Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2013

Live From Festival Au Desert Timbuktu/Omar Suleyman

Before the war
Friday, May 3, 2013  

Live From Festival Au Desert Timbuktu (Clermont Music)
Recorded soundboard-to-Marantz two days before full war broke out and sharia began its forced march through northern Mali, this doesn't translate as readily as the first edition a decade ago. Although Saharan music has gone somewhat international since then, there's even less melody and groove, widely known acts are few, and of those both Tartit and Bassekou Kouyate fail to peak. But when I buckled down to listen to six straight unfamiliar names in the middle, I concentrated effortlessly as the first four demonstrated different ways men can yell at each other, with Odwa's "Tamnana" winning the argument. Then right after Khaira Arby's "La Liberte" made an ideological point, and later her guitarist Oumar Konate made a godly one. Inshallah, they'll once again be sure of their freedom to play their music a year from now. A MINUS

Omar Souleyman: Highway to Hassake (Sublime Frequencies '07)
Souleyman's four Sublime Frequencies albums are similar enough to confuse the lay listener, especially one wary of letting backstory get in the way of the music itself. I tell myself I prefer 2011's Haflat Gharbia because it cherrypicks the non-Syrian performances of a shrewd guy who was by then a world traveler, but I'll never know for sure because it's also the first one I heard, an accident that can sway anyone's judgment. After many tries, I'm pretty sure this is my number two, so I was pleased to learn that it was the first best-of Mark Gergis sorted out for him. I'll also point out that although I fell for the breakneck pace of Haflat Gharbia, here the slow stuff is a respite. Since the subtitle is "Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria," it would seem possible that the slow equals the folk. But Gergis's useful notes make no such distinction. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 028

Too much is not enough
Tuesday, May 7, 2013  

Todd Snider: Happy New Year Vol. 1 (Aimless)
Updates of "Beer Run" and "Ballad of the Kingsmen," Jerry Jeff Walker cameo with patter, too many redundancies, and three or four definitive renditions ("Alright Guy [Hill Country Goodbye Story] Alright Guy," "Precious Little Miracles," "Can't Complain," "Too Soon to Tell") ***

Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 (Columbia/Legacy)
There are probably 30-40 Miles albums I'd rather play, but not with Shorter blatting quite so much, or Corea providing a tolerable dose of the fusion I'll come to hate ("Bitches Brew," "Directions" [7.25/69]) ***

Omar Souleyman: Jazeera Nights (Sublime Frequencies)
Studio-recorded before he'd refined his crowd-pleasing wiles in the world marketplace, this dabke for dummies lacks a subtle but crucial quantum of give ("Hafer Bidi Gabrak [I Will Dig Your Grave With My Hands]," "Hot Il Khanjar Bi Gleibi [Stab My Heart]") ***

The Postal Service: Give Up: Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition (Sub Pop)
First three new songs on the bonus disc gave me hope for the next four, which, well, you know (and there are also some pretty decent remixes/remakes!) ("Be Still My Heart," "A Tattered Line of String") **

Omar Souleyman: Dabke 2020 (Sublime Frequencies)
Arguably his most intense record, yet also arguably his most wearying and even sometimes dullest--the death-metal effect ("La Sidounak Sayyada," "Lansab Sherek") **

They Might Be Giants: Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (Idlewild)
A "rarities compilation" needn't maintain a surge, but it should peak more than this one does ("Authenticity Trip," "Marty Beller Mask," "Tubthumping") **

Jimi Hendrix: People, Hell and Angels (Legacy)
A superior barrel scrape, with Hendrix's comping behind Lonnie Youngblood worthy of the permanent collection ("Let Me Move You," "Somewhere") **

Fleetwood Mac: Rumours: 35th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Warner Bros.)
Live set on this three-CD exploitation might well entrance, outtakes disc will not ("Monday Morning," "Oh Daddy") *

