Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

TV on the Radio Rate High; Iron and Wine Receive an Honorable Mention; Bon Iver Is Dud of the Month

Wish I could claim I was guiding you through all the big new releases. But the promised TV on the Radio aside, this is not a time when the big releases sound like the good ones. I've been doing this awhile, and sometime it just be that way.


Asylum Street Spankers: What? And Give Up Show Biz? (Yellow Dog) Two hours of live double prove how fulfilling it can be to shovel up behind the elephant. Originals from their mildly likable post-jug catalogue celebrate beer and toking up with your baby in the morning. Tuvan throat tricks augment songs about a CIA agent and the meth-head next door. A few flat old-timey standards leave you grateful to let your mind wander. And weaving the songs together is the patter. Top track: a long, carefully plotted ensemble tale about how their bus lost its brakes just after cresting a hill. "Amazing Grace" follows, then Nilsson's "Think About Your Troubles." Both sound perfect. A MINUS

Robert Creeley: Really!! (Paris) Creeley was a jazz-loving "New American Poet" whose readings never softened the abrupt line breaks of his economical, apolitical, intensely decent verse. A poor musical prospect, you'd think. Yet the subtle flourishes of Tin Huey/Tom Waits/Carneyball Johnson saxophonist-plus Ralph Carney sharpen these 1988 recordings decisively. You have to concentrate, and if I hadn't been a Creeley fan in my poetic youth I might not have bothered. Now I've taken Creeley's 1962 For Love off the shelf--and wish I could hear "The Way," "Sing Song," "Ballad of the Despairing Husband," and the list keeps getting longer. A MINUS

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip: Angles (Strange Famous) Declares big-bearded performance poet Pip: "I ain't riding the beat, it's the beat that's riding me." Take it or leave it. But Pip and his beatmaking partner, both denizens in good standing of London's working-class suburbs and record-store culture, are certainly more musical than the Streets, arguably more musical than Dizzee Rascal, and stick Art Brut in there too. As U.K. electro goes, they're varied stylistically and open-minded about hooks, and Pip's articulated Cockney has a lilt. More rhetorician than storyteller--most momentously on the bandname-checking Brit sensation "Thou Shalt Always Kill"--he distinguishes himself from yer average pop philosopher by having something to say. Try the suicide advisory "Magician's Assistant." Or "Letter From God to Man," which makes the Big Fella a "curator" rather than a "creator." Or "Tommy C," a definition of beauty that tells a comedian's life story, philosophically. A MINUS

El Guincho: Alegranza (XL) Raised by hippie environmentalists in the Canary Islands, Pablo Diaz-Reixa won a literary prize in Paris at 18 and moved to where else but Barcelona to write a novel, which he says sucked--"really creepy and bad." So without a hitch he turned to music, joining a band and making beats and composing soundtracks and then constructing, all by himself, a highly uncreepy album whose title is the name of a Canary Island as well as a Spanish word that suggests glee: a through-fabricated triumph of neo/pseudo communalism la Man Man, Animal Collective, even I'm From Barcelona. At a time when communalists worldwide regard America as a scourge, here's an internationalism with no rock in it. It's Buenos Aires' Gaby Kerpel without irony, maybe even Barcelona's Manu Chao without hooks--ecstatic yes, escapist no. A MINUS

Jesus H Christ and the Four Hornsmen of the Apocalypse: Happier Than You (jesushchristrocks.com) Remember Lina Lamont in "Singin' in the Rain"? Imagine a woman who sings the way she talks--only she can carry a tune and use her brain. Most guys consider her affected, but therapy has taught her that that voice is just part of who she is, like her insecurities, and she copes with both. Mostly in the first person, she explores characters like the compulsively obliging half-Broadway chameleon she is, even a guy once. She's manipulative in "Back Burner Guy," desperate in "I'm Around," over it in "I Miss Your Arm," not actually over it in "I Hope You're Happy" post-celibate in "Dry Spell": "Suddenly she feels pretty/Suddenly she feels young/Suddenly her neighbor on the co-op board is not wrong." If you have a heart, you'll wish her the best. But if you're a guy, you may be a little chary of taking her on yourself. A MINUS

