Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

April-May 2007

Life is change. Having promised 10 to 12 A records per bimonthly Consumer Guide, I can't resist taking it up to 13 here because, well, mostly because they were there, including three 2006 CDs by a Norwegian trumpeter of disgracefully limited U.S. repute. In Honorable Mentionand also, naturally, Duds, I catch up with the collective wisdom of a critics' poll I used to oversee -- without which I might never have broken through to that punky little Thermals album.


Arcade Fire: Neon Bible (Merge) To remind us that anxiety is in his bones, Win Butler refurbishes the 2003 plaint "No Cars Go" as a football cheer about the safe place just before sleep. But everywhere else he emerges from his precious privacy and names the things he has to be afraid of, things he shares with all of us -- religions run amok, rising tides, the surveillance state, a cowboy-in-chief with so little to lose he could start World War III on a dare. He doesn't tame his fears by naming them, or hint that they can be overcome, although in "The Well and the Lighthouse," he advises the lighthouse: "If you leave, them ships are gonna wreck." But he and his large band of unarty art-rockers rock so hard and so beautiful they can propel anyone who listens past the end of the record. They thud rather than thunder. But what a loud and joyous thud it is. A PLUS

Saban Bajramovic: Gypsy Legend (Times Square) Because Marshall Tito's Yugoslavia encouraged more recording than madman Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania, this Serbian icon has a catalogue that awaits compilation. But just in case his master recordings proved casualties of war, in 1999 some culturally enlightened Dutchmen had him reprise a few hits. Roughened by 63 years of hard living, Bajramovic's voice has lost glide and thrust here, but even in his wild youth he was no breast-beater -- his persona was unruly, his manner suave. Balancing Balkan accordion-violin-clarinet and Gypsy swing is Bosnia's Mostar Sevdah Reunion band. "Sevdah" is an Arabic word said to mean "love, desire or ecstasy." Those feelings do get around. A MINUS

Beck: The Information (Interscope) Because he's also the poster child of '90s irony, which morphed so neatly into the passivity '00s alt-rockers pit against evil, the poster child of information overload doesn't quite get down to cases here. But unlike "Guero" this one really has some war in it -- makes "a kick drum sound like an SOS" and turns a homeless woman into a soldier in Iraq. The best song addresses a chronic problem clearly for once: "I think I'm in love and it makes me kind of nervous to say so." "Dark Star" despairs so resolutely it could make a dead man grateful. B PLUS

Golem: Fresh Off Boat (JDub) Easy-Klezmer as Gypsy brass. Yet the only wind instrument is a trombone, and it's quieter than the violin this tradition-bending ensemble puts on clarinet duty. In Yiddish or English, of which there's just enough, it's the singers who pump up the party: Eugene Hutz fan Aaron Diskin growling as if he's given up musical comedy for Purim, the incendiary Annette Ezekiel -- an Ethel Merman for our time. A MINUS

Jewface (Reboot Stereophonic) Though these 16 dialect songs from 1905 to 1922 are generally performed by Jewish comics, gramophone megastar Billy Murray "goils" and "vys" through his only known Hebrew number, and jill-of-all-accents, Ada Jones, trills "Under the Matsos Tree." Like Irving Berlin's "Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars," they're usually written by Jewish tunesmiths, but to the best of my knowledge neither Bert Fitzgibbon nor Al Piantadosi qualify. In other words, they're not only minstrelsy but on occasion blatantly exploitative minstrelsy, just as compiler Jody Rosen's album title implies. Nevertheless, they're good for many yocks on the order of "I'm a good Yiddisher/Buttonhole finisher" and often truly sharp, as in "He was sentimental/Not Jewish, but gentle" (that's a toreador) or "All Cohens look alike to me" (substitute the pet name of a masked, ring-tailed carnivore). They're catchy and well-sung -- try Fanny Brice's "Becky Is Back in the Ballet" or Rhoda Bernard's "Nat'an" -- and orchestrated with some variety. They're history; they make you think about the compulsion to racial stereotype in American humor. But mostly they're just a delight -- talent enjoying itself without inhibition. If you disapprove, consult a proctologist. A MINUS

