Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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My search this month began by clearing the decks of alt-rock also-rans--I'm more than half done, with several finds unearthed so far. It ended with a surprise tour of Latin comps that began in Panama. And of course there was other stuff in between--working out the J Dilla problem, for instance.

An Horse: Rearrange Beds (Mom & Pop) From Brisbane--like the Go-Betweens!--comes young Kate Cooper with her noisy guitar and her journalism degree and her male drummer from the record shop and her womanly enunciation with a firm drawl inflecting her "aw"'s and short "o"'s. Like the Go-Betweens, she never lets go of a song until there's a hook in it somewhere and she usually writes about love--assume autobiography and this is a breakup album full stop. Striding forward, Cooper won't let that stop her. She hurts, but her chin scarcely trembles at all. A MINUS

J Dilla: Jay Stay Paid (Nature Sounds) Where the genius loops a dying Dilla strung together on Donuts are a kind of chain necklace, Pete Rock weaves these legacy beats into something more ropelike--a lanyard, say. Since both records are more abstract than their cheering sections understand, the many voices Rock enlists make a difference. From Doom and Black Thought down to Phat Kat and Frank Nitty, they ground Dilla's beats where, for instance, the finished singles collected on Rapster's Dillanthology comp put them in the background where any pro knows they belong. The result is less a mixtape than a hip-hop version of a good Augustus Pablo album--more varied, jocular, and disquieting because that's how hip-hop is, but still a single organism. B PLUS

Patterson Hood: Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs) (Ruth St.) Shortly after the 2004 living-room collection Killers and Stars, the Drive-By Trucker and great American songwriter figured out a better way to make a solo album: not just with a band, duh, but with never-recorded mementos of his intermittently wasted late 20s juxtaposed against tokens of fatherhood at 40 and other life satisfactions. Took a while to get off the back burner, but the simmering helped it blend. Hood is too inclined toward dark-side thoughts and the world too inclined toward dark-side realities for the newer songs to come off complacent. But like the best Nashville vets, he knows enough to root both "Granddaddy," an optimistic take on having a kid, and "Pride of the Yankees," a worried one, in telling details, personal and historical respectively. The alt-rock vet he is takes time to level a few harsh words at old fling Courtney Love. But here's one thing that makes him a great American songwriter--they're tempered by kind ones. A MINUS

Kronos Quartet: Floodplain (Nonesuch) Usually this staunchly eclectic string quartet forges alliances with non-Western musicians I'd as soon stand alone or works with Western composers who aren't to my taste. This collection of traditional music, classical music, pop songs, and special commissions from a broadly conceived Middle East is different. Dumb me found out from the notes that it was the two pop songs that always rang my chimes--one from Egypt circa 1940, the other from '70s Iraq. In the wrong mood, some of the others can seem too solemn, histrionic, drawn-out--slow. But there's nothing here that doesn't suit the right mood. There are cathedrals in Sicily that overlay Christian imagery on Islamic design in buildings that can accommodate all comers. This album brought them back. A MINUS

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland) Muffling their excellent knowledge of English in jangle and reverb, four theoretical nerds demonstrate why a band is better than grad school. Obviously no sad sacks if you have the courtesy to log off Twitter and listen, they flip off stacks etiquette in "Young Adult Friction" and cope with the indiscretions of a teaching assistant in "The Tenure Itch." Not only do they have a sound, they have tunes, and the words bring both home. One day it will please them to remember even this. A MINUS

