Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Of the nine featured albums below, only one is on a major label--Nonesuch, WEA's art imprint. Note, however, that six of these artists have been on major labels in the past. So the problem isn't how good they are, it's how many they sell. Which puts the ball in your court.

Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut) The Ethiopia-born and -steeped, U.K.- and Berklee-educated, Harvard- and M.I.T.-associated Astatke is a subtle player on vibes, keyboards and Latin percussion as well as the inventor of something he calls Ethio-jazz. He gets much respect from his largely non-Ethiopian cult, a little less from DJ Shadow drummer Malcolm Catto's band--the Heliocentrics aren't just his sidemen, and thus concoct one of those remarkable collaborations where each party compensates for the other's shortcomings. On his own, Astatke is a mite understated, musicianly and genteel; on their own, the Heliocentrics are just slightly showy, brittle and fickle. Together they play not-quite-Arab Ethiopian scales real loud, juxtapose electric guitar and one-stringed mesenqo, and groove more obstreperously than jazz deems proper. There have been other Euro-Ethio fusions--Le Tigre, Dubulah, in a way Karl Hector. This is the only one that creates a world of its own. A MINUS

Rhett Miller: Rhett Miller (Shout! Factory) Although it's hard to imagine this album taking on the inevitability of, for instance, The Believer, bear in mind that Miller's songs have a way of kicking in bigger over a longer haul than any reviewer can give him or any skeptic will. On his third solo album, the thematic focus is intense enough to ignite kindling. All but a few songs deal with differing facets of a tempestuous permanent relationship, and that includes the one where a matriarch with 49 strong male grandchildren turns 100 on her steel-clad colony planet in the year 2106. It's called "Happy Birthday Don't Die," and I'm going to assume it's about Miller's daughter until he tells me to stop. A MINUS

Moby: Wait for Me (Mute) You'd think the little egomaniac had made some version of this elegiac, atmospheric, predominantly instrumental album before. He's always had a weakness for quiet grandeur, a knack too, and his very first longform was called Ambient. But in fact the style of beauty here is something new for him, and though the album may seem contemplative, depressive is probably more like it--desolate even. What lyrics there are mourn absence and loss, and many of the effects are achieved by fabricating and then calibrating dirty sonics both electronic and organic. My Bloody Valentine obsessives should check it out--though it is prettier, a spiritual accomplishment and a relief. A MINUS

Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown) You know how Will Smith makes the corny hip-hop albums you'd expect of a leading man with a sense of humor? Well, this is the arty hip-hop album you'd expect of a character actor who steals every marginal flick he's in--only unlike Smith's, Mos Def's is good. Half associative rhymes that clock in under two-and-a-half minutes, devoid of hooks but full of sounds you want to hear again, it's like a dream mixtape--one unresolved track morphing into the next to define a world hip-hop with poles in Brooklyn and Beirut. Almost every thoughtfully slurred word is comprehensible, including most of the ones he sings in Spanish, and the vision justifies the Malcolm X intro. In "The Embassy," Mos Def describes a luxury hotel as an outsider, too aware to come on like one of those thug fools who think they own a joint that'll blacklist them five years from now. And in the Bed-Stuy lookback "Life in Marvelous Times" he offers a credo: "More of less than ever before/It's just too much more for your mind to absorb/It's scary like hell, but there's no doubt/We can't be alive in no time but now." A

Serengeti: Dennehy (Lights, Camera, Action!) ( In which a prolific, unknown Chicago rapper plays every part but one on a loosely chronological song cycle about a naive young rapper named Scotty, who laps over into Serengeti himself, and a much older white working-class sports fan named Kenny Dennis, whose passion for Brian Dennehy provides the album its title and his signature track its chorus: "Favorite actor Dennehy, favorite drink O'Doul's/Bears, Hawks, Sox, Bulls." (Given Kenny's accent, this rhymes perfect.) Over soul loops for Kenny and basement beats for Scotty, both rhyme about their day to day enthusiasms and travails. It's funny, not satirical--Serengeti loves these characters. And like Kenny, he also loves Kenny's wife Jueles, whose occasional background yakking is rendered by Serengeti's friend Larissa Poluchowicz with what sounds to me like a Polish-American accent, though internal evidence indicates Jueles is of Mexican descent. Maybe she's both--since Serengeti is a "noticeably Negro" man born David Cohn, that would compute fine. And in case you're wondering, "noticeably Negro" is Serengeti's phrase--the title of a 2006 album worth seeking out. There are others. A

