Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Dec. 2006/Jan. 2007

It was August when I last published a Consumer Guide (in The Village Voice), and the intervening period includes the hot back-to-school release season. So you'll find more full A's in this--my first bimonthly MSN Consumer Guide--than I'll ordinarily come up with, and more critically mainstream music, too.

The basic drill: 10 to 12 recommended albums graded between A plus and B plus, a bunch of "Honorable Mentions" in order of preference (with a couple of recommended tracks in parentheses), a few "Choice Cuts" song picks and some "Duds." Part criticism, part use value.

For a fuller explanation, read a general introduction to the Consumer Guide, which will be a permanent installation on MSN Music, with updates occurring the first day of every other month. The most convenient place to check out more examples of the Consumer Guide--I've reviewed more than 13,000 albums in this format--is at my Web site.

Don Byron: Do the Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker (Blue Note) First: Sounds grrreat. Then: Who needs this arty clarinetist with Walker's gutbucket sax a click away? Finally: Terrific modern jazz-funk record Ó la Hank Crawford, with just enough just-funky-enough vocals to counteract Byron's smooth tone on sax. Check the Benny Benjamin four-four that drives the original "Shotgun" on Walker's Millennium Collection or Ultimate Collection, then the Rodney Holmes syncopations beneath Byron's version. Benjamin is a titan and Holmes isn't. But Holmes has heard James Brown, and the change'll do you good. B PLUS

Crunk Hits, Vol. 2 (TVT) What fun. Eighteen more bangers, three featuring Lil Jon's ridiculous "whut"-etc., by artists whose albums are marketed to people who think it makes good economic sense to put diamonds in their teeth--plus, of course, their wannabes. BG does his Tuva thing on a line that goes "Huhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah"; the Body Head Bangerz reach out to all Americans "addicted to money, cars and clothes"; Dem Franchise Boyz brag about their pristine T-shirts. And all that good stuff is toward the back. Not as peaky as the first volume. But more reliable. A

Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia) It took Dylan five years to create this conservative album even if he laid it down in a week, and I doubt he could have gotten it done at all without cribbing rhetoric from a shallower conservative, Confederate poet Henry Timrod. When not calling his new nation to arms or locating Satan's domicile north of the Mason-Dixon line, Timrod had a gift for genteel sentiment that's essential to the old-fashioned tone here, and Dylan grabbed what he needed. But note the intrusion of his old friend deliberate barbarism when, for instance, Timrod's "logic frailer than the flowers" produces Dylan's "more frailer than the flowers." Without such touches, the conservatism would be stultifying. The blues tropes help, too. Then again, without the '30s pop, the blues grooves would be stultifying. Instead, the entire construction is a thing of grace--conservative, and new under the sun. A PLUS

The Gothic Archies: The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events (Nonesuch) Hard to believe when the creepy-comic opener, "Scream and Run Away," is topped by the closer, an all-time classic novelty with the unpromising title "We Are the Gothic Archies," as in "Are the Gothic Archies we? Oh, are we ever they!" But though smarty-pants Lemony Snicket fans may get references I miss, in between there are times when Stephin Merritt's monotonous low baritone seems merely inexpressive, as on "How Do You Slow This Thing Down?" (please, not slower, eeek!). Said baritone is perfect for the deadpan horror of "Crows," however. He's the scariest boy on the Lower East Side. A MINUS

The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant) Sasha Frere-Jones has nominated the Mountain Goats, and now the Decemberists come to mind even though their songs are fictive rather than reported/recollected/observed, but for me the nearest parallel to this band is the Drive-By Truckers. Both bands match the descriptions they stuff into their traditional narrative structures to a specific rock tradition: Skynyrd-Allmans for the Truckers' songs of the South, Springsteen for Hold Steady's new generation of shadows in the backstreets. That said, this album lays it on too thick--all right already with the keyb flourishes, which suit their mawkish new emo label all too well--and declines the thematic burden of "Separation Sunday." As stories, on the other hand, the songs could convince anyone that kids have a hard time--without giving whiners any sort of go-ahead to throw their lives away. All accomplished without directly referencing ye olde rock-and-roll lifestyle--unless you count "Chillout Tent," in which two strangers freak at a festival and live to make out about it. But that's about fans, not bands. This band is for the fans. A MINUS

