Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: July 2013

Odds and Ends 031

Alt-rap also-rans
Tuesday, July 2, 2013  

Kanye West: Yeezus (Def Jam)
Sign spotted on church in the wild: Death Grips--Be Like Them ("New Slaves," "Hold My Liquor") ***

J Cole: Friday Night Lights (free Roc Nation download)
The good tracks keep on coming, but the irresistible ones total, well, one ("Blow Up," "Farewell") ***

Oreo Jones: Betty (Rad Summer)
Naptown indie-rapper runs Frankie Lymon and Jackson Pollock through his beat-pumped emotional wringer ("Option Control & the Spirit," "Needy") ***

Young Fathers: Tape One (Anticon)
Compositionally, one crucial twist short of what they have in them ("Romance," "Rumbling") **

Fat Tony: Rabdargab (HomeSkool Rekordz)
Smart funny goodnik learns to see past his dick, with beatz ("Not Now," "Bad") **

J Cole: The Warm Up (free Roc Nation download)
He's so talented you can hear how much he wants it, so talented you wince every time he shoots himself in the foot, e.g. "Put some chains on my niggaz like I own slaves" ("World Is Empty," "Get By") **

Serengeti: Saal (Graveface)
Singsong raps or vice versa on brand new marginal themes over basswise chamber-pop beats ("Accommodating," "Karate") **

P.O.S.: We Don't Even Live Here (Rhymesayers)
"I don't want to think about it I just want to get down," only neither turns out to be in his control ("Fuck Your Stuff," "Weird Friends [We Don't Even Live Here]") *

Bobby Bland

A find and some bookkeeping
Friday, July 5, 2013  

Bobby Bland: Blues and Ballads (MCA '99)
Even though the parent corp owns Duke-Peacock, where Don Robey held Bland in servitude while compelling him to record Robey-copyrighted crap by the fictional Deadric Malone, Bland's catalogue is the usual mess. I estimate that anyone who chooses to own MCA's two early-'90s Duke double-CDs, I Pity the Fool and Turn On Your Love Light, can add the one-volume Greatest Hits Volume Two: The ABC-Dunhill/MCA Recordings and stop there. I also estimate that the use value of his most renowned original-release album, Two Steps From the Blues, is significantly diminished by all the duplications on almost any Duke-era best-of one might chance upon. But this surprisingly intelligent 16-track comp is different. Half Duke, half MCA-etc., it showcases the Bland I've never trusted: the schlock adept, the midtempo crooner-groaner who dug Texas-sized horn sections and was fine with strings, the lover who played in the same league as jazz status symbol Billy Eckstine and citified rivals Lou Rawls and Brook Benton. And it convinces me I prefer Bland to any of them. Never flaunting his virtuosity like Eckstine or conflating smarm and cool like Rawls or clinging to Nat Cole's coattails like Benton, Bland begins by nailing two Malone songs too dull for anyone else to sing, reminds you what a mother he is with "Ain't Nothing You Can Do," and then goes cornball commando, claiming a Malone trifle Aretha Franklin took over in 1969 as well as "If Loving You Is Wrong," "Georgia on My Mind," and "I've Got to Use My Imagination." Tossing in the occasional signature growl, he relies on his midrange like a veteran fastballer working the corners and never cracks the ice as he skates the groove. Insofar as these songs can be killed, he does the deed. A MINUS

Bobby Bland: The Anthology (Duke/Peacock/MCA '91)
Since it costs the same per track as the matched 1998 Duke and Dunhill Greatest Hits collections I recommended back in the day, my review is mostly discographical bookkeeping. Although it includes all of the Duke disc's tracks, it goes rogue on Bland's Dunhill years while retaining the half dozen or so essentials. But in the wake of the big man's death, more is more, and by doubling the Duke picks, most of them uptempo, this accesses some major work--"Little Boy Blue" and "Ain't Doin' Too Bad" discoveries for me, "Poverty" and "Ain't Nothing You Can Do" (!!) conspicuous omissions from GH. So if you're just getting started, it's probably the right choice. If you aren't, do the math yourself. Docked a notch on general principles. A MINUS