Todd Snider: The Excitement Plan (Yep Roc) For a principled slacker like Snider, diffidence is an aesthetic principle, but here it tends to obscure some affecting little songs. Slackers need whatever help they can get wherever they can get it. They also pack less punch as sidewalk philosophers than as barroom storytellers--e.g. "Unorganized Crime," where a job gets done, or "Corpus Christi Bay," who has one. B PLUS

Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador) Let us consider the Rolling Stones, a/k/a the world's greatest rock and roll band, who 25 years after their first album bestowed upon us the immortal Steel Wheels. Like said Stones, Sonic Youth are perfect masters of a style they created--a less derivative one, and concomitantly a less accessible one. Over Thurston and Lee's combustible tunings and Steve's strong beat, they've long since learned to construct memorable tunes track in and track out. So why is their 25th-anniversary album so much more fun than Steel Wheels--so sonic, so youthful? You think maybe it's that on a new minor label, with Pavement's old bassist freeing Kim up, they've gathered no moss, or whatever you call that green stuff mucking up the Stones' wheels? A MINUS

Allen Toussaint: The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch) The weak link is the popmeister up top--Toussaint has always been the least improvisational and also the least percussive of the New Orleans piano masters. But Nicholas Payton, Don Byron, and Marc Ribot provide all the jazz he needs. Absolutely this not-quite-lite tour of New Orleans and vicinity touches down on Bechet and Morton, "St. James Infirmary" and "West End Blues." But it defines vicinity so broadly that you'll also find Beiderbecke and Reinhardt, two Ellington tunes, songs by a jazz critic and Ed Sullivan's bandleader. And bringing the album home is the not especially canonical Thelonious Monk title track, where percussiveness is a man's only option and everybody is compelled to improvise some, the percussionist included. A MINUS

