Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Having planned to catch up with country and "Americana" for months, I thank young Brad Paisley and old Willie Nelson for making my research less embarrassing. Country should generate Choice Cuts--sharp novelty hits and undeniable one-shots. But many of the big albums I trolled failed to give up a single song I couldn't resist. Mildly enjoyed just isn't enough.


The Dead Weather: Horehound (Third Man) The Kills, Queens of the Stone Age, the Raconteurs, and the White Stripes are all staunchly schematic bands. They put their stamp on the simplistic and the emotive by formalizing them. Here, under the firm hand of Jack White, representatives from each let their ya-yas out, obscuring their minor deficiencies of songcraft in an expressionistic roil of sound. White's drums duke it out with Dean Fertita's guitar, mostly below the belt. Alison Mosshart doffs her s&m drag to suffer and yelp. Jack Lawrence plays bass. Fierce. A MINUS

Deer Tick: Born on Flag Day (Partisan) Intensified by 24-year-old Rhode Islander John McCauley's old-as-the-hills croak and bodied up by a couple years playing out, the band sound grabs you--these are the rare young men who not only admire roots music but know it carnally. The source of the attraction does arouse suspicion--no songwriter should claim that "not a single word speaks for my rambling around." But the likes of "Little White Lies" (lost love as spirit death), "Straight Into a Storm" (found love as rock and roll life), and "Song About a Man" (grandpa) translate perfectly into their long-diddled dialect. A MINUS

The Morells: The Best Bar Band Ever! 'Live' in '84 (Almeron) This Missouri quintet never much rocked the house, playing their "Rockabilly/Beach Music/Psychedelic Bubblegum" for fun rather than intensity--a looser kind of release that helps flat patches pass before you know it. And did they have a nose for a certain kind of unprepossessing good song. The Strangeloves' "Cara-Lin" and their own "Growin' a Beard," two of the six selections they hauled out for both of the shows these matched 79-minute discs document, each rely on a repetitive chorus of no great import that any sentient human will memorize involuntarily within two minutes. That leaves 37 songs played once, mostly covers you've never heard in your life--a life that will be just slightly happier after you get to know them. B PLUS

Willie Nelson: American Classic (Blue Note) Not Stardust--because nothing is, because standards albums pack no conceptual kick anymore, and because producer Booker T. Jones was venturing into the unknown where producer Tommy LiPuma is just doing his cocktail-jazz tap dance. Still, the consistency of approach and material accentuates Nelson's barely perceptible evolution into not just an uncannily canny singer, not just a subtly swinging singer, but one of the greatest singers alive. He's talky, but he's always had heaps of high end and loads of low, and he's expended his resources so nonchalantly that at 76 he has more voice left than many with twice his natural endowment. He takes songs easy without throwing them away, and these were written to hold up their end of that bargain. B PLUS

Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel (Bismeaux) Every once in a while Nelson nails a fluke--kiddie album, Hank Snow stopover, sop to his road band. It's the big concepts that fall slightly flat--we're lucky American Classic is as lively as it is. This one falls in between. Three decades ago the late great Jerry Wexler, who signed Nelson to historically R&B Atlantic in 1973 and got Phases and Stages as a reward, came up with the grand scheme of pairing the subliminally jazzy Nelson with the world's greatest Western swing revival band. Only by now Asleep at the Wheel, though in need as always of distinctive vocals and material, has been on the road as long as Bob Wills himself. Enter Wexler's song list and one of the greatest singers alive. Western swing is so rowdy and lighthearted that its chestnuts lack the serious sophistication of great American songbook fare. But they sure are spry, and Nelson is so delighted to be singing them that the band's expertise lights up. Fact is, this compares favorably to Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions box. Fact is, Wills never had a singer in Willie's class either. A

Brad Paisley: American Saturday Night (Arista Nashville) Here's an album where the marriage ballads are so meaty and convincing that the two exceptionally well-turned breakup songs seem like formal exercises, where a comedy number about fishing and beer would sound just dandy if there weren't so many subtler laughs on the agenda--like when the title number ends up in Manhattan, or when "Welcome to the Future" ends up on a synth outro, or when Paisley's rowdy guy friends join in on a hearty "You wear the pants/Buddy good for you/We're so impressed/Whoop-de-do." In short, here's an album from the capital of hits-and-filler where the filler could be somebody else's hits. As woman-friendly as Garth Brooks without the emo overkill, Paisley seems happier than ever, and I don't think it's just about his wife and kids. I think it's about Barack Obama. Listen carefully to "Welcome to the Future" and try to tell me I'm wrong. Then watch the video and hope Paisley isn't wrong either. A