The Uncluded/Pistol Annies

Four spunky gals and a big smart galoot
Friday, May 10, 2013  

The Uncluded: Hokey Fright (Rhymesayers)
In a year when someone named Binki Shapiro ain't Kimya Dawson, someone named Aesop Rock will wash Adam Green right out of your head. Protesting the decline of the laundromat and promoting the rise of organ donation, ecumenicizing "Superheroes" with "Fluffernutter/Shawarma/Reuben/Cuban" and eulogizing the friend of a friend who justified Dawson's fear of flying, it's the return of the deeply goofy male-female duet. The tunes are Dawson's because Ae-Rock doesn't do tunes, but his beats beef up those tunes just like his gruff, clotted flow beefs up her itty-bitty soprano. Most important, her poetic confessionals function as glosses on his rhymes, which are a touch more straightforward in any case. True, they bog down into his bigthink for a spell. But all is redeemed by a spirited finale designed to jar the downhearted from facing life, as they put it, tits up. A

Pistol Annies: Annie Up (RCA)
A lark evolves into a business proposition as an album of 10 inspired three-minute songs eventuates in an album of 12 expert three-and-a-half-minute songs. Because the three principals are still smart and spunky, some of these are superb: the family dysfunction playlet "Hush Hush," the objectification expose "Being Pretty Ain't Pretty," the 'til-death-do-us-part "I Hope You're the End of My Story." But because the three principals are Music City pros with a release schedule, some of them are merely expert, and two drag big time: the ensemble's five-minute "Blues You're a Buzz Kill," which is the latter solely, and Angeleena Presley's one-dimensional "Loved by a Workin' Man," which kisses up to the usual Nashville-male chauvinist cliches. A MINUS

Kenya Special/Orchestra Super Mazembe

Nairobi on 45
Tuesday, May 14, 2013  

Kenya Special (Soundway)
There were hundreds of 45s released every month in the Nairobi of the late '70s and early '80s, many of which have disappeared, as happens when some artists can only bankroll their releases in batches of 50. But enough have survived to sustain a crate dig that aims for quality rather than rarity or oddity. The stylistic range of these 32 high-level selections is audible without a scorecard--playful savannah-pop harmonies, tight hotel bands with their dance numbers, many English lyrics, enough benga to scratch that itch, and numerous one-of-a-kinds. Don't expect much airy soukous a la Guitar Paradise of East Africa--that was more a Tanzanian thing. And for all the welcome variety and obscurity, the most exciting music is five minutes of a horn section anchored by the great Verckys--not funk by a long shot, but Brownian in its momentum. Also recommended is the scorecard, which runs 40 pages. A MINUS

Orchestra Super Mazembe: Mazembe @ 45RPM Vol. 1 (Sterns Africa)
Clearly a first-rank band, they were also clearly a band without a true star on vocals or guitar. Since beyond a single drummer their music was all vocals and guitars, this is a limitation. Nor does the songcraft help much. So this lovingly conceived, skillfully engineered reconstruction from the big-holed, two-sided originals provides nine slightly subclassic soukous tracks averaging eight-and-a-half minutes apiece--in the East African manner, of course, which is less coruscating than its Congolese counterparts. Samba Mapangala does take the lead once, and it's fine listening throughout. But it's definitely for adepts of the style. Mastermind Doug Paterson's thorough notes include summaries of Lingala lyrics that are more woman-friendly than Afropop so often is. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 029

In case you were wondering . . .
Friday, May 17, 2013  

Jenny & Johnny: I'm Having Fun Now (Warner Bros. '10)
Just because she loves him for bringing out the folk-rock softie in her doesn't mean we have to ("Big Wave," "Just Like Zeus," "My Pet Snakes") ***

George Jones: Cold Hard Truth (Asylum '99)
Begins with two all-time keepers and a fine novelty, after which the songs need more than the scratch vocals he was stuck with after he ran into an abutment playing his stepdaughter the tape ("Choices," "Cold Hard Truth," "Sinners & Saints") ***

Lil Wayne: I Am Not a Human Being (Universal/Motown '10)
His throwaways beat their keepers, from solitary yet, but the true classics are all in the middle and the Young Money promos are filler ("I Am Not a Human Being," "Popular," "I'm Single") ***

