Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Tokyo Police Club, Santogold and Magnetic Fields Get Nods; But Leona Lewis' debut has no 'Spirit'

If any theme surfaced this month, I guess it's dance music--that Craze mixtape had been lying in wait for months before Yoda brought me back to it, and Madonna vs. Mariah is the kind of matchup that makes me do justice to Justice and Kylie Minogue. I note, however, that alt-rock finally made a significant showing as well.

Hayes Carll: Trouble in Mind (Lost Highway) "I got a woman, she's wild as Rome," he begins, clearly and sensibly enough now that I know what he's saying. Only for a week, I thought it was "right as wrong," which suits both his worldview and the "she likes to lie naked and be gazed upon" right after. I'm not saying this history B.A. turned sin-den denizen is taking his Americana metaphysical on us. I am saying he's expanded his range a crucial quantum. A Lot of wild boys have written I-don't-deserve-her songs, few put it as well as, "I spend my life on this broken crutch/And you believe I can fly." Quite a few have drawled some satire of a dumb cluck, too. But not many have put the needle to Christianity and its ignorant unbelievers at the same time. None, actually. A MINUS

DJ Yoda: Fabriclive.39 (Fabric) North Londoner. Biz family. Likes: almost everything, selectively, with a specialty in old-school hip-hop. Quote: "Irony pisses me off in music." This mixtape is said to be the first record that reproduces what he does in clubs, which means Gang Starr, Ice Cube, Run-D.M.C., Bell Biv DeVoe and Salt-N-Pepa interspersed with, among many other things, Wylie, the Violent Femmes, baile funk, Minnie Riperton, 2007 Chem Bros and a lot of scratching. Fun. Just fun. A MINUS

The Magnetic Fields: Distortion (Nonesuch) Because this time the object of Stephin Merritt's formal affection is rock 'n' roll noise, there's always a whiff of crude emotion in the deliberately simple tunes he's fitted to the task. The joke songs about topless nuns and zigzagging drag queens are as humanizing in their way as the tales of lost love one might take literally if someone else was singing them (which sometimes someone else is: Miss Shirley Simms). Whether he's wallowing putrescently with his zombie boy or dreaming alone in his soul-death monotone, Merritt's commitment to vernacular genres, the joke included, seems warm compared to the mix-and-match subgenre-splitting even the most lyrical young indie types don't know better than. The sly bastard believes in love after all. He's made a novelty record that gets deeper with time. A

No Age: Nouns (Sub Pop) Randy Randall and Dean Spunt aren't the kind of new punk geniuses who'll be putting "When I Come Around" on the pop charts two albums from now. They're the kind of new punk geniuses who'll be getting commissioned by Cal Arts to augment a production of Waiting for Godot or score a webcam installation. Imagine one of Glenn Branca's microtonal symphonies for massed amped-up guitars cut down to two minutes with vocals, chord changes and drums, lots of Spunt's drums. Be more interesting that way, right? Their debut was called Weirdo Rippers because that's how it sounded. This one's solider, more concrete--even beautiful sometimes. A MINUS

Old 97's: Blame It on Gravity (New West) After a lovely opener about a couple I hope don't crash that VW Bug come two devastatingly subtle breakup songs that make me fear for Rhett Miller's personal happiness: one about tears like pearls obeying what is only natural law, one about doing the underlying rumba into the warm Caribbean sea. The band songs are only slightly less subtle. In one they rob a bank and take Route 1 north because they've got nothing but time. In the other, Miller's in more of a rush: "I will grow impatient for your love but you will not recognize/How I might die inside unless I ride." What does it all mean? Only one thing's certain--his songwriting. A MINUS