The Panic Is On (Shanachie) Ranging well beyond the folkloric songsters you'd expect, this CD/DVD documenting "The Great Depression as Seen by the Common Man" makes a point of how far that disaster spread by resuscitating bland session singer Dick Robertson's desperately jocular "If I Ever Get a Job Again" and Bing Crosby imitator Charlie Palloy's non-hit cover of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?"--and also cheerier songs by each. From a title track in which Hezekiah Jenkins splits the difference between black or white to a Roy Acuff rarity equating Social Security with good riddance to the cosmetics industry, unfamiliarity deepens thematic impact. It's as if you couldn't walk out the door back then without hearing about hard times. In controlled doses, the DVD is almost as good. Don't miss the surreal dance marathon clip. The federal documentary about rural electrification is pretty surreal too. A MINUS

Bobby Pinson: Songs for Somebody (Cash Daddy) No need to worry about Pinson, who's such a good writer he's got dibs on hits by Tony Keith and Sugarland--only he's such a good writer you'll worry anyway. Like for instance, how come nobody ever heard of this 2007 album he released on his lonesome after RCA ditched him? Could be the booze, right? "Back in My Drinkin' Days" could be a bluff, or maybe after a few months of "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" he picked up the glass again "Just to Prove I Could." But let's assume these are songs merely, no autobiography intended. Let's assume he's real good at getting inside that "Right to Be Wrong" mindset, and stretches out into a few heartwarmers like "This Close to Heaven" and the Iraq enlistee's "If I Don't Make It Back" for good measure. That makes the rawking song "Past Comin' Back" the only dumb thing on the record. The guy works in Nashville. Worry. A MINUS

Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch) "Come on children, you're acting like children/Every generation thinks it's the end of the world," begins the candidly catchy centerpiece of these lost-and-found tradsters' best album. Not a sentiment likely to flatter up-and-going bloggerati who consider "boring" an objective descriptive. But having come through his drugs-and-romance travails as well as the departure if not death of most of his original sextet, Jeff Tweedy doesn't give a tweet. He's as proud as he always should have been of the reliable songcraft and affable singing presupposed by the lead "Wilco (the song)," which promises "dabblers in depression" that "Wilco will love you." There's more existential acceptance than existential despair in the embattled "I'll Fight" and the enlightened "Deeper Down." But that just makes the ones about apocalypse and murder seem earned--"Bull Black Nova" is disturbing like nothing in their pomo phase ever was. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • The Bottle Rockets: Lean Forward (Bloodshot) "The long way isn't the wrong way," insists a driving record that includes one about taking the bus ("Kid Next Door," "Nothin' But a Driver").
  • Willie Nelson: Naked Willie (RCA Nashville/Legacy) Great that the countrypolitan schmaltz is magically excised--now if only he wasn't still trying to sing over it ("I Let My Mind Wander," "The Party's Over").
  • Hank III: Damn Right, Rebel Proud (Sidewalk) He's dropped the Williams but kept the sincerity gene, which makes what a mean and miserable cuss he is more frightening and pitiable ("Candidate for Suicide," "3 Shades of Black").
  • In the Pines: Tar Heel Folk Songs & Fiddle Tunes (Old Hat) Local luminaries illuminate locale, 1926-1936 (Grayson & Whitter, "Tom Dooley"; "Dock" Walsh, "In the Pines").
  • Tanya Tucker: My Turn (Saguaro Road) It's never too late not to get above your raising ("Love's Gonna Live Here," "Lovesick Blues").
  • Swamp Dogg: Give 'Em as Little as You Can . . . as Often as You Have to . . . or . . . A Tribute to Rock 'n' Roll (S-Curve) Total destruction to your golden oldies ("Ain't That a Shame," "Heartbreak Hotel").
  • Kitty, Daisy & Lewis: Kitty, Daisy & Lewis (DH/Mercer Street) Raincoats' drummer's kids form purist rockabilly-etc. trio, get solid gone ("Going Up the Country," "Polly Put the Kettle On").
  • Deer Tick: War Elephant (Partisan) Searching for truth among the believers ("These Old Shoes," "Not So Dense").
  • Levon Helm: Electric Dirt (Vanguard) Creaky old coot gets him a band, rendering new old favorites funkier than a preacher's skivvies ("Tennessee Jed," "Kingfish").
  • John Anderson: Bigger Hands (Country Crossing) The hands are God's, the gullet is his own, and the times are getting him down ("What Used to Turn Me On," "Shuttin' Detroit Down").
  • The Wingdale Community Singers: Spirit Duplicator (Scarlet Shame) Smart, dark, coherent parlor music for the old weird art song set ("AWOL," "Montreal").
  • Elvis Costello: Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (Hear Music) His pal T Bone and some Nashville cats help him simulate simplicity ("Sulphur to Sugarcane," "I Dreamed of My Old Lover").
  • The Monks: Black Monk Time (Light in the Attic) Ex-GI pre-punks storm Europe with Farfisa, 1964-1967 ("Complication," "Monk Time").
  • Aaron Tippin: In Overdrive (Country Crossing) First he's a tradition-conscious trucker preserving the global warming equivalent of the railroad song, then he springs "Drill Here, Drill Now" on us ("The Ballad of Danger Dave and Double Trouble," "Chicken Truck").
  • James Luther Dickinson: Dinosaurs Run in Circles (Memphis International) Circles described by comestibles still savored and carousing still fondly recalled ("Coleslaw," "Who Threw the Whisky in the Well").
  • Kissing Cousins: Pillar of Salt (Velvet Blue) L.A. roots-rock gals fend off Pentecostal nightmares with Black Sabbath tricks ("Don't Look Back," "In Too Deep").
  • Pat Green: What I'm For (BNA) Nashville also-ran fights the money changers from inside the temple ("What I'm For," "Footsteps of Our Fathers").
  • Zac Brown Band: The Foundation (Atlantic) Bypassing Kenny Chesney to return escapist country to its spicier, riskier source--Jimmy Buffett ("Toes," "Sic 'Em on a Chicken").
  • Eric Church: Carolina (Capitol) Branching out, muscling up, writing from the heart, and otherwise diluting the formal command that just barely salvages this follow-up ("Where She Told Me to Go," "Those I've Loved").
  • Rodney Carrington: El Nino Loco (Capitol) Some of this comedian's parodies are as soulful as other country smarter songs ("Drink More Beer," "Bowling Trophy Wife").

