Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Barring miracles unlikely to ensue, this is the final edition of Christgau's Consumer Guide, which MSN has decided no longer suits its editorial purposes. The CG has generally required a seven-days-a-week time commitment over the 41 years I've written it, and I'm grateful to MSN for paying me what the work was worth over the three-and-a-half years I published it here. But though I always enjoyed the work, work it was, and I've long been aware there were other things I could be doing with my ears. So while I have every intention of keeping up with popular music as it evolves, being less encyclopedic about it will come as a relief as well as a loss.


Bako Dagnon: Sidiba (Discograph) In which a (female) Malian griot, aided by sweeter female backup and traditional instruments that include a cannily deployed soku violin, sings of topics in Mande history in a voice that could take the paint off your rented Land Rover. "Clear," claims the always authoritative Lucy Duran of that voice. Wha? B PLUS

The Dead Weather: Sea of Cowards (Third Man/Warner Bros.) The elemental runs a lot deeper for this Jack White-Dean Fertita vehicle than for their secret sharers Queens of the Stone Age. Just as in the Delta blues they adore, even fewer songs here than on the debut will mean much cut adrift from this particular musical realization. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend "The Difference Between Us" to whoever wants it--the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, mayhap? B PLUS

Pierre de Gaillande: Bad Reputation: Pierre de Gaillande Sings Georges Brassens (Barbès) In which a Paris-born, California-raised, NYC-based journeyman translates and performs definitive French chansonnier Georges Brassens. Absent Brassens' vocal brass and the actual phonemes he set his music to, you might expect a passable revivalist facsimile. But though the French has to be chewier, half these exercises in street philosophy and real-life parable give up bite enough in de Gaillande's intricate English--try "Ninety-Five Percent," which is how often sex bores her, or "Don Juan," one of an unmatched group of unsung heroes. Even more important, Brassens was the rare music-second guy whose verbal blueprints laid out melodies that stand up on their own, and de Gaillande's diligence about following their syllabic patterns preserves tunes that will snake through your head days later. Since the problem with chansonniers is the words-first thing, which prevents them from signifying across linguistic barriers, de Gaillande has performed a major service. I wonder whether Arto Lindsay could do the same for Caetano Veloso. A MINUS

Étoile de Dakar: Once Upon a Time in Senegal: The Birth of Mbalax (Sterns Africa) "If I say this, you will think I'm crazy, but Étoile was like the Beatles," Finland-based guitarist Badou N'Diaye tells annotator-compiler Mark Hudson about Youssou N'Dour's first band, which Hudson believes belonged almost as much to El Hadji Faye's John Lennon as to N'Dour's McCartney. Those crude analogies are mine, not Hudson's, and they're vocal only, plus maybe McCartney/N'Dour's head for business. But Beatles is right: As Hudson puts it, these 23 1979-1981 recordings document an "uncouth, uneducated racket" of "nobodies from the other side of the tracks" who jump-started the Senegalese music industry and launched the career of a mechanic's son who decades later would be name-dropped as a presidential possibility. Duplicating only four tracks from Rough Guide's coruscating best-of and unearthing seven worthy songs left off Sterns' four long-unobtainable '90s reissues, this collection generates a rough excitement elided by N'Dour on mature albums that compensate with focus and scope. But he still hits it live sometime, because he knows how sweet it is. A

Macy Gray: The Sellout (Concord) Not beat-oriented--it's back to the songwriting basics, by Gray alone on dynamite opener and closer. Not mega-targeted--it's niched toward an older audience that buys physical albums, a cohort this sexed-up, 42-year-old mother of three knows better than she lets on. But in its double-down on the chorus parts of old-fashioned verse-chorus-verse after verse-chorus-verse, it could almost be The E.N.D. As with the Black Eyed Peas, Gray's aesthetic strategy is a commercial strategy because she no longer thinks there's much difference. For those of us who've always loved her voice and shrugged off its thematic accoutrements, this is what the 2007 bellyflop Big meant to be; it's the Macy Gray album we didn't know we were dreaming of. And when she declares the guy who started killing her softly in the library her "personal president of the United States," we're glad for the thematic bonus. A MINUS

LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening (DFA/Virgin) Unless you're down with his clubrat semblables, James Murphy is hard to like, projecting cynicism with that chansonnier-derived Bowie-thrice-removed theatricality the Eurofied slip into like a thrift-store tux. That said, cynicism always has yuk potential, as in the debut's "Losing My Edge," the follow-up's "North American Scum," and this supposed finale's wicked "Drunk Girls." So I gave the lyrics some time and got somewhere with them. Witty, yes--the nonstop plays on "present company" in "Dance Yrself Clean," the tossed-off nay-saying of "You Wanted a Hit," a bounty of individual lines. But I reserve my love for Murphy's post-cynicism--romantic regrets and longings that might as well be autobiographical. Sweetening his electrobeats with concessions to tune, his gibes with pained entreaties and funny stumbles, he reaccesses the humanist inside him as if that's every hipster's right--which it pretty much is. A MINUS

