Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Lily Allen, Amadou & Mariam, Marianne Faithfull and More Get Nods

The pattern that emerges here isn't about musical trends--the three female vocalists are from altogether different realms. It's that this Consumer Guide includes four full A's, the most I recall in a single month this decade. They're not slam-bam--except for Lily Allen, every one had to grow on me till now I enjoy nearly every cut. The album is dying, we are told, and sure it's fallen on hard times. I keep listening anyway because aesthetically the long-form hasn't worn out, and right now I'm feeling evangelical about it.

Lily Allen: It's Not Me It's You (Capitol) She is too a role model--for chart queens, bohemians born-and-raised, and paparazzi victims everywhere. True, her synth-pop album debuted below India.Arie at five before its SoundScan swan dive. But even diving she's more graceful than most, and she has every expectation of popping out of the pool and climbing the ladder again, which is how her first one went gold. Here the modestly likable, oddly uncategorizable singer of Alright, Still emerges as that rare thing, a vocalist of genuine technical command who sounds like no one else--and even rarer, like everygirl at the same time. The snarky lyricist of Alright, Still achieves new amalgams of aesthetic specificity and masscult applicability--the love song "Who'd Have Known," the dad song "He Wasn't There," even the God song "Him." She does synth-pop right not by providing a template but by demonstrating its adaptability. Pink, relax. Christina, quiet songs about your baby beckon. Kelly, stop flexing your vocal cords and let your brain do the emoting. A

Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali (Nonesuch) For a decade before the now-departed Manu Chao took them on in 2005, these sincerely opportunistic pros, a couple since the mid '70s and an act for almost as long, were extending their musical outreach with manager Marc Antoine Moreau, who oversaw this follow-up CD as he did all those before Dimanche à Bamako. Right, Damon Albarn is on a few tracks--the guy who was in that group Mali Music, you remember, though the "Sabali" weirdness that has Alternia all atwitter isn't their kind of thing. Recorded mostly in Paris, with details from synth partner Laurent Jaïs, this is Moreau's record, which only Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia could have made. Though rarely duplicated, their secret is easy enough to put into words. Unlike Brenda Fassie, Angélique Kidjo, middle-period Baaba Maal, Ray Lema, anyone remember Touré Kunda, whoever, Amadou & Mariam sop up Western music without turning to mush. For them, it's not about stylistic aspiration. They want the sounds, not the music per se or its cultural accoutrements. If those sounds are a hodgepodge by Euro-American standards--harmonica and syndrums, rock guitar and soul horns--that just makes them more Malian. Politically these folks are not sophisticated but they're also not unconscious--you can't be apolitical in a nation forever at risk of tyranny, and their blindness taught them transcendence. Splitting the difference between shamelessly guileless, openhearted melodically and spirited rhythmically, this is their celebration of their ability to celebrate. A

The Baseball Project: Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (Yep Roc) All public endeavors have their journeymen, and if Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey aren't obscurities like Ryan Freel and Alfredo Amezaga, they're certainly half flashes like Ty Wigginton and Willie Bloomquist--diligent, productive, enduring, their great moments well gone now and also not all that great. That would be the Dream Syndicate and the Young Fresh Fellows, although this band-in-concept-only is more like McCaughey's shifting Minus Five, complete with retro-alt songcraft and Peter Buck moonlighting away. It turns out that, like folk music before it, the static, jangly retro-alt template makes a dandy setting for topical songs. Just going by tune and lyrical hook, the only dud here is McCaughey's weeper about Mark McGwire, and as an amateur expert in the field I swear several hit the ball on the sweet spot: tributes to Curt Flood, Harvey Haddix, Big Ed Delahanty, and a closer with his arm like hamburger meat. A

Dark Was the Night (4AD) Starting with the still-available, still-classic Cole Porter tribute Red Hot + Blue, the AIDS-fighting Red Hot Organization has sponsored many smart multi-artist charity albums since 1990, but no bigger conundrum than this two-disc alt-Brooklyn-plus coffee klatch. The second disc can be pigeonholed with the usual anti-comp cliches--uneven, second-shelf, too many covers, etc. In fact, though, its many big names (for that scene) have national scope and try harder than usual. As for the first disc, only scenesters will warm to it right off--assuming they don't just trash it like the good little boho contrarians they are. But give it more chances than any non-fan would and the thing coheres--quiet, strange, subtle, too subtle, like a dream you can't quite remember. A MINUS

