Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Taylor Swift, Kanye West, T-Pain and More; Beyoncé's I Am . . . Sasha Fierce is Dud of the Month

Ever hopeful, the biz once again target-releases many theoretical pop/R&B best-sellers for a pre-Christmas rush that always leaves them hawking lumps of coal, so here's where I catch up with those genres. As a result, the Duds list is longer than usual, augmented by country options. "Rock" I put off till the new year. If Axl waited this long, he can afford to wait a little longer.

Arriba la Cumbia! (Crammed Discs) Want a recipe for Steam Table Surprise? How about an English DJ in search of "the latest global dance music phenomenon" promoting a charming, Colombian-gone-Latin style whose heyday was half a century ago? Fold in some Euro modernizers just to stink the joint up a little more. But then culinary magic happens, and the mélange ends up some kind of cross between one of those fabled musical gumbos and the world's tastiest processed chicken fingers. Salted with autèntico old-timers whenever the corn syrup gets too thick, a Bristol trio and a Mexican DJ and some arty reggaetonians and the beat firm of Droesemeyer & Wetzler and Basement Jaxx getting in on the action rev up squeezeboxes real and imagined. Piece de resistance: Fulanito's "Merencumbiaso," in which a bunch of NYC Dominicans blend Latin America's pokiest pop dance style with its speediest. A MINUS

Group Inerane: Guitars From Agadez (Sublime Frequencies) Recorded live, which beats the radio tapes with which this label began propagating international obscurities, 28-year-old Tuareg guitarist Bibi Ahmed, two male sidemen and four female singers lively up the wedding dance in and around war-torn Inerane in northern Niger. Featuring loads of that Saharan keening we may tire of eventually, with a repertoire that owes a lot to Bibi's teacher Abdallah Oumbadougou (known here solely via the documentary DVD Desert Rebel), this is rough, wild and joyful in a way you can hear as well as read about. Ask him, and Ahmed will go on about cultural preservation--they all do in a pinch. But in the musical fact he's seldom somber about it. He's got this wedding to play, you see. A MINUS

Los Campesinos!: We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (Arts & Crafts) The painful detail and joyful exuberance are there once they get going. But in under two years this Welsh punk sextet has matured/devolved from tromping over their pan-sexual alienation like so many glockenspiel-wielding grape dancers to enacting "miserabilia" about how unfulfilling it is to get on your knees next to a urinal. Things aren't always so dire, and maybe that one is more ironic than the album title. But the joy of convincing punters they're a band is wearing off, leaving wordman Gareth less inclined to joke around about not just urinals but half-requited love and the "catastrophe" they still make a musical stab at staving off. So this really could be "The End of the Asterisk," and to put a point on it they bait their second 2008 album with one of the most underwhelming tour DVDs ever cross-collateralized. How little fame it takes these days to mess with people's heads. B PLUS

Rich Man's War (Ruf) Bad protest music, as in the forced rhymes and scansion of Norman and Nancy Blake's "Don't Be Afraid of the Neo-Cons," diminishes the cause of justice by making both preacher and choir sound like smug slobs. But nowhere else here does this unlikely cherry-pick of blues survivors, hacks and unknowns fall on its face. They're just mad, that's all. Blues scholar David Evans lifts a title from Freda Payne and adds a "bring the girls back home" verse for Jessica Lynch and Lori Piestewa. Candye Kane, whose many album covers all feature her large breasts, eavesdrops on "Jesus and Mohammed." Sometime Marcia Ball guitarist Pat Boyack spins out a nine-minute ramble in which Bushie nightmares help you hit today's number. After all that, the tireless Eddy Clearwater has every right to sing "A Time for Peace." And when journeyman Doug MacLeod climaxes the proceedings with "You gotta get off your butt if you're gonna implement change," it sounds idiomatic as all get-out. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Colombian Street Party (World Music Network) Insofar as there are street parties in Colombia--and there are, though probably not as many as the compilers want you to believe--you're unlikely to hear all these beats at any one of them. As the notes tell us, Colombia is home to over 300 genres and rhythms--metropolitan and backwater, coastal and Andean, Caribbean and Pacific. But where on most Rough Guides the abrupt changes of cultural mood are dangerously disorienting, here dance tempos rev over the bumps and the rhythm shifts interest non-Spanish speakers as content even when the beatmakers are strictly from Hungary. Salsa predominates slightly: dura, never romantico. But rustic flutes get things started, the cumbias fit right in, the chirimias likewise, there's a mento thing in English, the rock en Espanol tends ska, and everything's flowin'. A MINUS