Sing Me the Songs/Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer

The old ways have their good points
Tuesday, July 9, 2013  

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Works of Kate McGarrigle (Nonesuch)
The ritual passing of the songbook from tart old folkies to sweet-and-sour showbiz kids worked better as theater, where we don't get to re-examine the performances, than it does as recorded music, where we're able to ponder just how the kids remodeled the house and put in that piano-shaped hot tub. But though Rufus's and especially Martha's oversinging stretches some of Mom's songs well beyond their limits, it's a hell of a songbook, and in the end it's the lesser material that fares worse, not the less experienced performers. Aunt Peggy Seeger is no more impressive than the youngish gender mixers whose names you'll forget again without the credits, and it's a shock to realize that a youngish gender mixer whose name you know delivers a "Go Leave" more heart-wrenching than Richard and Linda Thompson's. Almost as shocking is that the next best thing isn't a Kate song. It's Chaim Tannenbaum and the gang's "Travelling On for Jesus." A MINUS

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer: Child Ballads (Wilderland)
The 305 canonical English and Scottish ballads are obviously good tunes--time-tested, one might say. And these seven are pretty much unchanged, too. Yet subtle fiddle, accordion, pump organ, and especially bass liven up the acoustic guitars just a touch, and both Mitchell's fluting, childlike lead and Hamer's mellower follow avoid purist sanctity as well as modernizing pizzazz. If only I could swear the presentation is so beguiling I keep the plots in mind. But I will say that the two about mean parents thwarting true love speak more directly to my spirit and conscience than the one about the fine lords going down on their very own Titanic, and point out that what saves the princess-laying Willie of Winsbury is he's R-I-C-H rich. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 032

Dance dance convolution
Friday, July 12, 2013  

Frikstailers: En Son De Paz (ZZK/Waxploitation)
Buenos Aires freakstylers claim cumbia and baile, retain temperate-zone electrocool ("Mueve La Cuchi," "Los Originarios") ***

DJ Koze: Amygdala (Pampa)
German collagist claims Sgt. Pepper, provides magical mystery tour ("Marilyn Whirlwind," "Homesick") ***

Foals: Tapes (!K7)
Dully danceable Britpoppers sound better cherry-picking other people's weirdness than showcasing their own competence (Condry Ziqubu, "Confusion [Ma Afrika]"; Marshall Jefferson Vs. Noosa Head, "Mushrooms [Justin Martin Remix]"; Tony Allen, "Kilode [Carl Craig Remix]") ***

Future Sounds of Buenos Aires (Waxploitation/ZZK)
Quite a little pan-Latin electro scene they have going down in Cosmopolis (Frikstailers, "Guacha"; La Yegros, "Viene de Mi"; Fauna, "Hongo x Hongo") **

Major Lazer: Free the Universe (Secretly Canadian)
Accused dancehall will.i.am wannabe Diplo proves unequal to that worthy quest ("Get Free," "Scare Me") **

Fac. Dance 02: 12" Mixes & Rarities 1980-1987 (Strut)
Amid the self-important proto-acid house and -EDR aridity and obscurity, trance-worthy grooves, gripping weirdness, and the occasional diamond (Fadela, "N'Sel Fik"; 52nd Street, "Can't Afford [Unorganised Mix]"; Section 25, "Knew Noise"; Kalima, "Land of Dreams") *

Disclosure: Settle (Cherrytree/Interscope)
The Lawrence brothers are the form, their all too varied samples and cameos the content--which never again rises to the standard of the Eric Thomas (??) bit that opens ("When a Fire Starts to Burn," "Stimulation") *

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (Columbia)
The Black Eyed Peas they ain't ("Lose Yourself to Dance," "Get Lucky") *

Ezra Furman/Daniel Romano

High anxiety
Tuesday, July 16, 2013  

Ezra Furman: The Year of No Returning (Bar/None)
Rather than lyrics, the text accompanying this solo debut features a lengthy statement of principle: the Chicago folk-rocker (sorry, but that brutal shorthand reveals more than the one-sheet's "dark chamber pop, tough-guy garage rock and sad, gorgeous balladry") aims for "real protest" against our "globally pervasive culture." Or as Furman puts it in "American Soil": "I'm a Jew through and through and I'm about to write you a Bible." Fortunately, he sets his sacrilegious writ to muscular melodies that get more fetching as they speed up, accompanied by his admittedly garageish guitar and musicians admittedly more chamber-pop than were his helpers in the Harpoons. Taken by the style of anxiety built into a voice that rises in pitch as a matter of well-calibrated habit, I wish I could report that it sang of global contradiction more and romantic frustration less. But for now it's global enough. Furman is right to believe that too few of his cohort risk this kind of pretension, a/k/a the good kind. A MINUS