The Go! Team: Rolling Blackouts (Memphis Industries '10)
Exceeding their emotional reach, musical grasp, and conceptual limitations whether softer or more elaborate ("Apollo Throwdown," "Bust Out Brigade") ***

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: I Speak Fula (Sub Pop '10)
At ease with himself and in synch with his people ("Jamana Be Diya," "Falani") **

They Might Be Giants: Join Us (Idlewild/Rounder '11)
Kiddie songs becoming a habit, clever fellows service the grownup market ("When Will You Die," "2082") **

The Old 97's: The Grand Theatre: Volume Two (New West '11)
If you'd been doing this since 1994, wouldn't you front-load volume one? ("No Simple Machine," "Visiting Hours") *

Liz Phair: Funstyle (Rocket Science Ventures '10)
Not a good sign when the skits stand out and your old demos are a welcome add-on ("Bang! Bang!" "White Babies") *

Vampire Weekend/Deerhunter

At long last alt-rock
Tuesday, May 21, 2013  

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires in the City (XL)
Think maybe this is overworked? Think maybe the hosannas are reflexive, generalized? I did, and then I didn't. So now think Paul Simon instead if you insist, admittedly a great album. But Sgt. Pepper is a truer precedent, to wit: if you're smart you say where's the rebop, only if you're smarter you quickly figure out that maybe sustaining groove and unfailing exuberance don't matter as much as you believed. Each verse/chorus/bridge/intro melody, each lyric straight or knotty, each sound effect playful or perverse (or both)--each is pleasurable in itself and aptly situated in the sturdy songs and tracks, so that the whole signifies without a hint of concept. And crucially, the boy-to-man themes you'd figure come with several twists I've noticed so far and more no doubt to come. One is simply a right-on credo: "Age is an honor--it's still not the truth." Another is how much time Ezra Koenig spends wrestling a Jahweh-like hard case. The Big Guy comes out on the short end of a fight song called "Unbelievers," and a DJ "spinning 'Israelites' into 'Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown'" gives Him a nasty turn. But Koenig claims no permanent victory. Too smart. Too much a man, too. A PLUS

Deerhunter: Monomania (4AD)
Consider me converted, at least until Bradford Cox lurches off in yet another direction. Here he opts for the kind of lo-fi garage scuzz that's always said to come bearing melodic emoluments and seldom does except in its punker forms--and now this progger one. Well into its 12 songs in 43 minutes, the tunes maintain as reliably as classic Ramones, one after another after another. Not that they're nearly as neat--there's distortion everywhere, vocalsguitarskeyboardsnotessounds. But for once the distortion just adds savor the way it's supposed to, as do the three trickier and less ingratiating ear-stickers that close. As for themes, whaddaya think? He's alienated, heartsick, confused. OK, fella. Just keep putting that time in at the garage. A

The Rough Guide to Acoustic Africa/Ethnic Minority Music of Southern China

Acoustic for folkies, acoustic for the folk
Friday, May 24, 2013  

The Rough Guide to Acoustic Africa (World Music Network)
At this point in history, acoustic is the opposite of authentic in Africa--at least the kind of acoustic that gets near a recording studio. The 16 artists scattered across this collection include tourist bands, factitious folk ensembles, moonlighting dance musicians looking for a payday, academics, and loads of expats. They tend genteel and their albums can be snoozefests. But you can bet every one has the sense to polish up a few tuneful show-stoppers, and assume that Rough-Guide-in-Chief Phil Stanton has found them. Normally I get annoyed when Afrocomps skip from Niger to Madagascar 'cause it's all one big happy continent. But the aesthetic here is so pretty and soft-spoken it rarely matters. Assured, calculated, innocent, and sometimes sublime. A MINUS