The National: High Violet (4AD) I understand why the desolate love songs come first--in Matt Berninger's world, desolate love is pop fare. But what perks me up is three straight laments for middle management. "Stuck in New York with the rain coming down," "I try/Not to hurt anyone I like," but "I still owe money to the money to the money I owe." Then it's back to desolate love, only contextualized. Literary lights write novels about such stuff now, right? Why do I doubt there's one with as much emotional impact, not to mention compression? That's why we prefer music. What a bummer--yet what a thriller. A MINUS

The Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer (Ashmont) Compared to rival indie songsmiths, usually younger ones by now, Joe Pernice's contained intensity seems at once conscious and unforced, almost a spiritual thing--though other voices join in, he often sings as if he's harmonizing with himself. Ratcheted up to three-quarters speed at first, this starts off light, even jocular, then slows down to root around in gnarlier stuff. Gnarliest of all is "The Great Depression," which is not about business cycles. Outro goes "I never wanna die" 14X into the fade. A MINUS

Tokyo Police Club: Champ (Mom + Pop) Little by little these Toronto postpunks are growing up. Not that they're trying to act mature--in fact, if you're old enough to consider mature a category they'd just as soon you listen to the Arcade Fire or somebody old like that. They're playing for their contemporaries, who apparently have not a care in the world except those that proceed naturally from play. This adds up to plenty of cares--romantic complexity, sibling rivalry, coming home wasted in the middle of the night, etc. So lest anyone get bummed, they've gotten more generous with their tunes. Slowed down and keyboarded up, these tunes make what cares they do bear seem lyrical--carefree. A MINUS

Rokia Traoré: Tchamantche (Nonesuch) With her lissome delivery, contemplative tempos, and quietly post-traditional arrangements, this daughter of Malian privilege is so subtle she can slip past you. But compared to zapless mama Marie Daulne, established businessperson Angelique Kidjo, and Les Biracial Nubians, she appropriates Euro-American notions of art and indeed gentility with taste as well as wealth. The one called "Zen" is about Buddhism, not some African kinship concept we've never heard of. She covers "The Man I Love" in English like she's got a right, then seques to a praise-chant in Bamanan prominently featuring the word "Billie." And there's also one about "nazarras," meaning Europeans--a "source de souffrance," meaning "source of suffering." A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Laurie Anderson: Homeland (Nonesuch) Very scary stories whose endings nobody knows ("Dark Time in the Revolution," "Transitory Life").
  • African Pearls: Sénégal--Echo Musical (Syllart) When the very tastiest tracks on a perfectly enjoyable two-CD collection from '70s Senegal are all Youssou- or Baobab-related, a barrel is being scraped--a molasses barrel, not a tar barrel (Xalam, "Yumbeye," "Bere Baxu Gor"; Waato Siita, "Bajuda").
  • John Prine: In Person & On Stage (Oh Boy) With so many ears of corn in his bag, he feels no need to put all his chestnuts in the fire ("The Bottomless Lake," "Unwed Fathers").
  • The Soft Pack: The Soft Pack (Kemado) Four more young white guys riding g-g-b-d down the fast, flat driveway to moving out of your parents' house ("Answer to Yourself," "More or Less").
  • Salif Keita: La Différence (Decca) Said difference, while marginal, est en français ("La Différence," "Ekolo d'Amour").
  • Uffie: Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans (Ed Banger/Because/Elektra) The original Ke$ha makes her bid with even more family money behind her, which cuts her crassness the way wealth does sometimes ("MC's Can Kiss," "Difficult").
  • Eccentric Breaks & Beats (Numero Group) Megamix goes warp quantum moderato as Shoes consortium cherrypicks the breakbeat canon into two supposedly narrative, actually just segued 20-minute tracks ("Side A," "Side B").
  • A.C. Newman: Get Guilty (Matador) Working solo has its deficits, but also its opportunities--sharper hooks, lyrics that damn near signify ("Submarines of Stockholm," "Prophets").
  • Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (Universal/Motown) Love may be a groove, but that doesn't make a groove a love song ("Turn Me Away [Get Munny]," "Gone Baby, Don't Be Long").
  • Blk Jks: Zol! (Secretly Canadian) With less to prove, or maybe more, Jo'burg art band sound more African but, except on the mbaqanga-ish title track, never unprog--which is a good thing ("Bogobe," "Zol!").
  • Sweet Talks: The Kusum Beat (SoundWay) As with Ghanaian highlife just like heavy funk, no groove band hits it every time ("Akampanye," "Oburumankoma").
  • Mates of State: Crushes: The Covers Mixtape (matesofstate.com) The Mars Volta on pinkeye, Vashti Bunyan on pink elephants, and Fleetwood Mac on second-hand news are all froth to them ("Long Way Home," "Laura").
  • Mimicking Birds: Mimicking Birds (Glacial Pace) Where some sensitive types feel the beating of butterfly wings, these Isaac Brock proteges flinch at the extinction of distant stars ("The Loop," "New Doomsdays").
  • Deer Tick: The Black Dirt Sessions (Partisan) John Joseph McCauley III and friends feel the red dirt Other's pain without quite making it their own ("Mange," "Christ Jesus").
  • Youssou N'Dour: Dakar-Kingston (Universal/EmArcy) Produced by Bob Marley's former and his own current sideman Tyrone Downie, his reggae sounds a mite mechanical, with tama drum touches reminding us what might be ("Don't Walk Away," "Bamba").
  • Jason Collett: Rat a Tat Tat (Arts & Crafts) Torontopian goduncle shucks arty confessional for something faster, homier, friendlier--songcraft, figure, or maybe bandcraft ("High Summer," "The Slowest Dance").
  • Renée Fleming: Dark Hope (Decca) Crucially, rock not jazz--without Sarah Vaughan to look up to, the people's soprano finally sings like a person ("Oxygen," "Today").
  • Soft Machine: NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany 1973 (Cuneiform) Post-rock special--prog as credible jazz, with Robert Wyatt long gone and Hugh Hopper saying goodbye ("Down the Road," "Gesolreut").
  • Devin the Dude: Suite 420 (E1 Music) The weed rhymes he takes himself, the sex rhymes he farms out, which in the Dirty South is a sign of truly delicate sensibility ("All You Need," "Ultimate High," "Twitta").
  • The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (Warner Bros.) The present-day guitar god refuses to die ("Icky Thump," "Seven Nation Army").
  • The Black Keys: Brothers (Nonesuch) Keeping it simple, but for once not too simple ("Next Girl," "The Go Getter").
  • Raise Hope for Congo (Mercer Street) Amid decent Western and better African originals and a few surprising Western-African collaborations, the show-stopper is California royalty reading the testimony of a Kivus rape survivor (Sheryl Crow, "My Name Is Mwamaroyi"; Konono #1, "Nsimba & Nzuzi").
  • The New Pornographers: Together (Matador) Never actually a "supergroup," now clearly a side project ("Crash Years," "Up in the Dark").
  • Preservation (Preservation Hall) "An album to benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program"--which is in New Orleans, and needs it more than ever (Dr. John, "Winin' Boy"; Pete Seeger/Tao Rodriguez- Seeger, "Blue Skies").

