Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2011

Louis Armstrong/King Oliver

Alpha and Approximately Pi
Friday, September 2, 2011  

Louis Armstrong: The Complete Town Hall Concert 1947 (Fresh Sound '04)
Less than brilliantly recorded, though most '40s jazz boots are much worse, this May 12 experiment, featuring the template for the All-Stars combos he led for the rest of his life, is the Armstrong I play when I want the whole package. Quickly this mode gravitated toward the standard repertoire that dominates the albums I go to for late Louis: the American Icon set and 16 Most Requested Songs. But here the sell was a return to the format of his youth after years of mediocre big bands, so it begins with "Cornet Chop Suey," "Dear Old Southland," "Big Butter and Egg Man." Later there's newer stuff, though "Back o' Town Blues" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" are a long way from "Mack the Knife" and "Hello Dolly." Either way the committed, ebullient performances have something to prove. And as a bonus this is Armstrong's only recording with genre-hopping powerhouse Sid Catlett, who should have been his drummer forever but quit fast and died all too soon. A

King Oliver: Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings (Off the Record '06)
Renowned for the care and skill with which it digitalizes pre-owned, pre-electric, one-mike shellac, this two-CD, 37-track package is worth the time of anyone with a fan's interest in the ongoing Africanization of American pop. The audio is clearer and warmer than on any Oliver I've heard, acoustic or electric, and the repertoire packs plenty of musical charge as well as historical charm, both of which it needs. Not for nothing do David Sager's excellent notes include phraseology like "upon careful listening," "interesting to notice," "contain evidence of," and "a kind of text," because this package is intended for study as well as pleasure. That's fine--the first recordings of both a seminal bandleader starting his decline, King Oliver, and a young man about to change the world, Louis Armstrong, are worth studying. But nobody makes 37 records in a year without substantial fluctuations in quality, and the style here, in which traditional New Orleans ensemble playing is yielding to Armstrong's hyperactive virtuosity, does sound quaint to any but committed jazz buffs. Oliver is more prominent than Armstrong, but most prefer it when the kid comes forward (dig the slide whistle on "Sobbin' Blues"). Over many listens, I was struck by how some tunes never connected--three stabs at the promisingly entitled "Workingman Blues," for instance--while "Mabel's Dream" and the Thomas Dorsey-cowritten "Riverside Blues" always did. In chronological order, my picks, which forgive sloppiness, enjoy hokum, and include two also on Armstrong's fast-disappearing Portrait of the Artist box (I agree with Sager that the hot parts of "Tears" don't make a whole): "Just Gone," "Chimes Blues," "Weather Bird Rag," both "Dipper Mouth Blues," "Froggie Moore," the second "Snake Rag," "Sweet Lovin' Man," "Sobbin' Blues," "Alligator Hop," "Krooked Blues," "London (Cafe) Blues," "New Orleans Stomp," "Buddy's Habit," "I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody," the first "Riverside Blues," and the second "Mabel's Dream." That's plenty, wouldn't you say? A MINUS

Gilberto Gil

Electrical Banana Is Bound to Be the Very Next Phase
Tuesday, September 6, 2011  

Gilberto Gil: Gilberto Gil (Universal '98)
This isn't Gil's only self-titled album, at least not in Brazil, and thus has gathered confusing nomenclature--my Brazilian re-release says "1968" on the spine, while the 2008 edition on the San Francisco-based reissue label Water is subtitled "Frevo Rasgado" by Amazon and B&N. But the cover's tropical take on Sgt. Pepper costumery never changes, and it's a tipoff. Aided by his young pals Os Mutantes, the 25-year-old harmonic sophisticate is charmed and inspired by the archly playful arrangements of pop psychedelica. But though it must have been hard to hear in the hippie years, Gil's post-sambas resemble show tunes more than they do "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "See Emily Play." He took the Beatles' abandonment of the straight groove as an excuse to emulate any kind of Anglo-American pop he wanted, with tropical rhythms for decoration. The tunes are so striking that I keep thinking I know the first few from tropicalia comps that actually favor others. The four bonus tracks drop off slightly if at all. And then there are the lyrics, available via cyber-translation that commits its quota of howlers and head-scratchers but also indicates that this Third Worlder saw the world more fully and clearly than his British exemplars and was probably a better poet too. A MINUS