Marianne Faithfull: Easy Come Easy Go (Decca) Thank you Hal Willner. She's so much more powerful here than on her Polly Jean Harvey-Nick Cave flub of 2005--in part because the old songs outweigh the Meloy-Neko-Espers numbers included to prove the old bat is still hip to the jive, but also because detailed orchestration as well as dramatic commitment renew even the filthy Bessie Smith title tune, done classic blues style but with Lenny Pickett's sarrusophone providing a sprightly bass groan. It seems crazy to say that her "Down From Dover" equals Dolly Parton's or her "In My Solitude" Billie Holiday's--they're great singers and she's not. But working together, Faithfull and Willner convert them into pop artsongs that make their own kind of sense in the company of other very different pop artsongs, including Brian Eno and Judee Sill compositions previously beloved only by their mutually exclusive cults. Not the Espers one, though. Eclecticism has its limits. A

Golem: Citizen Boris (JDub) In antithetical ways, "Train Across Ukraine" and "Citizen Boris" are civics lessons for "travelers third class," now known as "workers seeking green cards." But mostly the klezmer band that thinks a trombone makes you Balkan brass turns to the languages of love, including both English and the rhythmic invocations of a medium-raucous Yiddish-Gypsy wedding. Maybe you don't know what "Tucheses and Nenes" are. Lenny Bruce did, though. And you'll figure it out. B PLUS

Staff Benda Bilili: Très Très Fort (Crammed Disc) The backstory to the cover image of middle-aged African street musicians posed on their customized tricycles is so juicy that alert music lovers will put their guard up: handicapé, grown-up shegues (street kids, courtesy Che Guevara) hanging around the Kinshasa zoo form long-running band, meet Damon Albarn, hook up with Congotronics promoter. And indeed, their street voices and hand percussion do sometimes seem overly folkloric, even when they pursue soukous and reggae. But pulling everything up a notch is a teenager named Roger Landu wailing away on salongé, a one-stringed electric lute he invented. Not only does it make a sound you've never heard before and immediately want to hear again, but he's learned how to riff and solo on it. With Landu's embellishments, some pretty good songs--mostly in Lingala, about stuff like polio, cardboard boxes, Staff Benda Bilili, and of course l'amour--become pretty good songs you want to get to the bottom of. A MINUS