Choice Cuts

  • Michael Jackson, "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' (Demo)"; "She's Out of My Life (Demo)" (The Music That Inspired the Movie Michael Jackson's This Is It, Epic)
  • Those Darlins, "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian"; Josh Ritter, "Mexican Home" (Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Oh Boy)
  • The Herbaliser, "The Blend"; "Nah' Mean Nah'm Sayin'" (The Best of the Herbaliser: 1994-2010, Ninja Tune)
  • Ozomatli, "Gay Vatos in Love" (Fire Away, Concord)
  • Bettye LaVette, "The Word"; "Salt of the Earth" (Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, Anti-)
  • Screaming Females, "Mothership"; "Theme Song" (What If Someone Is Watching Their T.V.?, Don Giovanni)

Dud of the Month

Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope) In his demure way, macho formalist Josh Homme has emerged as a post-Nirvana rock auteur to rival Jack White himself. Signature project taking a break? No prob. He'll just hire the supposed musical glue of the heaviest aggregation of all time, wave his magic bushwhacker and turn Nirvana's most successful member back into the drummer we wish he'd remained, and pound out what any blindfolded stoner with girlfriend problems would yell in your face was another Queens of the Stone Age album, and later for effing Eagles of Death Metal. Homme sees the humor in his formalism even if his fans don't, and the all-star rhythm section does add fluidity. But in the end this is hard-rawk nirvana with a small "n"--a world of unusually hot sex and skull-busting drugs young guys with girlfriend problems will wish was so. I mean, that is one hell of a market share. B MINUS

More Duds

  • Animal Collective: Fall Be Kind (Domino)
  • Toni Braxton: Pulse (Atlantic)
  • Jackson Browne/David Lindley/El Vivo Con Tino: Love Is Strange (Inside Recordings)
  • Karen Elson: The Ghost Who Walks (XL)
  • Alec Ounsworth: Mo Beauty (Anti-)
  • Tribute to a Reggae Legend (Putumayo World Music)

MSN Music, July 2010


June 2010 November 2010