Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2005-09-27


Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche à Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005) No Malians more eagerly downplay their nation's sun-slowed intensity than this Parisian couple, so it was a good idea to introduce them to Manu Chao, whose breakthrough concept gentled up international sounds into reggae lite with brains. Though the pair's warp and weave are softened as a result, the beat remains theirs, and though they're less brainy than Chao, there's bite in their ineluctable Malian-ness. For social content, they take on the danger truck drivers pose to giraffes, hippopotamuses, elephants, chickens, and children. A-

Asylum Street Spankers: Mercurial (Spanks-a-Lot, 2005) At their most forced when Christina Marrs plays up the sex angle--"Mojo Working," "Sugar in My Bowl"--and their most audacious when they mix genres big-time, as in the (uncredited) "interpolations" (as they say on hip-hop albums, where money might change hands) of Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps" into "Hick Hop" and Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" into "Tight Like That," this nouveau jug band from Austin T-X outdoes itself on three punkier covers: a letter-perfect "Dance This Mess Around" (B-52's, kidz), a modernized "TV Party" (Black Flag), and, best of all, a gun-toting "Paul Revere," complete with "Beastie Boys Boogie" coda. B+

Babyface: Grown & Sexy (Arista, 2005) Pretty smart for a love man, less so for a deposed record exec who worships Curtis Mayfield and toured with Vote for Change ("Sorry for the Stupid Things," "Good 2 Be in Love"). ***

Balkan Beat Box: Balkan Beat Box (JDub, 2005) Former Gogol Bordello horn man Ori Kaplan moves in with Big Lazy's Tamir Muskat, the Israeli-born drummer who faced down Gypsy punk Eugene Hutz in J.U.F. last year. Everything else is friends and programming, with a party feel more relaxed than expected despite the fact that their CVs assuredly include weddings. The drumbeats remain edgily electronic. But the bass lines propelling the dance, and the horns and vocals flavoring it, are sweeter than in Gogol Bordello or Big Lazy--with a discernible sensuality putting flesh on the fun. Ethnically, and politically, the idea is that Morocco and Bulgaria are one place--a lie longing to become a dream. A-

Bantu Feat. Ayuba: Fuji Satisfaction (Piranha, 2005) Europeanized Islamo-Yoruba Afrobeat strives to please ("Fuji Satisfaction," "Oya"). ***

Gaby Lita Bembo and Orchestre Stukas du Zaïre: Kita Mata ABC (RetroAfric, 2005) Although '80s soukous is obviously sleeker, only those who know early rumba will get how uncouth and just plain pop this unjustly unrenowned '70s act was. Full-band choruses are deployed--"You-you-you-you-you-you-you." Whistles are blown, scripted jokes exchanged. Sometimes the guitars teeter where they should ripple, sometimes they go veryfast, and I read where one showboat admired the way Jimi played with his teeth. Teens especially loved them. But a ball was had by all. A-

Blackalicious: The Craft (Anti-, 2005) There's no more accomplished crew in alt-rap, and though that can make their messages seem slick sometimes, on this break with UniMoth their booming beats, lucid raps, and articulate rhymes are technically miraculous. The Lifesavas, George Clinton, and ally-for-life Lyrics Born--whose deep rapid-fire takes the quick-lipped Gift of Gab to Mount Sinai--vary the flowetry better than Floetry, and most tracks offer what we outside of hit radio call hooks. With "World of Vibrations" and "The Craft" bookending metathematically, high points include the uplifting "Supreme People," "Your Move," and "The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown" and two songs about women. "Powers" describes a queen, "Side to Side" a skank. Musically, both gals get respect. A-

Brakes: Give Blood (Rough Trade, 2005) The singer from British Sea Power joins three even lesser U.K. alt-rock notables in 16 short-and-shorter ditties about their scenester lives. Some observers classify these ditties "country-punk," while other crankily insist they're "anti-folk," proving mainly that nobody knows what to make of simple little guitar-band songs on a scene where everyone's busy refining his or her artistic vision. But if you believe as I do that the alt-rock subculture means more than almost any individual alt-rocker's vision, they're an up. Four bohemian fellas with a sense of humor who relate actively to their friends and lovers, despise Dick Cheney, and get wasted some--the last of which they'll cut down on. A-

Cantankerous: Cantankerous (Tommy Boy EP, 2005) Like the Lords of Acid after the cops broke up the party, these masked dancehall-industrial Brits sing about sex and money as if they'd as soon kill a rich guy as hear him squeal. I say "guy" because "Shove my nigger-loving pussy in your inbred mouth" doesn't sound like a lesbian domination fantasy to me. And this is only the EP, with an album due in January. Can they keep up the pace? Depends on how angry they are--in a world where there's always more to be mad about. A-

