Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Tonic for Americans

Afropoppers, geezers, Qur'an readers, and Christians invite your participatory discretion

CAPITAL D: Insomnia (All Natural) Delivering his staccato rhymes with stark, memorable beats, this Qur'an reader drops more political science per line than Steve Earle and Immortal Technique put together. I could do with less Chomsky, and trust the guy is humane enough to get over his problem with men kissing men. But this album is what my choir means by "Preach, brother, preach." Inspirational Verse: "Think about it Tony Blair and his people r rich/George Bush we all know that nigga is rich/Osama Bin Laden yeah that madman's rich." A MINUS

JAOJOBY: Malagasy (World Village) The definitive salegy singer hadn't shown his bar code over here since 1992's emphatically entitled Salegy! Now suddenly he's got two albums out, and on this newer and less Madagascar-specific one the emphasis doesn't require punctuation marks. The first three tracks work up a drive absent from Salegy! before settling into a supple complexity that isn't above putting its point across by reprising old tunes you and I don't remember. Salegy! sounded singer-with-backup. This is a band record--a rocking band record, with two guitars and guest horns and accordion-harmonium keyb and four backup females. Within Indian Ocean parameters, it's the most upful new Afropop I've heard in years. A MINUS

MORY KANTE: Sabou (Riverboat import) "Acoustic" album by the griot and Rail Band alum, whose early-'90s Mango crossover attempt never followed up on the market-changing 1987 Afrodisco hit "Yé Ké Yé Ké." Note that in West Africa acoustic doesn't mean quiet or contemplative. It means disco isn't working anymore, and it also means neotraditionalist. Strictly speaking, horns are acoustic, but who needs 'em, and when doun doun drums don't generate the bass you need, why not cheat now and then with an "electro-acoustic"? Point is, on most of these tunes the groove is fierce and subtle, and on the others subtle is enough. Strong women add drive and state melody. Kante's kora and Adama Condé's balafon embellish in rhythm. A MINUS

BOBAN MARKOVIC ORKESTAR: Boban I Marko (Piranha import) Never mind Bright Balkan Morning's Steven Feld soundscape, which overdoes ambience, or Knitting Factory's wannabe Slavic Soul Party in Makedonia, which shortchanges chops. This Serbian-Roma horn band is where I hear the Balkan-style "participatory discrepancy" Charles Keil declares unrecordable--the "relaxed dynamism," the "semiconscious or unconscious slightly out of syncness." Father-and-son flugelhorn virtuoso-and-phenom trade perky theme statements and heartbreaking solos in an ensemble that hangs loose from the slack wire between chaos and expertise. Tuneful and jaunty when it's generic, miraculous and hilarious when it hits--or just misses--its groove. A MINUS

BUDDY AND JULIE MILLER: Love Snuck Up (HighTone) It's a tribute to their vitality as a couple that the standouts are lovestruck on a collection that combines the better half of their duet do with cameos from their solo albums: the joyous and profane "Little Darlin'," the brave and hopeful "Wallflower," the laughing title tune, and especially the intoxicated "You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast." It's a puzzlement how country convention extracts so much heartbreak from the same pair, which isn't to say that "Dirty Water" and "Out in the Rain" don't bear a credible burden of sorrow. It's a sign of how humanely they define love that they build to a miraculously averted mining disaster and a Pop Staples anthem. A MINUS

JILL SCOTT: Beautifully Human (Hidden Beach) A smart cookie, and emotionally stable to boot (cf. Mary, Macy, etc.), a virtue you assume boring at your developmental peril. Rarely do the settings distinguish themselves, and once she tries to get her honey's attention deploying a big band when she'd have been better off with more funk lite. But a distinct voice delivering noticeable verbal content is a setting too--that's why you notice the content. Anyway, the words per se could carry "Family Reunion," not to mention "My Petition," which accuses a suitor of abrogating her civil liberties like some Bushie. Aimed at Scott's kind of guy, that smarts. A MINUS

AARON TIPPIN: Ultimate Aaron Tippin (RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage) A corporate pilot who went showbiz during the first Bush's recession, Tippin broke with the undeniable "You've Got to Stand for Something," a defense of the first Bush's Iraq war that can apply to any principled behavior--"You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything," right, and just who stood and who fell this time? Ditched by RCA during a preemptive 1999 downsizing, he opened a convenience store-gun shop while awaiting the chance to unleash his grandiose, jingoistic "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly," eventually a big hit for George W. Bush and Hollywood Records. But this decline need not concern us here. The latest and best of four competing BMG collections shows off Tippin's serrated high edge, impolite drawl, and unchurched ways. The songs earn titles like "Working Man's Ph.D.," "Honky-Tonk Superman," "She Feels Like a Brand New Man Tonight," and "There Ain't Nothing Wrong With the Radio" (about a car, not the radio). "My Blue Angel" and Billy Swan's "I Can Help" argue his romantic side, and so does "A Door," I guess. But when Tippin sings "A door ain't nothing but a way to get through a wall," I sure wonder why the two of us can't build one. A MINUS

