Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

November 2007: White Stripes Not Icky but Nick Rates Low

Long on Afropop (specialty of the house) and repertoire artists (there are more every year), short on hip-hop (seasonal) and female artists (Polly, Debbie, I hardly knew ye), yet fair and balanced of course, seven CDs I recommend more or less unequivocally and many others worthy of note.


Against Me!: New Wave (Warner Bros.) On his promiscuously praised, seriously strained second album, Tom Gabel mastered song form. Third try he sinks his personal agony into his historical anguish, unalleviated by how well he understands it. Forthright expression can be cathartic, however, and so, with advice from Butch Vig (of Garbage, not Nirvana), Gabel and his cohort power out 10 hard-edged anthems that will piss off the right people -- not the D.C. courtier class, who could care less, but alt types who find the sociopolitical inauthentic, uncool and the rest of that rot. Polysyllabic and self-aware, this is the best political punk in years. Yet the personal's still in it. A MINUS

Colombiafrica: The Mystic Orchestra: Voodoo Love Inna Champeta-Land (Riverboat) Centered in the drug entrepôt of Cartagena on Colombia's Caribbean coast, champeta has the regional currency of reggaeton or baile funk. Even at its simplest, though, it's more musicianly, played by live bands and directly influenced by many Afropop styles. This U.S.-released introduction is anything but simple -- it is in fact the rare piece of pan-Africana that doesn't seem designed to soften up millionaires at a UNESCO benefit. The secret is Congo-Parisian guitar etoile Bopol Mansiamina adding idiomatic expertise and handing work off to comrades such as Diblo Dibala and Rigo Star. But what he's adding to also counts: three champeta stars whose own idioms include jerky cumbia and vallenata, boilerplate salsa and squeezeboxes and funny horns never heretofore heard on what is more or less a soukous record -- though more likely to show up on one that also flirts with highlife and Afrobeat. You'll hear some funny voices, too -- funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. A MINUS

Kenge Kenge: Introducing Kenge Kenge (Riverboat) Formed in the '90s as the choral auxiliary of Kenya's hotel tax commission, evolved into a bastion of Luo gong and one-stringed violin with modern flute-horn-percussion attached, this is definitely Not a Pop Band. Yet modernity being the force it is, it's got way more presence and drive than the old Nairobi singles on John Storm Roberts's Before Benga collections, even the classic grooves on Trevor Horn's Kenya Dance Mania. Granted, eight tracks averaging eight or nine minutes can get samey. But that doesn't bother admirers of Konono No. 1, who they recall more than a little when that one-string gets going. These guys are more rustic and in tune with the world, and perhaps because they were a choir once, they can sing. But they make rhythmic noises you've never heard before, and they don't let up. A MINUS

Konono No. 1: Live at Couleur Cafe (Crammed Discs) Oddly, this Brussels-recorded "mini-album" lasts six minutes longer than 2004's presumably full-length Kinshasa-recorded debut and repeats only two of its songs. Not that songs mean much with such a sound- and rhythm-driven crew -- certainly less than the professionalism they've gained since Vincent Kenis lured them from obscurity or retirement early in the decade. Stepped-up force, drive and pace render it the most intense of the three extant Congosonics showcases -- the one I'll play when I crave their paleo-futurist fusion of village dance-trance and hand-crafted electronic distortion. The limits of that fusion will be tested by the 2008 album for which this is said to be a placeholder. See them live while you can. A MINUS

The Mekons: Natural (Quarterstick) This acoustic group-sing had me hedging like a derivatives trader when it came out -- until I observed eight humans called Mekons sit around grousing and banging on tour. Dressed like the wraith of a ska boy and dancing like a drunken undertaker, die-hard Londoner Tom Greenhalgh especially made these death songs come alive -- not just Tom's dismal opener and Jon Langford's can't-come climax and everybody's desert prophecy, but the animal fables, the mystery history, the agricultural workers' carouse, the unplugged teeter-totter for the digital age. If you don't know much about these 30-year veterans except that they're legendary, this probably isn't where to find out why. If you have any idea what I'm talking about, however, partake. B PLUS

