Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
We Got a Lot

Kvelling over damn near a dozen meanings of life, their average length close to an hour

CEE-LO: Cee-Lo Green . . . Is the Soul Machine (Arista) The intro, where he refuses to start until he's done chuckling over the failure of his baby boy to pronounce "soul machine," sums up a guy neither as humble nor as special as he thinks. Half God's gift to hip-hop, half man of the people, he never quite puts all his good tracks together or across. These include trademarked Timbaland and Ludacris collabs, love song and friend song and antigangsta rave, the one at the beginning where he wishes he "could write one song to right all wrongs" (which who wouldn't?) and the one at the end where he swears he'll "die trying" to do just that (which he won't). B PLUS

VAN HUNT (Capitol) "I love it when we make mistakes/Because once again it gives me a reason to complain," this not very Southern-fried ATL r&b singer-songwriter-guitarist begins one song. After all, he's no love man: "Words without hate/Would leave me nothing left to say." In short, although Hunt's heaven-and-hell split may give his falsetto a devilish cast, it isn't just a fancy excuse for dogging around. It helps him think. In "Seconds of Pleasure," for instance, he finds a dozen meanings of life without mentioning sex once--even if an orgasm gave him the idea. B PLUS

COURTNEY LOVE: America's Sweetheart (Virgin) Her celebrity on steroids and her voice in shreds, a drug-abusing unfit mother charms, fucks, or buffalos her way into some old-fashioned major-label money, commits commercial compromise on demand, and delivers an album as invigorating in its contempt for rock professionalism as Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. If the little girls barely know who she is, good--a lifestyle irresponsibly seductive in a powerful person like Keith Richards is only pitiably misguided in this has-been waiting to happen. But she's right about one thing. The world does owe her a living. A MINUS

NILS PETTER MOLVAER: NP3 (Universal import) More trumpet electronica from Norway, cold as solid ether, but organic unto spring like frost rather than air-conditioned unto laryngitis like a mainframe room. It's cool like itself rather than cool like Miles--true chill-out music. Now he should tell us just what sea the guys on the cover are entering with no clothes on, and when. A MINUS

PARTY OF ONE: Caught the Blast (Fat Cat import) Three Minneapolis malcontents despair messily and catchily about the Balkans, the Holocaust, crime for crime's sake, and everything else that robbed them of their youth. Their guitar-bass-drums is punk only by historical association--incompetents or not, they have bigger (OK, looser) ideas about tempo, rhythm, and form. But like so many lo-fi note-missers of enduring social value, they're winningly enthusiastic about their own negativity. As their Iraqi spokesman puts it: "We got desert and we got sand/We got acres of useless land/We got something that you ain't got/We got rage and we got a lot." A MINUS

THE REPUTATION: To Force a Fate (Lookout) Not a nice girl, Elizabeth Elmore. Not a girl at all--very much a woman, a driven one. Unsparing of her own faults, which she describes with acuity and sets to tunes that make them sound normal in an attractive way. If she betrays an artistic flaw as her second band grows, it's that her accomplished singing doesn't quite deliver her excellent lyrics. Maybe deep down she wants to reveal herself yet not reveal herself. In any case, love is a problem, and she's no longer claiming it's the guy's fault--except for the one who hits her (she got that right) and a boyfriend's buddy who won't come through on his come-on (she got that wrong and half knows it). A true rock miniaturist, loyal to her friends and in need of a week's sleep. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF MOROCCO (World Music Network import) Sequenced with the series' usual disdain for consistency, it sticks an interpreter of the lost poetry of al-Andalus after a wild traditional chant, Casablanca rappers who scream "Donnez moi les papiers!" after an exiled cantor who applies his countertenor to a suppressed Sephardic melody. Yet throughout a multiplicity of related styles, tunes are similarly minimal and textures share a spareness--only when New Yorker Hassan Hakmoun comes on do the sonics cream up a little. And even with time out for a few recitations, it never jumps the track of its Berber-plus-Gnawa drive. A MINUS

THELONIOUS MONSTER: California Clam Chowder (Lakeshore) Not as peaky as beautiful fuckup Bob Forrest's Bicycle Thief comeback five years ago. If the brief "The Germs Song" is ugly and chaotic and the briefer "The Beck Song" disses the post-folkie and his haircut, titles like "The Bob Dylan Song" and "The Iggy Stooge Song" are less evocative than implied. As for "The Elton John Song"--well, Elton should cover it, because Forrest needs the money. Throughout this out-of-nowhere record, he and his relaxed band ride an emotional openness and tuneful ease that some pop schemer should convert into accounts receivable. Forrest is glad to be alive because staying that way has been kind of hard. The loveliest of his many lovely moments reaches out in near-tears solidarity to a sad, sexy, solitary salesclerk who wasn't so lucky. Why it's called "The Big Star Song" I don't know or care. A MINUS