Ethnic Minority Music of Southern Asia (Sublime Frequencies)
I don't have the confidence to give this an A because even though it makes sense on its own terms it's just too weird by American standards. Maybe by Chinese standards too--my calculations indicate that the 11 or 12 ethnic groups responsible for 16 tracks (excluding sacred Tibetan finale) add barely 10 million to China's population, well under one percent. Yet because I lack the sophistication of their billion-three fellow citizens, the vocal scales and lute-and-flute sonorities all just sound Chinese to me. Not well-schooled, formally respectable Chinese, however. There's a conversational feel to most of these colloquies and solo turns, with high female voices prevailing but enough men grunting their prerogatives. In my house, which hosted a Netflix festival of Chinese nature docs recently, it's dinner music. And a beardo I know with a small electronica business immediately pegged it as a sample source. B PLUS

The Beautiful South

Simply beautiful
Tuesday, May 28, 2013  

The Beautiful South: Golddiggas Headnodders & Pholk Songs (Sony Music UK '04)
By the time pop grandmaster Paul Heaton threw this covers album to his U.K. hordes, his American fanbase was so small it had drowned in a pint of bitter. Yet the Britannia-ruling Olivia-ELO-Zombies trifecta that opens is no less winning than the all-American Ramones-Stylistics parlay that closes, and the Heppelbaums country song is more Willie Nelson than the Willie Nelson country song even though the Heppelbaums are actually Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray. Moreover, the U.K.-specific selections from Spice Girls spinoff S Club 7 and major-label shoegazers Lush fit in less cunningly than the brazen Blue Oyster Cult and Rufus Wainwright picks. Every rendition is sly, dulcet, midtempo, with strings when appropriate--a beloved pop confection. A MINUS

The Beautiful South: Superbi (Sony BMG '06)
Paul: "We've come a long way from the cave." Alison: "What, you started to shave?" Paul: "Now we know just how to behave." Alison: "Since chivalry decided to bathe." So OK, I accept that they're somehow too English for us rude Yanks. What I don't get is how they lost their mojo in their native land--disbanding in 2007, they announced, due to "musical similarities." Their final album is middle of the pack by their high standards, opening with six unfailingly witty tunes, most of which reflect cynically on romantic love although there is that one about the Manchester rain, and closing with six less consistent songs Ray Davies would embrace socialism to have written. I suppose it could have been the drinking. I read where Paul now owns a pub in Manchester, records solo a bit, and continues to embrace socialism. A MINUS

Martha Redbone Roots Project/The Handsome Family

Listen to the words
Friday, May 31, 2013  

Martha Redbone Roots Project: The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake (Blackfeet Productions)
Produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen, and for once that's a good thing. Where on Allen Ginsberg's weird old Blake album a tuneless hippie chorale rendered Blake's lyrics over finger cymbal, flute, and harmonium that cried out for a round of oms, Afro-Cherokee Redbone claims Blake for British balladry, where he belongs. Traditional lyrics are worth marveling and puzzling over. But I know of few as powerful and strange as "The Garden of Love," "I Rose Up at Dawn of Day," or "The Fly," to name three that went unannotated when I marked up my complete Blake at 19. Blake is always less obscure in Songs of Innocence and Experience mode, and between Redbone's lucid, subtle force and the modernized Appalachian settings she fits to the poet's stanzas, she's created a new body of folk song by a lyricist who compares favorably to, well, Bob Dylan. Not every track takes it home. Nothing is that automatic. But a major find nonetheless. A MINUS

The Handsome Family: Wilderness (Carrot Top)
Since each of the 12 songs is named after an animal--including just one mammal, and a wildebeest at that--you expect a zoological concept album. In fact, however, the title creatures all have walk-ons, fly-ons, swim-ons, or crawl-ons, even the conquering flies who think General Custer looks so "beautiful" dead. Yet the only true ringer is a magic lizard whose bite requires a witchcraft cure--in all the rest, the animals are intimates of a natural world humans navigate clumsily and uncomprehendingly except in "Frogs," where the housebound are bidden to tromp down through the mud and hear their amphibian song. As always, the tales are Rennie Sparks's, the teller her dour husband Brett, and the tales themselves are why you first listen. But these are so fine you don't mind listening again. And as you do, you start noticing how deftly Brett negotiates lines and stanzas that aren't as blockish as their meter and his voice make you think. And then you listen to this uningratiating music some more. A MINUS

MSN Music, May 2013


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