Gilberto Gil: Expresso 2222 (Universal '93)
Gil's first post-exile album included just nine songs in 1973, was picked up by three seamlessly upbeat bonus tracks in 1993, and kept them in its 2008 U.S. edition. Dimmed by three years of firsthand London fog, his Anglophile popcraft immerses in carioca beats and funky acoustic guitar worthy of Brazil's future minister of culture, often too much so--the grooveful six-minute "Oriente" is downright dull. Fortunately, most of the tracks chew banana-flavored Chiclets and take their samba with bebop on the side. B PLUS

Jay-Z

Vindications
Friday, September 9, 2011  

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt (Roc-A-Fella/Priority '96)
Designed for the hip-hop cognoscenti and street aesthetes who still swear he never topped it, his self-financed debut album is richer than any outsider could have known, and benefits from everything we've since learned about the minor crack baron who put his money where his mouth was. You can hear him marshalling a discipline known to few rappers and many crack barons, and that asceticism undercuts the intrinsic delight of his rhymes--not once does he let go like Biggie spitting his viciously funny little "Shoot your daughter in the calf muscle." He's so set on proving how hard he is that his idea of a hook is the piano loop Premier runs behind the magnificent "D'Evils." Once he became a rap baron he could afford less austere producers. A MINUS

Jay-Z: The Black Album (Roc-A-Fella '03)
History has vindicated this album. On a meticulously hyped valedictory no one believed would be his actual farewell, the fanfares, ovations, maternal reminiscences, and vamp-till-ready shout-outs were overblown at best. But on an album where the biggest rapper of all time announces that he's the biggest rapper of all time, they're prophetic. Bitch about Kingdom Come and American Gangster if you must, but not The Blueprint 3 or Watch the Throne, and not his label presidency, amassed fortune, or close personal relationship with Warren Buffett. He's got a right to celebrate his autobiography in rhyme because he's on track to become a personage who dwarfs any mere rapper, and not only can he hire the best help dark green can buy, he can make it sing. Tracks four through nine enlist Kanye West, the Neptunes, Timbaland, 9th Wonder, Eminem, and Rick Rubin. Each one sounds different, each one means different, and each one kills. I'm also touched when "Justify My Thug" tag-teams Madonna and Run-D.M.C. Hova if you hear me. A

Wild Flag/Mates of State

Indie Alternatives
Tuesday, September 13, 2011  

Wild Flag: Wild Flag (Merge)
Such is the sad state of indie that two Sleater-Kinney stalwarts can reconnect six years later and just like that power up the most explosive rock album in years. Sure ex-Minder Rebecca Cole's organ adds thickness and punch; sure ex-Helium Mary Timony adds dream and, crucially, ax. But the shaker is obviously Carrie Brownstein, yelping like Richard Hell as Timony shreds like Ivan Julian, and the mover is Janet Weiss, who for some reason never sounds like the greatest drummer in the world with anyone else. Bouncing off each other like loaded dice, they could make you cry once you're away long enough to think about it. But then you realize that Timony is still a space case and Brownstein writes too many songs about music. One that isn't is "Racehorse," keyed to the wickedly non-indie line "We're in the money." Here's hoping she figures out how to keep it. A MINUS

Mates of State: Mountaintops (Barsuk)
Kory Gardner and Jason Hammel are strong singers with a weakness for melody who play keyboards and drums, such indie lifers that they went and had two kids on the theory they could just tour with them--check Gardner's Band on the Diaper Run blog. Never scrawny like punk (they rolled new wave) or twee like synth-pop (organ is Gardner's meat), they developed surprising muscle tone for a duo without breaking on through. But their seventh album opens with a simulated big-pop anthem and maintains that size and momentum without compromising their ability to play the new songs live. The discord that surfaces in the last few lyrics may indicate bumps in their marital road. But it definitely indicates how hard it is to write 10 near-corny pop songs without a hint of unhappy love. And the wholeness of the music leaves us feeling they're more than OK. A MINUS

