Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2011-02-22


El DeBarge: Second Chance (Geffen, 2010) This minor genius peaked pre-1985 as the reason for being of the family harmony group DeBarge, which also gave the world ex-con lite Chico DeBarge and Janet Jackson annulment survivor James DeBarge. Although he hung on solo for a while, in this century his chief creative outlet has been the police blotter. But a minor genius he remains, and here he conquers the demon cocaine with a little help from the opiate of the people and records his first solo album since 1994 with a little help from the keeper of Geffen Records' flickering flame. It may bore or offend Babyface diehards. But those with a tolerance for prefab promises and schlock choruses won't care that the songs are the same old hyperromantic BS as long as his tenor remains intact. And though he turns 50 in 2011, it's unspoiled. DeBarge's special gift has always been combining the boyish innocence of J5-era Michael Jackson with intimations of physical congress. The quirky murmurs, yelps, and coos of his head voice, a high end of unequalled softness and give, sound responsive where Jackson's sound willed. There's a girl there, or just as likely a grown woman. And whether or not El seems manly to you, he's turning her on and vice versa. A-

Aaron Neville: I Know I've Been Changed (EMI Gospel/Tell It, 2010) I'm glad Mavis Staples won her Grammy. She's a generous talent with a brave history. But where her civil rights-themed 2007 We'll Never Turn Back is a perfect Grammy-type record, You Are Not Alone is standard-issue Mavis with Jeff Tweedy cachet: soul as grit plus conviction. Even at that, though, I figured it to outshine a devotional album concocted by angelic-in-voice-mostly Aaron Neville and minister of good taste without portfolio Joe Henry, and I was wrong big-time. As a devout backslider, I knew nothing of Neville's previous "spiritual" collections, and found myself impressed by 2000's Devotion until choirs and such butted in. But here Henry's taste prevails, and it's all good: a transcendent groove record in which Neville's high-end shtick is shaped by Allen Toussaint at his subtle best and Chris Bruce doing Pop Staples's holy work. Neville never strains for effect--a Roman Catholic who thanks St. Jude in the booklet, he sounds completely at home with every Protestant word he utters. You don't have to believe in Jesus to believe in faith, not with a higher power emanating from your speakers. All that's missing is Pops himself. Anybody ready to mash up a remix? A-

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