The Klezmatics: Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukah (JMG) Lorin Sklamberg and his wondrous band found only eight Hanukkah lyrics by the Scotch-Irish Okie, who got interested in the subject while raising a family with his Jewish wife, and most of them were in Guthrie's silliest kiddie style: "Honeyky Hanuka" is a typical title, "Dinga lingle lingle, I ring your bell" a resonant line. And from this they create as upful a holiday album as I can recall. Sklamberg's tenor is a treasure of American music, adding wit and warmth to predominantly Yiddish-style melodies as bright as any Guthrie ever stole or created. They spritz up "Happy Joyous Hanuka" with hoedown fiddle, gospel bass and country licks, and later on leave room for, why not, Jew's harp. And to get to 12 tracks, they add four instrumentals. Can't pin down the R&B novelty Frank London raided for "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flop." Maybe we'll figure it out at Christmas dinner. A

Maria Muldaur: Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (Telarc) A pop connoisseur even as a kid in a jug band, Muldaur always brings savoir-faire to "folk" materials. But she's never sung with so much attention, delicacy and lyrical intelligence. She extracts meaning from songs a younger Dylan played as look-ma-June-spoon throwaways, lifts the title tune from well-earned obscurity, lays "Lay Lady Lay" across her big brass soul and rescues "Make You Feel My Love" from Billy Joel. And also from Bob Dylan. Even when the songwriter does this kind of material straight, he's not sexy--not like Rod Stewart or Al Green. But Muldaur, who's been known to slather the libido on too thick, is serious about getting into bed with him. A

OutKast: Idlewild (LaFace) In a poetic biz snafu, the not-actually-a-soundtrack that got mixed reviews in periodicals with July deadlines was substantially revised for its Aug. 22 release. But due to the usual dumb critical systole-diastole plus the premature burial of Idlewild-the-movie, the backlash didn't stop there. Me, I liked it fine before catching the near-empty late show where I fell in love. Flick's a sepia-tone "Moulin Rouge" that makes just as much hash of musical historicity--Big Boi the bootlegger's nephew raps with a territory band, Andre the mortician's son ivory-tickles like he's studied Debussy and dreamed Monk. Record's a joyous mishmash, so light-spirited that rumors of OutKast's demise are irrelevant regardless of accuracy, which nobody can gauge anyway. The endless grindcore finale that bloats proceedings to 79 minutes is their stupidest track ever, and occasionally a forgettable song sets down and rests awhile. But from the mainstream hip-hop Big Boi articulates with so much muscle to the retro swing Andre sings just fine, they sound happy to parade their mastery. Also on parade: Janelle Monße. A

The Rapture: Pieces of the People We Love (Motown/Vertigo) Three years of artistic posturing, musical effort and spilled ink went into a rhythm trifle less consistent and commercial than the debut. But the capital expenditures aren't our problem, and the artifact's high spots bury, for instance, the two Danger Mouse tracks. Best is the silliest and busiest, "First Gear"; runner-up the Talking Heads for Dummies "Whoo! Alright Yeah & Uh-Huh." None of it means a damn thing beyond what it is. Which is just what they were trying so hard to achieve. A MINUS

Taraf De Ha´douks: The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Ha´douks: The DVD (Crammed Discs) If a CD comes with a DVD attached, assume I haven't watched it. I prefer music that doesn't glue me to my chair and have long since had enough of the dancing fingers and showoff fans of video convention. So this recommendation is for the "bonus CD," a more compelling version of a 2000 London concert than the one you can watch--more subtitles please, less Johnny Depp. But the DVD proves that the over-70s in this fabricated, fabulous Romanian Gypsy group have more dignity, soul and cojones than the under-50s. Youngish lothario Caliu's speed runs out of gas where ancient and now deceased leader Nicolae's deliberation keeps on coming. The guy with the grill's old-man singing is as commanding as any bluesman's. Best song is "Little Buds," a slow one--and a wild one. A MINUS