BRIAN WILSON: SMiLE (Nonesuch) There are many things I don't miss about the '60s, including long hair, LSD, revolutionary rhetoric, and folkies playing drums. But the affluent optimism that preceded and then secretly pervaded the decade's apocalyptic alienation is a lost treasure of a time when capitalism had so much slack in it that there was no pressing need to stop your mind from wandering. Brian Wilson grokked surfing because it embodied that optimism, and though I considered the legend of Smile hot air back then, this re-creation proves he had plenty more to make of it. The five titles played for minimalist whimsy on Smiley Smile mean even more orchestrated, and the newly released fragments are as strong as the whole songs they tie together. Smile's post-adolescent utopia isn't disfigured by Brian's thickened, soured 62-year-old voice. It's ennobled--the material limitations of its sunny artifice and pretentious tomfoolery acknowledged and joyfully engaged. This can only be tonic for Americans long since browbeaten into lowering their expectations by the rich men who are stealing their money. A PLUS

Dud of the Month

COLIN BLUNSTONE/ROD ARGENT: THE ZOMBIES: As Far as I Can See . . . (Rhino) "In you I found my Odyssey and Oracle," Rod's lyric sheet has Colin emoting, cashing in their long unjustly obscure, now unjustly classic post-breakup album while correcting for the youthful foolishness that makes it sing--in 1968 they ignorantly or pretentiously spelled it "Odessey." Where that one was suffused in preemptive nostalgia, this one is soggy with denial. It's full of better ways and flights into the sun, fresh starts on the south side and lives changed by the magic of Memphis (Egypt). Mortality casts its shadow--the April death of bassist Paul Atkinson is all over their longing for renewal. But the dull language deflects death's sting, and the music is craven crap that would have appalled them at 14 or 24--schlock orchestrations, socko choruses, showtime overstatements bound for the casino circuit. It's fine, maybe even essential, to assert your vitality as an old man. But imitating the old men you remember from boyhood is an ass-backwards way of doing it. C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Jaojoby: Aza Arianao (Indigo import): His 2000 incarnation, gentler and more choral ("Somaiko Somainao," "Alima").
  • Issa Bagayogo: Tassoumakan (Six Degrees): The finest Afro-European rhythmic structures Mali can provide ("Diama Don," "Dya").
  • Ginny Owens: Beautiful (Rocketown): Blind pop sexpot for Jesus ("I Love the Way," "I Know Who You Are").
  • Asha Bhosle: The Rough Guide to Bollywood Legends: Asha Bhosle (World Music Network import): Filmi heroine commercializes Indian classicism and, braver still, usurps Euro-American clichés ("Ina Mina Dika," "Jawani Jan-E-Man").
  • Muscular Christians: Let's Get a Tan (Muscular Christians): Embarrassing truths beneath America's mild surface ("Terrorist Song," "European Vacation").
  • Masta Ace: A Long Hot Summer (M3): Old-schooler as working stiff--craftsmanlike rhymer and plotter, much heart ("Da Grind," "Bklyn Masala").
  • R.E.M.: Around the Sun (Warner Bros.): At last the pop album nostalgics are always bitching about, and it's an improvement ("Around the Sun," "Leaving New York").
  • Martina Topley-Bird: Anything (Palm): Buppie sex Brit-boho style ("Anything," "Too Tough to Die").
  • Dizzee Rascal: Showtime (XL): His sound is his story, and it better get more explicit ("Showtime," "Girls").
  • Silkworm: It'll Be Cool (Touch and Go): One meta-masterpiece, six pieces of lovingly belabored art-grunge ("Don't Look Back," "The Operative/His Mark Replies").
  • Laura Cantrell: The Hello Recordings (Diesel Only): She does try to sound pristine, and in 1996 it must have come easier ("Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine," "Roll Truck Roll").
  • Switchfoot: The Beautiful Letdown (Columbia): They want more life, as should we all ("Ammunition," "Gone").
  • Cafe Mundo (Sunnyside): Techno-colored travelogue for the chiropractice of dreams (Bajofondo Tango Club, "Mi Corazon"; Hamid Baroudi, "Trance Dance [DJ Krush Mix]").
  • Infinite Livez: Bush Meat (Big Dada): None dare call him garage, or macho either, and demented is a good thing, right? ("The Adventures of the Lactating Man," "Worcestershire Sauce").
  • Reigning Sound: Too Much Guitar (In the Red): The best in retro roil, and when I picked my faves I alighted as if by magic on two of the four they didn't write ("You Got Me Hummin'," "Uptight Tonight").

Choice Cuts

  • Randy Travis, "Raise Him Up" (Rise and Shine, Curb/Warner Bros.)
  • Dusty Drake, "One Last Time"; Hank Williams Jr., "America Will Survive" (Patriotic Country, BMG/Music for a Cause)
  • Bruce Cockburn, "Trickle Down" (You've Never Seen Everything, Rounder/True North)
  • Wiley, "Special Girl" (Treddin' on Thin Ice, XL)

Duds

  • Chevelle: This Type of Thinking (Could Do Us In) (Epic)
  • John Fogerty: Deja Vu All Over Again (Geffen)
  • Morcheeba: Parts of the Process (Sire/Reprise)
  • Paris City Coffee (Sunnyside)
  • Pillar: Fireproof (MCA)
  • Jonathan Richman: Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (Sanctuary/Vapor)
  • Mindy Smith: One Moment More (Vanguard)
  • Sally Timms: In the World of Him (Touch and Go)

Honorable Mentions and Choice Cuts in order of preference.

Village Voice, Oct. 12, 2004


Sept. 14, 2004 Nov. 16, 2004