Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Find below more hippies than usual, three by my count. Also a great many women, one of them a hippie. And more alt-rock also-rans than I would have preferred--structurally, they deserve the money at least as much as anyone else.

Art Brut: Art Brut vs. Satan (Downtown) Remember how "Formed a Band" seemed so conceptual--a joke about an idea for a song? Eddie Argos claims it was autobiographical--claims that Art Brut's entire debut album, created when he was 25, was based on his 17-year-old self. Two years later, he goes on, the more forced-seeming It's a Bit Complicated was based on him at 19, when he must have been pretty dumb around girls. At 29, he doesn't leave himself that out: "DC comics and chocolate milkshake/Even though I'm 28" rhymes with "I guess I'm just developing late." True, the waiter or delivery man who supposedly sings that song has lacked Argos's career opportunities. But surely it's Argos-the-artist, meaning the man himself, doing a number on U2 in the studio notes "Slap Dash for No Cash"--"I love the sound of background noise/I want to hear the crack in the singer's voice"--or denying record buyers the vote in "Demons Out!" How many great songs about rock and roll can one man write before he gets tiresome? We may find out. A MINUS

Jonatha Brooke: The Works (Bad Dog) Solo and with the Story, Brooke has been a showoff and a bit of a priss. But setting unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to music like the Klezmatics and Billy Bragg & Wilco before her, she blooms. The strophic simplicity of Guthrie's songforms demands direct melodies, and the two self-penned ones she couldn't do without are touched by his cultivated unsophistication. This isn't the Woody whose guitar killed fascists. This is the love-seeker and poetic soul doing battle against dolor, dread and impending madness. Topping them off is one dated 1954, with the chorea already clutching him tight: "Show me how, how to fight my battle in life/Show me how to fight, and I'll run away with you." A MINUS

The Coathangers: Scramble (Suicide Squeeze) Limited chops combined with sizable brains propel these Atlanta girlfriends toward a minimalist aesthetic--postpunk in the angular Gof4 tradition that femme bands long ago realized left room to squeeze high voices in edgewise. The hooks are riffs or chants rather than tunes, and no less catchy for that. Usually these women are mad but sometimes they're sweet and often they're droll. The sound is so scrawny it can wear on you, meaning their 34-minute album is probably two songs too long. But there's only one I'd scrap. A MINUS

The Fugs: Greatest Hits 1984-2004 (Fugs) Here's more inspiring evidence of a hippie's progress than anything Joni Mitchell or Mickey Hart will ever again devise. An accomplished folk-rock band fronted by Woodstock-based activist Ed Sanders with sardonic history alerts from Manhattan-based anarchist-comedian Tuli Kupferberg, the Fugs Mark II still joke-check their ribald heyday, and on the live tracks you can hear their tiny fan base eat up every laugh line. But with the support of those fans, Sanders is onto bigger things. Free of bitterness and regret, savvier than he ever was about the ins and outs of make-love-not-war, and a poet above all, his motto is "refuse to be burnt out." Googly-eyed neotribalists who consider "psychedelic" a meaningful term owe it to themselves and their parents to consider the musical teachings of Allen Ginsberg's great inheritor. A MINUS

Lady Sovereign: Jigsaw (Midget) She tried to show the Yanks at Def Jam how funky she was, only she wasn't, so now she's stuck on a DIY imprint that with her chin-up sass she claims leaves her free as a bird. Actually, of course, she'll take any job she can get, and pragmatism suits her. Rapping or singing, club or pop, she's cranking ditties so insignificant they're precious, like a bottle shard that resembles a bulldog's head or a constable's badge. For her grime now is punk. Soused at the student union bar, licking Haagen-Dazs off her beau in literally filthy foreplay, she's weird and you're weird. That makes you mates. A MINUS

The Lonely Island: Incredibad (Universal Republic) It isn't just "D--k in a Box" and its explosive sequel "J--z in My Pants." Andy Samberg and his Berkeley homeboys are the funniest musical comedy act since Spinal Tap. Actual musicians help--world-beating T-Pain more than world-weary Julian Casablancas. So do other actors--foul Natalie Portman more than hammy Jack Black. The keepers clock in at around 2:30, before the laughs dry up. These posers sing the new bling: "You can call us Aaron Burr/From the way we're droppin' Hamiltons." A MINUS

