Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2006-12-01


Against Me!: Searching for a Former Clarity (Fat Wreck Chords, 2006) Dud

Basement Jaxx: Crazy Itch Radio (Astralwerks, 2006) Interchangeable ladies detail interchangeable ups and downs over beats whose changeabilty supposedly renders them indelible ("Take Me Back to Your House," "Run 4 Cover"). **

Charlie Burton & the Dorothy Lynch Mob: Salad (Wild, 2006) Repatriated Nebraskan jokes around for love (or lack thereof) ("I Wonder: Is Propecia Right for Me?" "Apples & Oranges"). *

Don Byron: Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker (Blue Note, 2006) First: Sounds grrreat. Then: Who needs this arty clarinetist with Walker's gutbucket sax a click away? Finally: Terrific modern jazz-funk record Ó la Hank Crawford, with just enough just-funky-enough vocals to counteract Byron's smooth tone on sax. Check the Benny Benjamin four-four that drives the original "Shotgun" on Walker's Millennium Collection or Ultimate Collection, then the Rodney Holmes syncopations beneath Byron's version. Benjamin is a titan and Holmes isn't. But Holmes has heard James Brown, and the change'll do you good. B+

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (Capitol, 2006) Recognized for well-dressed poesy, remembered for well-camouflaged hooks ("The Perfect Crime No. 2," "Summersong"). *

James Luther Dickinson: Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International, 2006) Unorthodox producer and damn fine session pianist chooses songs better than he sings them ("Red Neck, Blue Collar," "Hadacol Boogie"). *

Spencer Dickinson: The Man Who Lives for Love (Yep Roc, 2006) Dud

Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia, 2006) It took Dylan five years to create this conservative album even if he laid it down in a week, and I doubt he could have gotten it done at all without cribbing rhetoric from a shallower conservative, Confederate poet Henry Timrod. When not calling his new nation to arms or locating Satan's domicile north of the Mason-Dixon line, Timrod had a gift for genteel sentiment that's essential to the old-fashioned tone here, and Dylan grabbed what he needed. But note the intrusion of his old friend deliberate barbarism when, for instance, Timrod's "logic frailer than the flowers" produces Dylan's "more frailer than the flowers." Without such touches, the conservatism would be stultifying. The blues tropes help, too. Then again, without the '30s pop, the blues grooves would be stultifying. Instead, the entire construction is a thing of grace--conservative, and new under the sun. A+

East River Pipe: What Are You On? (Merge, 2006) Living-room loserdom at a very peak of depressive tunefulness ("Druglife," "What Does T.S. Eliot Know About You?"). ***

The Flaming Lips: At War With the Mystics (Warner Bros., 2006) "Free Radicals" Choice Cuts

The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury: Songs From a Series of Unfortunate Events (Nonesuch, 2006) Hard to believe when the creepy-comic opener, "Scream and Run Away," is topped by the closer, an all-time classic novelty with the unpromising title "We Are the Gothic Archies," as in "Are the Gothic Archies we? Oh, are we ever they!" But though smarty-pants Lemony Snicket fans may get references I miss, in between there are times when Stephin Merritt's monotonous low baritone seems merely inexpressive, as on "How Do You Slow This Thing Down?" (please, not slower, eeek!). Said baritone is perfect for the deadpan horror of "Crows," however. He's the scariest boy on the Lower East Side. A-

Adam Green: Jacket Full of Danger (Rough Trade, 2006) Dud

Michael Hall: The Song He Was Listening to When He Died (Freedom, 2006) Even for a journo-musician he's getting too old to know more about music than love, but he's never been a quick study ("America," "The Song He Was Listening to When He Died"). ***

