Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: October 2012

Odds and Ends 016

The Young Songsters, Band Division
Tuesday, October 2, 2012  

The Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
Melodies you want to hear again for their shapes and harmonies alone, lyrics of discernible emotional import that include the cheerful verbal preset "that doesn't make any sense what you just said" ("Maybe That Was It," "Dance for You") ***

The D.A.: You Kids! (self-released)
Driving, melodic, engaged, humane, disillusioned v-k-g-b-d-trumpet from El Paso, which emerges as one of the cities David Byrne ended up living in ("We Hungry," "Orange & Black") ***

Leland Sundries: The Foundry EP (L'Echiquier)
Not Lou meets Leonard, children, Eef meets Jonathan, and just as dark and droll ("Giving Up Redheads," "Apparition") **

The Soft Pack: Strapped (Mexican Summer)
Out on their own, g-g-b-d survey the song-friendly precincts of the big wide indie-rock world and try a little of this and a little of that ("Saratoga," "Bound to Fall") **

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden (Nonesuch)
Novelty revivals yes, theme statements no--please, I'm begging, no-o-o-o ("Boodle-De-Bum-Bum," "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?") **

Swearin': Swearin' (Salinas)
As her sister Katie toegazes with her Waxahatchie side project/one-off, Allison Crutchfield dons the grrrl-punk mantle with less musical, verbal, and vocal distinctness ("Movie Star," "Hundreds and Thousands") **

The Very Best: MTMTMK (Moshi Moshi)
They'd be better off not being Bloc Party if they didn't wish they were ("Rumbae," "We OK") *

Phineas and the Lonely Leaves: The Kids We Used to Be (lonelyleaves.com)
Memories of a Dutchess County puberty ("Come Back to Peekskill," "The Bros. of Summer") *

Iris DeMent/Carolyn Mark

High Concept
Friday, October 5, 2012  

Iris DeMent: Sing the Delta (Flariella)
From its opening chords, DeMent's own piano rolling beneath nearly every track--vernacular church piano, piano you can imagine a church lady playing--is the conceptual backbone of her first album of originals in 16 years. After "livin' on the inside too much," books "stacked on my table," she's ambitious intellectually like it or not, and the album has a James Agee quality right down to the unflattering cover photo of the 51-year-old artist. DeMent craves stuff she can "see and touch," but her songwriting makes do just fine with feeling. However thickly she applies her drawl, she left the South at four, and figures out how to correct for that absence by force of artistic will. The laxest concepts drift toward the commonplace, but that's what the piano is celebrating, so you forgive her. The strongest concepts bear down on her parents and their faith, which she loves on their behalf and rejects on her own. "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray" has no piano at all. A MINUS

Carolyn Mark: The Queen of Vancouver Island (Mint)
Mark is known in the Northwest Kingdom as the Boozy Chanteuse and in my house as an also-ran singer-songwriter who made her best album in 2000 as Neko Case's fellow Corn Sister. At about 40 she's on her seventh solo outing since 2000. Not an exciting prospect, and while it's solidly tuneful and cleverly arranged, not exactly an exciting record either--which it turns out is thematic for this matter-of-fact bunch of terrific songs. Not bitter, certainly not despairing, defiant and funny in a muted way, it's an album about being in love with Nobody, as in "Nobody('s Perfect)," or "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen/I trust Nobody and Nobody trusts me"--which has a companion piece called "Not Talk," as in "Let's not talk about it later." I wouldn't trust her myself. But I note that the song about being a whore is really about marginalization in the music business. Well, one of the songs about being a whore. A MINUS

Boban i Mark Markovic Orkestar/The Lijadu Sisters

Family Life at Its Best-of
Tuesday, October 9, 2012  

Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Golden Horns: The Best of Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar (Piranha)
Like Huun-Huur-Tu and Tinariwen, this is one of those how-much-is-enough bands. I've pretty much liked every record they've put out since I caught on with 2003's Boban i Marko, which was where flugelhorn prodigy and heir apparent Boban started getting equal billing in the brass ensemble he now leads. Did I learn to tell these albums apart? Not really. Replay them? Seldom. But after suitable reconnaissance I can make some distinctions for you. If you actively like Boban i Marko, this will be worth your while even though it scatters three keepers from that breakthrough among its own 15. But if you found Boban i Marko too raffish or disorganized, it may also be worth your while, because it comes down on tune where that one came down on the tipsy Balkan version of groove. I must have noticed "Khelipe E Cheasa" on Devla, but it never penetrated my recall memory, which is my bad. Relaxed, jaunty, and devilishly catchy, it leads their best-of because it's their best. The rest of the collection does what it can to keep on keeping on. A MINUS