3 Tenors of Soul: All the Way From Philadelphia (Shanachie) The rare repertoire album with a future, because there's no stink of the canon about it. Russell Thompkins Jr. and Ted Mills are remembered as oddballs if at all -- although you, gentle reader, of course recognize them as the falsetto leads of the Stylistics and Blue Magic. But together, their nearly intact voices -- Thompkins' buttery, Mills' supple -- actualize an out-of-this-world tenderness that's a promise, not an escape, with Delfonic William Hart designated as third wheel. Curated by MFSB guitarist Bobby Eli, the songs are equally pristine -- certified hits by Isley-Jasper-Isley and the Brothers Gibb, AWB and EWF, Dionne Warwick and Hall & Oates, but the average rock history buff will be lucky to recognize them, never mind following through with IDs. Granted, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could ruin this yet. And I say, let it try. A MINUS

The White Stripes: Icky Thump (Warner Bros.) Jumping from defunct quasi-indie V2 to ailing quasi-major Warner Bros., Jack White pretends his neoplasticism (spare industrial angularity theorized as aesthetic mysticism) is constructivism (brawny industrial angularity theorized as people's practicality). The broad strokes and hot mix are a formalist's populist gesture and a fist shaken at downward market trends. But formalism fans shouldn't let that stop them; immigration fans either. Playing at world, at heavy, at soul, he arts it up plenty and protests a little. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • The Cribs: Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever (Warner Bros.) A punky little Brit-pop album with its advertised hooks in place for once, leaving us free to ponder how much its romantic self-examinations are worth ("I'm a Realist," "Major's Titling Victory").
  • Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew: Spirit If . . . (Arts & Crafts) Human Being Collective instructs Yanks in alt-rock soundscaping, knowwhutI'mehing? ("F----- Up Kid," "Backed Out on the . . .").
  • Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino (Vanguard) Only a tribute album, but the material is so welcoming and the guests give back the love (John Lennon, "Ain't That a Shame"; Lucinda Williams, "Honey Chile"; Paul McCartney featuring Allen Toussaint, "I Want to Walk You Home"; Corinne Bailey Rae, "One Night [of Sin]"; Norah Jones, "My Blue Heaven").
  • Dropkick Murphys: The Meanest of Times (Born & Bred) They'll never be the Pogues because they're not outright alcoholics, which bodes well for their class analysis ("Tomorrow's Industry," "Never Forget").
  • Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (Rounder) Folk-leaning guy and pop-leaning gal sip iced tea on the veranda of their platinum-plated studio ("Killing the Blues," "Please Read the Letter").
  • Miles Davis: Evolution of the Groove (Columbia/Legacy) Four uncommonly brief double-funked remixes add up to collector's curio ("Freedom Jazz Dance [Evolution of the Groove]," "It's About That Time").
  • Radiohead: In Rainbows (Purloined Datadisc) Developed in concert, hence more jammy, less songy and less Yorkey, which is good ("Jigsaw Falling Into Place," "Bodysnatchers").
  • The Long Blondes: Someone to Drive You Home (Rough Trade) Twenty-seven years old and already an older woman -- how wearisome ("Once and Never Again," "Heaven Help the New Girl").
  • Mac Lethal: 11:11 (Rhymesayers Entertainment) From Kansas City, Kan. (it makes a difference), a white rapper-by-default whose sarcastic rhymes hook sharper than his hooky beats ("Lithium Lips," "Jihad!").
  • Bruce Springsteen: Magic (Columbia) Always emotional, sometimes mawkish, he lives with war as he tries to forget it ("Last to Die," "Livin' in the Future").
  • Bruce Springsteen and the Session Band Live in Dublin (Columbia) As loose and unforced as he ever gets on record ("Open All Night," "Old Dan Tucker").
  • Extra Golden: Hera Ma Nomo (Thrill Jockey) From Chicago and/or Kenya, Afro-fusion where the white ethnomusicologist guitarist sounds more idiomatic than the black African trap drummer -- and the lyrics are better in Luo ("Hera Ma Noma," "Obama").
  • Suspected Terrorists: Suspected Terrorists (Adept) From Louisville, Ky., and why not, the articulated inarticulate rage crypto-fascism deserves ("Patriot Act," "F--- Your Stupid Civilization").
  • PreNup: Hell to Pay (Rampage) Exes all, ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan and ex-Hothouse Flowers Fiachna O'Braonain and Dave Clarke kiss off their departed spouses, Rolling Stones-style ("Suckerpunched," "Firefighter").
  • Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Live at the Fillmore East (Reprise) Four all-too-well-remembered classics, two collectibles, bonanza guitar ("Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown," "Cowgirl in the Sand").
  • Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer (Vanguard) His voice "halfway back" from throat cancer, he tries it out on some "family songs from home" and feels good about it ("Got Me a Woman, "Feelin' Good").
  • Neil Young: Chrome Dreams II (Reprise) His last song collection this dubious was, of all things, This Note's for You, whereas this one's chief selling point was long ago slated to appear ("Ordinary People," "The Way").
  • Feist: The Reminder (Interscope) Not-so-oblique adult love songs for young professionals not-so-displeased with their lot ("Sealion," "Brandy Alexander").
  • Thurston Moore: Trees Outside the Academy (Ecstatic Peace) Nicely discordant as Samara Lubelski's violin is, it ain't Kim or Lee, much less both ("Wonderful Witches + Language Meanies," "Never Day").
  • Keren Ann: Keren Ann (Metro Blue) Music to pretend you're having sophisticated casual sex to, only remember -- you're not actually that sophisticated ("Lay Your Head Down," "It Ain't No Crime").
  • Debbie Harry: Necessary Evil (Eleven Seven Music) Nah, she's not Blondie -- Blondie was a band, and still is ("Jen Jen," "Paradise").