Taylor Swift: Fearless (Big Machine) "You have to believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after," declares the 18-year-old Nashville careerist. You can tell me that's worse than icky if you like; I believe in two of the three (prince charmings, no), and I think it's kind of icky myself. But I'm moved nevertheless by what can pass for a concept album about the romantic life of an uncommonly-to-impossibly strong and gifted teenage girl, starting on the first day of high school and gradually shedding naiveté without approaching misery or neurosis. Partly it's the tunes. Partly it's the musical restraint of a strain of Nashville bigpop that avoids muscle-flexing rockism. Partly it's the diaristic realism she imparts to her idealized tales. And partly it's how much she loves her mom. Swift sets the bar too high. But as role models go, she's pretty sweet. A MINUS

T-Pain: Thr33 Ringz (Jive) The erstwhile laughingstock finds himself in exceptionally good humor--wonder why. Detailing his fidelity on one track, elongating a lap dance on another, he's a decent guy in conceptual command of an aesthetic he invented. "Chopped N Skrewed," "Digital," "Karaoke"--he knows the score. He knows that when he puts away the Auto-Tune to emote a love song to his family, every breath, cough and finger-slip is a sound effect. B PLUS

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak (Roc-A-Fella) Altogether as slow, sad-ass and self-involved as reported, this is a breakup album there's no reason to like except that it's brilliant. It has its own dark sound and its own engaging tunes, and although West couldn't hit the notes without Auto-Tune, his decision to robotize as well as pitch-correct his voice both undercuts his self-importance and adds physical reality to tales of alienated fame that might otherwise be pure pity parties. The second half the songs start to slip, but they come rushing back with the Lil Wayne ditty and the only track here about what's really bringing him down: not the loss of his girlfriend but the death of his mother, during cosmetic surgery that somewhere not too deep down he's sure traces all too directly to his alienated fame. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Akon: Freedom (Konvict/Upfront/SRC/Universal) Loads of hits on his love album, but they're so similar in sound and structure they don't add up to anything bigger ("Right Now [Na Na Na]," "Keep You Much Longer").
  • Darius Rucker: Learn to Live (Capitol) Not-actually-Hootie was made for country, where cornballism comes with the form ("All I Want," "While I Still Got the Time").
  • Group Doueh: Guitar Music From the Western Sahara (Sublime Frequencies) World-traveling Sahrawi Hendrix fan preserves his music on homemade cassettes a mite too crude for the international market ("Eid For Dakhla," "Cheyla Ya Haiuune").
  • The Empire/Lil Wayne: The Drought Is Over Part Six (The Empire) Beats, rhymes and cameos classier than your average Wayne mixtape, drops ridiculous ("Best Thing Yet," "Put Me in the Game," "Shootout").
  • The Apples in Stereo: Electronic Projects for Musicians (Yep Roc) Spiffed up a bit, their odds and sods beat most theoretical pop bands' theoretical keepers ("Hold on to This Day," "Man You Gotta Get Up").
  • Randy Travis: Around the Bend (Warner Bros.) Filling their shoes and standing that tall ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "You Didn't Have a Good Time").
  • Jazmine Sullivan: Fearless (J) Acerbically, vulnerably, neo-soul ingénue faces the world ("Bust Your Windows," "Fear").
  • Delmark: 55 Years of Blues (Delmark) Near-geniuses and mere journeypeople feel the strength of their sweet home genre (Speckled Red, "The Right String but the Wrong Yo-Yo"; Jimmy Dawkins, "Feel So Bad").
  • Solange: Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams (Music World/Geffen) Frothily, defiantly, privilege's child runs through her options ("Would've Been the One," "I Decided,Pt. 1").
  • Robin Thicke: Something Else (Star Trak/Interscope) He's got the falsetto thing down and the beat thing down, so if Weezy thinks he's Justin Timberlake, why not you? ("Hard on My Love," "Magic").
  • Britney Spears: Circus (Jive) As in "media circus," but still fun more often than not, which is more than she could manage from on top of the world ("Womanizer," "Blur").
  • Ne-Yo: Year of the Gentleman (Def Jam) Any love man who even considers doing the dishes has learned a little something, whether he's lying or not ("Why Does She Stay," "Mad").
  • Common: Universal Mind Control (Geffen) Conscious rappers have afterparties too ("Gladiator," "Universal Mind Control [UMC]").
  • Kings of Leon: Only by the Night (RCA) Catchier riffage than last time, and that's all they'll ever write ("Closer," "Be Somebody").
  • The Dirty Hearts: Pigs (Socyermom) She likes tofu, he prefers T-bone, and they work it out in a punk-n-blues garage that doubles as a barbecue joint ("Record Store," "Pigs").
  • Ashton Shepherd: Sounds So Good (Mercury Nashville) Strong-drawlin' gal freshens up themes that ain't dead yet ("I Ain't Dead Yet," "Regular Joe").
  • Japanese Motors: Japanese Motors (Vice) O.C. surfers who sound kinda like ... what was the name of that old band? ... the Strokes! ("Spendin' Days," "Single Fins & Safety Pins").
  • Etran Finatawa: Desert Crossroads (Riverboat) World-traveling Sahara band learned what it means to long for home, and so their music became more sere ("Saghmar N Nanna," "Gaynaako").

