Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2013-09-27


Robert Sarazin Blake With Jefferson Hamer and the Powderkegs: Put It All Down in a Letter (Same Room, 2011) This poetry-with-rock as poetry-with-jazz leads with the associative 17-minute narrative "I Didn't Call You From Philadelphia," over a quarter of the CD's full length, and if you shrug and decide Blake's tour of West Philadelphia eating and music spots w/ Luddite assessment of telephonemetry could just be worth the price of admission by itself, you may well be making a rational economic decision. Inexhaustibly, it cuts everything else here, including the unmailed 16-minute love letter "Magic Hour on Baltimore Ave." But not by as much as everything else here cuts the doleful recorded-in-Belfast (apparently in the same year, 2011) A Long Series of Memorable Nights Forgotten. Partly it's the band, and partly too Anaïs Mitchell's Child ballad helpmeet Hamer, because they groove, inducing Blake to bop like Lawrence Ferlinghetti with the funk rather than moan like Bob Geldof with catarrh. But mostly it's the songs. If the weary realism of "Planned Parenthood Waiting Room," "The Little Disappointments We Swallow," and the sexually explicit "We Can Roll Down Tonite" don't live up to the lead track, that's just more evidence of what a stroke that shaggy dog song is. A-

Blind Lemon Jefferson: The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Lemon Jefferson: Reborn and Remastered (World Music Network, 2013) Early blues' biggest male hitmaker--which means at the very least that Paramount recorded him a lot--has long been uncopyrighted, and this selection comes tagging behind the Yazoo CD that shortened the Yazoo double-LP and more European completism than any nonspecialist need explore. A solid singer and facile guitarist, Jefferson was also a mortal songwriter whose dynamic range can weary subconnoisseurs pretty quick--for most of us, one CD is enough. That said, the sound here is fuller and clearer than what competition I've been able to A-B, and why Yazoo omitted "Black Snake Moan" is the kind of mystery only aging blues boys understand. Most of the time Jefferson plays the rounder's role, but since what he really was was a pro, he rose or sunk occasionally to Christian grace, as in the ineffable "I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart." Moreover, Jefferson is only half this package. The bonus disc is one I missed, Rough Guide to Country Blues Pioneers, a refreshingly nonconnoisseur selection that leads with Big Bill Broonzy's sophisticated "Long Tall Mama" and ends with Sam Collins's lilting "My Road Is Rough and Rocky" while venturing post-1931 only to include Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, and Robert Johnson, all of whom you'll welcome aboard. A

Rokia Traoré: Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch, 2013) Traore has been walking a tightrope since her 2000 debut, and it's not getting easier. There's limited outreach in any tongue to songs about your right to pursue a musical career albeit--translation from the Bamanan provided--"Brought up by the rules of the nobility/Forbidden to sing or speak in public." Escaped from the Malian troubles in Paris, she recorded her fourth album with Polly Jean Harvey adjutant John Parish, and musically they get results--from the opener on out, Scottish drummer Seb Rochford and Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia make Mali rock in ways unknown to Oumou Sangare or Bassekou Kouyate, and Traore is less pretty in turn. But non-Bamanan speakers may well find that her supple vocals are no more engaging should they follow her unremarkable spiritual tribulations in English or French. And non-Bamanan speakers who only start paying attention with the rote English-language populism of the continental and womanist praisesongs at the end may never go back and read along. B+

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