Daniel Romano: Come Cry With Me (Normaltown)
Displaced Canadian "middle child" cultivates honky-tonk misery so extreme it dallies with the absurd--misery that all began when his mama sent him away and kept his sister and brother. In a voice that's sometimes so deep it serves as its own mournful echo chamber, he counts pillows, balances obligations, takes on an acting job to keep his ex guessing, detaches his heart from his chest, and declines to reveal the true story of Chicken Bill, leaving us wondering whether it's Bill or Daniel who fools around with the gender instability of "When I Was Abroad." B PLUS

Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel/Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Weird birds
Friday, July 19, 2013  

Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel: Hey Hey It's . . . the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band (self-released)
To borrow a keyword from the "Mule Train" finale, you could complain that this clippety-clops. Presumably the revised version the liner notes promise will move at a smarter clip, because the drummer who spent a single weekend recording 13 songs she'd met a week before will since then have spent long sticky nights with them on tour. But that's only if the revised version materializes, which cannot be counted a certainty even though 37-year-old stripling Lewis is the least occasional of Stampfel's life list of weird birds. And however shambolic the songs are or aren't, you'll want to hear almost every one anyway. Where to begin? "All the Time in the World" redefining immortality? "Indie Bands on Tour" redefining folk culture? "Do You Know Who I Am?! I'm %$&*?in' Snooki!!" celebrating a reality Stampfel has never really encountered? The Tuli parody, the Stampfel remake, the Patti Page rewrite, the Tommy Jackson lyrics-added, the one that has the 74-year-old Stampfel apologizing that he doesn't "yet have the skills to write a '64-'65 Beach Boys song"? Put it on shuffle and decide for yourself. A

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Mature Themes (4AD)
After myriad albums of which I've heard half a dozen, 2010's mysteriously well-regarded non-DIY debut Before Today all too prominent among them, Ariel Rosenberg sneaks in a good one. By cult say-so a no-fail songsmith denied his place in the stratosphere by his lo-fi principles (cf. Daniel Johnston, Robert Pollard, Kurt Vile), he gears up his factory to roll out a line of relatable tunes, many with relatable lyrics attached, adding up to . . . songs! These tend silly whether stubbornly kinky (the betesticled statement of musical intentions "Kinski Assassin," the "symphony" for a "nympho at the bibliotech") or proudly ridiculous (the late "Houdini do this, do that" whereby a middling track escapes the doldrums, the Descendents joke Ariel's fans aren't old enough to get). The tunes are also silly. Singing and arrangements too. Mature my patootie--and that's a good thing. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 033

Women of the world
Tuesday, July 23, 2013  

Bettie Serveert: Oh, Mayhem! (Second Motion)
One of our finer big-guitar bands--and without a hint of macho, including the "ironic" kind in which cred-hungry young horndogs camouflage their ignorance of history ("Mayhem," "D.I.Y.") ***

Mariem Hassan: Shouka (Nubenegra)
Sahrawi powerhouse finds new Sahrawi guitarist and rides the haul music they share as hard as she can--for non-Sahrawis, maybe a little too hard ("Maatal-La," "Haiyu") ***

Kiran Ahluwalia: Aam Zamen: Common Ground (Avokado Artists)
Pan-global chanteuse clothes her fine sentiments in grooves that hail from Islamabad and Timbuktu too, and picks up momentum along the way ("Mustt Mustt [Extended]," "Zindagi") ***

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito (Interscope)
Compelling sound, constricted souls, Kool Keith, and cash flow ("Mosquito," "Sacrilege") ***

Ana´s Mitchell: Hadestown (Righteous Babe)
Classically-themed new-folkie operetta lets Mitchell warble her some Euridice, Greg Brown dig deep into Hades, and Justin Vernon spare Orpheus his falsetto ("Wedding Song," "Way Down Hadestown") **

