Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Greatest Whatevers

Just because you can spell 'forbearance' correctly doesn't mean you'll get a gold star

RAHIM ALHAJ: Iraqi Music in a Time of War (Voxlox) Last February, mild-mannered Iraqi matinee idol Kazem al-Sahir played a sparsely populated Beacon. His 17-piece orchestra was exotically anodyne to me, painfully nostalgic to the attendant Iraqis. But either way it was steeped in denial. Recorded April 5 at Manhattan's Sufi Books, with Baghdad under attack, this solo oud recital is the opposite. The conservatory-trained AlHaj is a Saddam torture victim who escaped in 1991. Yet he is appalled by the destruction of his homeland. And yet again he betrays no rage: however uninspired as "concepts," the "compassion, love, and peace" he preaches are courageous as music. With little knowledge of oud or taste for classical guitar, I'm struck by how unexotic he seems--how his sound, melodicism, and note values bridge East and West while remaining Iraqi. I'm impressed by how modest virtuosity can be in a classical tradition that honors simplicity. And I'm drawn in by the historical context, which implicates me in that tradition. B PLUS

THE BOTTLE ROCKETS: Blue Sky (Sanctuary) The Drive-By Truckers having jumped the Bottle Rockets' claim as the social-realist Lynyrd Skynyrd, volunteer producer and neoswamp axeman extraordinaire Warren Haynes avoids a dick-size contest by accentuating their strength--Brian Henneman's Midwestern declarative. Since as border staters they've never defined their roots regionally, Haynes is free to nudge them folk here and rock there. "Lucky Break," about a disabled construction worker who's finally getting his government cheese, sets the tone. And if on one song Henneman enjoys a little wallow in gender-role truisms that have lost their laugh value, the very next track he's got it down: "Came home drunk looking for a fight/She was sober and calm, does that make her right?" A MINUS

THE DANDY WARHOLS: Welcome to the Monkey House (Capitol) MTV babies say this is the Dandys' early-'80s record, and who am I to demur? Someone who was too busy back then with X and juju and Grandmaster Flash to internalize whatever musical materials the band has purloined, and who would prefer said materials in this context even if I had. Better Nick Rhodes producing alt sellouts than Nick Rhodes claiming alt himself, and better alt sellouts embracing electropop detachment than alt sellouts aping rock and roll abandon. Clever and droll but also hypnotic and mysterious, with odd noises buried in the luscious mix and Zia McCabe's keyb bass as pleasurable as any explicit hook, they make their big statement in "Plan A," which goes "All of us sing about it" for quite a long while before positing first a planet and then a message that aren't there. A MINUS

MILES DAVIS: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Columbia/Legacy) Fewer than half of the 42 tracks are previously unreleased--dark magus Teo Macero broke up and relocated most of the others onto Live-Evil, Big Fun, Get Up With It, the obscure late catchall Directions, and, yes, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, the landmark album that climaxes this five-disc collector's indulgence. Outfitted with the usual pricey packaging and elaborate notes, it's "complete" only if the four missing "Duran"s, 15 missing "Nem Um Talvaez"s, etc., were false starts. But it's a mother of a motherlode. I'm glad Macero imposed his sense of form on Miles's '70s experiments, and definitely don't need the Bitches Brew box. But though the "Go Ahead John" Macero pieced together for Big Fun gets the good bits, I'd rather listen to the raw material that takes up 45 minutes of disc two. Though the multiple Hermeto Pascoal takes add up to a quiet disc four, they're as soothing as they wanna be. With major input from John McLaughlin and the bass tandem of Dave Holland and Michael Henderson, these jams were why electric jazz was once a thrilling idea--and still is sometimes. B PLUS

FESTIVAL IN THE DESERT (World Village) Ali Farka Toure aside, the Mali we know is southwestern Mali. Bamako and Wassoulou, Keita and Sangare and Tounkara, all look west to Dakar and the Francophone world outside. This three-day festival takes place well north of Timbuktu, deep in a Sahara where the sand is as fine as flour and Algeria-identified Berber Tamasheks bore arms against Bamako for 30 years before they were finally placated a decade ago. So though Oumou is the soul of grace and kora master BallakÚ Sissoko duets nicely with an Italian pianist, though European groups and even some Navajos check in, most of the artists are locals who arrived by Toyota or camel, and most I'd never heard of--not even the rapturous, woman-dominated Tartit. Lots of male gutturals, lots of female ululations, lots of hard chanting, lots of drums, lots of stringed instruments that might as well be drums--and yes, a few blue notes. A MINUS

AL GREEN: I Can't Stop (Blue Note) His midrange less creamy, he shouts a lot and relies on falsetto to make a point. Although Smokey Robinson and Seth Swirsky songs perked up his last pop move, he takes composer's credit for every shining star and pledge of love, generally leaving a share for his new old pal Willie Mitchell, who for his part proves all too willing to put subtlety behind him and get bumptious with the horns. So don't believe kneejerks crying comeback. But don't believe regular jerks whining hype either. Material has never been a big deal for a singer whose arrangements always play second fiddle to his inventions, and that singer has retained plenty of voice and the guile to know what to do with it. Give these performances time and they cohere, not as classy modernizations or returns to a form he never lost, but as artistic statements from someone with no history of taking his talent for granted. New classic: "The Problem Is You," all 6:28 of it. A MINUS

