Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

B-52's Are the Bomb, Drive-By Truckers Get the Nod; But Denver's DeVotchKa and the Black Crowes are duds

Can't deny it, though I'd feel hipper (cooler?) if I could--lots of "maturity" in this bunch of excellent mostly April albums. Even the newer guys, like Man Man, had to wait three albums to hit a lode. As for the belatedly fashionable DeVotchKa, this is their fifth--with no such seam uncovered yet.

The B-52s: Funplex (Astralwerks) "Pump." "Hot Corner." "Deviant Ingredient." In an unseemly display of decaying flesh, these nutty kids turned DOR nostalgia act make their first album in 16 years their sex album. Eeyew, say today's normal kids. 'Bout time, says anybody old enough to know that one lure of the flesh is that it's always decaying. A MINUS

Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West) OK, 19 songs, gotta be filler here somewhere, and there is, only it isn't melodic--with all music credited to the band, Shonna Tucker's muzzier lyrics and Mike Cooley's more elusive ones sound as well-turned as those of Patterson Hood, who's never written better. In Hood's songs, an opening act, an alcoholic, a crankhead, a heroic suicide, a heroic survivor and two different soldiers in Iraq fall between an opener where heaven is Saturday morning with your wife and kids and a closer that contemplates "the ironic nature of history." Cooley remains the lowlife specialist, most warmly with lost party girl Lisa and hometown gay guy Bob. Some complain "Bob" is the corniest country song they ever wrote. That's the point--one of several. A

Robert Forster: The Evangelist (Yep Roc) As on most Go-Betweens records, the melodies take time to sink in, though not the Grant McLennan legacy retrofitted with a Robert lyric about Grant's affinity for melody. Simultaneously, the arrangements also sink in, and soon you learn that the title cut's cello riff is just as arresting as Grant's catchy tune. That's how it was after the band reunited in 2000--ultimately, Forster's sensible, prosaic voice struck home and stuck with you. There are no love songs as that term is usually understood here--just a solemn track about the perils of moving one's wife from the German forest to the Australian desert, a cheerful one about hooking up with a relocated mother and child at church, a lively one about the dead friend he'll mourn till he's dead himself. A MINUS

Kid Creole: Going Places: The August Darnell Years 1974-1983 (Stunt) Belatedly, all of Kid Creole and the Coconuts' albums can be purchased on CD, and through the Sire and Columbia years, 1980-1992, every damn one is worth it. This is something else. Though the four cuts with Creole's name on them set the tone, it assembles side projects August Darnell oversaw for ZE, and double-damn if most don't hold up--Aural Exciters, Don Armando's Second Avenue Rhumba Band, Machine's fashionably charitable "There But for the Grace of God Go I," and the long-lost prize, Cristina's neo-nihilist takeover of Peggy Lee's/Leiber & Stoller's merely existentialist "Is That All There Is?" Though the PR calls this postpunk music "grungy," it's just DOR, the forgotten acronym for "dance-oriented rock," with an emphasis on the "D"--stripped-down disco with the occasional rock groove or instrumental flavor. It's slick. But it's also more intelligent than most IDM--sophisticated in the most tolerant sense. For longer than his dangerous lifestyle and surface success portended, Darnell was a visionary lyricist who considered all pop music his domain. He succeeded so well that even his rarities prove it. A MINUS

Gabi Lunca: Sounds From a Bygone Age: Vol. 5 (Asphalt Tango) I have a rule against stealing adjectives, but annotator Girt Friedrich's "silvery" is just too perfect for this serious, light-voiced Gypsy queen of Bucharest's suburban weddings. The language barrier only brings her mellow soprano to the fore. Augmented by the acrobatic lautari who manned Romania's state-owned Electrecord studios through the '80s, her white witchcraft has a swiftness that holds up against the black magic of her great rival, Romica Puceanu. Goodness seems to be Lunca's calling. When Ceaucescu fell and sin became legal again, she retreated into the Pentecostal church, where she's still singing as she turns 70. A MINUS

