Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2013

Kassa Overall/Death Grips

Ravaging the great storehouse of music
Friday, February 1, 2013  

Kassa Overall: Stargate Mixtape (free Greedhead mixtape)
I admit, some might find this one ethically dubious. Seattle-raised, Harlem-based, Kool A.D.-linked rapper and drummer (jazz drummer--Vijay Iyer mean anything to you?) appropriates hooks provided to such worthies as Wiz Khalifa, Jennifer Lopez, Keri Hilson, Rihanna, and a gorilla-pitched Katy Perry by the Norwegian popmeisters name-checked in the title. Every one is improved markedly even though Kassa's not quite an A-game rapper himself. Really, what a tasty way to get your empty calories--in songs about your cousin's cancer and making love to the A-game rapper who picked up your laundry. Which consisted entirely of white socks. A MINUS

Death Grips: No Love Deep Web (free Third Worlds download)
So maybe how you explain these guys is this: the Gravediggaz grow up--or get serious, which is not necessarily the same thing. Either way, who knows how they'll keep on keeping on--nonstop rage wears out fast even when it's mixed with the humor obsessives like this deny themselves. But on their third album in 18 months, independently released online with an obscene downloadable cover because the major they suckered into a contract refused to put it out so soon after the last one, synth maestro Flatlander adjusts one of the most compelling aural signatures in electronic beat music. There's more space in these tracks, and unlikely hints of sweetening both orchestral and distaff that come as laugh moments whether the lunatics running the asylum think they're funny or not. Their weak spot is sex, a theme that imbued with their rage occasions misogynist spew crueler and stupider than their parricidal spew. Were they really to grow up they'd sidestep it altogether. Or else get funnier as if they meant it. A MINUS

Yo Ma Ma-Stephen Kalinich & Jon Tiven/Wussy

The garage band grows (ever) older
Tuesday, February 5, 2013  

Yo Ma Ma: Symptomology/Stephen Kalinich & Jon Tiven: Shortcuts to Infinity (MsMusic)
Kalinich started writing lyrics for the Beach Boys in the '60s and went on from there; Tiven fronted the Yankees' 1978 garage-rock one-off High 'n' Inside before establishing himself as the go-to producer for soul singers too far over the hill to bring his songs alive. But now, at 70 and 57, the two collaborators pack two distinct garage-rock albums into one double-jewelbox, with Tiven the vocalist on all 31 tracks after a layoff of over three decades. Predictably, I prefer the punky Symptomology to the hippieish Shortcuts to Infinity, but on both records the familiar-sounding tunes stick to the eardrums, delivering lyrics that are quite funny or sufficiently wise. Formally and sonically, it's received save some extraneous horns. But as human expression it's inspired, with Cody Dickinson's North Mississippi drums driving it toward the immediate future. A MINUS

Wussy: Berneice Huff and Son, Bill, Sings . . . Popular Favorites (free Shake It mixtape)
I claim no objectivity about this wittingly ramshackle collection of remixes, demos, live versions, covers, and ancient interview snippets except as regards the number of times I've chosen to put it on at bedtime or breakfast--partly because my wife is as big a fan as I am, but partly because I knew by play two that what nonfans might consider its self-indulgences would never obtrude. The excellent new songs are all southern Ohio covers, two from their allies in the Afghan Whigs and one from someone named Jenny Mae. But if you believe that Lisa Walker may be the finest female singer working today, and that this band has never written a song you'll mind hearing again, then alternate versions are just a way to reaccess her vocal invention and their collective touch. Even the 2:33 worth of snippets fit in--Chuck and Mark are funny guys. Available gratis, of course, to anyone who likes 'em enough to visit their website. B PLUS

Batida/Diplo

Not just beatmakers
Friday, February 8, 2013  

Batida: Batida (Soundway)
Lisbon-based, Angola-born DJ-beatmaker Pedro Coquenao had made a project of melding bassy modern electrobeats with the older Angolan pop that, just ask Angola-born Sam Mangwana, is close kin to the older pop generated in Kinshasa 350 miles north. So my first thought was soukous update. But in fact guitars are sparse. Instead Coquenao updates kudoro, tr. "hard-ass," an Angolan electro that pushes the beats way forward the way soca does in Trinidad. Because his tastes in this dance music run melodic, however, the update is retro-nuevo in flavor. And his thing for strong lyrics makes a difference vocally and texturally whether you know the language or not. A MINUS

Diplo: Express Yourself (Mad Decent)
It is a fate toward which all producers converge to be only as good as their frontpeople. So give it up to Sabi on "No Problem" and especially My Name Is Kay on the woozily provocative "Barely Standing"--both dubstep-identified, some would note, but I'm dubious--for lifting this six-song EP off its indubitably excellent beats. Of which the most self-sustaining are the moombahton "Butters Theme" and yet another in the long line of unclassifiable oddities that bear the title "Set It Off." B PLUS

