Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2013-06-07


Mariem Hassan: El Aaiún Egdat (Nubenegra, 2012) Now pursuing an active musical career from Catalonia, this ex-nurse from the Western Saharan possesses the most remarkable vocal instrument to emerge from northern Africa--a searing contralto, serious yet excitable and often transported, that can cut into anyone's indifference. Born in 1958 like Rachid Taha, she's had it a lot harder--refugee camp, divorce, breast cancer, guitarist lost to leukemia. Nor does she project much of Taha's showbiz pragmatism--her calling is the Sahrawi style called haul, which on 2010's Shouka she and a new guitarist showcased in all its chorus-driven, prayerlike, insular intensity. By comparison, this one's forgiving enough to lift a tourist's spirits--there's some saxophone, and the melodies bid buenas dias. And then, two thirds of the way in, guitar and harmonica state a theme that may take a while to ID--holy moley, it's Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman," plus ululations and a friendly sax solo--and the rest of the album loosens up some more before climaxing with seven minutes of avant closer. Back in camp they may think that makes her a sinner. Folkies may grouse as folkies will. But I say she's trying to have some fun, and that she and we deserve it. A-

Rachid Taha: Zoom (Wrasse, 2013) This is the sixth solo studio album for the trilingual but mostly Arabic-singing 55-year-old French-Algerian since 1998's breakthrough Diwan. Every one has been first-rate, every one just different enough; even the live entry fills out what I hesitate to call his oeuvre, a word that feels sillier than usual in a scrappy rock lifer who just wants to make a little money here--while subtly addressing major political and cultural issues in the most legible desert crossover yet devised. This time the change-ups come from juju trancemaster Justin Adams, Mick Jones honoring his youth, a chanteuse sweetening "It's Now or Never," and a sample from the Egyptian goddess whose name is rendered not as Um Kulthum but as the old-school, rhymes-with-zoom Oum Kalsoum. Taha's rough attack can't match the rough-attack greats--Springsteen, say, or Fogerty--much less such fluent, gritty-when-necessary rivals to the south as Rochereau and N'Dour. For that reason, his excellent records may feel less essential to the English speaker in the long run. But I'll play this one remembering that my favorite track on sound alone is number three, "Jamila," which attacks forced marriage and bears as title an Arabic name that translates as "pretty." A

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