Panama! 2 (Soundway) The first volume preserves the big-band salsa and Latin soul of the Colon and Panama City scenes--hot, yes, but often secondhand and/or overblown. This one sticks mostly to the interior. On the lead track, an accordion takes the horn part of a Willie Colon bomba and turns the tune into a cumbia; on the next, two horns take the accordion part of a percussion-driven tamborito and turn that one into "tamborito swing." Gradually the music salsafies, though less elaborately than on volume one, as well as briefly resuscitating more soul and a couple of calypsos. But in the end the accordion returns, frisky and tipico, the indigenous instrument of what some have called "Colombia's black province," as of the 1967-'77 heyday this heroic crate dig documents. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Dub (World Music Network) A less inclusive sampling than the title suggests--everything 1973-1980, King Tubby and acolytes only--and easier to access as a result, especially for those put off (or bored) by the abstraction toward which the dub mindset gravitates (or wanders). This early in the genre's history, trickles of melody still activate the pleasure centers as the music shifts in and out of one's stoned, spaced or distracted consciousness. Later, dry will regularly be mistaken for deep. A MINUS

Oumou Sangare: Seya (Nonesuch) In the '90s she was a self-made African queen on an unprecedented feminist mission--the titles of her albums from that decade translate to "women," "marriage today" and "10 kola nuts," which lest you wonder is or was the standard bride price in Mali's Wassoulou. Then she spent a dozen years raising a son and running multiple businesses, among them selling a Chinese car dubbed the Oum Sang for Malian consumption, such as it is. Her musical return to the world market translates simply "joy," and though it's unimpeachably pro-woman, it's also as expansive in mood as a Youssou N'Dour crossover. For all its 50-plus musicians, it's less varied than Youssou, though, and that's good. Sangare drew her musical authority from the cycling rhythms of Wassoulou hunting and harvesting songs, and she remains a homegirl. Nowhere is she more rousing then revving up old-time beats on two tributes to her musical forebears: the restrained "Djigui" and the unrestrained "Koroko." A MINUS

Regina Spektor: Far (Sire) No kid but not yet 30, the very classically trained piano woman outgrows her musical and verbal eccentricities. The tunes are consistently fetching, and a few standouts have clever lyrics--"Laughing With," the sensible theist's answer to "One of Us," or "Wallet," in which a good-hearted young person reaches across the generational divide to a stranger who'll never know who did him a good turn. But that cleverness doesn't do justice to the even strength of Spektor's humanism, which often manages to be whimsical and levelheaded at the same time. Insofar as one can read autobiography into this carefully unsubjective stuff, she seems to have the usual commitment problems and also seems likely to overcome them. Eventually she's sure to find a bird who's ready to fly away just when she is. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • The Rough Guide to Cuban Street Party (World Music Network) Positing a world where Cubans from both sides of the embargo can rev the clave hard together (Maraca, "Castigala"; La Lupe, "Sin Ma¡z").
  • J Dilla: Donuts (Stones Throw) More about moments than flow, which is strange when you think about it ("Workinonit," "Lightworks").
  • Metric: Fantasies (Metric/Last Gang) Sometimes calibrating love takes more brains than condemning consumerism--usually, in fact ("Gimme Sympathy," "Satellite Mind").
  • Bjork: Voltaic (Nonesuch) Available in five distinct physical configurations (collect them all!), the review version being CD 1/DVD 1, which showcase her electro-march mode emphasizing its most recent manifestation and indicate without conveying the ritual reach of her 2007 tour, respectively ("Army of Me," "Pluto").
  • Ida Maria: Fortress Round My Heart (Mercury) Not the first pop dolly with a thoughtful side who's deepest at her shallowest ("I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked," "Louie").
  • Crystal Castles (Last Gang) Impertinent electro-squelchers prove crystal castles are forever like sand castles are for never and byte castles are in between ("Crimewave [Crystal Castles vs. Health]," "Alice Practice").
  • The Asteroids Galaxy Tour: Around the Bend EP (Small Giants) Danish electro-tunesters shred genres, not guitars ("Around the Bend," "The Sun Ain't Shining No More").
  • Général Defao: Anthologie Defao (Production Babi Editions) Soukous in the somewhat saccharine '00s manner, its groove gentle and its pain hidden beneath synth washes and the language barrier ("Famille Kikuta," "Papa na Bénédicte").
  • Tiny Masters of Today: Skeletons (Mute) Underage electropunks treat Garageland like a toy ("Two Dead Soldiers," "Ghost Star").
  • Touchers: Blithe (Mental) On his fifth and final album, bipolar and ultimately suicidal Montanan Ben Spangler gives form to his joy and anguish as only born rockers can ("Big Worry," "There's a Dollar at the Bottom").
  • Jarvis Cocker: Further Complications (Rough Trade) Talented guy explains in impressive detail why he's never moved you as deeply as a guy so talented should ("Leftovers," "I Never Said I Was Deep").
  • The Clean: Mister Pop (Merge) Too young for '60s nostalgia, so old nobody can tell ("In the Dream Life U Need a Rubber Soul," "Factory Man").
  • The Rough Guide to Latin Street Party (World Music Network) "Turn it down, there's people sleeping here!" "No, turn it up!" "I'm warning you, turn it down!" "Come on down yourself!" (Chale Brillante y Su Bambino, "Prisionero En Tus Brazos"; Sidestepper, "Mas Papaya [Lightning Head Remix]").
  • Busdriver: Jhelli Beam (Anti-) Not only does his speed-rapping evoke both Sparks and Conlon Nancarrow, he may even know who they are ("Me-Time (With the Pulmonary Palimpsest)," "I've Always Known").
  • Manchester Orchestra: Mean Everything to Nothing (Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback) Supposedly Andy Hull struggles with life rock, but what counts is that they lilt ("The Only One," "100 Dollars").
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil: Rio de Janeiro (World Music Network) It's all samba to me--world's lithest easy-listening music (Moises Santana, "Alegria"; Beth Carvalho, "Folhas Secas").
  • Mika Miko: We Be Xuxa (Post Present Medium) Eleven punk songs plus one remix in 22 Smell Club minutes ("I Got a Lot (New New New)," "Beat the Rush").
  • Xrabit + DMG$: Hello World (Big Dada) Dirty Texas rappers meet Eurodance beatmaker for mutual self-improvement ("Damaged Goods," "Dirty South").