Odds and Ends 023

The kids are not-quite-enough
Tuesday, February 12, 2013  

Japandroids: Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl)
Loud guitar, loud drums, and two guys yelling, sometimes melodically ("The Boys Are Leaving Town," "Wet Hair") ***

Django Django: Django Django (Ribbon Music)
Hardly unprecedented I carp, just Woodentops with bottom say I, only then I discover that I no longer have my Woodentops albums, and wonder whether anybody else does either, and what that means for these much-bruited newcomers ("Default," "Love's Dart") ***

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: We the Common (Ribbon)
As she must know already, improving your rhythmic interactivity seldom enhances your romantic connectivity--they're just different realms ("We Don't Call," "The Feeling Kind") **

Dum Dum Girls: He Gets Me High (Sub Pop, EP)
EP wonders how it would have sounded if Phil Spector had produced white girls, replacing the living Spector with a Smiths cover ("He Gets Me High," "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out") **

Japandroids: No Singles (Polyvinyl)
Getting their shtick together on three EPs, 2006-2008 ("To Hell With Good Intentions," "Darkness on the Edge of Gastown") **

The Vaccines: Come of Age (Columbia)
Why no-fail hookcraft is ideal for triangulating the not-enough--and also why it's not enough ("No Hope," "Change of Heart Pt. 2") *

Tilly and the Wall: Heavy Mood (TeamLove)
Riot gurl ("Heavy Mood," "Defenders") *

The Nervous Wreckords: Let Them All Talk (The Nervous Wreckords)
Moderately catchy-punky pop-rockers beat the crap out of Legs McNeill ("Let Them All Talk," "8 Track [I'm Coming Back]") *

The Platters/Hank Ballard & the Midnighters

The rough and the smooth
Friday, February 15, 2013  

The Platters: Enchanted: The Best of the Platters (Rhino '98)
It's arguable that the most successful vocal group of the '50s by far--20 top 40 pop hits between 1955 and 1961--weren't doowop at all. They never sang on street corners, that's for sure. And although they started at King, their hits were on a major label, Mercury, overseen by a songwriter named Buck Ram who insisted Mercury market them on its pop rather than "race" imprint. All but one featured Tony Williams, a funny-looking little dude with a precise, melodramatic tenor. Ram's piano triplets on their breakout "Only You" inspired a Stan Freberg parody, and his "When I feel your charm/It's like a fourth alarm" was one of the worst couplets of the decade. But the Platters' half-heartsong, half-heartbreak oeuvre proved romance needn't be adolescent or evanescent, and although Williams is dismissed as Jackie Wilson writ small, I prefer him just because he doesn't have what it takes to go all operatic on his timeless standards and period originals. This hitches up three collectors' items from the group's post-Williams and -Ram incarnation where Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, and Ink Spots covers should be. But "Smoke Gets in You Eyes" remains, as it must. Zora Taylor's ingenue lead on the early-'57 "He's Mine" is girl-group before the Chantels. And where do you think Chrissie Hynde got her band name? Some Jackson Browne album? Or "The Great Pretender," which she thrilled to as a horny youth? A

Hank Ballard & the Midnighters: Sexy Ways: The Best of Hank Ballard & the Midnighters (Rhino '93)
Doing my due diligence, I bought the easier-to-find 2005 King iteration of this canonical comp, All 20 of Their Chart Hits. But though you may have to settle for it, I'm glad I don't. I prefer the dance novelties (best: the stepping-in-space "The Float," complete with wobbly out-of-phase backup) with which it replaces Rhino's r&b marginalia (best: the Marty Robbins tune "Sugaree"), but the sound is tinnier and the annotation nonexistent all the way down to the composer credits. The 15 songs the two share are the nub of Ballard's achievement not counting "How You Gonna Get Respect (If You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet)." That the man who had hits with "Work With Me Annie" and "Annie Had a Baby" also had hits with "The Twist" and "Finger Poppin' Time" (and wrote three of them) is all you need know of the breadth of his vision. Ballard's businesslike determination to create a disturbance in your equilibrium never slackens. He's disruptive in a way most quality r&b is too focused on music per se to have time for. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 024

It's all bloody electronica now, innit?
Tuesday, February 19, 2013  

Colin Stetson: New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)
As with most new-prog succes d'estimes, these bari-sax patternings avec Laurie Anderson cameos are more original than compelling, but they're also more compelling than most ("The Stars in His Head [Dark Lights Remix]," "Red Horses [Judges II]") ***