Thunderbirds Are Now!: Make History (Frenchkiss) From Detroit, a brother team over a rhythm section that's growing muscles, and though Scott Allen's keyboards provide the abundant hooks, Ryan Allen defines the sound. His voice high and desperate, his guitar jagged, Ryan has trust issues, but they're social--there's not a single relationship song on what is formally a high-anxiety pop record. "The things that people say/The way that people talk/Make me want to take the words right out of their mouths," he yelps, then ventures: "This is why we war." Maybe not--not exclusively, anyway. But it's exciting that he cares. A MINUS

Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador) What's most remarkable about this stylistic portmanteau is that every song is an original even though you assume several are among their shoulda-been-a-hit-but-wtf-is-it? covers--more than several, but you know they wouldn't do that. Equally remarkable is that the lyrics you can make out are impossible to keep your mind on. Georgia and Ira sound more happily married than ever. They want to enact this state in all its instant gratification and infinite variety. But they're not inclined to reveal many details. I respect their privacy. But I remain curious. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

The Who: Endless Wire (Universal/Republic) The album is unlistenable for a simple reason: Roger Daltrey. Now 62, he's incapable in body as well as mind of negotiating the first new Who material since 1982's dreadful It's Hard. Gesturing futilely toward high notes as he tries to remember his acting lessons, he croaks, growls, shouts, emotes and otherwise bollockses songs he's sure are profound. When the leader spells him seven tracks in, the sharp uptick in modesty and lyricism comes as a relief until the "Wake up and hear the music" jag at the end. But it's the leader who decided prog was a peachy idea, the leader who designates yet another song cycle a "mini-opera," the leader who gives the orders around here. So the album is also unlistenable for a complicated reason: Pete Townshend. C