The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant, 2006) Sasha Frere-Jones has nominated the Mountain Goats, and now the Decemberists come to mind even though their songs are fictive rather than reported/recollected/observed, but for me the nearest parallel to this band is the Drive-By Truckers. Both bands match the descriptions they stuff into their traditional narrative structures to a specific rock tradition: Skynyrd-Allmans for the Truckers' songs of the South, Springsteen for Hold Steady's new generation of shadows in the backstreets. That said, this album lays it on too thick--all right already with the keyb flourishes, which suit their mawkish new emo label all too well--and declines the thematic burden of Separation Sunday. As stories, on the other hand, the songs could convince anyone that kids have a hard time--without giving whiners any sort of go-ahead to throw their lives away. All accomplished without directly referencing ye olde rock-and-roll lifestyle--unless you count "Chillout Tent," in which two strangers freak at a festival and live to make out about it. But that's about fans, not bands. This band is for the fans. A-

George Jones and Merle Haggard: Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again! (Bandit, 2006) Hag keeps getting Haggier, but that thing in George's voice that was grainy like cornbread is turning to mush ("Things Have Gone to Pieces," "Footlights"). *

The Klezmatics: Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukah (JMG, 2006) Lorin Sklamberg and his wondrous band found only eight Hanukkah lyrics by the Scotch-Irish Okie, who got interested in the subject while raising a family with his Jewish wife, and most of them were in Guthrie's silliest kiddie style: "Honeyky Hanuka" is a typical title, "Dinga lingle lingle, I ring your bell" a resonant line. And from this they create as upful a holiday album as I can recall. Sklamberg's tenor is a treasure of American music, adding wit and warmth to predominantly Yiddish-style melodies as bright as any Guthrie ever stole or created. They spritz up "Happy Joyous Hanuka" with hoedown fiddle, gospel bass and country licks, and later on leave room for, why not, Jew's harp. And to get to 12 tracks, they add four instrumentals. Can't pin down the R&B novelty Frank London raided for "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flop." Maybe we'll figure it out at Christmas dinner. A

Jerry Lee Lewis: Last Man Standing (Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback, 2006) Decades later, generation-gap duets are just a bunch of old guys singing--pretty good, too ("That Kind of Fool," "Rock and Roll"). ***

Los Lobos: The Town and the City (Hollywood/Mammoth, 2006) Billed as a song cycle about a Chicano's epic journey from Mexican valley to neon metropolis--something like that--the East L.A. Grammy winners' 10th studio album may suit old fans but won't convert any new ones. Slightly stolid even at their best, these veteran roots-rockers have never been slower--they sound tired, depressed. There's subtlety aplenty in the singing and especially the guitar, for which credit both player David Hidalgo and mixer Tchad Blake. But unless you count the cumbia, not one song rocks out. And apart from the laid-back "Free Up," where the subtlety renders an apparent throwaway seductive with time, not one stands out either. [unknown]
"Free Up" Choice Cuts

Stephin Merritt: Showtunes (Nonesuch, 2006) Dud

Amy Millian: Honey From the Tombs (Arts & Crafts, 2006) Dud

Maria Muldaur: Classic Live! (Dig Music, 2003) McGarrigle, Parton, Holiday, Dan Hicks--add some Gershwin-Porter-Arlen and she'd have herself the ideal modern cabaret repertoire ("Work Song," "Searchin'"). **

Maria Muldaur: Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (Telarc, 2006) A pop connoisseur even as a kid in a jug band, Muldaur always brings savoir-faire to "folk" materials. But she's never sung with so much attention, delicacy and lyrical intelligence. She extracts meaning from songs a younger Dylan played as look-ma-June-spoon throwaways, lifts the title tune from well-earned obscurity, lays "Lay Lady Lay" across her big brass soul and rescues "Make You Feel My Love" from Billy Joel. And also from Bob Dylan. Even when the songwriter does this kind of material straight, he's not sexy--not like Rod Stewart or Al Green. But Muldaur, who's been known to slather the libido on too thick, is serious about getting into bed with him. A

Maria Muldaur: 30 Years of Maria Muldaur: I'm a Woman (Shout! Factory, 2004) Solo, she improved with age ("Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," "Rockin' Chair"). **

The Naysayer: Smoke Reality (Red Panda, 2006) Poker-faced folk joker models hippie drag in Cali and Oregon, then returns to Brooklyn, where she belongs ("Do It on a Leaf," "I'm a Shark"). ***

