Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2013

Bassekou Kouyate/Bombino

Hard-rocking desert pickers for peace and justice
April 2, 2013  

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba: Jama Ko (Out Here)
I swear I thought the third album by Youssou N'Dour's ngoni man of choice might be the best ever to come out of Mali even before I got to the notes. There I learned that recording began on the day Kouyate's friend the president was overthrown by the military, and that two songs celebrate anti-Islamist heroes of 19th-century Mali--a martyr whose refusal to leave his animist faith inspired his Muslim protector to fight to his own death for it and a soldier who drank beer in the sanctimonious face of the Muslim cheikh who'd persuaded him to fight for a faith he refused to obey to the letter. From the title party anthem on out, the mood and message are inclusive not just because sharia law proscribes music altogether but because Timbuktu anti-clericalist Khaira Arby gets a track, because the Taj Mahal cameo is the most irreverent Malian blues ever recorded, because every song is fired by Kouyate's political and philosophical passion. Two melodies reach back centuries. Strong-voiced frontwoman Amy Sacko delivers the word. And although the ngoni is a mere lute, Kouyate gets more noises you want to hear out of his strings than any two jam-band hotshots you can name. A

Bombino: Nomad (Nonesuch)
Producer Dan Auerbach joins in only as the bassist on "Niamey Jam." But with an American bassist on half the tracks and a German drummer doubling Bombino's own guy half the time too, this is the hardest-rocking of the hard-traveling Tuareg guitarist's three distinct albums. It does sweeten as it proceeds, as befits the "nostalgia" two first-ever translations cite--a nostalgia anybody whose homeland is a war zone has earned. The lyrics are very simple. My favorite, in its entirety: "This era/The era of young girls/Their way of loving/Works in a different way/Prayers to you, my brothers/Better to be sensitive/For our girls/Those of this era." A MINUS

Odds and Ends 027

Wu-Tang forever
Friday, April 5, 2013  

Wu-Block: Wu-Block (E-One)
The auteur provides the guacamole-canoli-parolee on this Ghostface album in disguise, but Jadakiss himself sums it up: "Crack spot stories/To Allah be the glory" ("Drivin Round," "Take Notice") ***

Ghostface Killah: Apollo Kids (Def Jam)
Living off his past, but it's quite a past and a damned decent living ("In the Park," "Purified Thoughts") ***

Action Bronson: The Program (free download)
Four songs about sampling and not all that much food ("Mr. Songwriter," "Amuse Bouche") ***

The Man With the Iron Fists (Soul Temple)
Less outrageous and fulfilling than the flick, more outrageous and fulfilling than most soundtracks (Pusha T/Raekwon/Joell Ortiz/Danny Brown, "Tick, Tock"; Ghostface Killah/M.O.P./Pharoahe Monch, "Black Out") **

4two7: Internal Dialogue (3sixty5)
Hip-hop bizzer starts his own album, develops brain cancer, dispenses with tumor, and finishes his own album, which evinces the balanced confidence his backstory deserves ("Butta on Ya Muffintop," "I Lov the Way") **

Illuminati Congo: All Eye See (Nyahbanga)
Skank-prone Chicago stay-positives mix genres, beats, races, moods, live-vs.-sampled, and martial disciplines ("Get My Bruce Lee On," "Machete") *

Inspectah Deck/7L & Esoteric: Czarface (Brick/Fly Casual)
Anti-mixtape features foldout of the comic-book supervillain it invents and celebrates, also some professional-grade hip-hop ("Savagely Attack," "Rock Beast," "Let It Off") *

Action Bronson: Rare Chandeliers (Vice)
Never a good sign when a spoken-word sample IDs the album in more than name only ("Rare Chandeliers," "Demolition Man") *

Rilo Kiley

A great songwriter
Tuesday, April 9, 2013  

Rilo Kiley: RKives (Little Record Company)
Seven of these 16 outtakes etc. were recorded along with Rilo Kiley's reflexively underrated 2007 swan song Under the Blacklight--the one where Jenny Lewis & Co. consorted with chart-proven beatmaker-producer Mike Elizondo. Another three accompanied their underachieving 2004 succs d'estime More Adventurous--the one where they were so vulgar as to risk Warner Bros. distribution. And near as I can hear, all that marks these terrific songs as outtakes etc. is that they're slightly less produced and dramatic. Lewis's melodic facility, vocal ductility, psychological acuity, and verbal dexterity never peak as high as on UTB or MA while maintaining an altitude that few song bands ever reach. May I recommend "Let Me Back In," about wanderlust; "A Town Called Luckey," about 30 as middle age; "Bury, Bury, Bury Another," about work, love, and death. May I recommend the greasy Too Short cameo on the "Dejalo" remix. May I recommend the handclapped closer "The Frug": "And I can do the frug/I can do the robocop/I can do the Freddy/I cannot do the smurf/And I can hate your girl/I can tell you she's real pretty/I can take my clothes off/I cannot fall in love." A