Wussy: Wussy (Shake It) From their records I know this great couple band nobody's heard of to be mordant, obsessive, desperate. But having caught them live in Manhattan last year, I also know them to be urgent, funny, companionable. To be clear, they're a two-male, two-female quartet, but only grizzled fat Chuck Cleaver and lissome tattooed Lisa Walker are a couple. What's worrisome is that if I'm to take their latest songs autobiographically, which is hard to resist after that show, I should say they're a couple-I-hope, not just because I want them to keep making records but because I liked them together--and because this is as brutal a relationship album as Richard & Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights. It starts with a miserable reunion, gets bleaker, sets the tone for its upful moments with the lively "Happiness Bleeds," and keeps on bleeding till a spare, funereal closer with the ominous title "Las Vegas." But there's also good news. With Walker's soprano simultaneously reasonable and fraught, Cleaver's rough tenor spooked by Appalachian Cincinnati, their country-drone guitars and locked-in rhythm section never give up, not even on the slow ones. There's hurt there always. But no discernible hate. A

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It's Blitz! (Interscope) The more Karen O makes like a disco dolly, the less we're obliged to believe she's a person. She's just a hell of a cartoon, swooping and suffering and s&ming all over her brand of new synth sonics--Gary Numan, Placebo, Lady GaGa, anything for a thrill (except the electro-shoegaze "Runaway"). Dig the art-rock pompadour "Skeletons," where Nick Zinner rips off an excellent bagpipes impression. Even the now-obligatory vulnerable one, where Karen tries to prove she's not only human but nice, is . . . well, not a cartoon, but at least a bedtime story. A MINUS