Man Man: Rabbit Habits (Anti-) There's too much hippie about these guys--their gnarly neotribalism is so male that if they get big enough they'll pull the show-us-your-tits crowd like flies to patchouli. But they're a hoot attached to an ethnomusicology seminar, such dyed-in-the-wool wanderers that their Gypsy tramps and thieveries are like an organic bohemian tradition. They're brainy about their alienation, they're funny about their alienation, and when they bitch about their relationships their post- or pre-alt normality is exceptionally refreshing. B PLUS

James McMurtry: Just Us Kids (Lightning Rod) The two fierce anti-Bush songs are rhetorical in a way the career-changing "We Can't Make It Here" wasn't: "Cheney's Toy," for the universal soldier, and "Ruins of the Realm," which ends up dancing in the ruins of the German Reich itself. Narrative he reserves for the yarns and portraits he's been hawking for two decades. The most detailed chronicles the love that slips away between a young musician and an older horsewoman. But the meth addict who loses her kids, the unsolved speedboat accident, the one-night stand that leaves the singer "lookin' through the hole in the bottom of my heart"? All of them bite and hold, in part because the music is fierce. Live, McMurtry can still be way too strophic and trad. But he's never made an album so loud or hard. Righteous rage can do that to a person. Like I said, career-changing. A MINUS

The Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride (4AD) Maybe John Darnielle's intent singing isn't putting his lyrics across. If that hadn't long been a question, Darnielle wouldn't be one more alt hero--a former psychiatric nurse who's always writing and spends his life greeting his far-flung cult on the road. He'd be some kind of new Dylan--he's that prolific and that imaginative. Still, one wonders whether 4AD has thrown his critical followers off with its line about how this one abandons autobiography for "mythical creatures" etc. Once I'd read along online, looked up "autoclave" in the dictionary, and figured out that "Sept 15, 1983" was the day Prince Far I was murdered, I agreed that not every song could possibly be autobiographical--not the one about Mike Myers's makeup, for instance. But even the title track could be read as a metaphor about stubbornly nonconformist alt heroes, and half a dozen of these entries are the desperate-to-doomed love songs he's made a specialty. An autoclave is a device that sterilizes with pressurized steam. When the narrator says, "My heart is an autoclave," I suspect he's Darnielle. B PLUS

The Roots: Rising Down (Def Jam) Integrating 11 rappers into a groove defined by ?uestlove's spontaneous bop beatery and lowing synth sounds that evoke My Bloody Valentine the way those high ostinatos used to give it up to Roy Ayers, this is as pleasurable as prime OutKast or Kanye West. The mood is political even though the rhymes barely reference any arm of government except the police. The Roots are no more sympathetic to the suicide bomber than to the killer nerd of Virginia Tech, both of whom share a song with a boy soldier in Sierra Leone they're not crazy about either. But they know that just by reporting what they see and feel, they indict the government. With an incongruent Fall Out Boy track set aside for single duty and all those rappers a dream community taking the burden off Black Thought, this is the most accomplished pure hip-hop album in years. A

