Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

It's been a good enough month, and year, that when I began power-listening to Eminem as my deadline approached, I had no likely candidates for Dud of the Month. I was surprised, disappointed, even shocked to find one where I did.

African Pearls: Senegal 70: Musical Effervescence (Syllart) I've heard plenty of salsa-influenced pre-mbalax from Senegal's second decade, with its brash interplay of rough and sweet, clave and tama, roots and dreams. But lacking verbal cues, I don't recall individual songs that well, so I'm pleased to report that after examining my library and perusing notes in inelegant French and illiterate English, I'm impressed by how few duplications pop up on this 26-track double-CD--and also by the quality of rarities like Orchestra Baobab's Parisian Arsenio Rodriguez cover "Juana" and JB-channeling "Kelen Ati." The vocal intensity will surprise no one familiar with Youssou's warm up posse or Baobab's panoply of frontmen, and it's good to attach audible presences to celebrated names like Pape Seck and El Hadje Faye. It's also good to hear winners unknown in these parts, like Xalam's explosively retro "Daïda." A MINUS

Leonard Cohen: Live in London (Columbia) What a strange and inspiring story. Cohen had reached a state of permanent equilibrium by the year 2000, a revered cult artist in his late sixties with a multimillion-dollar catalogue and a mild case of agoraphobia. Musically he remained fairly productive, but detached, as befitted a Zen priest. Only then his longtime manager sold his publishing out from under his nose and absconded with the proceeds, and at 70 he found himself down to his last 150 grand. So in early 2008, aged 73, he launched a money-making world tour that has continued ever since. Offered a ticket by a friend, I walked in a fond skeptic and walked out a convert. The miraculous show I witnessed, where Cohen literally skipped on and off stage, lasted even longer than this two-and-a-half-hour double-CD, which will now be my Cohen of choice even though its songs are pretty much duplicated on the excellent Essential Leonard Cohen. The band is on it, the backup singers are solicitous, and Cohen's husk of a voice has been juiced up by the exercise. But the difference isn't the performances per se. It's the audience interactions. Gracious to a fault, Cohen is no longer detached. As practiced as his profuse thank yous are, his gratitude for the adoration of his cult is palpable not just in his stage talk but in the warmth and good humor with which he celebrates an oeuvre that no longer makes him a dime. Though I'd say it's less, Hank Williams may still be a hundred floors above him in the tower of song. But Cohen is no longer wondering how lonely things can get. A

Doom: Born Like This (Lex) Doom is like some vaudevillian who can make people laugh by tying his shoelace. He starts being funny when he opens his mouth. It helps that, as Sasha Frere-Jones once observed, his tongue is apparently too big for said mouth, but the clincher is how gracefully this klutz skates over the oddly rolling beats of J Dilla, Jake One and the Metal Fingered Villain . . . Doom (ellipsis in original). Not only that, he rhymes! Else only backpackers would give a shine! It's not just about supervillains, nuclear devastation and Batman being gay. It's about how when Batman is gay you can link "retard" to "leotard" for all eternity. A MINUS

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia) The singer isn't up to tenderness and the accordion gets annoying. But the first two tracks are standards in the making, the last two tracks are prophetic and mean, and the blues in between are as pointed as the pop songs are long-winded. Plus he's got Robert Hunter playing the humanizer, which on a love album is always a good flavor. B PLUS

Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder) Despite what one justifiably fears from the white-hand-on-black-hand photo that effectively authenticates the booklet, the banjo fusioneer's musical tourism stands firmly on the delightful side of cute for two thirds of a generous CD. Rejecting Afropop for village musicians and/or homegrown preservationists, Fleck brings in some impressive second attractions for the cut or two they're worth--Malagasay man of the world D'Gary, South African go-getter Vusi Mahlasela, Malian super-sideman Afel Bacoum. He gets on with Oumou Sangare, overdubs welcome soloists into a D'Gary jam recorded in Nashville, duets with a balafon so huge it's commandeered by 35 Ugandans, showcases a blind mbira master who sings like a bird on a song about singing like a radio. Nine tracks from Uganda and Tanzania and none from Nigeria or Congo is funny demographics and the album tails off into debt paying and musicianly hypersubtlety. But this is the rare folkie travelogue that goes somewhere. A MINUS