Jozef van Wissem: A Rose by Any Other Name: Anonymous Lute Solos of the Golden Age (Incunabulum) Twenty-two enduring melodies--sprightly and contemplative, simple and complex--collected in the 16th and 17th centuries by people who could both play the lute and afford such extravagances. Some were composed by noble folk too proud to admit they dabbled in such low pursuits, but most came from minstrels and such so famed in their own era that transcribers didn't bother to record their names--or so believes the annotator, who puckishly signs himself or herself "Anonymous." Four centuries later, even the dance numbers are calming, their beauty sometimes merely pretty after all this time but no less welcome for that, and the most elaborate figurations seem modest, especially given the lute's anachronistically mellow sound. Plus there are those melodies. "Lady Lie Near Me" sets me to humming "Cumberland Mine" every time. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • The Heliocentrics: Out There (Now-Again) Introducing Sun Ra and Michael Henderson-era Miles to Henry Mancini and Maurice White ("Distant Star," "Joyride").
  • Pet Shop Boys: Yes (Astralwerks) They want more than only memories--a human touch to make them real ("Building a Wall," "Vulnerable").
  • Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara: Tell No Lies (Real World) Robert Plant guitarist and émigré Gambian griot work up genuine rough-and-raucous Afro-rock fusion--or anyway, desert-blues fusion ("Sahara," "Kele Kele [No Passport No Visa]").
  • Nils Petter Molvaer: Hamada (Sula/Universal) Not Hamada the Japanese folk ceramicist, hamada the rocky desert plateau--only this being Norwegian trumpet, chillier ("Cruel Altitude," "Friction").
  • Marshall Crenshaw: Jaggedland (429) From that spiritual place where you conclude that since life doesn't resolve neatly, neither should songs ("Passing Through," "Right on Time").
  • Hi-Fidel: The Company of Toth (F5) Real-life fictions from a rapper with screenwriter dreams ("Patty Farmington," "Small Victories").
  • Cracker: Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey (429) The view from the desert as the sun sets on the American empire ("Yalla Yalla [Let's Go]," "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me").
  • Rancid: Let the Dominoes Fall (Hellcat) Solidarity forever ("East Bay Night," "Civilian Ways").
  • Busta Rhymes: Back on My B.S. (Universal Motown) Sometimes the threat of jail time can clear a man's head ("Arab Money," "I'm a Go and Get My . . .").
  • Street Sweeper Social Club (Tom Morello/Boots Riley): Street Sweeper Social Club (SSSC) Rap's smartest revolutionary has lost some of his zest for life because a) Tom Morello knows only rage, b) collapse is just around the corner or c) there's a black president ("Clap for the Killers," "The Oath").
  • Dubblestandart: Return From Planet Dub (Collision) Lee Perry and Ari Up add enuff flava to stage-tested Austrian dub band ("Chase the Devil," "I Foo China").
  • DJ Muggs & Planet Asia: Pain Language (Gold Dust) The pain--and the violence--being criminal, political, and artistic ("Sleeper Cell," "Pain Language").
  • Cut Copy: In Ghost Colours (Modular) Woo-ooh I love you ("Out There on the Ice," "Hearts on Fire").
  • Roy Nathanson: Subway Moon (Yellowbird) Jazz Passenger as subway passenger, in simple spoken word and typically tricky music ("Subway Noah," "Party").
  • Bell Orchestre: As Seen Through Windows (Arts & Crafts) Assez jolie, mais rien comme un cloche ("Elephants," "The Gaze").
  • Placebo: Battle for the Sun (Vagrant) Articulating anxieties not necessarily their own since 1996 ("Bright Lights," "The Never-Ending Why").
  • Yoome: The Boredom of Me (Audio 8) Lovestyles of the rich-not-wealthy ("Debt," "Blueberry Breath").
  • A.R. Rahman: The Best of A.R. Rahman (Legacy) Most great schlock transcends petty boundaries of language and culture, and most great schlock is lifted by a touch of strange--when it's not swamped by gobs of gentility ("Rang De Basanti," "Barso Re").
  • The Airborne Toxic Event: The Airborne Toxic Event (Major Domo) Has his head screwed on better than most professionally overwrought young men ("Sometime Around Midnight," "Gasoline").
  • Bike for Three!: More Heart Than Brains (Anticon) Buck 65 declares his ineffable love for Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê d/b/a Greetings From Tuskan, an electronic beatmaker he's never met ("Always I Will Miss You, Always You," "Lazarus Phenomenon").
  • Friday Night: Friday Night (Breakfast) Dave and Umar, a/k/a Serengeti and Hi-Fidel, luck into half a brick of cocaine, which fails to make them happy ("The Gold Coast [The Ballad of Kelly and Rita]," "Str8 2 Voicemail").

Choice Cuts

  • Joey + Rory, "Cheater, Cheater" (The Life of a Song, Sugar Hill)
  • Serengeti & Polyphonic, "Calliope," "My Negativity" (Terradactyl, Anticon)
  • Justin Townes Earle, "They Killed John Henry" (Midnight at the Movies, Bloodshot)

Dud of the Month

Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise) I tried, I swear. Played it over and over so the music would sink in before I assessed a concept unlikely to prove profound. That way I could give it up to individual tracks whatever the state of Billie Joe Armstrong's geopolitical acumen. But all this did was convince me that I disliked the tunes I remembered even more than those I didn't--especially the slow ones that set up the fast ones within the same song, a hotcha-gotcha device with which the Broadway-bound ex-punk is deeply smitten. I don't like right-wing Christianists either. But as every oppressed teen in the right-wing orbit knows full well, they're not as garbled and simplistic as Armstrong's anthems insist. C

More Duds

  • Brighton Port Authority: I Think We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat (Southern Fried)
  • Steve Earle: Townes (New West)
  • Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman: The Fabled City (Epic)
  • The Thermals: Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars)

MSN Music, July 2009

June 2009 August 2009