Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2011

Vieux Farka Touré/Group Doueh

Sahara Guitar
Friday, June 3, 2011  

Vieux Farka Touré: The Secret (Six Degrees)
He's not a bluesman either. Is there an African who is? But it's a tribute to his raising that Vieux takes to internationalism more easily than the ambitious genius who oversaw his upbringing, getting his groove on with a mostly African band anchored and often defined by American drummer Tim Keiper and juiced up just enough by spot-on spots from Derek Trucks, John Scofield, and Dave Matthews--and also his father's last session before heading off to die in a French hospital. Palpably less austere than Ali, Vieux is known to do Hendrix shtick onstage, and his 2010 live album is showier than is advisable outside a show. But he plays enough guitar to carry the hypnotic "Amana Quai" and the rushed "Borei" altogether on his own. Knows where the flute and ngoni go, too. A MINUS

Group Doueh: Zayna Jumma (Sublime Frequencies)
In which another Hendrix fan, the West Saharan named Salmou Bamaar who performs as Doueh, is induced to record an entire album that lives up to the frantic weirdness of the first two tracks on 2009's Treeg Salaam. Don't anticipate virtuosity as mortals such as you and I conceive it. Performed primarily by members of Doueh's family, with women providing much of the percussion if the photos I've seen are any guide, this music is rough and crude the way garage revivalists, for instance, only wish they could be, because in their own way these people can play, and it isn't your way. It helps that the recording quality improves vastly on his previous home-taped standards. But it also helps that somebody convinced him he was free to let loose. A MINUS

Battles/Archie Bronson Outfit

Genrefication Minus One
Tuesday, June 7, 2011  

Battles: Gloss Drop (Warp)
Take the title literally. The prospect of touring having proved too much for leader-keyboardist Tyondai Braxton, out go the castrati choruses, the precision interlocks, the neatness that is the curse of math-rock. Instead, general pitch levels drop while the drums explode. "Like a car wreck, only in tune," I heard one guy puzzle as he left a show that revved up all the consequent incommensurabilities even further. So much better than a Ferrari that never needs a tune-up, muse I. In the studio they're less accident prone, and they still tintinnabulate some. But now they also grunt. A MINUS

Archie Bronson Outfit: Coconut (Domino)
This strange album features a nuevo garage trio who got signed after playing the local of a Domino honcho. Leading with the lasciviously macho "Cherry Lips," their 2006 album swore fealty to the garage-revival ethos, but though Time Out! and Mojo liked its testes, sales did not ensue. So in 2010 they handed production to a DFA honcho. At their best--namely, the echoing hypno-raves "Magnetic Warrior" and "Wild Strawberries"--they now sound like the Seeds turning into Joy Division after somebody spiked their hash with MDA. Admittedly, they do occasionally get embarrassed and try to respect their roots--the garage kind, and even the roots kind. One way or the other, however, the singer's buried so deep you couldn't figure out what he was saying if you cared, which you don't. 'Course, sales did not ensue this time either. B PLUS

Garland Jeffreys/Thurston Moore

Singer-Songwriter Music
Friday, June 10, 2011  

Garland Jeffreys: The King of In Between (Luna Park)
Formally, the biracial Coney Islander is a singer-songwriter in the manner of his artistic contemporary Bruce Springsteen and his college buddy Lou Reed--a singer-songwriter who needs a drummer. Jeffreys is a good guy with loyal friends who made a small name for himself in Europe but faded from view in his hometown 20 years ago. Now at 67 he beats the odds by surpassing 1973's Garland Jeffreys, 1977's Ghost Writer, and all their lesser successors. Doing right by titles like "I'm Alive" and "In God's Waiting Room," it's another mortality album, and sure as bank fees there'll be more. But the good ones will all be different. Although in his in-between way Jeffreys was on reggae early, the only attempted skank here is a pointedly entitled economic crisis song called "All Around the World" that you'll wish bit down as hard as the not-dead-yet "'Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me." Boogieing with a quickness, Jeffreys believes "Rock and Roll Music" will pick you up off the floor at 64, and Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell backs up this idea throughout. But Campbell isn't on his Eurohit cover of David Essex's schlock classic "Rock On," and Jeffreys rocks on all over it anyway. A&nsp;MINUS