Dobie: We Will Not Harm You (Ninja Tune)
Subtler, which for those of us who seek cheap thrills from our let's-call-it-techno seldom means better ("Magenta," "Snap, Crackle & Pop") ***

3:33: In the Middle of Infinity (Parallel Thought)
"Finding themselves lost in unknown territory, the group eventually discovers the existence of what they describe as 'spirals'--portals leading to different worlds within . . ." ("ITMOI-3," "ITMOI-5") ***

My Bloody Valentine: mbv (mybloodyvalentine.org)
And the dearth was without form and droid, and texture was upon the bass of the beat ("New You," "In Another Way") **

Flying Lotus: Pattern + Grid World (Warp)
Notes for an aural jigsaw puzzle ("Pie Face," "Clay") **

Maga Bo: Quilombo Do Futuro (Crosstalk/Postworld)
Brazil's great internationalist beatmaker it's said, and I can hear that, but note that his two grooviest tracks feature the same girl from Ipanema ("Eu Vim De Longe," "No Balanca Da Canoa") *

Fatboy Slim: Big Beach Bootique Volume V (The End)
Live beats as exciting as their hype men, who can be pretty exciting or, too often, altogether silent ("Clubs," "Get Naked [Fatboy Slim vs Futuristic Polar Bears Remix]") *

Flying Lotus: Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)
Achieves the sopranos-and-tinkle phase of sophisticated aural pansensuality ("Until the Quiet Comes," "Sultan's Request") *

My Bloody Valentine/The Vaselines

Brits I missed
Friday, February 22, 2013  

My Bloody Valentine: Isn't Anything (Relativity '88)
Having caught up with this band a little too late to slip their debut album into my '80s book, I grabbed the chance to look back and noticed what I would have missed then: how songful it is. Pioneers in the rejection of melody just then transforming the dance music their own electronica concept runs parallel to, they're too busy rehabbing Jesus and Mary Chain to immerse forthwith in the grand and ugly atmospherics that would make Loveless a pomo classic. In other words, they haven't rejected melody yet, and on the half of the album where they manage a seamless meld they carry a tune on some of the most gut-wrenching guitar textures then yet heard, and not only that--although lyrics are irrelevant to this achievement, the "Loved me black and blue" of Bilinda Butcher's "No More Sorry" could be about what her daddy did and could be about hiding it from him, and Kevin Shields's "Sueisfine" definitely doesn't advise suicide and definitely does live with it. Pretty sharp for the love-is-pain school, I'd say. A MINUS

The Vaselines: Sex With an X (Sub Pop '10)
Back when Frances McKee and Eugene Kelly were charming the eyelashes off Kurt Cobain, they were a couple, and when they stopped being one they stopped being the Vaselines. Twenty years later give or take, they were friendly exes who'd never really found anything better to do. So to have some fun and pick up a spot of change, they got together and, no longer able to extrude their couplehood, instead said "Let's write some Vaselines songs." Title notwithstanding, there's somewhat less sex in these, and listeners who set store in self-expression might conclude that the slight dip in urgency reflects the new material's factitious origins. Compared to so many reunion albums, however, it's like they never left. Simple, funny, acerbic, tuneful, they're a cabaret act for people who can't play their instruments but have some facile friends with nothing better to do either. B PLUS

Parquet Courts/Alt-J

Whines that know their own minds
Tuesday, February 26, 2013  

Parquet Courts: Light Up Gold (What's Your Rupture?)
The hook on these 14 two-minute songs isn't tunes except occasionally. It's whichever of the two guys who "sing, if you must call it that" comes packing the most anxiety--that is, the one who kicks off "Donuts Only" by whining "Like a red state's Baptist fervor/Like a small town's unsolved murder" like his meds are not quite perfect. Texan refugees whose idea of a vacation is North Dakota, they're stoned and starving in Ridgewood, Queens, where they ended up after concluding that "There are no more summer lifeguard jobs/There are no more art museums to guard." So they're pretty much resigned to giving this drone-rock thing a shot. A MINUS

Alt-J: An Awesome Wave (Canvasback/Atlantic)
It's not easy to sound like no one else while performing what are still recognizably pop songs, and harder to remain anything like listenable in the process. But topped off by Joe Newman's ductile whine (can't call it weedy, too organic) and propelled by living bass and drums you'd swear were synthesized too, this Leeds-to-Cambridge foursome's unhurried electro-mesh is always more than pleasant and half the time mildly enthralling. "Tessellate" is the hit, "Matilda" the rouser, "Dissolve Me" the statement of aesthetic-erotic principle. How Brits can call them the new Radiohead beats me. But then, Brits and Radiohead often do. B PLUS

MSN Music, February 2013


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