The Lijadu Sisters: Afro-Beat Soul Sisters (Soul Jazz)
These would-be ingenues rarely go all the way. They don't always sing flat, but they always make you nervous about it, and both their consciousness and their English are pretty rudimentary for kin of Fela and Soyinka. Not nonexistent, however--unlikely as their guileless vocal affect makes it seem, how can a song that goes "We're cashing in prostitution yeah/Cashing in revolution yah" be anything but bitterly ironic? (Right??) This best-of isn't everything it might be--Mother Africa's "Iya Mi Jowi" would spruce it up substantially, for instance. But with producer Biddy Wright hooking them up, it's a minor girlpop treasure with a considerable difference. B PLUS

The Henry Clay People/Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

They Try Harder
Friday, October 12, 2012  

The Henry Clay People: Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives (ATO)
Soundbites--well, wordbites--song by song. "We don't know how to die." "I'm making sense of all the senseless/I'm getting wrecked with all the reckless." "We found some jobs and paid off our loans/Then we lost our jobs and let your parents know/That you'll be movin' home." "Every band we ever loved/Is selling out or breaking up/Finding out the limits of their reach." "Give it up and come on out/That stupid dream is over." "You are the property of privilege/Now you are learning how to live with it." "You wanna taste a taste of the tasteless/We can waste away with the wasted." "And I can move to the country/But that won't solve anything." "One mistake too many fights three nights/You pay for the rest of your life." "Friends are forgetting/We're getting too tired to try/Keeping up with each other/So we leave them behind." "Not that it ever made a difference/Back when we were innocent/Oh-oh-oh." Pretty impressive. Problem? More than half the songs sound effectively the same. Rocking, absolutely. Tighter, too. Tuneful, in their way. But imagine the Replacements without Westerberg's hookfinder and you'll understand the limits of their reach. B PLUS

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: The Heist (self-released)
The question isn't whether this Seattle alt-rapper is a cornball, it's whether he's so dumb he's a cornball or so brave he's a cornball. The answer is "Same Love," the best gay marriage song to date in any genre and as corny as it damn well oughta be. Sure there's too much "who I really was," too much "a life lived for art is never a life wasted." And though the co-billed Lewis is big and original for an alt-beatmaker, his percussion-oriented version of an E Street Band, strings-swell-to-big-finish aesthetic has its icky moments. But as someone who shares Macklemore's moral views if not his equation of sincerity with soul, I find only the alcoholic's confession "Neon Cathedral" too much, and that one's counteracted by the relapser's confession "Starting Over," just as "Sayin' 'That's poetry, it's so well-spoken,' stop it" counteracts his art talk. He's especially good on old cars and old clothes. B PLUS

Jamey Johnson/G.O.O.D. Music

Collaborating Universality
Tuesday, October 16, 2012  

Jamey Johnson: Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran (Mercury)
Most likely the smattering of albums by the Nashville pro who came up with "I Fall to Pieces" and "Make the World Go Away" deserves one of those Rhino cherrypicks of yore. But there's a reason he had more success as a songwriter than a singer, and this collection of 15 duets and a solo showcase makes a nice alternative. Although it may omit other semi-classics as well-turned as ("If she's anything like her memory . . .") "She'll Be Back" and (jukebox not route number) "A-11," both new ones on me, I actively miss only "She's Got You" and "It Ain't Love, but It Ain't Bad." And vocally, duet partners from 41-year-old Alison Krauss to 86-year-old Ray Price outdo themselves keeping the young powerhouse in check--only on the ill-advised showcase does Johnson get to show off. In fact, when Merle Haggard steps to the mic it can be hard to tell them apart, which is a credit to both--one they owe to the guy whose motto was "I always try to make it short, make it sweet, and make it rhyme." A MINUS

G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)
Lyrically, Kanye & Assoc. do little more than add ho and gangsta sidebars to the boss's core philosophy: "Conspicuous Consumption Equals Authentic Negritude." Usual suspects Pusha T and Raekwon sound better working this con than young jurks Big Sean and Chief Keef, and there's cleverness all around, with my pick the boss chorus "We flier than a parakeet/Floating with no parachute/Six thousand dollar pair of shoes/We made it to the Paris news." But close attention to the rhyming reveals all too clearly that the philosophy has gotten even lamer than it was to begin with. The surprise is that the attention requires so little effort, because there's always a musical touch to keep you alert: strings chamber and pizzicato, shouts and murmurs, cackles and whoos, glitches of every description, and a predictably unpredictable panoply of percussives. As with the virtual naturescapes in Samuel Delany's Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, you may never touch Gucci, but you'll know the texture of luxury just the same. And that better the hell be enough. B PLUS

