Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

September 2007: Common, Fountains of Wayne, Bright Eyes Make the Dean's List

For neatness's sake, I'd hoped to tie up the new New Pornographers by deadline time, only to be stymied once again by a faulure to locate the there there. Next month, I promise. This time, lots of Islamo-Christian fusion, the gift and secret of great Gypsy music.


Bright Eyes: Cassadaga (Saddle Creek) In a banner year for indie semistars such as the Shins, Spoon, the New Pornographers and their major-matriculated kin, Conor Oberst's emotional directness stands out. He's verbose and sometimes addled. But he's not ironic--only Arcade Fire go for the gut with such gusto. From numerous contenders, my favorite song months after they arrived begs for a John Legend or Taylor Hicks cover: "Make a Plan to Love Me," which could have been written on his Blackberry and sent instantly to the career woman of his dreams--in about 20 pieces. A MINUS

Common: Finding Forever (Geffen) Beat scholars call this producer Kanye West's J. Dilla tribute, but us hip-hop GED's wonder when the late legend ever put his hand to R&B so smart and smooth. R&B rather than hip-hop is how it signifies. From "Windmills of Your Mind" to "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," the samples subtler and more surprising than last time, and let me also mention the Ethiopian jazz and the Animals' Nina Simone cover in between. In fact, the best music here is so deep it's more powerful than the rhymes. These are strongest at their most forgiving--"The People," "Misunderstood," "U, Black Maybe"--and most R&B in their articulations of what a dog he still is. Which are we to believe, the romantic "I Want You" or the postromantic "Break My Heart"--or the carnal D'Angelo collab "So Far to Go"? A MINUS

Fanfare Ciocarlia: Queens and Kings (Asphalt Tango) A Gypsy brass band created by a German record man in a Romanian village, the hectically virtuosic, unabashedly ambitious Ciocarlia have always been a little too fast and furious on record. But they're the glue of the inspired tour doc Gypsy Caravan, and this all-star CD fuses the film's ecumenicism with their lust for fame. Based on a Bucharest memorial concert for Ciocarlia's clarinetist leader, it varies their nonstop attack with singers from all over the borderless Roma community. Foremost are icons Esma Redzepova and Saban Bajramovic, whose two songs apiece could send a person surfing after Songs of a Macedonian Gypsy and A Gypsy Legend, respectively. But from godfather Dan Armeanca, whose "Kan Marau La (I Will Beat Her)" is recommended to gangsta scholars, to the climactic "Born to Be Wild," composer credit to Mars, Bonfire, this is as impressive a tour of Gypsy pop as any German record man (or woman) could hope. Special respect to guest trumpeter Pancirel Constandache, a refugee from Ciocarlia's tour grind, and either Mitsou or Florentina Sandu for the midget vocal on "Duj Duj," though the other lady is peachy too. A

Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather (Virgin) If Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger were mere satirists, they would be They Might Be Giants. Instead they're lyric poets of what a more naive era called yuppieness, only now we know things aren't so simple--even middle-class people who just want to make some dough are in trouble if they were born after, say, 1965. The title newspeople, the lawyer and the photo assistant who beats him for a cab? They're doing OK. But the guy who's accessorizing his "'92 Subaru"? Much less so. "Strapped for Cash"'s gambler anonymous? Not at all. And it's to the band's credit that they want us to know that. But when they home in on the economic, they tend to be satirists only, so it's crucial that as pop adepts who know what closes on Saturday night, they also traffic in romance--and weather it. Sometimes they're hopeless at love, like the lonely antagonists in that cab drama called "Someone to Love"; sometimes, as in the DMV fantasy "Yolanda Hayes," they're delusional in a nice way; sometimes, as in "I-95" and "Fire in the Canyon," they're troubled. So they all need "Michael and Heather at the Baggage Claim," where love triumphs over the geographical displacements that skew so many of these songs. They all also need tunes you'll hum, and get them. A

Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Obecanje: The Promise Balkan Mix (Piranha) Reviewing 2005's The Promise, I surmised that the Markovics' British producer had neatened music better left a mess. But when flugelhorn maestro Boban Markovic and Serbian bassist Nicola Pejovic went so far as to remix the thing, they made it clearer and more "commercial." Clarity includes extra percussion and more breaks for trumpet prodigy Marko. Commerce requires cross-cultural gestures and lyrics, some in English ("When the music hit the beat, feel the magic, a-ha"). There's also a lively new vocal feature and a full reordering that turns the new finale as woozy as the end of a long night. All in all, an improvement I couldn't have imagined and the only version you need own. A MINUS

Public Enemy: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (Slamjamz) Not only are their albums still good, they're getting better. Beats keep changing, too. Most of these are by the kind of heavy guitar-bass-drums unit Chuck D has coveted since Anthrax-the-band was bigger than anthrax-the-disease, and intermittently there are also uncredited horns, keyb effects, scratching and backup singers, like the child chorus who recites the message of "Sex, Drugs and Violence": "We like those gangsta rhymes/Just make sure they don't corrupt our minds/These rappers kill and thieve/A lot of times it's only make believe." Flav remains a knave on TV and the king's fool in PE. And though the title's moral braggadocio has been one of Chuck's more pigheaded tropes since he was dissing soaps, the Don Imus flap has imparted to him an aura of contemporaneity that comes none too soon. A MINUS

Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge) A trifle brighter, quicker and fuller than Gimme Fiction, with "Don't Make Me a Target" targeting the executive branch more explicitly than is Britt Daniel's general practice--"nuclear dicks and their dialect drawl," eh? No one in indie is longer on craft or form, contained feeling or quiet desperation. James Mercer is an expressionist kid by comparison, Glenn Mercer a minimalist amateur. But boy--what a tight-ass. B PLUS

Loudon Wainwright III: Strange Weirdos (Concord) The "soundtrack" to the gloriously funny Knocked Up slips in two Joe Henry instrumentals and a remake of Wainwright's 1973 "Lullaby" that's more passionate than the love song he goes out on, which is called "Passion Play." But parenthood has always been one of his great themes, L.A. life is turning into another, and as for love, give him this: He has long shown a knack for pretending that he's getting the idea. B PLUS

Honorable Mention

  • The Rough Guide to the Music of the Balkans (World Music Network) Half-Roma predecessor to The Rough Guide to the Music of Balkan Gypsies, switching abruptly midway through to nice folk-harmony ensembles (Toni Iordache, "Hora de la Bolintin"; Mostar Sevdah Reunion, "U Lijepom Starom Gradu Visegradu").
  • Ry Cooder: My Name Is Buddy (Nonesuch) The musical tail of a cat whose best friend is a leftist mouse--OK, I'll bite ("Red Cat Till I Die," "Cat and Mouse").
  • Northern State: Can I Keep This Pen? (Ipecac) Three fine Long Island witches, whose words ace their music, sing more and rap less ("Things I'll Do," "The Three Amigas").
  • The Rough Guide to Latin Arabia (World Music Network) Sub-world-class performers put across not by their top tunes but by their shared history--Moorish Iberia, montunos included (Maurice el Medioni featuring Roberto Rodriguez, "Oran Oran"; Salamat, "Mambo el Soudani"; Cheb Sahraoui, "Je Suis Naif").
  • Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (Rounder) Wiser than her ex, nicer, subtler--but, admittedly, less dynamic ("Beauty," "Give Me a Sad Song").
  • 1990s: Cookies (Rough Trade) More like the Strokes than the Strokes were ever like Television, with simpler riffs, cheaper laughs and the occasional soupcon of LCD Soundsystem ("You Made Me Like It," "Cult Status").
  • Rufus Wainwright: Release the Stars (Geffen) To prove he can, he sets just one of this career-topping aggregation of florid melodies to electric guitars, and damn my heterosexual ears for liking it best ("Between My Legs," "Nobody's Off the Hook").
  • North Africa: The Greatest Songs Ever (Petrol) The mysterious super-Sahara of Gallic Islam--now that's my idea of trance (and sometimes electronica too) (Gnawa N'Joum Experience, "Kami Ni Mantabub [DJ Click Remix]"; Setona, "Sawani").
  • Richard Thompson: Sweet Warrior (Shout! Factory) Folk-rockin' Sufi hates GWB even more than he hates that lady gangster (no, not Condi, nothing that realistic) ("Dad's Gonna Kill Me," "Johnny's Far Away").
  • Maurice el Medioni Meets Roberto Rodriguez: Descarga Oriental: The New York Sessions (Piranha) Algerian Jewish pianist joins Cuban Jewish percussionist for elegant salsa avec French accent and Arab tinge ("Oran Oran," "Moi Je T'aime Toujours").
  • Gypsy Caravan: Music in and Inspired by the Film (World Village) Unusually faithful aural depiction of must-see movie (Taraf de Haïdouks, "Mugur Mugurel"; Juana la del Pipa and her church congregation, "Te Necesito").
  • Teddy Thompson: Up Front and Down Low (Verve Forecast) A considerable guitarist whose voice fuses two gene pools deflects his songwriting problem with country covers ("Change of Heart," "Walking the Floor Over You").
  • The Rough Guide to North African Café (World Music Network) Fine Bordeaux available; kif not even a rumor (Cheb Balowski "El Dia"; Tarik, "La Foule").

Choice Cuts

  • They Might Be Giants, "The Mesopotamians" (The Else, Idlewild)
  • Garth Brooks, "Please Operator (Could You Trace This Call)" (The Lost Sessions, Pearl)
  • Meat Puppets, "Light the Fire" (Rise to Your Knees, Anodyne)

Dud of the Month

Battles: Mirrored (Warp) Just when I'd made my peace with pop prog and begun to hope arty prog would prove another casualty of the age of digital instantaneity, these postrock warriors get the bright idea of adding tune and humor to their higher mathematics. Just goes to show how hard up some aesthetes are for the hooks and jokes that are still so plentiful in less rarefied precincts. Swing less than Jeff Beck, Dixie Dregs or Big Lazy, rock more than Gentle Giant, Love Tractor or Tortoise. Will mean a lot to anyone who cares deeply about a few of the above-named and, no matter what you've read, not much to anyone who doesn't. B MINUS

More Duds

  • Deerhunter: Cryptograms (Kranky)
  • Hairspray [Soundtrack] (New Line)
  • Albert Hammond Jr.: Yours to Keep (New Line)
  • KRS-One and Marley Marl: Hip-Hop Lives (Koch)
  • Pissed Jeans: Hope for Men (Sub Pop)
  • Jonathan Richman: Revolution Summer: Original Soundtrack to the Film (Vapor)
  • The Roches: Moonswept (429)

MSN Music, Sept. 2007


Aug. 2007 Oct. 2007