Rilo Kiley: The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek '02)
Beloved of her cult, in part simply because it's early but also because it's mild, this is where Jenny Lewis begins her run as one of the '00s' hardest-hitting songwriters. Really, mild she's not. Her great subject is triumph over depression, exemplified by the magnificent "A Better Son/Daughter," where she's on the march long before she's made forthright her m.o. Even "My Slumbering Heart," which describes dreams any man worth sleeping with would be proud to lie there and listen to, hints at the nightmares of everyday life. Insofar as that man is partner Blake Sennett, however, he is admittedly kind of mild. A

Lil Wayne/Skrillex

Critics, what do they know?
Friday, April 12, 2013  

Lil Wayne: I Am Not a Human Being II (Cash Money/Republic)
Oh no. He's rhyming about almost nothing but--yuck and/or bor-ing--sex. Hasn't he heard of artistic growth? Probably he has, actually--his star bubble is no more hermetic than anybody else's. In fact, I say it's progress that 11 of the 15 tracks here deploy the P-word the way God intended (as opposed to the p****-a**-n**** form, which I'd as soon he s***can myself). It suggests that, unlike most rappers and related pop lifeforms who brag about sex, Weezy really seems to savor it (especially--psst--oral--both ways!). Plus his posse cuts are finally showing some savor too, albeit not on the vestigial guns 'n' violence ones--the Gunplay collab is easily the dullest music here. Brightest: a pro-sex theme song featuring Drake and Future and called, officially, "Love Me." You want socially conscious themes? Really? A loose-lipped ship-sinker is what he was meant to be. A MINUS

Skrillex: Leaving (Owsla download)
There aren't even three new songs on this for-fans-only EP--just two, totaling nine minutes, plus "Scary Bolly Dub," a reggae remix of "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," already available X3 on the debut EP of the same name. But messing with songs is what he does, and until that "Oh my God" hook he found officially displaces Gary Glitter in the American heart, I say he should keep on messing. Nor are the new compositions screwed-and-chopped liver. "The Reason" subjects that potentially pleasurable human faculty to the sensory scrutiny it deserves. And "Leaving" promises the vulgar new vistas chill-out ambience deserves. A MINUS

Jonny Fritz/Brad Paisley

The corndog factor
Tuesday, April 16, 2013  

Jonny Fritz: Dad Country (ATO)
The former Jonny Corndawg doffs his cartoon face but continues to wear his cartoon voice, probably because he owns no other. Object: album that presents him as an ordinary Southern-accented male with an unusually high-strung larynx who goes to bars and forgets the garbage and bathes in the holy pool of the Mount of Venus and catches sick and drives 250 miles to get tossed from your birthday party just like any other fella. And oh yeah, who's got relationship problems so depressing that he thinks calmly about killing himself. Yet even that doesn't stop him from saying what he has to say in under three minutes, with a catchy tune to help the time pass. A MINUS

Brad Paisley: Wheelhouse (Arista Nashville)
Two or three great songs and a fair number of pretty good ones--I'm especially partial to "Karate," a bash-his-face wife-abuse song that deserves more attention than it's been getting, and "Those Crazy Christians," where Paisley fulfills his God quotient by stating his distance so admiringly it'll do evangelicalism more good than an entire sacred album. But a lot of the time he's trying too hard to say too little or trying too clumsily to say too much, sometimes even with his trusty guitar. And the LL Cool J rap is just a flat-out embarrassment. B PLUS

The Knife/They Might Be Giants

Professional weirdos
Friday, April 19, 2013  

The Knife: Shaking the Habitual (Mute)
Surrounded and set up by bizarro-world electronic "dance" music as engaging as prime Burial and playful to boot, even the arty stuff signifies--sometimes as soundscape and sometimes as slap upside the head, as in the scraped cello-I-think of "Fracking Fluid Injection." The one exception, the 19-minute electronic-drone-with-apostrophes "Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized," isn't calming or trancey, just an inoffensive tune-out. Conveniently, however, that one's a bonus track even if neither band nor label advertise it as such--available only on a two-CD "deluxe edition" whose sole additional attraction is a comic book satirizing the superrich, who I guess they figure won't think twice about buying it. Poor me recommends the single disc, an hour and a quarter of music that's the opposite of inoffensive--an exciting, multivalent Dreijer sibling showcase. Karin provides saving shades of humanity by exercising the vocal cords nature gave her. But Olof's imagination, sense of humor, and bent rebop carry the day. A

They Might Be Giants: Nanobots (Idlewild/Megaforce)
They're such novelty nuts that trying to get into a groove with them would be like trying to build a go-kart with Legos. They're about individual pieces, not structural strength, and thus always demand a count. My calculation: overlooking the nine subminute snippets--most annoying even at that length, with bows to the nine-second "Tick" ("If it wasn't for that tick/We would not be in this predicament/Not be in this predicament that we're in," over and out) and the 24-second closer (she neither killed him nor made him stronger)--that leaves 16 songs that pretend to be songs, including one A plus, two clear A minuses, and six close enoughs. One of these is as strong as--and more soulful than--anything in their catalogue: the 2:04-minute biography "Tesla." Thumbs up as well to "Black Ops," because it's always fun to hear the word "communist" in a song, and "Replicants," because for some arbitrary reason it tickles me. The arbitrarily amusing--their specialty. B PLUS

