Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2012

The Soul Stirrers/Swan Silvertones

Gospel for the Rest of Us
Friday, June 1, 2012  

The Soul Stirrers Featuring R.H. Harris: Shine on Me (Specialty '92)
In 1991 I wrote an atheistic gospel piece called "With God on Their Side" that I stand by. As death bears down, I may yet bend again toward the Lord, but I doubt it, and that's not why I returned to this 1992 CD I always admired and never penetrated. It's because I sensed in Rebert Harris a great voice that wasn't just for canary fanciers--a voice connoisseurs of normality could learn to love. I might never be a fan, I thought, but at least I could listen up close. Well, now I'm a fan, and not for the usual reasons. Harris is renowned for a falsetto he claimed incorrectly he'd invented and for an intensity that one way or another is gospel's currency. But what distinguishes both attractions is the restraint with which they're deployed. Yes he took flight, yes he got gritty and sweaty. Even at his most transported, however, he was always mellow--he always conveyed a core spiritual calm. And his time is uncanny, adding polyrhythm to quartet music that was always a cappella. Although a few of the lyrics have charms even for an unbeliever--"Everybody Ought to Love Their Soul," "Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb"--they could be in Akan for all the difference they make in the musical moment. Except, that is, for "Feel Like My Time Ain't Long," about parents dying, which doesn't mention the Lord once. A

Swan Silvertones: Love Lifted Me/My Rock (Specialty '91)
Especially after ace arranger Paul Owens signed on midway through their 1951-55 Specialty stint, the Swan Silvertones relied on a formula. But so did Motown. The problem with this one is the way it was slicked up melodramatically just afterward, during the group's Vee-Jay peak. The center is always Claude Jeter, direct forebear of Al Green and a more crucial gospel falsetto than Rebert Harris himself. But at Specialty Jeter is in a sense the straight man, and for us secular sinners that's good. What happens around him is the formula: the star holding steady as hard-shouting Solomon Womack and Robert Crenshaw wild out. Anchored by drums and piano, rough sound subsumes sweet song as the Swan Silvertones rock the house. A MINUS

Plug/Seefeel

Heritage Post-Rock
Tuesday, June 5, 2012  

Plug: Back on Time (Ninja Tune)
After I first plucked Plug from my shelves, I assumed he was some new retro-electro guy, but actually he's minor techno legend Luke Vibert, who I've always preferred under his Wagon Christ moniker, just not so's I felt any need to testify about it. (Very) roughly speaking, say Vibert is trancey, Wagon Christ fanciful, and Plug--who in the mid '90s released the Drum'n'Bass for Papa album hard upon three EPs, all still findable as a twofer on Trent Reznor's label--a necromancer. Although the story is that Vibert stumbled upon 10 old Plug tracks and declared them an album on a whim, I'm betting they stayed in the can because they were just too all-over-the-place for 1997. But for those of us who find electronica too functional anyway, all-over-the-place equals content: the willful structures, sonic shifts, interrupted grooves, and goofy vocal bits are as eventful as a good lyric. For once drum'n'bass's impossible Conlon Nancarrow beats, which Plug does pretty well with on those EPs, are the bed where the real music crinkles, crashes, chimes, swoops, swells, squiggles, gurgles, cracks wise, and just generally hooks you. Start with "Come on My Skeleton" and "Back on Time." Then do yourself a favor and listen fore-to-aft. A MINUS

Seefeel: Seefeel (Warp)
The gears that never quite mesh in this disquieting but hardly apocalyptic industrial ambient may be metal and may be plastic but are probably both. Over steady drumming with a martial feel, they evoke two kinds of bum transmission, one automotive and the other an AM station breaking up on a late-night four-lane. Phones ring occasionally. Doors squeak. Pretty people murmur and croon. But that bird you hear chirping isn't--isn't chirping, isn't a bird. Think the part of a Tricky album that's no way funky. Stabilized by nary a foolish word, the unease is so unapocalyptic it's almost comforting. B PLUS