Choice Cuts

  • The Juju Orchestra, "Kind of Latin Rhythm" (The Rough Guide to Latin Lounge, World Music Network)
  • Grizzly Bear, "On a Neck, on a Spit," "Reprise" (Yellow House, Warp)
  • Sultana, "Kusu Kalkmaz" (The Rough Guide to Turkish Café, World Music Network)
  • Los Exagerados, "Panama Esta Bueno y . . . Ma" (Panama!, Soundway)
  • Megapuss, "Duck People Duck Man" (Surfing, Vapor)

Dud of the Month

Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (Warp) Nomenclature niggle: not "chamber pop." Serving up two kinds of genteel escape, pastoral and aesthetic, this is chamber folk-rock--or, less kindly, folk-prog. From the Beach Boys on down, chamber pop is about tune and hook embellishment. These guys are in it for the atmosphere. There are vaguer lyrics out there, but the reason the band's claque is gaga for the line "We'll swim around like two dories" isn't how evocative the image is (it isn't, which should count for something), but the extra squeeze of choirboy tight-ass Daniel Rossen pretties it up with. Applied to the straightforward "Deep Blue Sea" on Dark Was the Night, their skilled playing remains modest enough, but on this subtler and more pretentious material, the skills predominate, and just in case they don't, let's add a string quartet here and real choirboys there. Plus, they still hum. Less than last time, but a lot. C PLUS

More Duds

  • Crystal Antlers: Tentacles (Touch and Go)
  • Crystal Stilts: Alight of Night (Slumberland)
  • Department of Eagles: In Ear Park (4AD)
  • Grizzly Bear: Friend EP (Warp)
  • Jason Lytle: Yours Truly, The Commuter (Anti-)
  • The Music Tapes: Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes (Merge)
  • Eddi Reader: Love Is the Way (Rough Trade)

MSN Music, August 2009

July 2009 September 2009