Klezmatics/Ravid Kahalani

Diasporans
Friday, September 16, 2011  

The Klezmatics: Live at Town Hall (Klezmatics Disc)
Recorded in 2006, this concert program performs roughly the same function as Piranha's 2008 cherrypick Tuml = Lebn. But personally, I'd rather hear these New Yorkers trying out their English than honoring tradition on a German best-of boasting "7 songs in Yiddish, 1 song in Yiddish/English + 8 instrumentals." Thus I gravitated to the four Woody Guthries and one Holly Near on the second disc, wished Susan McKeown would join the band already, welcomed cameo-ready Joshua Nelson, and was perfectly fine when half the Tuml = Lebn songs showed up. And then in a contemplative mood I sat still and listened to the first disc's 12-minute, quarter Yiddish, quarter English, half instrumental "Dybbuk Suite." Understood every note, I swear. A MINUS

Ravid Kahalani: Yemen Blues (GlobaLev)
Singing in many languages you don't understand, including at least one he made up, Yemenite vocalist Kahalani, Jewish and now based in Israel, joins Israeli bassist Omer Avital, Jewish and now based in New York, to create Arab-inflected rhythm music over horns, flute, violin of some kind, and percussion. From falsetto-Afrochant-over-hummed-beat to Middle-Eastern-popsong-with-show-jazz-brass, his music seems ecstatic even before you know his border-crossing backstory. You can hear liberation in the intensity of the ensemble playing, the vocals, and the groove. A MINUS

Das Racist/Ice Cube

Keeping It Unreal
Tuesday, September 20, 2011  

Das Racist: Relax (Greedhead)
Setting aside their dreams of biz advances and street glory, they form their own label to showcase a bunch of mostly alt-rock beats--meaning Chairlift and Yeasayer as opposed to MGMT--that reflect their actually existing cultural orientation and almost add up to a sound. Then they construct an album-not-mixtape around the theme of money, including the capital they accrued as they pursued their dreams. "Come to our shows and they're clapping again/Thank you my friends" isn't sarcastic, which doesn't mean it's devoid of irony or should be. "There's a brand new dance/Give us all your money/Everybody love everybody" is sarcastic. "Michael Jackson/A million dollars" is meta. "I ain't backing out till I own a bank to brag about" is protest. "I'm at the White Castle"/"I don't see you here dog" is follow-up. "Your booty is a lifeline" is a religious interlude. A

Ice Cube: The Essentials (Priority '08)
The card-carrying O.G. and ultimate fake gangsta dares you to distinguish among the very intelligent guy, the writer of talent, the committed role player, the cuddly comedy star, and the flat-out liar. Brazenly sharing just three 1992-1993 tracks with the same label's 2001 Greatest Hits--the swaggering "Check Yo Self," the peaceable "It Was a Good Day," and the doomed "What Can I Do?"--this downplays his hard act because hard is getting old, especially for him. It leads with two of hip-hop's great anti-moralizing sermons, the Snoop- and Lil Jon-powered "Go to Church" and the grinder's credo "A Bird in the Hand," then proceeds to his greatest song, the fact-filled paraplegic memoir "Ghetto Vet." It closes with "Dead Homiez" and "Cold Places," two distinct and convincing arguments for keeping ya head up and ya ass off the street. A MINUS

Jens Lekman/Fruit Bats

High-End Compassion in Low-End Times
Friday, September 23, 2011  

Jens Lekman: An Argument With Myself (Secretly Canadian)
I really like this choirboy manque, which part of me says isn't the point and another says is too. I like how gentle he is, how decent he is, how observant he is, how funny he is. The first three songs on this EP are strong, the fourth misty, the fifth sweet and slight, but all know melody and all fill out a portrait of a young man your daughter should only bring home to mother. He's so talented and caring that when he spends the entirety of the title cut berating himself--laughingly, to an adapted Congolese beat, as he obsesses on a romance gone awry while walking the streets because he doesn't have enough cab money to go cry in bed--it's clearly a temporary setback. Most likable is "A Promise," to a Chilean friend trapped in the toils of Sweden's deteriorating healthcare system. Gothenburg's gotten meaner and he knows it. A

Fruit Bats: Tripper (Sub Pop)
Less dynamic and more ruminative than The Ruminant Band, here are 10 songs and a poky instrumental for country hippies manque and other shaggy folk down on the little luck they ever had. All are lost, some more than others, but each is observed and distinct. Eric Johnson's falsetto cuts extreme empathy with moderate unction until he starts ruminating for real with the instrumental, which lasts two minutes and goes on forever. Then he seeks purity for four. There's another song too. A MINUS