PJ Harvey & John Parish: A Woman a Man Walked By (Island) A distinct odor of shtick emanates from Harvey's second full-length outing with her old pal Parish, who having been ceded the music is proud to emulate his friend the genius's crazy ways from the hard-riffing "Black Hearted Lover" to the forlorn "Cracks in the Canvas." In the wake of three questionable albums, shtick is a relief, not just because it's really great shtick but because after all these years we're happy to be clear about whether she's performing or expressing herself. Playing a spooky game of hide-and-seek or stealing the soul of a mother in mourning or kissing off a California where she you can bet never bought sunscreen or brutalizing a mama's boy with a chicken liver spleen, she's nothing less than the Queen of Goth, eternally uncrowned because some shtick she's just too good for. A MINUS

The Hold Steady: A Positive Rage (Vagrant) On Halloween 2006, a decade-plus after choosing the unremunerative lifework of hanging around Bar Band Nation without falling in, Craig Finn climaxes a tour that's had him selling out thousand-seaters and knows it's too soon to stop now. Like the Raspberries when they were in it for the hits not the sales, he's in it for the house not the gate. And he's so psyched as he watches those houses get bigger that he invests his excellent story-songs with an emotion their excellent studio versions have never matched--though maybe now they will. A MINUS

New York Dolls: 'Cause I Sez So (Atco) The fourth Dolls album and second of their second life is the first one that's less than epochal. Not all the tunes are surefire. Its garage-rock derivative is several degrees bluesier than the permanently exploding protopunk they reprise on the closing "Exorcism of Despair" just in case you forgot the thrill. And the Buddhism is more overt: post-flagellant culture, existence as a temptation, "Offering the modern crowd an absolute/Worthy of its nothingness." Just in case you forgot the frame of reference, however, there's also a skanking remake of "Trash." And in the end David Johansen's lyrics somehow combine extreme skepticism, metaphysical despair, romantic agony, rock-solid agape and luv l-u-v. How should he call his lover girl? Would she settle for "My baby, got mystical frenzy/Tempered by an irony/Verging on blasphemy"? Let's hope so. A MINUS