Neil Young: Fork in the Road (Reprise) Young's green-car protest album tops his impeach-the-president protest album because he knows more about cars than he does about presidents. In fact, he loves the gas guzzlers of yore so much that he went into the business. His goal: a "heavy metal Continental" that gets 100 mpg on "domestic green fuel." Young's music has never run as smooth as his automobiles, and his Volume Dealers chug along like the reliable transportation they are. But putting his tunes and falsetto into overdrive, he's so into his subject he turns it over 10 different ways. Here be truckers and traffic jams, heroic mechanics and failed bailouts, "the awesome power of electricity" and "cough up the bucks," hoods to get under and worlds to collide. Young sees beyond the "old"--a word that comes up a lot--on-the-road utopianism. But there's not a hint of mea culpa in the guy, or guilt trip either. "Just singing a song won't change the world," he knows that. But songs are his job, and his reserves are apparently inexhaustible. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Mr. Lif: I Heard It Today (Bloodbot Tactical Enterprises) Alt-rap against monetarism, with beats to match ("What About Us?" "Welcome to the World").
  • Yonlu: A Society in Which No Tear Is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre (Luaka Bop) 16-year-old Brazilian lo-fi adept explains why he's about to kill himself and demonstrates why he shouldn't have--conclusively, I hope ("Estrela, Estrela," "Katie Don't Be Depressed").
  • The Defibulators: Corn Money (City Salvage) Brooklyn's own Asylum Modal Beat Farmers, countrier than I See Hawks in L.A. and Spike Jones put together ("Get What's Coming to You," "Thin Air").
  • P.O.S.: Never Better (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Punk-rap not Afro-punk, heavy on the verbiage and nothing like "emo" ("Out of Category," "Low Light Low Life").
  • Two Fingers: Two Fingers (Paper Bag) Attention Amon Tobin: when a beatmaker's hip-hop bid peaks with an instrumental, there's probably a piece missing ("Keman Rhythm," "Straw Man").
  • Micachu and the Shapes: Jewellery (Rough Trade) Descriptives like abstract, angular, and spiky are inadequate to Mica Levi's trio, although tuneless will do if you remember that boring doesn't work at all ("Calculator," "Vulture").
  • The Coathangers: The Coathangers (Rob's House) The reason they're so mad is they just want to have fun ("Nestle in My Boobies," "Parking Lot").
  • Brother Ali: The Truth Is Here (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Professional's disease--after eight months on the road, he raps best about himself ("Real as Can Be," "Baby Don't Go").
  • Flight of the Conchords: Flight of the Conchords (Sub Pop) That double-edged Kiwi wit--bad things are funnier at a distance, but then again, bad jokes are lamer at a distance ("Foux du Fafa," "Business Time").
  • The Flatlanders: Hills and Valleys (New West) A supernal voice, a lousy voice and a voice grown strident with the years--leveled by age, united by words of wisdom ("Homeland Refugees," "Borderless Love").
  • Buddy & Julie Miller: Written in Chalk (New West) Partners in harmony, partners in sorrow ("Long Time," "What You Gonna Do Leroy").
  • Shad: The Old Prince (Black Box) Conscious hip-hop Rwanda-Ontario style, comedy included ("The Old Prince Still Lives at Home," "I Don't Like To").
  • Neko Case: Middle Cyclone (Anti) Sounds strong and normal, definitely isn't the latter and how much that combination moves you is how much you care ("People Got a Lotta Nerve," "Don't Forget Me").
  • The Handsome Family: Honey Moon (Carrot Top) Not that Brett doesn't adore Rennie as they honor 20 years of marriage, just that he has trouble telling the world about it ("Wild Wood," "Darling, My Darling").
  • Jake One: White Van Music (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Seattle beatmaker respects backpackers and gatpackers at the same time (Blueprint, "Scared"; Freeway & Brother Ali, "The Truth").
  • Bloodkin: Baby, They Told Us We'd Rise Again (SCI Fidelity) Half Allmans sans virtuosos, half Truckers sans storytellers ("Heavy With Child," "Little Margarita").
  • Brian Dewan: Words of Wisdom (Eschaton) Demented autoharpist sings 19th-century truth to 21st-century power, or maybe it's the other way around--he's so ironic who can tell? ("Words of Wisdom," "The Civil War").
  • Lady GaGa: The Fame (Interscope) Shallowness at its most principled ("Just Dance," "Paper Gangsta").
  • Land of Talk: Some Are Lakes (Saddle Creek) "I'll love you like I love you/Then I'll die" ("Some Are Lakes," "Give Me Back My Heart Attack").

Choice Cuts

  • Shawn Sahm With Augie Meyers, "Mendocino" (Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm, Vanguard)
  • Milton, "Night Driving" (Grand Hotel, Maggadee)
  • Architecture in Helsinki, "Like It Or Not [Version 2]," "Beef in Box" (Like It or Not, Polyvinyl)
  • A Camp, "The Crowning" (Colonia, Nettwerk)

Dud of the Month

Bat for Lashes: Two Suns (Astralwerks) The opening "Glass" does indeed deploy what a Pitchfork raver designates a "strange mix of elements (chamber pop, prog metal, new age--what?) magically coalesced into some entirely new genre that I wish existed and yet still can't quite wrap my brain around." If you suspect, correctly, that this so-called genre is unworthy of your brainlength, Natasha Khan will make you cringe. Compared to Kate Bush, Björk, even Joanna Newsom, she's an etherhead, as ill-informed about astronomy as she is about love. That said, the beauteous Eurasian hippie does get a little grounded when she dons a blonde wig and assumes the persona of Pearl, who moans that she's "evil, evil," though to me she just seems confused. Grounded or ethereal, Khan has the kind of pretty, proper British accent that young men find fetching when linked to ill-informed mentions of goodbye beds and licking her clean. She has hitched her modest talent to an art-rock wagon she won't outpace anytime soon. C

More Duds

  • Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cardinology (Lost Highway)
  • Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Follow the Lights (Lost Highway)
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Lightning Rod)
  • Max Tundra: Parallax Error Beheads You (Domino)
  • M83: Saturdays = Youth (Mute)

MSN Music, May 2009

April 2009 June 2009