CAETANO VELOSO: A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch) The model isn't Rod Stewart except insofar as "Maggie May" would fit on a U.K.-themed follow-up. It's the Willie Nelson of Stardust--songwriting adept as stealth interpreter. Where the Music Row grad reduced verse-chorus-verse chestnuts to chorus-chorus singalongs, the tropicalia intellectual deconstructs American composition. Jaques Morelenbaum is a salty Nelson Riddle, many arrangements highlight rhythm, and some are surprisingly stark. Tackled are two Porters, two Gershwins, two Berlins, two Rodgers, six other standards, and eight rock-era songs of dumbfounding variety. Dylan, Cobain, Byrne, and Wonder we're ready for. Maybe "Love Me Tender." But Paul Anka's "Diana"? Morris Albert's "Feelings"? Plus all 1:30 of DNA's disruptive "Detached," with Arto Lindsay's flailings arranged for symphony orchestra? Flops include Wonder's oddly tuneless "If It's Magic" and the irreparable "Feelings"--only it turns out Albert was from Brazil, and anyway, "Feelings" is followed hard on by an a cappella reading of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" that indicts all romantic pop except Porter's "So in Love." A MINUS

Dud of the Month

DAVID BYRNE: Grown Backwards (Nonesuch) The two opera selections signify one thing, and it's not that those voice lessons have finally paid off. It's that more even than Randy Newman or Tom Waits (or Sting), this likable Manhattan progressive conceives himself as a performer of artsongs. As a writer of same he has his moments. Somebody somewhere could do justice to the absurdly abject "Glad" or the smarmily rationalized "Empire" or "She Only Sleeps," the love tribute of a sex worker's boyfriend. Byrne cannot. His voice devoid of Newman-Waits grit, his eclecticism even and controlled where theirs bristles with jokes, oddity, and gusto, how does he expect to connect with anyone but other likable progressives, and rather detached and inscrutable ones at that? The guy's been championing the ordinary since More Songs About Buildings and Food. But he makes such a point of approaching it from the outside you have to wonder whether as far as he's concerned that isn't just more exoticism, which for him is the only thing that comes naturally. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • The Rough Guide to African Rap (World Music Circuit import): There are beats and then there are beats, and these are most exciting at their most recent and most American (Kala-mashaka, "Ni Wakati"; Pee Froiss, "Djalgaty")
  • Butchies: Make Yr Life (Yep Roc): They love pussy and all it implies ("Send Me You," "Make Yr Life")
  • Andy Bey: American Song (Savoy Jazz): Billy Eckstine masterminds an all-star combo and nobody shows off, especially Billy ("Speak Low," "Satin Doll")
  • Lou Reed: Animal Serenade (Sire/Reprise): A career's worth of demotic artsong bedecked with occasional guitar-piano and a whole lotta Antony falsetto ("Smalltown," "Street Hassle")
  • Local H: Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles? (Studio E): Formerly high on triumph, now determined to prevail ("Everyone Alive," "California Songs")
  • Blondie: The Curse of Blondie (Sanctuary): Believes in reincarnation, wishes the pope had a bigger dick ("Shakedown," "End to End")
  • Roswell Rudd's Malicool With Toumani Diabate (Sunnyside): Trombone learns Sahel ("Bamako," "Johanna")
  • Calexico: Convict Pool (Quarterstick): Songs by Love and the Minutemen, atmospheres by the band ("Corona," "Alone Again Or")
  • Calexico: Feast of Wire (Quarterstick): Latin Playboys as conceived by an Anglo--too artistic, genuinely literary, lyrical enough to haunt you some ("Sunken Waltz," "Black Heart")
  • The Hold Steady: Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss): Craig Finn lifts and pulls more cruddy details from his intimacy with crystal meth and his consuming desire to rhyme Nina Simone with Neil Schon ("Killer Parties," "Sweet Payne")
  • Carina Round: The Disconnection (Interscope): The Kate Bush of PJ Harvey ("Into My Blood," "Lacuna")
  • Anthony Hamilton: Comin' From Where I'm From (Arista): The devil is in the details--also the angel ("Lucille," "Charlene")
  • Botnledja: Iceland National Park (Trust Me import): Naked islanders sing their savage songs ("I'll Make You Come," "Broko")

Choice Cuts

  • Henry Butler, "Henry's Boogie," "Jump to the Rhythm" (Homeland, Basin Street)
  • Iggy Pop, "Little Electric Chair" (Skull Ring, Virgin)
  • T.I., "Be Better Than Me" (Trap Muzik, Grand Hustle/Atlantic)
  • Mary McBride, "Big Old Oak Table" (Everything Seemed Alright, Bogan)
  • They Might Be Giants, "Au Contraire" (Indestructible Object, Barsuk)
  • Vortis, "God Won't Bless America Again," "Fight the War Again" (God Won't Bless America, Thick)

Duds

  • Compilasian: The World of Indipop (Narada World)
  • Flaming Lips, Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell (Warner Bros.)
  • The Flatlanders, Wheel of Fortune (New West)
  • Josh Klein: Everyone Loves a Winner (One Little Indian)
  • Leaves: Breathe (DreamWorks)
  • Phillips & Driver: Together (Bar/None)
  • Damien Rice: O (Vector)
  • Smash Mouth: Get the Picture? (Interscope)
  • Super Furry Animals: Phantom Power (XL/Beggars)
  • Wayne Wonder: No Holding Back (VP/Atlantic)

Village Voice, Apr. 27, 2004


Mar. 23, 2004 May 25, 2004