Honorable Mention

  • Peter Morčn: The Last Tycoon (Quarterstick) Without Bjorn and John, here comes prettier and deeper living-room cabaret than Keren Ann, Sondre Lerche or Jose Gonzales ("This Is What I Came For," "Le Petit Coeur").
  • Abdel Hadi Halo & the El Gusto Orchestra of Algiers (Honest Jon's) Six guttural excursions in chaabi, where the bendir and derbouka sound folkloric to you and the piano and banjo sound Western to them ("Win Saadi," "Lalla Fatima").
  • Dizzee Rascal: Maths + English (Def Jux) Fick and foughtful, finally ("Sirens," "Hard Back [Industry]").
  • DJ Dolores: 1 Real (Crammed Discs) Songs not mixes based on beats not tunes (except for the best 1) ("Proletariado," "The Mind Inspector").
  • Clinic: Do It! (Domino) If their impassive fury was getting old, I wouldn't still wish I understood their lyrics ("Winged Wheel," "Shopping Bag").
  • Was (Not Was): Boo! (Rykodisc) Their sardonic funk would be even benter if Sweet Pea Atkinson was still on the mellow, but believe me--the times are bent enough to compensate ("Semi-Interesting Week," "It's a Miracle").
  • The Heavy Hearts: A Killer of Snakes (Selector Sound) They wanted that grungy punk finish, because that's who they are, but they didn't want to sound like kids, because that's what they aren't ("On the Breaks," "Revolution").
  • Ghislain Poirier: No Ground Under (Ninja Tune) Montreal visual-artist-turned-DJ/producer bricolages techno and ragga for peace and justice ("Dem Nah Like Me," "No More Blood").
  • Man Man: Six Demon Bag (Ace Fu) "Go back to the cave, go back to the . . ." ("Engwish Bwudd," "Tunneling Through the Guy").
  • North Mississippi Allstars: Hernando (Songs of the South) Right, their best song is by Champion Jack Dupree--who never played this hot and strong in his long life ("Eaglebird," "Soldier").
  • Corey Harris: Zion Crossroads (Telarc) For his reggae debut, the blues-singing anthropology major clears the grit from his throat, emulates Winston Rodney's penetrating wail, and writes the protest songs he was born to ("Walter Rodney," "No Peace for the Wicked").
  • Otis Taylor: Recapturing the Banjo (Telarc) Conscious-blues hoedown featuring Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, and a tol'able Keb' Mo'--everybody but Corey Harris and his MacArthur ("Ran So Hard the Sun Went Down," "The Way It Goes").
  • Babylon Circus: Dances of Resistance (Mr. Bongo) Parisians concoct polyglot Gypsy ska for peace and justice ("Dances of Resistance," "Warlord").
  • Blues Anatomy With Jef Lee Johnson: Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson (Range) Singing much raunchier and playing a little rougher than the jazziest classic bluesman ("Careless Love," "6/88 Glide").
  • Mannequin Men: Fresh Rot (Flameshovel) Garage-rock for the 21st century--"You live for tomorrow, I live for today," and maybe if you drink my blood we'll both sleep till the 22nd century ("Dead Kids," "Boys [They Don't Mind]").

Choice Cuts

  • The Raconteurs, "Hold Up," "Carolina Drama" (Consolers of the Lonely, Third Man/Warner Bros.)
  • The Slackers, "86 the Mayo," "International War Criminal" (Peculiar, Hellcat)
  • R.E.M., "Houston" (Accelerate, Warner Bros.)
  • Andrew Bird, "Scythian Empires" (Armchair Apocrypha, Fat Possum)
  • Joseph Arthur, "Rages of Babylon" (Could We Survive, Lonely Astronaut)

Dud of the Month

DeVotchKa: A Mad and Faithful Telling (Anti-) The most overrated band of the year (so far, so far) has never called a record Gypsy Vamps and Things. It did, however, call one Supermelodrama. Although Nick Urata can't match pipes with Richard Hawley, a plus in a way, he's hawking mellifluous overstatement flavored with a nostalgia far enough past its sell-by date that it stinks a little. Foregrounding Hungarian violins rather than Balkan brass, the Gypsy thing is more a borderline-genteel branding device. Humor is discernible in "Basso Profundo," "Head Honcho," and "Transliterator"--if you seek it out, as I am paid to do. Songs one can relate to as songs are harder to come by. B MINUS

More Duds

  • Devendra Banhart: Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (XL)
  • The Black Crowes: Warpaint (Silver Arrow)
  • Henry Butler: Pianola Live (Basin Street)
  • Jose Gonzalez: In Our Nature (Mute)
  • Sondre Lerche and the Faces Down: Phantom Punch (Astralwerks)
  • Maxďmo Park: Our Earthly Pleasures (Warp)
  • Colin Meloy: Colin Meloy Sings Live! (Kill Rock Stars)

MSN Music, May 2008

Apr. 15, 2008 June 2008