NOFX: Never Trust a Hippy (Fat Wreck Chords, 2006) "You're Wrong" Choice Cuts

NOFX: Wolves in Wolves' Clothing (Fat Wreck Chords, 2006) They play loaded, they own their masters, they write off their vacations and still they're not satisfied ("100 Times Fuckeder," "Doornails"). **

NOMO: New Tones (Ubiquity, 2006) Great idea for instrumental funk--Afrika 70 meets Detroit 00 ("Nu Tunes," "New Song"). *

North Mississippi All Stars: Electric Blue Watermelon (ATO, 2005) They've learned to lilt, or else agreed to let their daddy show them how ("Hurry Up Sunrise," "Bang Bang Lulu"). **

North Mississippi All Stars: Polaris (ATO, 2006) Dud

OutKast: Idlewild (LaFace, 2006) In a poetic biz snafu, the not-actually-a-soundtrack that got mixed reviews in periodicals with July deadlines was substantially revised for its Aug. 22 release. But due to the usual dumb critical systole-diastole plus the premature burial of Idlewild-the-movie, the backlash didn't stop there. Me, I liked it fine before catching the near-empty late show where I fell in love. Flick's a sepia-tone "Moulin Rouge" that makes just as much hash of musical historicity--Big Boi the bootlegger's nephew raps with a territory band, Andre the mortician's son ivory-tickles like he's studied Debussy and dreamed Monk. Record's a joyous mishmash, so light-spirited that rumors of OutKast's demise are irrelevant regardless of accuracy, which nobody can gauge anyway. The endless grindcore finale that bloats proceedings to 79 minutes is their stupidest track ever, and occasionally a forgettable song sets down and rests awhile. But from the mainstream hip-hop Big Boi articulates with so much muscle to the retro swing Andre sings just fine, they sound happy to parade their mastery. Also on parade: Janelle Monße. A

Pere Ubu: Why I Hate Women (Smog Veil, 2006) Dud

Pharrell: In My Mind (Star Trak/Interscope, 2006) Keepin' it playa like he says, for exactly what that's worth ("Raspy Shit," "Number One"). **

Psalm One: The Death of Frequent Flyer (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2006) Life is more macaroni than cheese for a rapper girl fronting alt beats ("The Living," "Peanuts"). *

The Rapture: Pieces of the People We Love (Motown/Vertigo, 2006) Three years of artistic posturing, musical effort and spilled ink went into a rhythm trifle less consistent and commercial than the debut. But the capital expenditures aren't our problem, and the artifact's high spots bury, for instance, the two Danger Mouse tracks. Best is the silliest and busiest, "First Gear"; runner-up the Talking Heads for Dummies "Whoo! Alright Yeah & Uh-Huh." None of it means a damn thing beyond what it is. Which is just what they were trying so hard to achieve. A-

Scissor Sisters: Ta-Dah (Universal/Motown, 2006) Dud

Shout Out Louds: Combines (Capitol, 2006) Dud

Shout Out Louds: Howl Howl Gaff Gaff (Capitol, 2005) Note that in nominally socialist Sweden, simple pop emotions remain a spiritual possibility ("The Comeback," "Very Loud"). *

Spank Rock: YoYoYoYoYo (Big Dada, 2006) Their squelchy electrobeats are as funny as their laughing-gas sex rhymes ("Backyard Betty," "Top Billin' From Far Left"). ***

Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006) Outtake songs that fail to top the alternate versions of "Chicago" subsumed by outtake art-rock Glass-style, which beats Moussorgsky-style, Copland-style, Messiaen-style ("Dear Mr. Supercomputer," "Adlai Stevenson"). **

Sufjan Stevens: Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006) Mixing humorously observed originals with carols roasted on an open fire and obscurities dug out of the piano bench, these five EPs, four originally intended as gifts for fans and friends, achieve a shade of pretty just right for a secular holiday with special meaning for adults who grew up associating "The First Noel" with presents. From an early "Amazing Grace" to a new "Holy, Holy, Holy," Stevens's fragile banjo-and-tenor caroling is lovely, and several of his own songs belong in the Xmas canon, notably one called "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance": "Your sister's bangs, she cut them herself" is a December surprise many will recognize. It's just too bad alt-rock's favorite Christian couldn't resist the sin of completism. Piled atop one another, the less inspired tracks remind us how very much nicer it is to get the one perfect gift you never dreamed of than a lot of crap you don't need. [Rolling Stone: 3]
"Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!," "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" Choice Cuts