Ry Cooder/Note of Hope

Fighting Depression
Tuesday, September 27, 2011  

Ry Cooder: Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (Nonesuch)
Folksingers are pretty mad these days, at times to the point of pushing back at the ravening rich people who are sitting on their heads. Some even refer to class or (can it be?) speak up for unions. But not one has topped a sardonic satire like "No Banker Left Behind" with a murderous ballad about Jesse James and his illicitly retrieved .44 taking every bonus-hogging fat cat in heaven to hell with him, or despoiled a Christmas corrido for GIs on leave with anything as gruesome as "I'd like a mouth so I can kiss my honey on the lips." A few tracks drag and one or two misfire. But from John Lee Hooker's campaign song to the earned nostalgia of a lonely old Chicano who'll forgive you for driving a Japanese car, Cooder has brought his longstanding obsession with the Great Depression into the present, where it unfortunately, tragically, enragingly belongs. Kudos too to drummer Joachim Cooder. This doesn't rock, and it shouldn't. But it rollicks, skanks, and two-steps just fine. A MINUS

Note of Hope (429)
Bragg & Wilco? The folk-rock of dreams. Jonatha Brooke? Singer-songwriter. The Klezmatics? Er, his wife was Jewish. But assigning a Woody Guthrie "celebration" to bassist extraordinaire Rob Wasserman? Trailing the likes of Kurt Elling, Madeleine Peyroux, Tom Morello, Studs Terkel, Ani DiFranco, and Jackson Browne behind him? Reads like a jazzbo recipe for leftwing piety. And proves instead yet another winning realization of an idea I had doubts about from the first Mermaid Avenue rumors. Wasserman is all over a record that's less sung than spoken, providing a musical identity as distinct as any other in this motley series. Once again Guthrie's words are set to music, although sometimes these words were prose and sometimes they're rapped or sprechgesanged. They're sly, sexy, down-and-out, up-and-at-'em. Terkel and DiFranco deliver diary jottings of breathtaking acuity, and the Pete Seeger recitation ends: "There never was a sound that was not music. There's no trick of creating words to set to music once you realize that the word is the music and the people are the song." Then Jackson Browne sings a formally static 15-minute ballad about the night Woody met Marjorie and all the dreams he had. I said Jackson Browne. It's magnificent. A MINUS

Radioclit/BLNRB

Afro-European
Friday, September 30, 2011  

Radioclit Presents: The Sound of Club Secousse Vol. 1 (Crammed Discs)
Dancefloor-tested by a London DJ partnership comprising one Frenchman and one Swede, these 17 tracks from contemporary Africa are high and speedy instrumentally, with male voices to bring them down to pavement. West Africa with its muscle and beseeching gravity is absent, and not enough of the songs stick as songs. But there are so many major exceptions in the second half--the shouted "Zuata Zuata" by Angola's Puta Prata, the nutty "African Air Horn Dance" by Zimbabwe's Jusa Dementor, the airy "On Est Ensemble" by Congo's Kaysha, the very high and speedy old "Xipereta" by South African falsetto Dr. Thomas Chauke--that the hyper beats and nonstop electrosounds of the first half start sorting out into minor exceptions themselves. B PLUS

BLNRB: Welcome to the Madhouse (Out Here)
In which minor German electronic music duo Gebrüder Teichmann, major Berlin techno-populists Modeselektor, and sexy Euro-multiculturalists Jahcoozi take up residence in Kenya via Goethe-Institut Nairobi and spend a month working out a fusion with local rappers. Miraculously, they avoid paternalism and other mismatches until an emotive singer-guitarist initiates a downshift. Until then it's an excited Afro-minimalist blast, with "first lady of Kenyan rap" Nazizi and aspiring electropoppers Just a Band bringing extra spritz and tune to a delighted mesh that's at its best when a sinuous synth buzz snakes like a digital didgeridoo through four tracks that begin with one called "Ma Bhoom Bhoom Bhoom." Even the dubby stuff at the end gathers contemplative charm. It's like a crew album where the crew has real mojo. A MINUS

MSN Music, September 2011


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