Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Daft Punk, Lupe Fiasco and Lil Wayne Make the Grade; Shelby Lynne, Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson Also Get Nods

1) This is the time of year when, digesting critics' lists going back to December, I catch up with stuff I missed or skipped (often, I then conclude, wisely). There'll be more. 2) I only did one Lil Wayne mixtape because the "official" "Carter 3" is supposed to come out March 18--we shall see. 3) The Juno soundtrack is less than the sum of its parts unless you're a slip of a thing who's never heard the Kinks or "All the Young Dudes" (which you may be, I know). Kimya Dawson makes lovely solo albums.

Daft Punk: Alive 2007 (Virgin) Wondering how I'd missed these guys, I replayed Discovery, which I'd panned hard in 2001, and enjoyed the hooks recycled here more than I did at the time. But, sonically, I still couldn't take it. I believe the tour was awesome--the videos prove it. But they also suggest why the band chooses not to DVD its world conquest--too much scale, flesh and bodily effluvia would be lost. Better this big fat earworm, which translates crowd noises into music and establishes how much bigger the band's electronics got when put to the arena-rock test. Deconstructing and recontextualizing their tune stock "mais oui," these robot wannabes bathed the unwashed in the blood of the synthesizer, broadening and lowering sounds that in their original substantiations owe not just Detroit techno but Ramada Inn lounge. Humanistic after all. A MINUS

Lupe Fiasco: The Cool (Atlantic) Because you can only get so much street from a skateboard, his morality emanates from too far above the asphalt this time except when he's renouncing his own sins of cool. And even so he's a major-label rapper positioned to put the "z" in "greasy," speak for a child soldier, and call himself boring before anybody else can. He makes UNKLE and Fall Out Boy sound fresher than Tricky Stewart. He's got that go go go go go go go go go go gadget flow. A MINUS

Lil Wayne: Da Drought 3 (Purloined Datadisc) "How come every joint be on point like a harpoon/How come every bar stand strong like a barstool/How come every line is so raw you gon' snort two?" All right, so he's exaggerating--he wouldn't be the best rapper alive if he didn't. But from the off-time stammer that intros "Intro"--one of my favorite moments on one of my favorite tracks on the double-CD I now possess in two-and-a-half slightly different versions--rarely has pop excess been so ebullient, or do I mean pop ebullience been so excessive? When I says he loves to rhyme I don't mean he loves to spout verses--I mean "earphone," "real on," "in gear homes," "beer foam," "queer on," "Lear home," "Pam Grier on," "cashmere on," "Eric Dampier dog," "Bill Laimbeer on." And if they don't exactly rhyme, the best rapper alive will squoosh around until they do--that series proceeds from "grill on," "ceilin'," and "keep it real on." Does he make it up as he goes along, as is claimed? Could be, because his words have little to do with storytelling or any other species of coherence. They are among other things silly, which bodes ill for his reputation on the so-called street--the Reality Police know that his guns, cocaine, pimping, murdering, etc. are the formal play of a beat jacker who at 24 has spent half his life as a professional musician. Someday he may feel the need to re-establish his bona fides. Right now he has too much money. A

Look Directly Into the Sun: China Pop 2007 (Invisible China) Here be a panoply of DIY styles as imitated or reimagined by 18 young Shanghai bands, about half of whom sing in English-as-a-second-language. I've been enjoying it off and on for pushing six months, and although not a single song sticks in my mind when I go away--if there's a striking lyric here, it hasn't struck me--most return quickly when I come back. More important, that joyful youth-revolt jolt keeps getting stronger. I doubt this means that in another decade all the new bands will be Chinese, although it might. If anything, it's as if these rock 'n' roll outliers who represent a quarter of the planetary population have belatedly discovered what our bands wore out decades ago--a bish-bashing delight that portends eternal life and absolutely nothing at the same time. It will always be a kick to hear that delight again. A MINUS

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price: Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 (Lost Highway) There's only so much three prolific old coots can do with a double-CD of country standards, and they do most of it. Intimate with the literature, they pick winners you've never heard, and they're putting out, always a consideration with the prolific. Yet though the broad-beamed Price obviously needs two of the deftest singers left on the planet, it's his ruined echo chamber of a voice that injects a defining solemnity into the two religious songs, and everything else derives from that. Not much kidding around here--they're feeling their varying ages. But they ain't dead yet. A MINUS

Vampire Weekend (XL) Young twentysomethings who write about what they know--college. Liberal arts majors broad-minded enough to worry that "ion displacement won't work in the basement," they took their Columbia studies seriously, which is my idea of how to exploit privilege (though how much privilege is less self-evident than Ivy-hatas assume). Hence all the flags about appropriated exotica, class distinctions and cultural capital--and the not unrelated correct accents, designer brands and vacation retreats. Their chief thematic concern is whether there's life after graduation, and rather than Afropop, from which they misprise a guitar sound but nothing of the groove it was conceived to serve, their music, as with most fresh recent bands good and bad, is quite Euro. Affecting a clarity and delight that pleases the many and confounds the some, their lyrically alluring, structurally hop-skip-and-jumping songs aren't deep. They're just thoughtful fun. And now let me give it up to an I Love Music post by Pitchfork's Scott Plagenhoef: "off-kilter, upbeat guitar pop, with--in comparison to their peers--something singular about both their music (e.g. not just the touches of African pop but the willingness to use space and let the songs breathe a bit) and their lyrics (detail-heavy, expressive; too bad they're images of wealth instead of poverty, otherwise they'd be critical manna)." Right on, my brother. A MINUS