Taraf de Ha´douks: The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Ha´douks: The DVD (Crammed Discs, 2006) If a CD comes with a DVD attached, assume I haven't watched it. I prefer music that doesn't glue me to my chair and have long since had enough of the dancing fingers and showoff fans of video convention. So this recommendation is for the "bonus CD," a more compelling version of a 2000 London concert than the one you can watch--more subtitles please, less Johnny Depp. But the DVD proves that the over-70s in this fabricated, fabulous Romanian Gypsy group have more dignity, soul and cojones than the under-50s. Youngish lothario Caliu's speed runs out of gas where ancient and now deceased leader Nicolae's deliberation keeps on coming. The guy with the grill's old-man singing is as commanding as any bluesman's. Best song is "Little Buds," a slow one--and a wild one. A-

Thunderbirds Are Now!: Justamustache (Frenchkiss, 2005) Art-punks thrash around their garage-rock town ("From: Skulls," "Better Safe Than Safari"). ***

Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (Frenchkiss, 2006) From Detroit, a brother team over a rhythm section that's growing muscles, and though Scott Allen's keyboards provide the abundant hooks, Ryan Allen defines the sound. His voice high and desperate, his guitar jagged, Ryan has trust issues, but they're social--there's not a single relationship song on what is formally a high-anxiety pop record. "The things that people say/The way that people talk/Make me want to take the words right out of their mouths," he yelps, then ventures: "This is why we war." Maybe not--not exclusively, anyway. But it's exciting that he cares. A-

Justin Timberlake: FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive, 2006) She's freaky but I like it"?? Dude's more confused than he wants you to think ("My Love," "SexyBack"). ***

Viva L'American Death Ray Music: In the Meantime . . . (Night Train, 2006) TIYL Velvets, Television, Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)--that is, roots music, Lower East Side style ("Thieves Oh Glorious Thieves," "Needle to the Heart of the Matter"). ***

The Who: Endless Wire (Universal/Republic, 2006) The album is unlistenable for a simple reason: Roger Daltrey. Now 62, he's incapable in body as well as mind of negotiating the first new Who material since 1982's dreadful It's Hard. Gesturing futilely toward high notes as he tries to remember his acting lessons, he croaks, growls, shouts, emotes and otherwise bollockses songs he's sure are profound. When the leader spells him seven tracks in, the sharp uptick in modesty and lyricism comes as a relief until the "Wake up and hear the music" jag at the end. But it's the leader who decided prog was a peachy idea, the leader who designates yet another song cycle a "mini-opera," the leader who gives the orders around here. So the album is also unlistenable for a complicated reason: Pete Townshend. C

Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador, 2006) What's most remarkable about this stylistic portmanteau is that every song is an original even though you assume several are among their shoulda-been-a-hit-but-wtf-is-it? covers--more than several, but you know they wouldn't do that. Equally remarkable is that the lyrics you can make out are impossible to keep your mind on. Georgia and Ira sound more happily married than ever. They want to enact this state in all its instant gratification and infinite variety. But they're not inclined to reveal many details. I respect their privacy. But I remain curious. A-

Crunk Hits, Vol. 2 (TVT, 2006) What fun. Eighteen more bangers, three featuring Lil Jon's ridiculous "whut"-etc., by artists whose albums are marketed to people who think it makes good economic sense to put diamonds in their teeth--plus, of course, their wannabes. BG does his Tuva thing on a line that goes "Huhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah"; the Body Head Bangerz reach out to all Americans "addicted to money, cars and clothes"; Dem Franchise Boyz brag about their pristine T-shirts. And all that good stuff is toward the back. Not as peaky as the first volume. But more reliable. A

Elton John's Christmas Party (Hear Music, 2006) Rufus Wainwright, "Spotlight on Christmas"; Pet Shop Boys, "It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas" Choice Cuts

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