Orchestra Baobab: Made in Dakar (Nonesuch) Leading with three old songs, none in my CD collection and all newly performed, this will take awhile to sink in for anyone who's bonded with Specialist in All Styles. But it will, the five new tunes no less than the six Africa-tested classics, all redone no matter when Baobab started playing them. Much more than the Buena Vista folks, this reconstituted band is the great jewel of world music as a commercial concept. It would never have recorded its finest music if there wasn't an audience of middle-aged white liberals ready to eat it up. Barthelemy Attisso's loping guitar, Issa Cissoko's drolly soulful sax, distinctive voices old and not-so-old adding possible wisdom in four different languages over a shared wealth of Afro-Latin rhythms that include calypso, guajiro, seuraba and what is called mbalsa--all seem like the fruits of rich lives fairly lived. This is precisely the illusion the commercial concept means to propagate. Most likely it's also the truth. A

Santogold: Santogold (Downtown) From a punky ska base, she comes up with a pop-dance amalgam that's edgy and friendly at the same time. An established fringe bizzer at 32, she supposedly tried to make a commercial record before finding herself in thrall to her muse and her collaborators. But from here she sounds like someone for whom it's no more provocative to begin the signature "Creator" shrieking like a seagull than to set "Lights Out" to a melody so fetching it would have been considered a sellout back when "new wave" meant pushing the envelope. Right now her main message is just to do all this. If enough people like it, she has the aura of someone who might push the envelope. A MINUS

Steinski: What Does It All Mean?: 1983-2006 Retrospective (Illegal Art) Coming to hip-hop as an older outsider, moonlighting adman Steve Stein went for verbal meaning in his beat-based sound collages, the earliest of which--"The Payoff Mix," "Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)" and "Lesson 3 (History of Hip Hop)," all collaborations with Stein's engineer buddy Double Dee--were as foundational for turntablism as "The Message," and still sound as fresh. But he's in command of a wide range of black music--funk, soul, jazz, breakbeat and hip-hop (where his tastes run old-school and underground)--and his beats can make you chuckle. Steinski loves straight comedy and exploits an impressive store of datedly "hip" spoken-word records to add extra irony to the history he evokes and reproduces. Because he's always preferred the popular to the esoteric, his uncleared samples have offended cultural capitalists from Walter Cronkite to the Incredible Bongo Band. Note that this rarities collection includes the excellent bonus radio-broadcast-turned-CD Nothing to Fear, which came out in 2002 and vanished soon after. Buy it while you can. A