White Denim: Workout Holiday (Full Time Hobby) From Texas, another punk/hardcore great-nephew-once-removed band of the No Age genus--the kind who construct short songs consisting mostly of atonal guitar. This trio unlooses more than its quota of prog--tracks three and four sound like offspring of Antony Hegarty and the Beatles' white album, respectively, that met an untimely end. But get used to those songs and they fit right into the fitful whole, which for anybody who listens up is a surprisingly tuneful, typically subverbal roller coaster ride at Six Flags a few months after Chapter 11. Please keep all extremities within the carriage. Extremities are mother's meat for these guys. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Leela James: Let's Do It Again (Shanachie) Soul revivalism done right (for once)--(mostly) well-chosen songs delivered with spunk and smarts ("Baby I'm Scared of You," "Simply Beautiful," "I'd Rather Be With You").
  • War Child Presents Heroes: An Album to Benefit Children Affected by War (Astralwerks/War Child) Who said nobody writes standards anymore? (Lily Allen feat. Mick Jones, "Straight to Hell"; Duffy, "Live and Let Die").
  • Amadou & Mariam: 1990-1995: Le Meilleur des Années Maliennes (Because) Starting just guitar-and-voices, they gain beats, blues, and a belief that they can impact the world ("Kokolon," "Fantani").
  • M. Ward: Hold Time (Merge) What if an overrated singer-songwriter was so damn understated he found true love and/or Jesus and nobody noticed? ("To Save Me," "Oh Lonesome Me").
  • The Prodigy: Invaders Must Die (Take Me to the Hospital) Weird thing--at the proper historical distance, good rave and good punk provide the same cheap thrill ("Thunder," "Invaders Must Die").
  • Ahilea: Cafe Svetlana (Essay) Electric Balkan bellydance rebetika--music for all manner of Viennese shlaviner ("Spiritus Tango," "In Da Balkan Style").
  • The-Dream: Love Vs. Hate(Def Jam) The trickiest beats on the market meet a weirdo who just decided R. Kelly is his beau ideal ("Love Vs. Money Part 2," "Right Side of My Brain").
  • Nat King Cole: Re:Generations (Capitol) Affable as ever, he slips suavely into the beats of the day--Cee-Lo and Just Blaze, and TV on the Radio ("Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Pick-Up").
  • Gaye Adegbalola: Gaye Without Shame (VizzTone) Better late than never, Saffire's reddest, hottest mama figures out why men never really did it for her ("The Great Pretender," "Deja Vu Blues").
  • Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) Sunny down snuff they're all right with the heroes and villains ("My Girls," "Brother Sport").
  • Shemekia Copeland: Never Going Back (Telarc) Fourth-generation-and-counting blueswoman finds her voice, aka some decent songwriters ("Born a Penny," "Limousine").
  • Keyshia Cole: A Different Me (Def Jam) Her complaisant act is as sexy as she wants when it works, but she doesn't take to it that well ("Make Me Over," "Oh-Oh, Yeah-Yea").
  • Condo F---s: F---book (Matador) Having fun with Ira, Georgia, and James in . . . the laundry room of their apartment building? ("Gudbuy T'Jane," "Dog Meat").
  • Oreka Tx: Nomadak Tx (World Village) Basque percussionists meet Saharans, Adivasi, Sami and most notably Mongols for shamanistic background music and documentary film ("Lauhazka," "Saapmi").
  • Seal: Soul (Warner Bros.) A warm, subtly serrated instrument normally disabled by cryogenic material and production, which these American classics ain't, so eat it ("Here I Am [Come and Take Me]," "Knock on Wood").
  • India.Arie: Testimony Vol. 2: Love & Politics" (Universal Republic) Both of them warm, thoughtful and likable, both tinged with propriety and self-regard ("Ghetto," "Long Goodbye").
  • Gun Outfit: Dim Light (PPM) "Sitting in the dark/Freaking out," with only their riffs to brighten their hemmed-in lives ("Work Experience," "Had Enough").
  • The Service Industry: Keep the Babies Warm (Sauspop) They didn't predict the crash--too busy. ("Liquid Meat [Into a Form]," "Keep the Babies Warm").
  • Kelly Clarkson: All I Ever Wanted (RCA) Striving to master the popular art of enacting humongous feelings in lieu of comprehending them or conveying them ("My Life Would Suck Without You," "I Do Not Hook Up").

Choice Cuts

  • Todd Snider, "America's Favorite Pastime" (The Home Run EP, Yep Roc)
  • Jennifer Hudson, "Pocketbook" (Jennifer Hudson, Arista)
  • Shearwater, "So Bad" (The Snow Leopard, Matador)
  • Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons, "Getaway Car" (Four Cold Angels, RatLegz)
  • Rick Berlin, "Michiko" (Old Stag, Hi-N-Dry)

Dud of the Month

Shearwater: Rook (Matador) With funding long at risk in the classical sector--the crooks getting those AIG bonuses are more into Cristal and hotties--Jonathan Meiburg is but one of many trained vocalists seeking his fortune in what is crudely classified pop. And he's had some moments. But on his most acclaimed work of art, his ecological doomshow reaches an apogee and nadir. "We'll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed," croon "the ambulance men" in a title tune about piles of dead black birds. I'll leave it to those who care to determine what exactly the birds and ambulance men are doing there. Meiburg's cultivated sweetness bespeaks contempt for the world of man as he perceives it, rendering his projections both dubious and useless, so nertz to him. C MINUS

More Duds

  • Antony and the Johnsons: The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)
  • David Byrne & Brian Eno: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todomondo)
  • The Fireman: Electric Arguments (MPL)
  • Janelle Monae: Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Bad Boy)
  • My Brightest Diamond: A Thousand Shark's Teeth (Asthmatic Kitty)
  • Spiritualized: Songs in A&E (Sanctuary)

MSN Music, April 2009

March 2009 May 2009