The xx/Kid Koala

Varieties of Electronic Experience
Friday, October 19, 2012  

The xx: Coexist (Young Turks)
Even sparer and stiller than their minimalist debut, this will hit any normal listener as a hyperaesthetic downer--a bore. After three years, couldn't two clever lads and their clever lassie devise some clever twist that would lively them up without soiling their precious principles? But the music does eventually tiptoe in, and quiet as its kept the lyrics tiptoe on in with them. Damn right this group is obsessed, artistically, with young love, which in case you didn't know remains a grand theme of universal significance, and these scrupulously abstract verses capture its obsessive doubts and fragile exaltations with delicacy and tenderness. Like it or not, they add up to a song cycle with a happy ending--the joy of which may grow in wisdom or crumble back toward nothingness tomorrow. A MINUS

Kid Koala: 12 Bit Blues (Ninja Tune)
The turntablist prankster has set himself up to fail here, which he may think is blues and I don't, just as he may think blues recordings should be rough stuff in the Alan Lomax mode whereas I think they're better served sonically by Leonard Chess. Anyway, nobody who knows blues as well as I do, which is medium well at best, is also going to know enough about turntablist technology to truly understand what it means to eschew sequencing software in cobbling together bits and pieces of a blues album on a classic and therefore long outmoded E-mu SP-1200 sampler. Too crude not just for Muddy Waters but for one of those also-rans the Revenant and Yazoo folk sneak into their secret histories, the songs Koala fabricates are songs in form only. Yet this isn't to deny their tunes or even hooks, nor to deny they're blues. After more time than anyone from either camp will be inclined to give it, the album takes on a compelling, sui generis sonic identity, at least for someone from the blues side. What the turntablist side might think I am unqualified to guess. A MINUS

Royal Band de Thiés/Thiossane Ablaye Ndiaye

Old-School Senegal Lives
Tuesday, October 23, 2012  

Royal Band de Thiés: Kadior Demb (Teranga Beat)
The angel is an Athenian photographer and mad Afropop crate digger named Adamantios Kafetzis, who seems to run Teranga Beat pretty much by himself. In the case of this early mbalax unit from the now disused railway hub where Ousmane Sembene's God's Bits of Wood is set, there turned out to be multiple reels, with this circa-1979 title the first of several unreleased albums. The Royal Band aren't Baobab or Super Étoile, not Kafetzis's Gambian discovery Karantamba either. But their projected debut is intense, gorgeous, and hyperactive without rushing the climax once. With gruff mbalax shouter Secka, still in the vocal ambit of Baobab's dearly departed Laye M'Boup, balanced by high, sweet natural salsero James Gadiaga, who on this record sticks to mbalax's tamas-and-horn-stabs program, they suggest that Baobab and Super Étoile weren't just two very different great bands. They led and inspired a scene. A MINUS

Thiossane Ablaye Ndiaye: Thiossane Ablaye Ndiaye (Syllart/Sterns)
In which a strong-voiced, historically-minded, salsa-loving Senegalese guitarist and painter records a suitably impressive elder's debut at 74, with his steadfast gravity the linchpin and the band the reason non-Wolof speakers will listen. With Xalam, OK Jazz, and Africando recruits on board, it's basically an Orchestra Baobab one-off with the focus on saxophonist Thierno Koyaté rather than crazier saxophonist Issa Cissoko and the Xalam and OK Jazz guys pitching in where Togo-based Barthelemy Attisso normally moves heaven and earth. The hypnotic clave of "Bouki Ndiour" and the warm lyricism of "Arawane Ndiaye" might heighten your expectations unduly. But hell--take a chance. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 017

The young(ish) songwriters, pop/rock division
Friday, October 26, 2012  

JD McPherson: Signs & Signifiers (Rounder/Histyle)
Reformed Oklahoma art teacher nails rockabilly originals like he's writing haikus ("North Side Gal," "Signs & Signifiers") ***

John Mayer: Born and Raised (Columbia)
Grammy-crushing craftsmen can be damned good at saying something in 80 words or thereabouts--say 61, or 116 ("Love Is a Verb," "Speak for Me") ***

Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn't (Secretly Canadian)
Lost affair leaves him mooning, melodic as ever but too crestfallen to do anything about it ("The World Moves On," "The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love") ***

M. Ward: A Wasteland Companion (Merge)
Sad singer-songwriter loses his marbles one marble at a time--says so himself ("Primitive Girl," "Clean Slate (For Alex and El Goodo") **

Roxanne Potvin: Play (Black Hen)
Clean-cut Canadienne tops shows of intelligence with novelty cover ("I'm Too Sexy," "Barricades") **

Stew & the Negro Problem: Making It (TNP)
Back to writing show-tunes-sans-show--rock and roll show tunes, sometimes, but always set pieces ("Black Men Ski," "Speed") **