Francis Bebey/Joan Soriano

High Hurdles
Friday, June 8, 2012  

Francis Bebey: African Electronic Music 1975-1982 (Born Bad)
I first encountered this genial Camerounian savant via his pioneering if romantic 1969 overview African Music: A People's Art. But though I knew from the book jacket that he'd worked for UNESCO and published novels, the albums that trickled my way--sanza exhibit, wan protest songs, retrospective miscellany--seemed too schematic musically. So I never grasped that this public intellectual was a successful creator of singing commercials and African hits until this conceptually cockamamy attempt to stir up the hipsterati by linking songs notable for their jingle quotient to electronica. Created on a primitive synthesizer in Paris, they're above all winning and catchy, their sonics almost as quaint as thumb piano by now. Though half are also on La Condition Masculine, which is generally deemed Bebey's best album, this selection is hookier from the just-released "New Track," whose subject is white starchy foods, to "The Coffee Cola Song," whose subject is the cash economy. Dieu merci, both are in English, which helps the French ones fit in--the instrumentals too. And "Divorce pygmee" and "Pygmy Love Song" have it both ways, clarifying between them the bemused respect with which this cosmopolitan Protestant regards his native continent's profusely musical peoples. A MINUS

Joan Soriano: La Familia Soriano (iASO)
Usually I find bachata too mild--a homogenized and slightly speeded-up MOR in which sentimental Dominican bolero slackens tensile Cuban son. But Soriano's guitar is so nimble and articulate you forgive him his pleasantries, and on his second U.S. album his sisters add sweet and spicy accents to his beseeching vocals, which may deliver the Spanish lyrics but seldom leap any language barriers. Bright, playful, feisty, flirtatious, Nelly and Griselda are the love objects the graceful runs and articulate phrases Joan's playing imagines. B PLUS

Neil Young With Crazy Horse/Rhett Miller

Two American Singer-Songwriters Make Albums With Their On-and-Off Road Bands
Tuesday, June 12, 2012  

Neil Young With Crazy Horse: Americana (Reprise)
Crazy Horse yam what they yam. You don't like them, take a hike. For all its evocation of war-dance tom-toms, Ralph Molina's thudding beat could just as easily have inspired Young's endnote about the civilization their namesake "detested": "the footsteps of the white man stamped more and more across the land." In this they resemble, of all things, the United States of America, which has been steamrollering its own past for as long as there've been steamrollers. In vivid contrast to the sanctimonious musicianly overkill of Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute, Young's overkill leads with its middle finger by ignoring the catchiest tune of the 19th century, the traditional melody of "Oh Susannah." But read Young's annotations and learn that this rewrite was itself concocted 50 years ago by forgotten folkie Tim Rose--and then wake up the next morning to learn that it has staying power of its own. Almost every song messes with you that way because almost every song is messed with and almost every song renewed. "This Land Is Your Land" advocates trespassing. "Get a Job" is accounted "a genuine folk song with all of the true characteristics." "God Save the Queen" rhymes "politics" and "dirty tricks." Boom, boom, boom, boom. Sha-na-na-na-na. A

Rhett Miller: The Dreamer (Maximum Sunshine)
Miller fashions his excellent tunes within such a narrow melodic compass that it always takes too long for the new ones to get sorted, and the Nashville-trad self-production on his fourth solo album doesn't sharpen their outlines much. But as usual the songs come clear eventually, starting with a Ben Kweller collab bearing the aptly ominous title "Lost Without You." It's not the winner here because the lyric could be stronger, which cannot be said of "Complicated Man" or "As Close as I Came to Being Right," not to mention the miserable "Out of Love." Consider those titles. That's why I said ominous. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 011

Been Through a Lot, These Guys
Friday, June 15, 2012  

Otis Taylor: Otis Taylor's Contraband (Telarc)
Colorado bluesman finally figures out how to split the difference between gravity and taking yourself too seriously ("Yell Your Name," "Blind Piano Teacher") ***

Ahmad Zahir: Hip 70s Afghan Beats! (Guerssen)
Assassinated by the Russians in 1979, Afghan rocker was too gifted vocally and melodically to sink into schlock ("Dar Kunj Dilam Eshqi Kasi," "Uoba Darta Rawarem") ***