THE HANDSOME FAMILY: Live at Schuba's Tavern (DCN) Until now the most efficient way to acquire a taste for Rennie and Brett's weird tales was the Ireland-only Down in the Valley comp. This night of greatest whatevers is longer, cheaper, and better. Since they make what little music there is themselves, they've got no production values to lose. Brett's deep monotone loosens up live. And the onstage bickering about magic crystals of overpriced kitty litter and the correct pronunciation of "Vienna sausage" normalize their obsession with the grotesque, the doleful, and the other side of eternity's divide. Sounds like they drive around America picking up gossip at roadside attractions, filling stations, ice cream socials, and bars serving 3.2 beer. Does "Here in the bipolar ward/If you shower you get a gold star" reflect personal experience? So I'm led to understand. But if they weren't past that experience, Rennie wouldn't write about it so well, and Brett wouldn't sing about it at all. A MINUS

TELEVISION: Live at the Old Waldorf (Rhino Handmade) Featuring four fewer songs and a slightly tamer performance than its long-standing ex-bootleg competition The Blow-Up, which sells for just a buck more, it more than compensates with superior sound. If the presence and detail of the vocals plus the definition and muscle of the guitars don't make a Tom Verlaine fan out of that theoretical dude who's always telling you they weren't kickass enough, show him how a real dweeb kicks ass: Take your iPod and go home. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

TED LEO & THE PHARMACISTS: Hearts of Oak (Lookout) He abjures the slick. He honors the hook. He reckons the wages of imperialism. He spells forebears and forbearance correctly in the same sentence. So of course he's an Indie Hope. But his literate lyrics rarely hang together or hit home, and unless you miss Kevin Rowland more than Eileen ever did, his penchant for signifying commitment by vaulting up the scale is an annoying convention at best, an unlistenable tic at worst--namely, yoked to his limited melodic capacity on "Dead Voices," which has Indie Lifer stamped on its copyright notice. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Mali Lolo!: Stars of Mali (Smithsonian/Folkways): Use as a sampler, swearing faithfully to explore the artists you glom on to (Oumou Sangare, "Ya La"; Les Escrocs, "Pirates"; Super Rail Band, "Mansa"; Neba Solo, "Vaccination").
  • The Strokes: Room on Fire (RCA): Narcissism repeats itself ("Between Love and Hate," "What Ever Happened").
  • The Handsome Family, Singing Bones (Carrot Top): Holding the mysteries of death in this old land to a (temporary) draw ("The Bottomless Hole," "Gail With the Golden Hair").
  • RZA, Birth of a Prince (Wu-Records/Sanctuary): Franchise-holder as franchise, his beats stronger young-and-thug than grown-and-numerological ("Drink, Smoke and Fcuk," "Chi Hung").
  • Chris Knight: The Jealous Kind (Dualtone): It's a lot easier to write the wild side than to live it, but not a lot smarter ("The Jealous Kind," "Carla Came Home").
  • Rod Stewart, As Time Goes By . . . The Great American Songbook Volume II (J): No Sinatra, but also no Ronstadt, plus he knows the difference between Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins ("Until the Real Thing Comes Along," "As Time Goes By").
  • Frank Black and the Catholics, Show Me Your Tears (SpinArt): You show me yours and I'll show you mine ("Horrible Day," "Everything Is New").
  • Baby Gramps Trio, Hossradish (Grampophone): Long-winded coot does Dylan, Gershwin, and Davies well enough, plays word games better ("Oxymorons," "Skillet of Snakes").
  • Tulear Never Sleeps (Stern's/Earthworks): Tsapiky from Madagascar's wild southwest, milder than advertised in true Malagasy fashion (Sa´d-Alexis, "Mahareza"; Tsy an-jaza, "Tsy an-jaza andao tsika holy").
  • The Fugs, The Fugs Final CD (Part 1) (Artemis): Too poetic for anyone who doesn't love Ed Sanders plus too wacky and didactic for proper poetry equals you gotta hear it to believe it ("Septua-genarian in Love," "Advice From the Fugs").
  • Yo La Tengo, Today Is the Day (Matador): Remix, cover, instrumental, great Summer Sun reject, ordinary Summer Sun reject, judicious Summer Sun reject ("Styles of the Times," "Needle of Death").
  • Yo La Tengo, Merry Christmas From Yo La Tengo (Egon): Three Xmas songs you don't know is miracle enow ("Santa Claus Goes Modern," "Rock N Roll Santa").
  • Aesop Rock, Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux): Fathomless beats an adventure, impenetrable lyrics a drag ("Babies With Guns," "Limelighters").

Choice Cuts

  • Television, "Little Johnny Jewel," "Untitled Instrumental" (Marquee Moon (Elektra/Rhino)
  • Television, "Adventure" (Adventure, Elektra/Rhino)
  • The Rogers Sisters, "Zero Point"; The Strokes, "New York City Cops (Live in Iceland)" (Yes New York, Wolfgang Morden)
  • Beaver Nelson, "Government-Sanctioned Hayride" (Legends of the Super Heroes, Freedom)
  • Sullen, "No Sleep," "All Fall Down" (Paint the Moon, Thick)

Duds

  • Corey Harris, Mississippi to Mali (Rounder)
  • Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead (Lookout)
  • John McLaughlin, Thieves and Poets (Verve)
  • Najma, Vivid (Mondo Melodia)
  • New York City Rock N Roll (Radical)
  • Yo La Tengo, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science (Egon)

Honorable Mention and Choice Cuts in order of preference.

Village Voice, Nov. 18, 2003


Oct. 28, 2003 Dec. 2, 2003