Choice Cuts

  • Sugarland, "Take Me as I Am," "Steve Earle" (Love on the Inside, Mercury Nashville)
  • Cold War Kids, "Golden Gate Jumpers," "Every Valley Is Not a Lake," "Something Is Not Right With Me" (Loyalty to Loyalty, Downtown)
  • Pink, "So What" (Funhouse, LaFace)
  • Labelle, "Roll Out" (Back to Now, Verve Forecast)
  • Kellie Pickler, "Rocks Instead of Rice" (Kellie Pickler,/i>, BNA)

Dud of the Month

Beyoncé: I Am . . . Sasha Fierce (Music World/Columbia) In truth, there are three good songs on this 11-track artifact, and deeply vapid though the split-personality bit is, the trick of dividing the album into two CDs does leave a 17-minute dance disc that can be played without gastric distress by any purchaser who isn't picky about diva gangstaism or videophone porn. But me, I'm a hater, and thus I'm something like outraged, by not just those two pimp-outs but an "Ave Maria" lacking even the dumbstruck literalism of Pink's rendition or the grotesque conversion of "Umbrella" into "Halo." Interpreted autobiographically, this halo seems to adorn Jay-Z, who elsewhere inspires little romantic realism or romantic bliss in his bride. In fact, two of the good songs are rather hard on Jeezy's gender, and mine. When in the third Be claims she's in love with her radio, you can only wonder at her determination to live in the past. B

More Duds

  • The Black Keys: Attack & Release (Nonesuch)
  • Dwele: Sketches of a Man (Koch)
  • Vanessa Hudgens: Identified (Hollywood)
  • Lyfe Jennings: Lyfe Change (Columbia)
  • Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song (Mercury Nashville)
  • John Legend: Evolver (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia)
  • Little Joy: Little Joy (Rough Trade)
  • Blake Shelton: Startin' Fires (Warner Bros.)
  • George Strait: Troubadour (MCA Nashville)
  • Michelle Williams: Unexpected (Music World/Columbia)

MSN Music, January 2009

December 2008 February 2009