Wussy: Left for Dead (Shake It) I love this Cincinnati quartet for singers Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, for songwriters Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, and sometimes for guitarists Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker most of all. Where the pained Cleaver dominated their debut, here most tracks are fronted by the more rounded Walker. Not that she's at peace--in songs that feel realistic even though their details seldom kiss and tell, she struggles for love given and received in a state of spiritual hyperawareness suffused with a Christianity that won't let her memory loose. Lovely melodies soften her perpetual uncertainty. But those guitars, gorgeous droning things boosted by keyboards everybody but the drummer takes a hand to, saw away at her unsatisfied mind. A

Honorable Mention

  • Fire Engines: Hungry Beat (Acute) O.P.G.--Original Postpunk Glaswegians indulge unnatural sense of rhythm ("Meat Whiplash," "Discord").
  • Shelby Lynne: Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway) She sings some of these Dusty Springfield covers so torchy and tasteful you'd think they were on Dusty in Memphis to begin with ("Just a Little Lovin'," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me").
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Is Is (Interscope) Sex and groove and icy hot ("10 X 10," "Rockers to Swallow").
  • Life Without Buildings: Live at the Annandale Hotel (Absolutely Kosher) Glasgow art girl ends punk fling in Sydney, five years ago now ("The Leanover," "New Town").
  • Bob Frank & John Murry: World Without End (Bowstring) Nicely unexistential murder ballads, including several garden-horror lynchings, a Reconstruction MD mob-killed for healing all races, and righteous Mexican revenge ("Jesse Washington, 1916," "Joaquin Murietta, 1853").
  • Herbie Hancock: River: The Joni Letters (Verve) Follow up with either no singers at all and more Wayne Shorter (plus Roy Hargrove maybe?), or all Joni all the time doing as many early classics as will bear the harmonic burden ("Tea Leaf Prophecy," "River").
  • The Sirens: More Is More (Musick) If only glam had actually liked girls--if only the Runaways had written better songs--if only all-covers CDs didn't fall a little flat--if only revivalists didn't overrate Girlschool ("High School," "Tumble With Me").
  • Mike Doughty: Golden Delicious (ATO) Lower East Side vet makes jam-band folk-rock cool ("Fort Hood," "More Bacon Than the Pan Can Handle").
  • Bob Frank: Red Neck Blue Collar (Memphis International) Hard-drinking ditch digger chronicles many pipeliners, one heroic truck driver, and a hash-smoking Jesus unwisely adored ("Judas Iscariot," "One Big Family").
  • Willie Nelson: Moment of Forever (Lost Highway) More songs for an old man, though as ever he's sly about it ("Gravedigger," "The Bob Song").
  • Pharoahe Monch: Desire (SRC/Universal Motown) Keeping the conscious faith for seven years in the corporate wilderness, he remained relevant by leapfrogging bling and ringtone imperatives altogether ("Push," "Hold On").
  • Joy of Cooking: Back to Your Heart (Njoy) Outtake keepsakes and cooking jams from the Berkeley hippies who invented a "women's music" that was never so fast, smart, or soulful again ("Brownsville/Mockingbird," "Bad Luck").
  • Parts & Labor: Mapmaker (Jagjaguwar) Speed-freek noiseniks kick it into gear behind mad new drummer ("Vision of Repair," "The Gold We're Digging").
  • Tab the Band: Pulling Out Just Enough to Win (North St.) Aerosmith: The New Generation ("Secretary's Day," "CYT").

Choice Cuts

  • Billy Joe Shaver, "Played the Game Too Long," "If You Don't Love Jesus" (Everybody's Brother, Compadre)
  • Little Big Town, "Evangeline" (A Place to Land, Equity)
  • Melissa Etheridge, "Threesome" (The Awakening, Island)
  • Kid Rock, "So Hott," "All Summer Long" (Rock N Roll Jesus, Atlantic)
  • Barry Louis Polisar, "All I Want Is You" (Music From the Motion Picture Juno, Fox Music/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Rhino)

Dud of the Month

Foo Fighters: Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (RCA/Roswell) The real ageist scandal of this year's Grammys wasn't Herbie Hancock, who--unlike Natalie Cole and Tony Bennett in the long-lost '90s--won with the most artistically ambitious album nominee. It was this candid attempt to recapitulate Nirvana Mark II's 10-year-old triumph, The Colour and the Shape, a bonus-cutted reissue of which was released just two months before the Foos' ballyhooed reunion with producer Gil Norton, all of which can be read as the defiant professional credo of The Man Who Invented Nickelback. Kurt was a quitter, but Dave Grohl says he'll "never surrender," just like the download-combatting stalwarts who chose him over Daughtry and Bruce Springsteen. Sure, Grohl is hookier than Nickelback, which is saying something. But he's not as hooky as those bonus cuts, which include Prince and Killing Joke songs, or as intense as his 1997 self. And the well-rounded optimist will go along with the hooky up-and-at-'em of "Cheer Up, Boys" only till he or she notices the subtitle, which is: "(Your Make Up Is Running.") Those emo posers, how dare they? B

More Duds

  • Blonde Redhead: 23 (4AD)
  • The Donnas: Bitchin' (Purple Feather)
  • Bob Frank: The Gunplay EP (Evangeline)
  • Bobbie Nelson: Audiobiography (Justice)
  • Smashing Pumpkins: Zeitgeist (Martha's Music/Reprise)
  • Sons and Daughters: This Gift (Domino)
  • Twelve Girls Band: Shanghai (Manhattan)
  • Porter Wagoner: Wagonmaster (Anti-)

MSN Music, Mar. 2008

Feb. 2008 Apr. 2008