Occidental Brothers Dance Band International: Odo Sanbra (Occidental Brothers) Led by Nathaniel Braddock, a Michigan history prof's son who mastered highlife guitar to signify his distance from the other kids in his Dow Chemical town, and featuring two members of the Western Diamonds, the biggest Ghanaian highlife band of the '90s, proof that preservationism can be fun. Stopping off for an idiomatic cover of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" (wherein Braddock noticed a sikyi progression) and finishing with the '20s chestnut "Yaa Amponsah" (whereof Braddock tracked down an original 78), it's tuneful like all great highlife is tuneful--with Chicago saxman about town Greg Ward taking the hooky second guitar parts, maybe more. Chicago bassist Joshua Ramos is the anchor-for-hire, Kofi Cromwell sings lovely and blows his own horn, Andrew Bird contributes a violin cameo, and Asamoah Rambo is the rare African who knows his way around a trap set. Like they say so much more often than is true--sweet. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Extra Golden: Thank You Very Quickly (Thrill Jockey) Kenyan-American quartet's inner jam band generates discernible jam ("Gimakiny Akia," "Piny Yore Yore").
  • Strange Boys: And Girls Club (In the Red) Punk as kids expressing themselves turned punk as gateway to history--and maybe adulthood eventually, but not yet please ("I Heard You Wanna Beat Me Up," "No Way for a Slave to Behave").
  • PJ Harvey: The Peel Sessions 1991-2004 (Island) Eight efficient catalogue covers add a little flesh, four apt album-unavailables add a little catalogue ("Naked Cousin," "Sheela-Na-Gig").
  • On Ka'a Davis: Seed of Djuke (LiveWired Music) Sun Ra guitarist organizes free-improv pan-Afrobeat ("I'm Not Scared," "Send-Return").
  • Asher Roth: Asleep in the Bread Aisle (Capitol) Likes women, loves his parents, abuses Miller Lite, raps with an easy flow, cultivates a sense of humor ("Lark on My Go-Kart," "His Dream").
  • Buraka Som Sistema: Black Diamond (Fabric) From Portugal, why not, Afrotechno 15 or 20 years behind schedule ("Sound of Kuduro," "Aqui Para Vocês").
  • The Rough Guide to Afrobeat Revival (World Music Network) With Fela gone, definitely a style best consumed in one-song-per-artist dollops, as bonus Kokolo disc demonstrates (Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble, "Fela Day"; Mr. Something Something and Ikwunga the Afrobeat Poet, "Di Bombs").
  • Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: Outer South (Merge) At last less depressed by his fame, still too impressed by his gift of gab ("Slowly [Oh So Slowly]," "Roosevelt Room").
  • Marnie Stern: In Advance of the Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars) Guitar-shredding prog that makes its point in half its 45 minutes--except insofar as the point is aggravation ("Grapefruit," "Every Single Line Means Something").
  • Sir Lord Von Raven: Please Throw Me Back in the Ocean (HappyParts) Includes Fats Domino cover, a good look for any neogarage hopeful ("I Do!" "Georgy Boy").
  • The Girls: Yes No Yes No Yes No (Dirtnap) Dark-hued, technically inspired keybsy-Carsy punk-pop hooktunes as fashionable as a skinny tie ("Not I," "Anthropomorphic").
  • Marnie Stern: This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That (Kill Rock Stars) The more concrete she gets, the less math can help her ("Roads? Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads," "The Package Is Wrapped").
  • brakesbrakesbrakes: Touchdown (FatCat) When you can parse lyrics that convey no identity, figure they also don't mean much to the catchy, basic fellas who aren't putting them across ("Two Shocks," "Worry About It Later").
  • Cursive: Mama, I'm Swollen (Saddle Creek) Know more about complicity than anyone else in emo, know more about punk than anybody who thinks calling them emo will put them in their place ("In the Now," "Mama, I'm Satan").
  • Titus Andronicus: The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman Unlimited) Adolescent angst never gets old ("Arms Against Atrophy," "Titus Andronicus").

Choice Cuts

  • Keri Hilson, "Intro," "Return the Favor," "Turnin Me On" (In a Perfect World . . ., Mosley Music Group/Zone 4/Interscope)
  • Anjani, "Blue Alert" (Blue Alert, Columbia)
  • Sharon Robinson, "Everybody Knows" (Everybody Knows, Sharon Robinson Songs)
  • Lucky Dube, "Baxoleleni," "Abathakathi" (Retrospective, Rykodisc)

Dud of the Month

Eminem: Relapse (Aftermath/Interscope) As he told "XXL": "I wanted to go back to Proof's idea of, 'Let's just say the most f*cked up sh*t we can say.'" In other words, this great artist's big concept for his first album since 2004 is a D12 homage. Having slyly categorized it as horrorcore early on, and riding Dr. Dre's most bombastic beats ever, he unrolls the offensive work of art bluenoses have always insisted was there: misogyny up the wazoo, lesbians-only homophobia, libels for a stepdad, murders unnumbered, sexual humiliations previously unknown to hip-hop and more dropped names than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who's funnier--and also, uh-oh, more boyish. In a socially redeeming denouement, all of this and more is blamed on the drugs we hope he's kicked, we really do. There's even an inspirational number no more boring than the one about offing Lindsay Lohan. But for the first time in his career Eminem settles for sensationalism straight up, and, worse still, makes you wonder whether he ever truly knew the difference. Em, this is not a Slim Shady album. Slim Shady had a lightness about him. B MINUS

More Duds

  • Bon Iver: Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar)
  • Ciara: Fantasy Ride (LaFace)
  • Peter Doherty: Grace/Wastelands (Astralwerks)
  • Fleet Foxes: Sun Giant (Sub Pop)
  • Peter Bjorn and John: Living Thing (Almost Gold/Star Time)
  • Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko: Africa to Appalachia (Factor)

MSN Music, June 2009

May 2009 July 2009