Honorable Mention

  • Michael Hall: The Song He Was Listening to When He Died (Freedom) Even for a journo-musician he's getting too old to know more about music than love, but he's never been a quick study ("America," "The Song He Was Listening to When He Died").
  • The Naysayer: Smoke Reality (Red Panda) Poker-faced folk joker models hippie drag in Cali and Oregon, then returns to Brooklyn, where she belongs ("Do It on a Leaf," "I'm a Shark").
  • The Roots: Game Theory (Def Jam) Damn right Jay-Z ruined them--convinced them not to go for the hook ("False Media," "In the Music").
  • Spank Rock: YoYoYoYoYo (Big Dada) Their squelchy electrobeats are as funny as their laughing-gas sex rhymes ("Backyard Betty," "Top Billin' From Far Left").
  • Jerry Lee Lewis: Last Man Standing (Artists First) Decades later, generation-gap duets are just a bunch of old guys singing--pretty good, too ("That Kind of Fool," "Rock and Roll").
  • Viva L'American Death Ray Music: In the Meantime . . . (New York Night Train) TIYL Velvets, Television, Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) -- that is, roots music, Lower East Side style ("Thieves Oh Glorious Thieves," "Needle to the Heart of the Matter").
  • East River Pipe: What Are You On? (Merge) Living-room loserdom at a very peak of depressive tunefulness ("Druglife," "What Does T.S. Eliot Know About You?").
  • Justin Timberlake: FutureSex/LoveSounds (Jive) She's freaky but I like it"?? Dude's more confused than he wants you to think ("My Love," "SexyBack").
  • Thunderbirds Are Now!: Justamustache (Frenchkiss) Art-punks thrash around their garage-rock town ("From: Skulls," "Better Safe Than Safari").
  • Maria Muldaur: Classic Live! (Dig Music) McGarrigle, Parton, Holiday, Dan Hicks--add some Gershwin-Porter-Arlen and she'd have herself the ideal modern cabaret repertoire ("Work Song," "Searchin'").
  • Sufjan Stevens: The Avalanche (Asthmatic Kitty) Outtake songs that fail to top the alternate versions of "Chicago" subsumed by outtake art-rock Glass-style, which beats Moussorgsky-style, Copland-style, Messiaen-style ("Dear Mr. Supercomputer," "Adlai Stevenson").
  • Pharrell: In My Mind (Star Trak/Interscope) Keepin' it playa like he says, for exactly what that's worth ("Raspy Shit," "Number One").
  • North Mississippi Allstars: Electric Blue Watermelon (ATO) They've learned to lilt, or else agreed to let their daddy show them how ("Hurry Up Sunrise," "Bang Bang Lulu").
  • Maria Muldaur: 30 Years of Maria Muldaur: I'm a Woman (Shout! Factory) Solo, she improved with age ("Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," "Rockin' Chair").
  • Basement Jaxx: Crazy Itch Radio (Astralwerks) Interchangeable ladies detail interchangeable ups and downs over beats whose changeabilty supposedly renders them indelible ("Take Me Back to Your House," "Run 4 Cover").
  • NOFX: Wolves in Wolves' Clothing (Fat Wreck Chords) They play loaded, they own their masters, they write off their vacations and still they're not satisfied ("100 Times Fuckeder," "Doornails").
  • George Jones and Merle Haggard: Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again! (Bandit) Hag keeps getting Haggier, but that thing in George's voice that was grainy like cornbread is turning to mush ("Things Have Gone to Pieces," "Footlights").
  • The Decemberists: The Crane Wife (Capitol) Recognized for well-dressed poesy, remembered for well-camouflaged hooks ("The Perfect Crime No. 2," "Summersong").
  • Charlie Burton & the Dorothy Lynch Mob: Salad (Wild) Repatriated Nebraskan jokes around for love (or lack thereof) ("I Wonder: Is Propecia Right for Me?" "Apples & Oranges").
  • Psalm One: The Death of Frequent Flyer (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Life is more macaroni than cheese for a rapper girl fronting alt beats ("The Living," "Peanuts").
  • Shout Out Louds: Howl Howl Gaff Gaff (Capitol) Note that in nominally socialist Sweden, simple pop emotions remain a spiritual possibility ("The Comeback," "Very Loud").
  • James Luther Dickinson: Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger (Memphis International) Unorthodox producer and damn fine session pianist chooses songs better than he sings them ("Red Neck, Blue Collar," "Hadacol Boogie").
  • NOMO: New Tones (Ubiquity) Great idea for instrumental funk--Afrika 70 meets Detroit 00 ("Nu Tunes," "New Song").

Choice Cuts

  • Sufjan Stevens, "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!," "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" (Songs for Christmas, Asthmatic Kitty)
  • Rufus Wainwright, "Spotlight on Christmas" (Elton John's Christmas Party, Hear Music)
  • Pet Shop Boys, "It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas" (Elton John's Christmas Party, Hear Music)
  • Los Lobos, "Free Up" (The Town and the City, Hollywood/Mammoth)
  • Flaming Lips, "Free Radicals" (At War With the Mystics, Warner Bros.)
  • NOFX, "You're Wrong" (Never Trust a Hippy, Fat Wreck Chords)


  • Against Me!: Searching for a Former Clarity (Fat Wreck Chords)
  • Adam Green: Jacket Full of Danger (Rough Trade)
  • Stephin Merrit: Showtunes (Nonesuch)
  • Amy Millian: Honey From the Tombs (Arts & Crafts)
  • North Mississippi Allstars: Polaris (ATO)
  • Pere Ubu: Why I Hate Women (Smog Veil)
  • Scissor Sisters: Ta-Dah (Universal/Motown)
  • Shout Out Louds: Combines (Capitol)
  • Spencer Dickinson: The Man Who Lives for Love (Yep Roc)

MSN Music, Dec. 2006

Aug. 22, 2006 Feb. 2007