Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2012

s/s/s /Serengeti

The Diverse Moods of Serengeti
Tuesday, April 3, 2012  

s/s/s: Beak & Claw (Anticon)
Serengeti has long been fascinated by the upper-middle class arty-farties David Brooks once tried to lampoon as "bobos." But though he's always been wittier and smarter about bourgeois bohemians than Brooks, collaborators like Tony Trimm and Polyphonic have seldom provided the eclectrobeats his jokes and ideas deserved. This one-off EP with singer-songwriter cum symphonist Sufjan Stevens and semiclassical drum'n'bassmaker Son Lux is different, because the primary function of his raps is to ground the beautiful musics his collaborators contribute. Stevens's Auto-Tuned apostrophe, Shara Worden's soprano harmonies, the layered chorus hooks and electro-percussion--all would float into the arty-farty ether without Serengeti stumbling through his fictional misunderstood life, and that confluence is the point. Croons Stevens: "If I could figure out what it was all about." Repeats Serengeti: "I had the world figured out beyond any doubt." Both are lost--but touchingly and even nobly. A MINUS

Serengeti: The Kenny Dennis EP (Anticon)
A surprise comeback EP from the long-silent Grimm Teachaz crew may be for Kenny Dennis fans only, but he deserves more of them. Who knew from the likes of "Dennehy" that this superfan could speed-rap like on "Flat Pop"--and also, who knows what he's saying when he does? Kenny never falters as he disses Shaquille O'Neal, goes to bat for shamed Cub fan Steve Bartman, and packs a Ruger as he smacks down a loud kid, helps a stranded motorist, and tears up his parking tickets. The beats are as basic as in classic Teachaz, only modernized with extra effects, and the rhyming remains prime: "I'm Charles Bronson, I'm from Wisconsin/Chicken MCs call 'em Swanson/They get grilled up like a porkchop/Catch 'em on the street right in front of their bus stop." A MINUS

Big Baby Gandhi

Smart Dumb Kid's Progress
Friday, April 6, 2012  

Big Baby Gandhi: Big Fucking Baby (free download)
Like his patron Heems, this Bangladeshi-American is from the part of Flushing "where the smart kids act dumb and the dumb kids act dumb." He just acts dumb in a smart way. You could say his lo-fi debut favors degraded rhythm samples and soprano voices, only from the boat-rocking "Been Around Ya Girl" to the deep-soul "Summertime Thing" to the Indian-children's-song-plus-keyboard(???)-loop "Woof Woof" you'd be missing a lot. The flow seems effortlessly idiomatic, only not South Asian idiomatic, whatever that would sound like besides Heems. The rhymes bespeak a brainy slacker with an analysis underway, only he's watched so much porn and heard so much hip-hop that he's dumber than need be about sex. Here he's all "she's chokin' just hopin' to provoke a nut," there he's telling her he was only kidding about that handjob. Figure by now he's here and there both. He is a kind of famous rapper, after all. A MINUS

Big Baby Gandhi: No1 2 Look Up 2 (free Greedhead mixtape)
"Terrorist with no turban/Lyricist with no sermon," he admits he'll be proud to graduate from college and with the help of two resourceful young beatmakers I never heard of cleans up his production like he's ready to go pro. But for all his "Get $$$," he hasn't quite managed it yet. He's still a kid getting his thoughts together one surprise rhyme at a time, weeding out enough sex and dope to make room for a holy Bollywood "Long Ass Intro," a law-abiding uncle who kept him out of the army, a joke he jacked from Fall Out Boy, and other evidence of grown manhood. A MINUS

Spoek Mathambo/Big K.R.I.T.

Think Positive--Or Not
Tuesday, April 10, 2012  

Spoek Mathambo: Father Creeper (Sub Pop)
Although I slotted this Soweto-raised 27-year-old's 2010 Mshini Wam as promising kwaito electro, I never imagined it promised a hip-hop record so dark it reveals his labelmate Shabazz Palaces for the arty pothead we can assume he is. Contra the nervous crits who claim to hear a "palpable feeling of hope" or "summery highlife melodies" (highlife, eh? I've heard of that--African, right?), even the sweet opener about the sexual maturation of a guy who was feeling it before his pubes came in ends ominously. After that come evocations of oppression only more brutal because they're sometimes dissociated--blood diamonds, why we hate our crap jobs, the deadening surrender of the tricking American hip-hop makes light of. The music suits because it's also dissociated--beaty enough to keep your foot tapping and your subconscious involved, but devoid of the escapist joy that is the miracle of so much Afropop produced from equally horrendous daily struggles. A