Nikki Lane: Walk of Shame (IAmSound)
Greenville, South Carolina, rebel learns what she means by country music in LA, NYC, and at long last Nashville ("Walk of Shame," "Gone, Gone, Gone") **

Bahar Movahed & Ali Akbar Moradi: Goblet of Eternal Light: Maqams of Kurdish Tanbour Music of Iran (Traditional Crossroads)
Ayatollahs or no ayatollahs, she will too sing these devotional love songs ("Beloved," "The Desire of Union") **

Lana Del Rey: Paradise (Interscope)
Continues to project a hedonistic lassitude and desperate edge you wish you could warn your buddy off ("American," "Body Electric") **

Lil Green/Dionne Warwick

Seventy years ago, and also fifty--do the math
Friday, July 26, 2013  

Lil Green: Why Don't You Do Right? 1940-1942 (Historic '96)
Even more than Bessie Smith, this later as well as lesser blues singer--born 1919, recorded mostly pre-WW2, pursued sketchily documented r&b touring career until she died of pneumonia at 34--suffers from formulaic recording, and fortunate though she is that her formula included Bill Broonzy on guitar, she lacked melodic outreach even though she preferred pop structures to ye olde aab. Her signature is a sexuality that's sly and lascivious rather than hearty and lusty, put across by a willowy soprano that's ready for anything. Often anything means just what men hope it does, those dogs. But it can also mean patient affection and, if "Just Rockin'" says what I think it does, a thrilling night of self-gratification should her dog be out chasing pussy. If there's an ace compilation hidden in her catalogue, no one's talking, but this equally downloadable old French job beats the recent Lil's Big Hits (on K-Tel, I swear)--even improves on 1971's Romance in the Dark, assembled by the discerning Don Schlitten for RCA. By my count, about half its 23 tracks distinguish themselves as songs. The rest distinguish themselves as style only. B PLUS

Dionne Warwick: The Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits (Rhino '89)
Still in print, as is the label's shorter and proportionately cheaper 2000 Very Best Of, which among lesser sins omits three classics: "You'll Never Get to Heaven if You Break My Heart" (7/64), "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" (9/66), and "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" (8/68), the dates of which establish the limitations of the Alfie- and Valley of the Dolls-fueled theory that she got schlockier as she got older, which she certainly did after she moved on from Bacharach-David to Clive Davis in the '70s. Warwick had a voice that you admire like many or love like me--pop velvet with a gospel nap, the epitome of walk-on-by reserve except when amped by commitment to craft, romantic disputation, existential indignation, or her hurting heart. In the first great heyday of rock guitar, her feel for Brill Building baion enabled another kind of beat music: traditional pop with a Latin difference. Her breakup with her two mentors crippled all three for life. A

Gogol Bordello

Multi kontra kulti
Tuesday, July 30, 2013  

Gogol Bordello: Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO)
Although half the old band are gone, the first two songs resume their crusade with undiminished bravado and a new melodicism that never quits. "Dig Deep Enough," Eugene Hutz half implores and half commands. Why should we, old-timer? Because "We Rise Again." Just as powerfully, the next two dabble in both lyricism and the nostalgia Hutz has mocked so adamantly. And although thereafter the songwriting dips from world-historic to merely excellent, this tension powers a revitalization that had damn well better incorporate some change, because without it the "living and loving" Hutz insists are the ridiculously simple yet damnably difficult secret of human existence will stiffen and die. No other band worth caring about risks the cosmic like Hutz's immigrant tatterdemalion. Re-examining his past, he imagines a future you can hum in your mind. A

Gogol Bordello: Multi Kontra Culti Vs. Irony (Rubric '02)
Recorded with Ori Kaplan still providing Gypsy brass and Eugene Hutz still learning to write melodies and speak Roma, this prophetic effort peaks twice: with the long-vanished debut single "When the Trickster Starts a-Poking (Bordello Kind of Guy)" and "Baro Foro," a six-minute faux-Roma romp keyed to the more-more-more Sergey Rjabatzev violin riff that has anchored their climax ever since. But down from those peaks isn't so damn far. "Let's Get Radical" and "Punk Rock Parranda" are as disruptive as trans-everything trickster ideology-poking gets. A MINUS

MSN Music, July 2013


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