without End. We don't appreciate her new songs, huh? Well, she'll show us--she'll release them again two years later. Sure they have a little more oomph this time. But why the devotees who adore everything she does need more proof that she's an effective bandleader is something her label would surely like to know. [Blender: 3]

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