The Mighty Underdogs: Droppin' Science Fiction (Def Jux) Latyrx's Lateef, Blackalicious' Gift of Gab, and bass-wielding Bay Area beatmaster Headnodic celebrate their collective musicality and good lives by launching a real supergroup of mock superheroes, with Doom, Lyrics Born, Mr. Lif and Akrobatik augmenting the talent pool. These guys sure can rap and rhyme, and they do. But whether they're up to scripting comic books I'll leave to the experts. Continuity by Headnodic and his Quannum-channels-Too-Short funk. Bass players--bless 'em. But a taste of Headnodic's Moe Pope album will have you blessing the MCs too. B PLUS

TV on the Radio: Dear Science (Interscope) Having been sucked struggling into the slough of despond that is Return to Cookie Mountain only to swim out a wholer, if muddier, man, I first took exception to the graceless lyrics they croon and groan on top of their catchy new funk. Transmutation of the negative--seemed too easy, a time-worn rock trick. But listen to the music as much as you'll want to and slowly the verbal opacities dissipate. You'll notice zingers like "Keep your dancing shoes off mine," "scared to death that I'm livin' a life not worth dying for." And eventually, if you pay attention, you'll hear an album that makes sense of the public lives of club-scene warrior-laborers who have kept it real and turned into affluent young professionals anyway. The thing about the indie-rock life is that even its depressives, not just mere realists like these guys, have a pretty good time. That's the point, right? So they retain their realism while celebrating the bright side. On the glorious "Red Dress," they also make clear that they haven't transcended their racial identity, no matter how much indie-rock wants to think so. Transcending race just isn't something that happens in America--at least not yet. A

Sir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar-Boy Superstar: 1970-1976 (Soundway) Premier Records' sketchier and rarer Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and Ekassa Ekassa suggest that a full-career best-of would be the ideal introduction to this Nigerian icon from Benin the city, who at 67 is a teacher and a government commissioner and a certified bronze sculptor in addition to a musician with many hit singles well behind him. The simple catchiness of the not-included 1967 title tune would only have enhanced these selected specimens of ekassas, Uwaifo's hugely successful commercialization of a Benin rhythm reserved since the 16th century for coronations. "Kirikisi (Ekassa 24)" and "Ebibi (Ekassa 28)" come with guitar hooks also lifted from Benin tradition, but other songs' charms are somewhat subtler. Then there's "Agho," which fuses "What'd I Say" and "Tequila." Why didn't somebody think of that before? A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Dub Colossus: A Town Called Addis (RealWorld) Ethiopian with dub flavor rather than vice versa, and believe it: Dubulah knows his enjira ("Azmari Dub," "Ambassel").
  • Iron & Wine: The Shepherd's Dog (Sub Pop) Pastoral escape put to the tasks of magic social realism and skanky beats ("Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car," "Resurrection Fern").
  • Little Jackie: The Stoop (S-Curve) The refreshingly ordinary wisdom of Imani-from-the-block, with all too ordinary hooks to match ("Guys Like When Girls Kiss," "Cryin for the Queen," "28 Butts").
  • Fort Knox Five: Radio Free DC (Fort Knox) Half live and half sampled, go go evolves, making everything funky ("The Spirit of '75," "Papa Was Stoned").
  • Yo Majesty: Futuristically Speaking: Never Be Afraid (Domino) Christian lesbians from Florida go upside your booty with electro bass from the U.K. ("F----- Up," "Leather Jacket").
  • The Streets: Everything Is Borrowed (Vice) The sound of a bloke thinking big thoughts, which are less impressive than the bloke ("Everything Is Borrowed," "On the Edge of a Cliff").
  • Todd Snider: Peace Queer (Aimless) Musings of a slacker who knows too well why he chose that path ("Mission Accomplished [Because You Gotta Have Faith]," "Is This Thing On?").
  • Grant Peeples: It's Later Than You Think (grantpeeples.com) Natural-born naysayer returns to north Florida, combats depression by describing what he sees ("Sunshine State," "OD Holton, 1979").
  • Karl Hector & the Malcouns: Sahara Swing (Now Again) Really Sahara funk, inauthentic as hell yet true to its school ("When the Sun Breaks Through," "Sahara Swing").
  • Of Montreal: Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl) Fleshing out the biggest drawback of the bi life, which is that love is complicated enough when there's only one sex to choose from ("Gallery Piece," "Women's Studies Victims").
  • Blitzen Trapper: Furr (Sub Pop) Alt-rock leapfrogs alt-country into country-rock--rock as tuneful pastoral escape ("Fire and Fast Bullets," "Black River Killer").
  • Why?: Alopecia (Anticon) Self-aware for white-rap fatalists, plus they play their own instruments ("Good Friday," "These Few Presidents").
  • Magik Markers: Boss (Ecstatic Peace!) Avant-jamming trio turned duo lend form to their alienation ere they ionize into the ether ("Taste," "Last of the Lemach Line").
  • I'm From Barcelona: Let Me Introduce My Friends (Mute) Like most expressions of childish pleasure, charming until it turns annoying ("We're From Barcelona," "Glasses").
  • Billy Roy: The Cape Fear Delta Sessions (Billy Roy) Lady bartender's brother reports jocularly from southernmost North Carolina ("Wall Street Pirate," "21st Century American Farmer").
  • Murs: Murs for President (Reprise) How about vice principal of a small Afrocentric high school? ("The Science," "You Think You Know Me").
  • Chris Knight: Heart of Stone (Drifters Church) A life full of music without much transcendence, a life touched by sin without much guilt ("Another Dollar," "Crooked Road").