Choice Cuts

  • Willie Nelson, "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," "Superman," "Ain't Goin' Down on Brokeback Mountain" (Lost Highway, Lost Highway)
  • Brad Paisley, "Waitin' on a Woman" (Play, Arista Nashville)
  • Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, "Song for My Father" (Tangled Tales, Surfdog)
  • Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, "Boss of the Blues," "Nana and Jimi" (Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, Yep Roc)
  • Charlie Robison, "Beautiful Day," "She's So Fine" (Beautiful Day, Dualtone)
  • Keith Urban, "Kiss a Girl," "Why's It Feel So Long" (Defying Gravity, Capitol)
  • The Boxmasters, "Reasons for Livin'" (Modbilly, Vanguard)

Dud of the Month

Rascal Flatts: Greatest Hits Volume 1 (Lyric Street) Hitmakers since 2000, they're probably the biggest country band there is. So I let them hit me with their best shots--I got nothing against hooks, I like hooks. Not only that, I'm down with the right schmaltz, like the profoundly shameless "Skin (Sarabeth)," in which two cancer kids bald from chemo go to the prom together--a milestone, I'm not being ironic, if you're wincing you're probably a bad person. But that one tells a story, and stories aren't how they roll. Their specialty is advice and reflection hired out to professional homilizers--"My Wish," "Stand," "Bless the Broken Road." These pep talks are anchored geographically by a track Jay DeMarcus and Gary LeVox, the two big-city cousins from Ohio, hand off to genuine small-town boy Joe Don Rooney, who longs for the good old certainties of a little place called, what a startling coincidence, Mayberry, no R.F.D. required--in a song that doesn't mention television once. As for hooks, well, check the Tom Cochrane cover. Arena rock didn't die, it just moved to Music City. You knew that. But Rascal Flatts knew it first. C PLUS

More Duds

  • Jason Aldean: Wide Open (Broken Bow)
  • Rodney Atkins: It's America (Curb)
  • Billy Currington: Little Bit of Everything (Mercury)
  • John Doe and the Sadies: Country Club (Yep Roc)
  • Lady Antebellum: Lady Antebellum (Capitol)
  • Martina McBride: Shine (RCA)
  • Sonseed: Jesus Is a Friend of Mine (Arrco)
  • Yim Yames: Tribute To (ATO)

MSN Music, September 2009


August 2009 October 2009