Thurston Moore: Demolished Thoughts (Matador)
Just like Paul Simon, Moore constructs a singer-songwriter album where the attraction is, of all things, the music. Stranger still, it's the guitar strumming. Just as Moore's tunings sharpen noise-rock intellectually, they tone up pretty-folk physically--as do Samara Lubelski's violin and producer Beck Hansen's synths. The melodies are strong, and Moore's murmur serves them well. But ultimately singer-songwriters are supposed to deliver lyrics, and unlike Simon's, these come with postage due. Beyond "Benediction"'s comfort and "Orchard Street"'s flaming youth, confusion is still sex in Moore's philosophy. For all we can tell, he thinks it's love, too. A MINUS

Frank Ocean/Blaqstarr

Have a Nice Weeknd
Tuesday, June 14, 2011  

Frank Ocean: Nostalgia, Ultra (free download)
A high point many admirers never mention sets the tone--the lead "Strawberry Swing," where the alienated young r&b pro rewrites the sappy Coldplay single without underplaying its lyricism or, as promised, its nostalgia. "I've loved the good times here" is a sendoff worthy of the "dying world" Ocean calls home. His romantic laments are models of texture, respect, and profound loss, their beats subtle, seductive, weird, and seized like time whether he's deploying "songs for women" that are soon trumped by Drake's, not feeling a porn-moonlighting dental student and her "novacaine," or annulling a courthouse wedding solemnized just before his bride turned in her term paper on hijab. Swagga his Odd Future crew: "It's Smooth Ass Music About Bitches, Relationships And Being A Rich Young Nigga . . . But In A Swagged Out Way." Lord he's so over their heads. A

Blaqstarr: The Divine EP (N.E.E.T./Interscope/J.B. Starr Productions)
You may remember this Diplo-backed B'more DJ from Maya, where three of his productions were relegated to the bonus section that sealed the damn album. (Did you like "Illygirl"? That's his.) A full-length is projected, and he's just dropped a free mixtape that demonstrates his range in that scattered mixtape way. But there's nothing scattered about this EP, which slipped out unnoticed on M.I.A.'s vanity label in January. Simple, obsessive electrobeats are augmented by pitch-corrected chants and marked with minimal lyrics. "Oh My Darling" is "about" a fantasy dancer, "Rider Girl" steals Rye Rye's car keys, (Ricky) "Divine" invites the licking of ice cream, "Wonder Woman" licks a gun instead, and it's my inconvenient duty to report that the iTunes version adds a somewhat peppier song that I recommend even though it changes up a tone that I'm free to suspect is what sipping sizzurp feels like because I'll never find out. A

Skull Orchard Revisited

By Jon Langford With David Langford/Verse Chorus Press/2011
Friday, June 17, 2011  

Skull Orchard isn't one of the most memorable albums of Jon Langford's indefatigable career as a Mekon, a Waco Brother, a Pine Valley Cosmonaut, a Wee Hairy Beastie, a Killer Shrew, a "solo artist," a painter, a cartoonist, an illustrator, and please let me stop. But it's well in the upper half of a prolific output I don't want to call "distinguished" because that's not Langford's kind of concept--or mine either, which is one reason I love him. So if he wants to add an impressive remix, three-and-a-half new songs, the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, and I don't know what-all to the 1998 edition, then stick the CD in the back of a book comprising a long fish story of his own devising, a "South Wales alphabet" by his brother David, assorted lyrics, and profuse illustrative matter, well, that's another reason I love him. That the package sells for barely more than what a CD costs is yet another.