Coldplay: X&Y (Capitol, 2005) Tunewise, this is the craftiest of their well-crafted albums. Conceived as a boy group, showing girls who long to believe it that not every guy is a jock, a thug, a lothario, or a male-bonded mook, they might even have their uses. Conceived as a pop alternative to U2 and Radiohead, however, they're an argument for death metal. Precise, bland, and banal, their sensitivity emotionless and their musicality never surprising, they're the definition of a pleasant bore--easy to tune out, impossible to care for. B

Nikka Costa: Can'tneverdidnothin' (Virgin, 2005) "Till I Get to You" Choice Cuts

Crime Mob: Crime Mob (Crunk Incorporated/BME/Reprise, 2004) Dud

The Dandy Warhols: Odditorium, or Warlords of Mars (Capitol, 2005) What they get for assuming psychedelia, futurism, and the drone are the same thing ("Down Like Disco," "All the Money or the Simple Life Honey"). *

Mike Doughty: Haughty Melodic (ATO, 2005) A clever solo artist who once led a great band ("Busting Up a Starbucks," "American Car"). **

Mike Doughty: Skittish/Rockity Roll (ATO, 2004) Dud

Doves: Some Cities (Capitol, 2005) Battling banal balefulness, they cop from "Heat Wave" and warm up ("Black and White Town," "Some Cities"). *

Embrace: Out of Nothing (Lava, 2005) Dud

Go Betty Go: Nothing Is More (Side One Dummy, 2005) Chicana punks rise above the tough act ("Laugh Again," "Unread"). *

Horace X: Strategy (Omnium, 2005) Comfier in its ska-polka pan-everythingism, and less galvanizing ("She Want," "Strategy"). *

The Incredible Casuals: Nature Calls (Iddy Biddy, 2005) "I'll Do Anything" Choice Cuts

R. Kelly: TP.3 Reloaded (Jive, 2005) "Trapped in the Closet Chapter 2," "Trapped in the Closet Chapter 4," "Trapped in the Closet Chapter 3," "Trapped in the Closet Chapter 1," "Trapped in the Closet Chapter 5" Choice Cuts

Khaled & Friends: Ya-Rayi (Wrasse, 2005) Dud

Bettye Lavette: I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-, 2005) Well-culled material sung harder than necessary, which was probably the idea ("Sleep to Dream," "How Am I Different"). ***

Christine Lavin: Folk Zinger (Appleseed, 2005) "One of the Boys" Choice Cuts

Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard (Capitol, 2005) Dud

Nyboma: Nyboma & Kamalé Dynamique (Sterns Africa, 2005) Early-'80s soukous by one of Quatre count-'em Quatre étoiles ("Doublé Doublé," "Amba"). **

Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds, 2005) Trying to be hardheaded, I ask myself how the soul-horned "It's Not Safe" or the wan "Always With Me" would sound on an album by someone similar I don't care for--Aimee Mann, or Gillian Welch. The answer is that a differently arranged "It's Not Safe" would be a highlight for either, and that the mournful "Always With Me" is there for mood and pace. A cover sticker quotes the claim that she's as consistent as Richard Thompson or John Prine, but Thompson hasn't been her match lyrically for decades, and Prine, bless his heart, has recorded one album of new material since 1995. It really is quite simple--no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996. She's the best, plus a fine singer in an apt doing-the-dishes mode. Not counting the heart-tugging "Dancing With Joey Ramone," my current fave is "So You Know Now," in which a beloved tells her perfect man how she was once a slut. "Year of the Binge" could be about the same woman. Who almost certainly isn't Rigby--when would she have had the time? But the mod ex-housewife knows her well. A

The Rolling Stones: A Bigger Bang (Virgin, 2005) I'm obviously not to be trusted, since when I finally pulled out my vinyl on Dirty Work, which nobody else likes, I still loved its booming Steve Lillywhite Charlie, its studious chicken-scratch Keith, its bitterness and cynicism and spiritual desperation. On this one desperation is in remission. But despite its lack of an anthem to replace "Start Me Up," it certainly beats Tattoo You or anything else going back to Exile except Some Girls. Long the weak link, Mick--come on: Keith and Charlie are gods, Ron is for sound effects, and Darryl Jones is an improvement--once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his "vulnerability," but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it. Together with clear evidence of prolonged cooperation between or among the principals (meaning two-man songwriting and a living groove, respectively), the effort suffices to provide or simulate the mattering considered so crucial in veteran bands. It also helps that the opener really rocks. As for the anti-Bush song, duh. Next time they should vet their corporate sponsor instead. A-

Transplants: Haunted Cities (La Salle/Atlantic, 2005) Gangsta punk revisited, broader musically and narrower lyrically ("Gangsters and Thugs," "Crash and Burn"). **

The Witnesses: Tunnel Vision (Howler, 2004) It's only rock 'n' roll and they execute it ("I Should Not Have to Ask," "Panic Attack"). *

Hustle and Flow (Atlantic, 2005) What the fools who claim Djay's crunk success isn't credible don't mention is the reason--he's too smart and too nice (Djay feat. Shug, "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp"; Juvenile feat. Skip & Wacko, "Body Language"; Djay, "Whomp That Trick"). ***

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