Gregg Allman: Low country Blues (Rounder)
The reason the only one he wrote is called "Just Another Rider" is that he's finally content to let better songs than his own carry him home ("Floating Bridge," "Devil Got My Woman") **

William Michael Dillon: Black Robes and Lawyers (Flying Free)
Learned a skill while doing 28 goddamn years for a murder he didn't commit ("Black Robes and Lawyers," "Chasing a Dream") **

Stephen David Austin: A Bakersfield Dozen (StephenDavidAustin.com)
The kind of writer who remembers the day Buck Owens died, the kind of singer who hopes someone covers his song about it ("Best Ex I Ever Had," "The Cage") **

Waco Brothers & Paul Burch: Great Chicago Fire (Bloodshot)
Ever collegial and craving new blood, Jon L. and the gang take in a fortysomething alt-Nashville lifer ("Great Chicago Fire," "Someone That You Know") *

Jimmie Vaughan: Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites (Shout! Factory)
He knows the tradition & also the difference between a traditionalist and a remaker ("The Pleasure's All Mine," "Wheel of Fortune") *

Jerry Lee Lewis: Mean Old Man (Verve Forecast)
The Killer's many wives etc. (those who are alive, anyway) will tell you he's not really mean--that's just Kristofferson kidding around ("Mean Old Man," "Sweet Virginia") *

Odds and Ends 012

Been Through Less Than They Think, These Guys
Tuesday, June 19, 2012  

Diamond Rugs: Diamond Rugs (Partisan)
Whose songs do you think stick out when the Deer Tick guy convenes yet another roots-rock supergroup with the Black Lips guy and the Dead Confederate guy? ("Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant," "Gimme a Beer") ***

The Obits: "Moody, Standard and Poor" (Sub Pop)
Perpetually PO-ed alt lifers get a grip on it ("I Want Results," "No Fly List") ***

Wavves: Life Sux (Ghost Ramp)
"A joke a stroke of genius/Probably somewhere in between" is tuneful enough, finally, but make that second line "Or only a waste of time?" and we might believe he's got some brain left ("Bug," "Poor Lenore") ***

The Rapture: In the Grace of Your Love (DFA)
Posers have real lives too--really--only it's really hard to care ("In the Grace of Your Love," "How Deep Is Your Love") ***

Herzog: Cartoon Violence (Exit Stencil)
Pop boys are always facing manhood, but that doesn't always spruce up their songs ("Your Son Is Not a Soldier," "Fuck This Year") **

Surfer Blood: Tarot Classics (Kanine)
EP embraces a maturity they define in part as saving your winners for Warners ("Drinking Problem," "I'm Not Ready") **

Art Brut: Brilliant! Tragic! (The End/Cooking Vinyl)
Guitarist often shines, lyrics often don't ("Clever Clever Jazz," "Bad Comedian") **

The Front Bottoms: The Front Bottoms (Bar/None)
Two-"man" Bergen County Nerd Liberation Front cell finish each other's bellyaches, hire or simulate trumpet commentary ("The Beers," "Maps") *

Azealia Banks/Rye Rye

The Sopranos
Friday, June 22, 2012  

Azealia Banks: 1991 (Interscope)
Four tracks, 14 minutes of music, topped inevitably by "212" (and if you're not among the video's 20 million hits, succumb now). All of said songs top this eye-on-the-prize Harlemite's many other YouTube offerings, some of which might in turn sound dandy mixed into the mixtape and official album we are assured will soon-come. One might bitch about the chopped-and-screwed monologue that brings total time to 16 minutes, only it's funnier and more pointed than the Clyde Smith skits it bites from Ghostface. So I hope this is the dancey hip-hop Nicki Minaj's haters claim to miss and know full well it's too effing dancey for 'em--not to mention too virtuosic, beatwise, layered, less-is-more, and much. Quick-tongued, lascivious, catchy, and delighted with itself, there hasn't been a more pleasurable record all year and probably won't be--not even by her. A