As writing, Skull Orchard Revisited is a hoot beginning to end. It's laid out to tempt you to read its two parts simultaneously, which is tricky but a good idea, because the A-to-Zed bits camouflage whatever holes there may be in the fish story. Langford's account of the seafaring adventures of what are actually two mammals--our narrator, the great white ancient mariner Moby Dick, and his genius guide Flipper--includes impolite accounts of Captain Morgan, John Huston, and such genuine sea monsters as the hagfish ("It has teeth on its tongue and palate and no sense of humor or poetry"). The story is as sardonically political as any Mekons fan would expect, but half a notch more absurdist, and not always in a dark way. A bigger surprise is that brother Dave, a Hugo-winning science fiction writer who seems to specialize in criticism and parody, is even funnier than Jon. Recounting the Langfords' childhood alphabetically, he had me laughing out loud from "adders" to "zampogna"--Wales's "largish Italian community," we learn, "live mostly on zabaglione, ziti, zucchini and Heinz Tomato Zuppe."

What should have been crystal clear in 1998 and certainly is now is that Skull Orchard had to be a solo album because it was all about Langford's roots in Wales. Returning to Whales to die, Moby Dick introduces the Whelsh word "hiraeth," which like other ways of saying nostalgia--compare the Portuguese saudade--has no direct English translation: "a longing, a yearning, a primitive and almost sexual ache for home." Call Skull Orchard Revisited an attempt to embody hiraeth. And be grateful that Jon Langford's hiraeth, and David's too, is very much unlike saudade because it has so many jokes in it.

Lady Gage/Pink

Girlpop's Greatest Hitters
Tuesday, June 21, 2011  

Lady Gaga: Born This Way (Streamline/Interscope/KonLive)
First of all, avoid the "Special Edition." Of the three extra songs, only "The Queen" would be a decent B side, and the remixes are as unnecessary as usual. Even at normal length, moreover, this isn't up to The Fame or The Fame Monster. But both of those keep growing, and with its mad momentum and nutty thematics, this one could too--despite being laid down on tour trailed by 28 semis. Ever the non-Catholic, I let "Judas" and "Bloody Mary" slide while going all googly-eared for the hilarious "Hair," where the nimbus of every woman's vanity becomes the cutting edge of every woman's freedom, and "Americano," a marriage proposal to a Chicana in a flowered skirt that's as sincere and unreliable as The Fame Monster's "Alejandro," where the title inamorato keeps morphing into Fernando and Roberto. This lags seriously only on the one with unicorns in it, a no-no not even Gaga can safely defy, and a big closer that just doesn't take the whole effort over the top where it belongs. The country song in particular is a hoot, which reminds me that the title track wasn't inspired solely by "Express Yourself." Close your eyes on the refrain and you can almost hear Carl Perkins lining out "You've got the right string baby but the wrong yo-yo." A MINUS

Pink: Greatest Hits . . . So Far!!! (LaFace/Jive)
Nine of these 16 tracks are from albums with their own strong identities, including four from the 2001 policy statement Misundaztood, the rest of which holds up fine even without them. Normally, that would be too many. But the same four songs transfer nicely from that concept album to a best-of that salvages the pugnacious "So What," links "Trouble" to "Glitter in the Air," and adds two top-shelf Max Martin blends. It's where I will go for a shot of the longterm hitmaker rather than the 21-year-old who's finding herself in public. A MINUS