Chicha Libre/The Rough Guide to the Music of Hungary

Two cultural margins
Tuesday, April 23, 2013  

Chicha Libre: Cuatro Tigres (Barbs)
Chicha Libre: Cuatro Tigres (Barbs) They're Brooklyn-based revivers-imitators of an early-'70s Peruvian cumbia-Andean-psychedoolic pop synthesis that loses an essential quantum of charm at a cultural distance--I much prefer the Roots of Chicha comp that got them going. But here they acknowledge their true roots with four covers on a vinyl-or-download CDs-are-for-squares EP, one of them a chicha "classic" called "Rica Chicha" that was the last of the four to grow on me. The first--by a mile, it's cute and militant simultaneously--was the Clash's "Guns of Brixton." The second was the Simpsons theme. The third, even more unlikely and almost as inspired conceptually, was Love's "Alone Again Or." Fun fun fun till Daddy takes the portable stereo away. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of Hungary (World Music Network)
Somewhat more contemporary and very nearly as "Gypsy" as the label's 2008 Hungarian Gypsies comp (and with only three artist repeats, two of them standouts), this skims off much of the schmaltz in which what-us-Balkan? Hungarians have always indulged. Faster and less melodramatic, it's more Balkan as a result. By all means avoid if violins make you fiddle about, but by all means consider if you could use an infusion of the most uncivilized stomp and swerve Europe has to offer. Although the last third does fade some, be sure to stay awake for Parno Graszt and Mitsoura. And if afterwards you crave schmaltz for some reason, the Trkny-Mvek bonus disc will be waiting politely to grease you up. A MINUS

Wussy

Estimable Purchases
Friday, April 26, 2013  

Wussy: Duo (Shake It)
Assuming these seven new-to-Wussy songs are de facto demos--for sure some and likely most but probably not all will be rocked up on a fifth album that now seems a certainty--we should think about not their acoustic settings but their acerbic subjects. No breakups here. Instead, three of Chuck Cleaver's lyrics address that other Wussy preoccupation, death, which invariably besets the kind of wacked-out and/or mean-ass loser who brains a monkey in the cheerfully entitled exception, "Ring a Ding Ding I'm Rotten Inside," while two of Lisa Walker's address yet another Wussy preoccupation, the failed consolations of religion. So her climactic praisesong to English girls who swim in the North Sea like it's summertime comes as a true relief, with Cleaver's piano tracing a delicate counterpoint. Inspirational Verse: "The Witnesses will all be waiting for the chance to be the first to squeal/As you're going through your souvenirs to help decide what is and isn't real." That's how I hear it, anyway. A MINUS

Wussy: Rigor Mortis (Shake It '08)
I underrated this EP five years ago because, having never seen the band play, I had no inkling of how much I'd end up valuing their live recordings--how much I'd love hearing two perfectly unmatched voices interact in the moment. The up-front redundancy of the title cut is now extended by the reappearance of the live "Rigor Mortis" and the formerly EP-only "Blood and Guts" on the free Berneice Huff mixtape. That said, I always thought the vibraphone-bedizened "Skip" was the choicest EP-only here, "Sweetie" squeaks and whooshes as it rocks out, "Millie Christine" adds a raw declarativeness one of their milder numbers thrives on, and "Airborne" is the finest version of their finest song, which leads their first and finest album. But of course, they're all worth owning. As is this. B PLUS

Ceramic Dog/Chelsea Light Moving

The '80s guitar god grows older
Tuesday, April 30, 2013  

Ceramic Dog: Your Turn (Northern Spy)
Situated between the forlorn yowl "Lies My Body Told Me" and the impersonal slave chant "Masters of the Internet," the title track, a wordless showcase for leader Marc Ribot's guitar, redeems "rockism"'s raging glory days. I mean, these guys are pissed, yet without a hint of sexist strut or blues-boy self-pity. Six songs-with-lyrics, each with its own vocal signature although there's not a proper singer to be heard, and six instrumentals, some straight and some avant and one a loving yet crudely irreverent "Take Five" cover, converge toward the same goal: demolishing your musical illusions. Really, folks, don't try to download this one free. They want their money. When they say "We're not human like you/We live inside your iPod," that's called sarcasm. A MINUS

Chelsea Light Moving: Chelsea Light Moving (Matador)
For better or worse, and it's both, this is kind of what you'd figure sort of: a Sonic Youth record dominated by that band's most important member. It's also a record that makes us love Steve Shelley, because John Mooney's drums never propel Thurston past virtual pogo territory--and that says nothing of what a nice change it used to be to have someone besides Thurston sing. Imagine that "Sleeping Where I Fall" addresses his former bassist-wife if you want, but believe that the whole album is conceived as a bohemian history lesson. Present and accounted for are a flower child who prefers her music free, a song by Darby Crash, a song about Darby Crash, a song to William S. Burroughs, a song linking Dylan to Frank O'Hara, and "Groovy & Linda," who FYI were real hippie speed freaks surnamed Hutchinson and Fitzpatrick who were murdered in a boiler room two blocks from my apartment in 1967. B PLUS

MSN Music, April 2013


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