Rye Rye: Go! Pop! Bang! (Deluxe Edition) (N.E.E.T./Interscope)
Always defiantly thin both sonically and conceptually, M.I.A.'s best sidekick forever is an ideal conduit for a Bmore electro that doubles as the sound of ingrained urban poverty--a poverty complemented by a few throw-in anthems that use electronics to simulate affluence instead. Finally we've reached a tipping point resembling the riot grrrl moment of the early '90s, one in which every feisty hip-hop soprano has a you-go-illygirl edge on her notebook-toting male competitors. Selling point of the unfortunately download-only deluxe: two singsongy old M.I.A. collabs that drive the point home. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Highlife/Electric Highlife

Highlife as Pop and Not
Tuesday, June 26, 2012  

The Rough Guide to Highlife (World Music Network)
Although the label's second pass at this expandable concept tends quirkier and quieter, in-house compiler Rachel Jackson goes for the gut tunewise. From the surprising pre-Afrobeat Fela who opens to the gospel falsetto-as-girl group who close, every song stands out, so much so that Jackson really could have risked Celestine Ukwu's "Osundu" rather than repeating the oft-compiled "Igede." Special faves: the Black Beats' "Tsutsu Tsonemo" for hook, Gentleman Bobby Benson's "Taxi Driver" for lyric, Francis Kenya's "Memia" for guitar compression, and Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe's "Osondi Owendi" for guitar expansion. There's a slight tailoff before the gospel closer, but not so as to spoil your appetite for the bonus disc by the university-based trio Seprewa Kasa. On Riverboat four years ago, I found their preservationism a mite polite. Here the same album provides a graceful, restful, informative coda. A

Electric Highlife: Sessions From the Bokoor Studios (Naxos World '02)
Ghanaian-Nigerian highlife was a pop music not just because it was urban and popular, but because it produced something resembling hits and stars--in their world, the Victors Uwaifo and Olaiya were genuinely famous. Not these eight early-'80s guitar bands John Collins recorded in Accra. As all too part-time musicians in a ruined economy, they share a likably ramshackle feel, which infused by the good cheer they mustered in the face of 100 percent inflation is enough to sell this collection. But I noticed a funny thing when I looked closely at the second Rough Guide to Highlife, which is that its two finest tracks began their public life at Bokoor: the hummable one by the Black Beats, who had a long if varied career elsewhere, and the musicianly one by Francis Kenya, who seems to have been Collins's greatest protege. Think there were some players over in Ghana? Must have been. A MINUS

A Place to Bury Strangers

What? Sex? Can't You Hear Sex?!
Friday, June 29, 2012  

A Place to Bury Strangers: Worship (Dead Oceans)
With Oliver Ackermann a guitar effects tycoon first and a bandleader second, I hear them as an electronica outfit whose inhuman beat happens to be all volumized hard-rock boom-boom, only less funky than that stuff can get with sentient humans leaking flesh and blood on the tubs. What few words you can make out have the rare virtue of straightforwardness and are less miserabilist than you might fear--compelling sex in make-her-scream mode can cheer up a fella whose political-existential irrelevance is getting him down. But the album's logic is musical--even, plausibly, sexual. Beginning with a lyric whose faint eroticism is buried by the two-word theme statement "all alone," it works up to a provisional climax, tails to a lament followed by a dirge, and then explodes into overdrive: "Why I Can't Cry Anymore," Goth dread at its sanest and most desperate, followed by the breakneck rancor of "Revenge," presumably directed at the departed screamer. Lyrically, a dumb sequence--at least the two could have been reversed. Sonically, it's dynamite. A MINUS

A Place to Bury Strangers: Onwards to the Wall (Dead Oceans)
The placeholder EP is blunter and slighter than the album, two pieces of echoey roar fore and aft flanking a title song whose surprising "I'm still in love with you" is enunciated credibly and of all things breathily by--of all things--a goil. Alanna Nuala of Moon, to be precise. You know--Moon. Actually, neither do I. A MINUS

MSN Music, June 2012


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