Big K.R.I.T.: 4Eva N a Day (free download)
He was just Kritikal, but the Mississippi underground had trouble pronouncing that word--check out the consonant-averse "1986" intro to understand why--so he made it Big K.R.I.T., claimed it stood for King Remembered in Time, and continued a rapping career that imagined high school coaching as a fallback. No hip-hopper has ever been bigger on getting up when you're down and making every minute count. Could get tiresome, but on a no-cameos mixtape Def Jam couldn't clear, his proudly drawled, lucidly conceived preachments go undefeated. Almost every soulful track grew on me, with the clincher "Down & Out," one of his periodic explanations of why sometimes he sips and smokes instead of trying yet again. A MINUS

Cotton Mather/Oasis

Oh--You Mean Those Beatles
Friday, April 13, 2012  

Cotton Mather: Kontiki (Deluxe Edition) (Star Apple Kingdom)
Pieced together in 1997 from impulsively conceived, doggedly recorded scraps of DAT and four-track by Austin mastermind Robert Harrison and a Memphis tape wizard who loved how Big Star the band was, Cotton Mather's second album caught the attention of some British Beatles fanatics d/b/a Oasis, who brought them over to open and even generated some U.K. sales. While allowing his vocal resemblance to "John Lennon with a Southern accent and a head cold," Harrison's extensive notes don't cite the Beatles much even though "My Before and After" resembles "Ticket to Ride" more than its supposed inspiration "(Reach Out) I'll Be There" and "Private Ruth" echoes "For No One" straight up. Harrison is no more a genius than Noel Gallagher, so though the lyrics aren't spaced-out gibberish or obvious pap, they're unequal to the music--which definitely beats, for instance, the last three songs on the first Big Star album, and even more remarkable, kind of makes you appreciate Oasis. (N.B.: I'm recommending the Deluxe because it's new and much cheaper, not because I expect ever to listen to its alternates and new ones for anything except the research I presume is now complete.) B PLUS

Oasis: Stop the Clocks (Sony BMG '06)
One of the many things I never got about this band was where the Beatles were. Where was the ebullience, the wit, the harmonies, God just the singing, and, uh, the songwriting? Cotton Mather made me understand that when Oasis say they love the Beatles they really mean they love the post-Help!, pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. Since that span encompasses Rubber Soul and Revolver, many would say tally ho, but (a) not me 'cause I love the Beatles start to finish and (b) only if you're writing songs as good as, uh, "We Can Work It Out." Instead Oasis, meaning loudmouth bro Noel Gallagher, write songs that resemble "We Can Work It Out" in thickened texture and momentum but not depth or charm, then add arena size in the swagger of the drums and the bigged-up vocals themselves. This band-selected best-of--two discs lasting 87 minutes, like an old-fashioned double-LP except it's only 18 tracks--capture their sonic moment as fully as any freelance music historian needs. A 2010 package repeats 11 of these songs and adds 16 others--too many, I say. Also, it omits the opening "Rock 'n' Roll Star." If ever there were guys whose message to the world is summed up by an opener called "Rock 'n' Roll Star," it's these bigheads. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 008

Rock After 55: Wise Maybe, Weary Definitely
Tuesday, April 17, 2012  

Lee Scratch Perry: Rise Again (MOD Technologies)
Surrounded by such coequals as Tunde Adebimpe, Sly Dunbar, and Hamid Drake, he--uh-oh--behaves himself ("Orthodox," "House of God") ***

Wanda Jackson: The Party Ain't Over (Nonesuch/Third Man)
Jack White hits the geriatric Christian hottie with songs and horns that remind us what a weirdo she must be ("Thunder on the Mountain," "Shakin' All Over") **

John Hiatt: Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (New West)
Decades past his last outright keeper and 60 this year, he continues to roll out listenable collections like he'll never stop ("Don't Wanna Leave You Now," "Damn This Town," "Detroit Town") **

Bonnie Raitt: Slipstream (Redwing)
Bartholin's glands don't fail me now ("Used to Rule the World," "Million Miles") **

Dr. John: Locked Down (Nonesuch)
"For my next trick I will shuck my jive and generalize indignantly over a declarative rock beat" ("Big Shot," "Locked Down") **

Rick Berlin: Paper Airplane (Hi-N-Dry)
"And Sean looked grim and said, 'Suicide'" ("Sean Penn on Charlie Rose," "If I Wasn't Such a Bum") **

Steve Earle: I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (New West)
There'll never be too many songs about death or George W. Bush ("Little Emperor," "Waitin' on the Sky") *

Marshall Chapman: Big Lonesome (Tall Girl)
Breakup album about a musician who up and died on her ("Big Lonesome," "I Love Everybody") *

Loudon Wainwright III/Lee Ranaldo

What Do You Mean You're an Old Man? I'm the Old Man Around Here
Friday, April 20, 2012  

Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man (2nd Story Sound)
A reluctant 50, he started playing the Old card with the adulthood album Grown Man; now, a saggy stripling of 65, he trumps himself with a mortality album. Wainwright has been writing death songs for years, of course, but on his eighth album and label of the young century the theme turns concept. In one song he's a ghost; another features a reflection his late father wrote about his own late father; the one that begins "Somebody else I knew just died" is followed by the one called "The Days That We Die." Family members abound, including the late Kate McGarrigle in a remake of her sole co-write with her husband, from before either was 30, which happens to be called "Over the Hill." There are cameos from Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Chris Smither, John Scofield, the winsome Dame Edna Everage; Tom Lehrer declined but loved how Wainwright fit the word "Mercurochrome" into "My Meds." With Elliott, Loud-O bids for a do-over: "You don't know what you're doin' and you can't just wait;/You go ahead and do it and then it's too late/You need a double lifetime." After he goes down on his knees and prays, as he promises he will, this album will be Exhibit A on his application. A

Lee Ranaldo: Between the Times and the Tides (Matador)
Never much of a singer even by Sonic Youth standards and always abrasive solo, Ranaldo applies his best-in-band chops to riffage and filigree so lovely his well-meaning and far from altogether tuneless plainsong has the welcome effect of situating the guitar in the same reality occupied by his lyrics, which always make sense and often seem a mere detail away from total lucidity. Throughout he recaptures the repose of A Thousand Leaves's "Hoarfrost," his will to reconciliation and renewal always palpable whether the songs reach out or recalibrate his options. Just the album you'd hope from a thoughtful 56-year-old after his band of 30 years breaks up. Best in show is "Angles," a love song to someone he knows well and can always stand to know better. Not a bandmate, either. A MINUS

Nicki Minaj/Macy Gray

Both Badder Than Donna Summer, and in Such Different Ways
Tuesday, April 24, 2012  

Nicki Minaj: Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded: Deluxe Edition (Cash Money/Universal Republic)
Since the positive and negative reviews say pretty much the same thing, we can agree that this is an overstuffed, musically manipulative, thematically directionless bid to put the pink-haired alien on the singles charts until Katy Perry absconds to rehab. She isn't "the female Weezy" or some ill-defined male alter ego. She's an aspiring and most likely inevitable pop queen who raps exceptionally well, sings quite well, rhymes inconsistently but sometimes superbly, and will do anything to be rich and famous. This obviously doesn't make her a heroine. But if you enjoy contemporary pop whose market-tested blare offends both rockist philistines and IDM aesthetes, her second album is a worthwhile investment. It begins strong and, counting the three bonus tracks, ends strong. In between it tends mawkish and loud, neither of which precludes fun, especially with the right cameos. There is, however, a Chris Brown track. (Hey--I said anything.) A MINUS

Macy Gray: Covered (429)
Ten non-Gray songs, three comedy skits, and three brief cameos for her kids and their high school pals. The songs are all post-1980, meaning post-song--from the era when bands began distinguishing themselves by sound. Credit producer Hal Wilner with isolating the melodically verbal in Metallica, Radiohead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Sublime, My Chemical Romance, and lesser lights. But 1) the high point is the opening "Here Comes the Rain Again," an anthem on the face of it that Gray wrests from Annie Lennox forever; 2) a low point is the closer from the anthemic-on-the-face-of-it Arcade Fire, a major structural mishap; and 3) an even lower point is the Metallica centerpiece, which could be my problem but I bet isn't. Casting directors should note that the comedy skits are genuinely funny; Gray should note that I'm omitting the cameos when I put this in iTunes. But both are distractions. Fun as it is to hear her do "Creep," "Teenagers," and "Smoke Two Joints," this is a bigger mess than it had to be. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 009

Also-Rock
Friday, April 27, 2012  

The Kills: Blood Pressures (Domino)
Love still hurts, but they understand it better ("The Heart Is a Beating Drum," "Pots and Pans") ***

Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams (Sub Pop)
Pretty darn good Pretenders ("Wasted Away," "In My Head") ***

The Shins: Port of Morrow (Aural Apothecary/Columbia)
Problem's less the precious lyrics he attaches to his premium melodies than the increasingly precious way he sings them ("Simple Song," "September") **

Imperial Teen: Feel the Sound (Merge)
"Too many songs we sang are left unsung"--that about sums it up ("Last to Know," "Out From Inside") **

Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings (Carpark)
Sincere ex-brat faces mortality and/or sexual insecurity without whining or fronting about it ("Nothing's Wrong," "Been Through") **

The Coathangers: Larceny & Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)
The meat remains, the sauce does not ("Go Away," "Jaybird") **

The Wax Museums: Eye Times (Trouble in Mind)
Brat-punk lives in Denton, Texas, and that's a good thing ("Midlife Crisis," "Mosquito Enormo") **

Dengue Fever: Cannibal Courtship (Fantasy)
Not only are their English lyrics easier to understand than their Khmer lyrics, they're easier to understand than your English lyrics ("Cement Slippers," "Mr. Bubbles") *

MSN Music, April 2012


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