Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2012-08-24

2012-08-24

Saint Etienne: Travel Edition 1990-2005 (Sub Pop, 2004) My appetite whetted by their comeback album and my excess weight indicator tripped by the two-CD "All the a-sides and more!" London Conversations, I sought out a used copy of this single-disc best-of and found it good--enjoying the two tracks it lifts from 1998's Good Humor, for instance, more than the two I highlighted in my brief. Saint Etienne's problem has always been melodies and arrangements a little too unobtrusive for Sarah Cracknell's compassionate calm and unshowy smarts. Their everything-but-the-glitz disco asserts itself so subtly that only the early "Mario's Cafe" and the late, atypically (and of course subtly) political "Heart Stopped in the Back of a Taxi" look you square in the eye and say classic. Still, when Cracknell quietly announces "I believe in Donovan over Dylan/Love over cynicism," you begin to wonder whether Donovan's as big a fool as you thought even though you know damn well he is. Cracknell manifestly isn't. Even though many of the love songs here are the sad kind, she's figured out how to keep her mind clear and her chin up. A-

Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect (RCA, 2012) Especially by the standards of r&b divas who share management with Lauryn and Alicia, she's funny--referring to her liver as "her" in "Oh What a Night," requesting an erectile version of the title item in "Refill," bemoaning her looks in a closer she presumably wrote well before the cover shoot. She's disciplined--10 of 11 songs between 3:07 and 4:09. She hones her God-given vocal intensity with no recourse to belting or melisma, and she keeps the grit under control, although the final minute of "Damn Good Friends" should have been crooned or even cooed. And with help from an actual-count 18 confederates, she sharpens herself some hooks--by my count, six of the 11 tracks connect instantly, with the heart songs lagging as usual. Just pray she sticks with her strengths and continues to confederate exactly as much as she needs. A-

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