Tokyo Police Club: Elephant Shell (Saddle Creek) Never again is nostalgia as immanent as in your early twenties, when you're just old enough to feel you're no longer, as you see it, young--not a child anymore, not even a teenager. In the first full-length by this Toronto band most would still call young, David Monks' falling melodies and blurred lyrical memories capture this poignancy in 11 songs that wedge perturbed postpunk guitar and keyboard into punky two-and-a-half-minute songs. Very minor, rather lovely and it rocks. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Moby: Last Night (Mute) There are cornier ways of keeping it old-school ("Everyday It's 1989," "I Love to Move in Here").
  • Justin Adams (with Juldeh Camara): Soul Science (World Village) Gambian griot adds his one-stringed ritti to desert-besotted British rocker's guitar for traditional wisdom and no less traditional diddleybeats ("Yerro Mama," Ya Ta Kaaya").
  • DJ Yoda: The Amazing Adventures of DJ Yoda (Antidote) It's harder when you have to create the songs yourself, but Biz Markie and Tiny Tim help, as do the laugh lines ("Breakfast Cereal," "Tip-Toe").
  • Kid Koala: Your Mom's Favorite DJ (Ninja Tune) Still the king of stand-up turntablism ("Left Side," "Right Side").
  • Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks: Real Emotional Trash (Matador) A jam band for middle-aged neurotics who gather where most of their kind gather--their living rooms ("Hopscotch Willie," "Dragonfly Pie").
  • The Ike Reilly Assassination: We Belong to the Staggering Evening (Rock Ridge Music) Struggling artist realizes he has more money than the strugglers he writes about, and writes better as a result ("Valentine's Day in Juarez," "Broken Parakeet Blues").
  • Justice: Cross (Downtown/Ed Banger/Vice) As dance music, not my idea of a good time, but as electronic pop, so much trickier, sillier and more kinetic than Kraftwerk ("Newjack," "D.A.N.C.E").
  • Madonna: Hard Candy (Warner Bros.) OK, a middle-aged fitness nut can sing pop ditties just like middle-aged lushes could once sing pop standards, with this requirement--a little help from Timbo and Kanye ("4 Minutes," "Beat Goes On").
  • DJ Craze: Fabriclive.38 (Fabric) Hard electro hip-hop mix devolves into squelchy electro scratch mix--or evolves if you like, it takes all kinds (Cool Kids, "Black Mags"; the Pase Rock, "Lindsay Lohan's Revenge [Klever Remix]").
  • Drexel: River of Chowder (Dayton, Ohio) One guy you never heard of's bereft, derelict, falsetto tales of southern Ohio over another's rolling piano and whatever else comes to hand ("Big John's House," "Practicing Preachers").
  • El Compa Chuy: Alacrana Lavada (Norte) Corridos with nutty polka accordion and crazy-ass tuba--which aficionados tell me gets even crazier sometimes ("Por Algo Soy El Patron," "Junior Terrazas"). [Later: **]
  • Robyn: Robyn (Konichiwa/Cherrytree/Interscope) The sucky ballad crossed over, so enjoy this Euro-Madonna's nasty side while it's still there ("Handle Me," "Cobrastyle"). [Later: A-]
  • Carrie Underwood: Carnival Ride (Arista Nashville/19) Nashvillians with a track record rarely lack for songs, but note that she wrote several of the liveliest ones herself ("The More Boys I Meet," "Last Name").
  • God-Des & She: Stand Up (Sony Twist) Lesbian hip-hoppers who are better at sex than politics but you have to admire for caring about both ("Lick It," "Hollywood").
  • Kylie Minogue: X (Virgin) An especially happy birthday to the Aussie ex-ingenue, who just turned 40 and can still credibly sing, "Boy, you got it got it, you got me feeling crazy 'bout my body" ("Nu-di-ty," "Speakerphone").
  • Remy Ma: The BX Files (Sure Shot) If your records weren't all that, maybe you'd have anger-management issues, too ("Influentials," "Rapid Fire").

Choice Cuts

  • Lil Mama, "Lip Gloss," "College" (VYP: Voice of the Young People, Jive)
  • Flo Rida (Featuring T-Pain), "Low"; Missy Elliott, "Ching-A-Ling," "Shake Your Pom Pom" (Step Up 2 the Streets, Atlantic)
  • Dolly Parton, "Backwoods Barbie" (Backwoods Barbie, Dolly)
  • Mariah Carey, "Touch My Body" (E=MC2, Island)

Dud of the Month

Leona Lewis: Spirit (J/Syco) Simon Cowell's British Idol possesses an exceptionally delicate version of the sock-it-to-'em karaoke-champ voice Cowell has made the gold standard of '00s pop. The subtle flutter of her finest melismatics could give an open-minded person goose bumps. Her coarser melismatics, however, are the usual showoff BS and probably also a commercial prerequisite, like not having a harelip. And because she doesn't write, this is karaoke where nobody knows the originals. Of course, when OneRepublic provided your lead single and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is your literary highlight, it's just as well you don't write. "Forgive Me" would be a tolerable follow-up. Somehow I doubt Cowell cares. B

More Duds

  • Caribou: Andorra (Merge)
  • Danity Kane: Welcome to the Dollhouse (Bad Boy)
  • Day26: Day26 (Bad Boy)
  • Flo Rida: Mail on Sunday (Atlantic)
  • Handsome Furs: Plague Park (Sub Pop)
  • Remy Ma: There's Something About Remy: Based on a True Story (SRC/Universal)
  • OneRepublic: Dreaming Out Loud (Mosley Music/Interscope)
  • Rakim: The Archive: Live, Lost & Found (Fast Life Music)
  • Jordin Sparks: Jordin Sparks (19/Jive/Zomba)

MSN Music, June 2008

May 2008 July 2008