Carsie Blanton: Idiot Heart (Carsie Blanton)
Clever gal will sell you impeccably catchy collection of coy songs about her sexual peccadillos for whatever you think they're worth ("Chicken," "Little Death") **

Carole King: The Legendary Demos (Rockingale/Hear Music)
Just '60s reference tracks, many piano-only, but the young mother sings the words, especially the ones she didn't write, with such innocence and hope ("Take Good Care of My Baby," "So Goes Love") *

Saint Etienne at Webster Hall

If you got it, don't flaunt it
Saturday, October 27, 2012  

The first of not many Expert Witness Extras, off-schedule posts I will extract from my employer and my readers by skipping one at a time yet to be determined, is occasioned by the second of just seven U.S. performances by the U.K. disco band Saint Etienne, two more of which will have been and gone by my next posting day. I attended not because I just couldn't stay away but because the show seemed an exceedingly rare shot at determining how Sarah Cracknell and her boys bring off their undemonstrative shtick onstage. Basically, this took 30 seconds--I was captivated more or less instantly by her quiet command. Attired in midcalf boots, slinky spangles that covered her slim-not-skinny frame from knees to clavicle, and a white feather boa that got hugged occasionally but spent most of the set on the floor, Cracknell sang in a slightly louder version of the warm calm that is her recorded specialty. She didn't have moves so much as gestures, dancing with a slight shimmy like a housewife listening to records after the hoovering was done. An attractive blonde who's short of beautiful, she looks her age, which is 45. Usually her right hand grasped a microphone that never left its stand while her left hand waved a little or described modest circles in the air.

I was situated well forward in the balcony stage left with a good view of the packed house, the first two rows filled exclusively with guys, after which the demographic modulated down to something like the third row's 14-6 male. I've seen more women at a Motorhead show, although never, to be sure, as many identifiably gay men--and in keeping with the band's aesthetic, this was an unflamboyant crowd. The setlist ranged over their song-filled two-decade career, mostly titles I recognized easily but a few I didn't; no "Mario's Cafe" or "Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)," unfortunately, but three from the new Words and Music by Saint Etienne. Many mouthed every word. Support team Bob Stanley and Peter Wiggs manned keyboards behind the frontwoman, and although they were always true to their disco-basics principles, the music did get louder, thicker, and more organ-hued as the set progressed. Eventually there were sparingly deployed strobes as well, and Cracknell's gestures got bigger--a few times her two joined hands did a graceful swoop as if she were diving at the town pool. If you think disco and diva go together like coffee and soy milk or horse and carriage, forget it with this gal. She's always modest, always cheerful, always kind. I've never seen anyone quite like her.

A backup singer named Debsey Wykes came on after the opener. I switched seats with my wife so I could see her better, then forgot to look. There were backing videos my sightline rendered all but invisible that were also projected, I discovered when I glanced up, over my head. I noticed them during the second encore. In other words, having walked in wondering how Sarah Cracknell could put her undemonstrative shtick across, I couldn't take my eyes off her. Rob Sheffield walked in right after us having bought his ticket cheap on StubHub that day. So let the remaining tour dates constitute my word to the wise: Paradise, Boston, Saturday 10/27; Lincoln Hall, Chicago, Monday 10/29; Wonder Ballroom, Portland, Wednesday 10/31; Showbox, Seattle, Thursday 11/1; Fillmore, San Francisco, Friday 11/2.

The Human Hearts/Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby

Full disclosure: I know both Franklin and Amy (a little)
Tuesday, October 30, 2012  

The Human Hearts: Another (Shrimper)
A John Darnielle sideman and philosophy Ph.D. who wrote a 33 1/3 on Elvis C.'s Armed Forces, Franklin Bruno knows pop from the beginning--19th-century sheet music. He delivers these songs with a brass-tacks brio that recalls the songsmith-sung demos on a Cole Porter comp and also plays all keyboards and most guitars. Love the Costello-without-shame opener and the title tune that's all quarter-of-three Sinatra. But my avorites on this consistently and straightforwardly songful album are the rocking "Cheap Sunglasses," about the girlfriend he saw through, and the rhumbaing "Not Just When We Kiss," about the one he stuck with. It's not Brad Paisley's "Then." But it belongs on the same mixtape. A MINUS

Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby: A Working Museum (Southern Domestic)
Three by Eric with two excellent, four by Amy with all excellent and one or two on her life list, four collaborations with woozier results except on the penultimate "Tropical Fish," which is blown away forthwith by Amy's "Do You Remember That," the love song of the year if "Not Just When We Kiss" isn't. The couple share a sense of detail that grounds even the vaguer songs--Sanskrit tattoo, Kajagoogoo records, sombrero too big for the overhead. Plus, oh yeah, their scrabbling, high-talented, headstrong lives. A MINUS

MSN Music, October 2012


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