Jerry Lee Lewis/Wire

Rockin' Out
Friday, June 24, 2011  

Jerry Lee Lewis: "Live" at the Star Club, Hamburg (Rhino '92)
Assembled from two shows recorded in one night in 1964, released in Europe shortly thereafter but in the U.S. not till a 1986 Mercury LP that's barely a rumor, this legendary 37-minute performance is our last and clearest glimpse of Jerry Lee as a young world-beater. Not only has he bulled his way past the incest 'n' bigamy tour of 1958 and the drowning death of his son in 1962, he's some kind of hero in a Europe rediscovering '50s rock and roll via Beatlemania. Without cracking the charts or drawing crowds commensurate with his ego on the endless tour that is his life, he believes so profoundly in his pact with the devil that he remains unbowed. Here that faith is both made manifest and recorded for posterity, which otherwise never happened on the same night. Admirers attribute this ungodly miracle to one emotional resource or other, but I find Lewis so impenetrable psychologically that I hesitate to put a name on it. Instead I'll list a few technical attributes. Both performance and recording are very clean. Tempos are speedy, and the backing band--the Nashville Teens of "Tobacco Road" renown--keep up manfully. "Mean Woman Blues" and "Money" are definitive. And the piano kills. A

Wire: 14 September 2002, Metro, Chicago (
"The best rock show I've seen in years," I crowed to my diary about their visit to the Bowery Ballroom on 6/27/03, when they were still flogging the same '02-'03 Read and Burn/Send material they detonate here. The cruder, broader, louder live versions are executed in precisely the same arrangements as the studio originals, and after the seven-minute buildup of "99.9," every song they choose to play rocks. Avant-garde dabblers who counted punk among their disciplines, they made their decision to define the concept of unrelenting and moved on. Just this year, at the Bowery 4/6/11, their formalism was equally uncompromising. But it treated rock as the one option among many it is. I was disappointed. A MINUS

The Real Bahamas/Fania Records 1964-1980

Music of Three Islands, Including the One Where Your Faithful Correspondent Resides
Tuesday, June 28, 2011  

The Real Bahamas, Volumes I & II (Nonesuch Explorer Series '98)
Recorded by two young amateurs in 1965, initially released in 1966 and 1978, then re-released minus two tracks on one CD, these part-sung, finger-picked gospel songs constitute one of the great treasures of folkiedom's collecting adventure. Here is the individual untutored genius in the person of the literally nonpareil guitarist Joseph Spence. But here also for once is communal creativity in action, as leaders rhyme their couplets while so-called background singers dab, smear, and pixilate the music we're there for, and I dare you to decide who's who for the entirety of "God Locked the Lion's Jaw." Although full-fledged tunes rise up only intermittently from the quirkily articulated babble, many of these have been anointed classics--"I Bid You Good Night," "Out on the Rolling Sea," "Don't Take Everybody to Be Your Friend." The Bahamas became a haven for escaped U.S. slaves after slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834. Friendly but also mischievous and not all that easy to know, these folks sound as if they know the limits of friendship to be one of God's great truths. A

Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York (Strut)
I'm reviewing this 29-track double-CD with my judgment, conscience, and sense of history as half a dozen imagined family members roll their hips slightly while looking over my shoulder; my ears, body, brain, and musical tastebuds, while present, aren't dominant. What you get without fail is impressive singing in half a dozen pleasurably varied Afro-Hispanic modes, more clave than you can shake a peg at, and montunos of noticeable firmness and vigor; what you get sometimes is piano solos of jazzlike sophistication, a rare thing, and big-band arrangements of playful sophistication, a rarer one. What you get too often is arrangements that are overbearing, even bombastic. By the second disc, as the music bigs up the way world-beating pop styles always do, the horn tuttis take over, leading inexorably and paradigmatically to the strings that puff up Hector Lavoe's 10-minute "El Cantante," which aficionados revere and I can't stand, especially once the strings start eliciting soundtrack moves from the horns. But right around there Ruben Blades is throwing his simplifying intelligence around and Celia Cruz is chipping in some female principle. Fania was the definitive salsa label, and there are unmistakably great records I'd never heard here: Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz's "Sonido Bestial," Johnny Pacheco's "Dakar, Punta Final," the Fania All-Stars' long, live "Quitate Tu," maybe even some on the second disc. Also, you're probably more tolerant of tuttis than I am. B PLUS

MSN Music, June 2011

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