Nils Petter Molvaer: An American Compilation (Thirsty Ear) Molvaer is a Norwegian trumpeter formerly on ECM who during the past decade has proven himself a sonic hipster as unflappable as Miles Davis himself. Peter Gordon's electronica-friendly nu-jazz label, Thirsty Ear, introduces its new prize to his natural audience by bearing down on Molvaer's Europe-only 2002 NP3 and front-loading the title tune of ECM's 2001 release Solid Ether. This overplays Molvaer's interest in power funk and pretty solos, but what the hell -- he's always shifting tactics anyway, and there's still atmospheric ambience aplenty. A MINUS

Nils Petter Molvaer: ER (Thirsty Ear) On the spookiest of Thirsty Ear's three Molvaer albums, Molvaer's Miles-sans-mute sound -- smooth the way strawberry sherbet is smooth -- floats through buzzes and washes, squiggles and treated voices, bodied up by bass parts often his own. Not that he's a loner -- most tracks feature four to six samplers, programmers, drummers and such. Here's hoping the woman who sings (and wrote) "Only These Things Count" is another respected fellow professional, rather than his girlfriend. Miles reserved his girlfriends for cover shots. A MINUS

Nils Petter Molvaer: Streamer (Thirsty Ear) Recorded at a Jan. 1, 2002, Finnish concert where some audience members surely dozed briefly unless the heat was on the fritz, this is pretty lulling for a live album -- assuming the ground of your being isn't threatened by guitar blats, jungle beats and noises that poke out of the flow like tree branches and old car parts. It includes five compositions that had just then surfaced on NP3, only here they're gauzier. Due to the spoken-word snatches the trumpeter strews on top, they're also eerier. But not, I promise, scarier. A MINUS

Nas: Hip Hop Is Dead (Def Jam) I wouldn't take him at his word -- especially when he says he's not going back to a street life there's no evidence he ever had knocked in the first place -- and I doubt he knows as much as claimed about the perks of his Escobar hustle: "watchin' fly bitches with grey eyes wrestle in a tub of KY," escaping a shoot-out with his milkshake wife, etc. The fun comes easier when he fools around with the title conceit, and even sometimes when he thinks about it. Rhyming "orange" with "showin'" and "pawn it," rapping in fake Bogie, playing the "black militant" to his former adversary and current sponsor's "black Republican," naming so many lost rappers I needed a hankie (Special Ed! Tim Dog! Fu-Schnickens! Shante!), he wants us to know he's an old-school MF who can afford efficiently state-of-the-art beats. Big worry: "Can't sound smart 'cause you'll run away." What to do, what to do? A MINUS

7L & Esoteric: A New Dope (Babygrande) In which the Boston duo, known insofar as they're known at all for Premier-they-wish beats and metaphor-is-murder battle rhymes, lightens up on a basically satirical CD. "Get Dumb" sets the intellectually hyphy tone: "Billie Holiday he's the best/That cool band Beck is touring out West," or, "Bin Laden he's only bluffin'/She's on the pill so I won't catch nothin'." Esoteric treats himself to lists, similes and sexual contretemps. 7L injects scratches and drum breaks into Middle Eastern flutes, porn loops and suspense-movie music. Indie-rap lives. A MINUS

The Thermals: The Body, the Blood, the Machine (Sub Pop) As narrative and prophecy, a less coherent response to Christofascism than you might want, but one alt needs, held together and moved ahead by its forthright hooks and beats. On timbre alone, Hutch Harris might almost be some emo boy bewailing his romantic ignominy. Instead he attacks the Bush-Cheney axis, naming said villains in the public prints. And though I dread his promised devolution album, I admire him for knowing that the couple he chronicles can run and even hide but can't actually escape. A MINUS

Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (Anti-) Having creamed for these 56 songs old, new and nobody's talking, I returned with trepidation. Sure enough, the first time through, too many had faded on me. Soon, however, even ones I'd given up on were bum-rushing my earhole, like "Lucinda," with its steel-driving beat and gallows gloom. One reason, close attention to 1988's "Sea of Love" suggests, is that his groan has grown more distinct. And though it would be mere rhetoric to claim the six spoken-word pieces on Disc 3 are really music -- they're yarns, jokes, theater, that's the point -- they do really sound good. I said sound. A

Tom Zé: Danc-Eh-Sa (Irara) Showing a purity of purpose generally lacking in operettas, here are seven tracks lasting barely half an hour, every one insanely and sometimes gratingly catchy, with choruses femme and otherwise singing, whistling, moaning, jeering, barking and meowing the tunes -- as well as embellishing rhythms dominated by electronic whatsits of every description except techno. Since it's beats and sonics that draw non-Lusophones to Zé's oddball tropicalia, world-music honchos will soon be speed-dialing his cellie. Psych. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Delta 5: Singles & Sessions 1979-81 (Kill Rock Stars) Sounded hot, acted cold, ran out of riffs (or was it interest?) ("Mind Your Own Business," "Now That You've Gone").
  • Paris Presents: Hard Truth Soldiers: Volume 1 (Guerrilla Funk) "A response to the current apolitical climate in commercial music," with beats to match its truths (Truth Universal, "Inspiration"; Paris, "Laylow"; the S.T.O.P. Movement, "Down Wit Us").
  • Borat (Downtown/Atlantic) Raw Gypsy, cooked Gypsy, drowned Jew, wife with new vagine (Sacha Baron Cohen and Anthony Hines, "In My Country There Is Problem [Throw the Jew Down the Well]"; Esma Redzepova, "Chaje Shukarije").
  • Vinicius Cantuaria: Silva (Hannibal) One samba record with the warm soul, melodic grace and atmospheric intelligence claimed for all of them ("The Bridge," "Pena de Mim").
  • Orange Juice: The Glasgow School (Domino) OK, OK, a class cute act ("Blue Boy," "Consolation Prize").
  • CSS: Cansei De Ser Sexy (Sub Pop) Real Brazilian girls admire B-52's (hmm) and Chicks on Speed (uh-oh) ("Patins," "Music Is My Hot, Hot Sex").
  • Why the Hell Not . . . : The Songs of Kinky Friedman (Sustain) Funny after all, with essential help from guys who can actually sing and/or tell a joke (Willie Nelson, "Ride 'Em Jewboy"; Ray Benson & Reckless Kelly, "Homo Erectus").
  • Steve Goodman: Live at the Earl of Old Town (Red Pajamas) Found great songs, wrote good ones, loved a laugh ("I Gotta Hand It to You," "When the Cubs Go Marching In").
  • My Chemical Romance: The Black Parade (Reprise) In prog, a good sense of humor means so much ("Teenagers," "Dead!").
  • Chris Smither: Leave the Light On (Signature Sounds) Getting squishy on the emotional, spiky on the economic ("Diplomacy," "Origin of Species").
  • Radioinactive: Soundtrack to a Book (Strangertouch) "Thinking in a way that is interesting to me," alt-rapper explores Fairlight, drinks Haterade, lives "day-to-day" ("Sometimes," "Personality Theft").
  • The Mountain Goats: Get Lonely (4AD) Pretty consolations for a broken-up man ("Woke Up New," "Half Dead").
  • David Grisman & Andy Statman: New Shabbos Waltz (Acoustic Disc) Two bluegrass masters tend their roots in Hasidic melodies old and new, sprightly and melancholy, devout and not so ("Anim Zemiros," "New Shabbos Waltz").
  • What's Happening in Pernambuco? (Luaka Bop) Fresh musotourist Brazil-beats from not-quite-Bahia (Otto, "Bob"; Cabruera, "Erectos Cactos").
  • David Krakauer & Socalled: Bubbemeises (Label Bleu) Klezmer clarinetist gets all jazzy over kosher hip-hop beats (and a couple of raps) ("Bubbemeises," "Moskovitz and Loops of It").
  • Albert Kuvezin & Yat-Kha: Re-Covers (World Village) In killer novelty move, Tuvan zither honcho throat-sings rock classics ("In a Gadda da Vida," "Play With Fire").
  • Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (Matador) Whilst pursuing life, always remember: Their weedy wimpery was more original, and elegant, than their pop mastery ("The Blues Are Still Blue," "Funny Little Frog").
  • Common Market (MassLine) Conscious rappers use their words -- lots of them ("Every Last One," "Re-Fresh").
  • Fire Engines: Codex Teenage Premonition (Domino) On live tapes and outtakes, oddly uncatchy old Scots-pop band proves winningly spastic young white-funk band ("Hungry Beat," "Discord").
  • Kinky Friedman: Last of the Jewish Cowboys: The Best of Kinky Friedman (Shout! Factory) Can't sing at all or tell a joke much, can write ("Asshole From El Paso," "The Ballad of Charles Whitman").
  • Dona Dumitru Siminica: Sounds From a Bygone Age: Vol. 3 (Asphalt Tango) Falsetto fanciers will effervesce ("Cine Are Fata Mare," "Lelita, Floare").
  • The Cosmopolitans: Wild Moose Party (Dionysus) You know the drill -- if the B-52's had gotten big, this girl-group version of the Fleshtones would have gotten signed "(How to Keep Your) Husband Happy," "Dancin' Lesson").
  • The Idan Raichel Project (Cumbancha): Multiculti utopianism as posited by bedreaded Israeli and his Ethiopian, Arab, and Surinamese countrymen ("Be'Yom Shabbat," "Mi'Ma'amakim").