Choice Cuts

  • Jerry, "Wall Street" (First Time Out, Infostar)
  • Baby Dee, "Big T---y Bee Girl (From Dino Town)" (Safe Inside the Day, Drag City)
  • My Morning Jacket, "Librarian" (Evil Urges, ATO)
  • Stuart Rosh & the Geniuses, "When a Woman and Man (Become Friends)" (Fundamental, Winged Flight)
  • Valorie Miller, "Fire Song" (Autumn Eyes, valoriemiller.com)

Dud of the Month

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) Re-accessing Robert Creeley gave me a grip on these solitary meditations, which lose definition faster than an angel's breath on a January morn. Beloved by sensitive young men like Justin Vernon, who recorded the album one winter in his father's Wisconsin hunting cabin after breaking up with his band and his girlfriend in North Carolina, the lyrics aren't as lax as one might fear--as in Creeley, the lines are short and the diction is spare. But the turns of phrase are usually cul-de-sacs, the flights into obscurity have bum wings, and do you really prefer, for instance, Vernon's best-in-show "Now all your love is wasted?/Then who the hell was I?" (much less "Only love is all maroon/Lapping lakes like leery loons") to this Creeley ordinaire: "Soon everything will be sold/and I can go back home/by myself again/and try to be a man"? Yea, sigh his admirers sensitively, in musical context, you old cynic. His falsetto, his murmurs, his accompaniment--they're all so lonely, as when he introduces the climactic "Re: Stacks" with a doleful 45-second guitar strum. To which I can only compare Ralph Carney's grooveful, multifaceted 45-second intro to "The Invoice," which in its subsequent minute says more about our shared aloneness than Vernon's whole record. C PLUS

More Duds

  • George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love: George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love (Shanachie)
  • Johnny Dangerous: White Hot (US2/Top Star/Crunks Not Dead)
  • Destroyer: Trouble in Dreams (Merge)
  • Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop)
  • I'm From Barcelona: Who Killed Harry Houdini? (Mute)

MSN Music, November 2008


October 2008 December 2008