Choice Cuts

  • PJ Harvey, "When Under Ether" (White Chalk, Island)
  • Ayaléw Mèsfin & Black Lion Band, "Feqer Aydelem Wey" (The Rough Guide to African Blues, World Music Network)
  • Mariem Hassan, "La Tumchi Anni" (The Rough Guide to African Blues, World Music Network)
  • Aly & AJ, "Potential Breakup Song" (Insomniatic, Hollywood)
  • John Fogerty, "I Can't Take It No More," "Long Dark Night" (Revival, Fantasy)
  • Flight of the Conchords, "Business Time" (The Distant Future, Sub Pop)
  • Patti Scialfa, "Bad for You," "Play It as It Lays" (Play It as It Lays, Columbia)

Dud of the Month

Nick Lowe: At My Age (Yep Roc) That would be 58, since he brought it up. Geezer's seven months to the good side of Robert Plant, who you'd never know was showing more savoir faire from the way bloggerati who weren't alive when "Marie Prevost" was written fawn over this labour of louche. Reborn as a crooner because he can't rev up the rock anymore, he can't rev up the croon either. Wit: Shot. Insouciance: Shot. Romantic prospects: On this evidence, shot. If you're worried about aging gracefully, maybe it's back to Elvis C. after all. C

More Duds

  • Across the Universe (Interscope)
  • Joni Mitchell: Shine (Hear Music)
  • Oliver Mtukudzi: Tsimba Itsoka (Heads Up)
  • Stars: In Our Bedroom After the War (Arts & Crafts)
  • Dwight Yoakam: Dwight Sings Buck (New West)
  • Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall (Reprise)

MSN Music, Nov. 2007


Oct. 2007 Dec. 2007