Choice Cuts

  • Of Montreal, "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" (Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Polyvinyl)
  • Macy Gray, "Get Out," "Okay," "Ghetto Love" (Big, Geffen)
  • Bloc Party, "Hunting for Witches" (A Weekend in the City, Vice)
  • Bruce Cockburn, "This Is Baghdad," "Tell the Universe" (Life Short Call Now, Rounder)
  • Grayson Capps, "Ed Lee" (Wail and Ride, Hyena)

Duds of the Month

Thom Yorke: The Eraser (XL) I'd hoped that either I would learn to like this Thommy Boy excursus or the disaffected young professionals who hang on his every megrim would call an anxiety attack what it is. No such luck. Few believe Yorke's solo daybyew has the weight of a Radiohead album, that increasingly rare and invariably overrated thing. But such is the lure of his hypersensitivity that his admirers forgive and even applaud the extreme attenuation of this tastefully decorated click-and-loop. One rationalization is the lyrics, which state his overstated concerns in so many statements rather than camouflaging them in metaphor. And I admit it, the one about the rain is pretty good. B MINUS

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros.) Only the familiar tale of their Grammy validation renders the familiar tale of their double album that shoulda been a single mildly interesting. Once a bassist's band, now a guitarist's band, they're most of all an '80s band, their spiritual core, such as it is, is rooted in the agony and ecstasy of heroin and cocaine. At least when the bassist ruled they livened up this overworked dynamic with beats. Now they tax it with tunes, at least when they're on their game -- as in the dead-end relationship song "Desecration Smile" and the marriage proposal "Hard to Concentrate." B MINUS

More Duds

  • Dan Bern: Breathe (Messenger)
  • Lindsey Buckingham: Under the Skin (Reprise)
  • Califone: Roots and Crowns (Thrill Jockey)
  • Comets on Fire: Avatar (Sub Pop)
  • The Dears: Gang of Losers (Arts & Crafts)
  • DeVotchKa: Curse Your Little Heart (Ace Fu)
  • Electric Six: Switzerland (Metropolis)
  • Josef K: Entomology (Domino)
  • Bela Lakatos & the Gypsy Youth Project: Introducing Bela Lakatos & the Gypsy Youth Project (World Music Network)
  • The Long Winters: Putting the Days to Bed (Barsuk)
  • Busta Rhymes: The Big Bang (Aftermath)
  • Caetano Veloso: Ce (Nonesuch)

MSN Music, Apr. 2007


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