Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This month's picks include a passel of guitar-noise experimentalists, one A-worthy; another passel of folk-rock revivalists, ditto; and three revivals per se: two feats of imagination, and one cherry-pick even Afropop fans haven't heard before.

The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You (American) These formerly acoustic Carolinians say they won a fan base by cutting their chests open. They go on to report that then they cut their hair--and bought a ticket to the big time, where with production from Rick Rubin they put all the above figures of speech into a song too catchy for their fan base, one of a solid half dozen on this typically thought through, atypically slammed home tribute to "I" and "love" and definitely "you." Sure there are drums. But mostly it's the tunes that do the slamming. And though their lyrics may be too sincere for sophisticates, they're not sincere enough to suit the Avetts, a disconnect they'll tell you about. A MINUS

Franco: Francophonic Vol. 2 (Sterns Africa) An overview of the rumba master's final decade: two CDs, 148 minutes, and just 13 tracks, of which I'd previously heard three. After not too long, however, "Kimpa kisangameni," anchored by Decca Mpudi's bewitching bass line, and "Bina na ngai na respect," with Ya Ntesa Dalienst threading his near-tenor through a web of soukous tricks, feel almost as familiar as the famous not to mention super "Mario," presented here in an alternate version that will have special meaning for all you Lingala speakers out there. Don't think these expansive tracks are all unimpeded up-up-up, either--the first 18 minutes and two songs of Disc 2 soar slow and majestic on expressiveness alone (well, melody, sure). Franco's forthright baritone and broad guitar are constants. But for all his skills as a player, singer, and writer, what made him not just Congo's but Africa's greatest musician was his bandleading. And unlike his counterpart James Brown, to whom he condescended for no good reason, he did his damnedest to hire underlings who were even better at singing and writing than he was. A PLUS

Nellie McKay: Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (Verve) Though I wish I believed McKay would have discovered Day if the 87-year-old box office queen hadn't devoted half her adult life to animal rights, the spritz, groove, sweetness and delight of this project not only raise Day from the shallow grave of the camp canon but give McKay a chance to grow up without going all sententious or stodgy. If by some mischance she's contracted the writer's block that can afflict kids who've spent years unable to staunch the river of new songs within--the only original is one of the few forgettables--then McKay has a future as an interpreter. At first the jazzy lightness of her arrangements seems like a distortion. But when you compare Day's "Crazy Rhythm" or "Do Do Do"--even the radio transcription of "Sentimental Journey" or a "Wonderful Guy" so much less brassy than Mary Martin's--you remember that like every Cincinnati girl of her era Day grew up with swing and probably resented the orchestral overkill she was saddled with. McKay's covers are jazzier and kookier than anything Day would have dared, or wanted. But to borrow language she's used for Day, they're "uncluttered, sensual and free, driven by an irrepressible will to live." A

Modest Mouse: No One's First, and You're Next (Epic) Suffused with zoological imagery and tragicomic despair, Isaac Brock's most likable record comprises eight songs that clock in at precisely 33:33. Irritated by the petty distractions of a success whose end he foresees (and fears), Brock explains how trapped he feels without whining about it. He's especially taken with sea creatures--"Perpetual Motion Machine" is about fish who wish they could walk so they could find out how it feels to fall down, and "Whale Song" bemoans Brock's metaphorical uselessness as it demonstrates his capacity for beauty. A MINUS

Jemina Pearl: Break It Up (Universal Motown) "Wave goodbye with a middle finger," the ex-Nashville ex-teenpunk advises bands on the run and singers who pack off to Brooklyn after the other guys break it up. Though the young are sure to discern "maturity" in her primal albeit produced solo debut, the rest of us will wonder how she'll adjust to the limitations of astrology, nervous system blues, "I Hate People" featuring Mr. Iggy Pop, and the theatrical hissy fit. The reason we care is that she retains her spunk, tunes, and way with a phrase. And not only is she talented, she's really cute. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Tango Revival (World Music Network) You say you like your music constructed, arranged, and what's wrong with Euro? Prove it. As Chris Moss' essay reports and selections demonstrate, Argentina's financial crisis had an upside: an upsurge in Buenos Aires pride embodied in a tango revival that looked to Astor Piazzolla as its fountainhead. But many of the great internationalist's habits and innovations owed Europe, and not all of these bands are Argentinean. Hungarians and Romanians take naturally to a violin-bandoneon sound that's perked up by a little cymbalom; Germans butt in as is their musical wont. Every track here rewards close attention, some require it, and all justify Moss' programmatic notes--do actually convey "romance and rancour," "boom-and-bust," and "urban disaffection" musically. To prove how complex tango has become, a bonus disc showcases the simpler soul of Carlos Gardel, whose death in a plane crash in 1935 sealed his status as tango's first great hero. A MINUS

Loudon Wainwright III: High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project (161) Young folkies are attracted to their chosen past because it seems so raw. But though young folkie Wainwright twigged to this totemic mountaineer via the line "The beefsteak it was rare and the butter had red hair," now he's old enough to cook him. Poole didn't write that line or anything else he sang--he'd perform Paul Dresser's musty "The Letter That Never Came" as soon as W.C. Handy's hightailing "Ramblin' Blues" if he thought it was good for a drink. And in Wainwright's plentifully illustrated and annotated two-CD tribute, where nine of the 29 selections are new songs by Wainwright and/or producer Dick Connette, Poole stands as a touchstone of a bygone era. Wainwright is such a card that you don't think of him as a singer, but he puts more throat and thorax into the sentimental ballads than Poole had in him, and his barn burners are louder and faster without approaching Poole's rooted assurance or reckless abandon. These conscious misprisions are fine by me. In fact, I'm more likely to play the canny reconstruction than the certified original. I'm older than Poole ever was. A

White Denim: Fits (Downtown) As only figures, this commercially perverse Austin shred-fusion tercet put out two versions of its debut album: the U.K.-specific Workout Holiday, available all over the Web, and then the American Exposion, gone in a jiffy from the few bins it reached and not so easy to download either. I reviewed the former here and advise buying whichever comes easiest; Exposion flows better, or make that floes--think icecaps protruding menacingly from a roiling sea--while Workout Holiday is a tad longer on hooks, songs, verbal content. This slightly progger and grander follow-up bypasses such corny stuff until Track 8 begins a closing sequence of five lyrics-enhanced lite-jazzish tracks--Steely Dan for their time, sorta. Word-parsing holdout though I may be, I prefer the first half: guitar-bass-drums-(keyboard?) that grooves ferociously without funk, skank, or swing. Is this "post-rock," finally? No. Nothing post about it. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Kid Sister: Ultraviolet (Universal Republic) The pomo electro doesn't transform her into a true ingenue, and the family reunion is missed ("Pro Nails," "Get Fresh").
  • No Age: Losing Feeling (Sub Pop) Vinyl-only EP exploring the musical question, "What to do, what to do, elegiac raveups or peculiar songs?" ("Losing Feeling," "You're a Target").
  • Telekinesis: Telekinesis! (Merge) One-man hook machine puts some rings on his formal merry-go-round ("Look to the East," "Tokyo").
  • Amira Saqati: Destination Halal (Barbarity) Moroccan club sophisticates combine authentic Araboiserie with Eurodub and "I Wanna Be Your Dog" ("Marrakech X-Press," "Hel Aeynik").
  • Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera) Still sui generis and still not repeating herself, which means among other things a little too much piano etude ("The Sun Is Down!" "Between My Head and the Sky").
  • Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy: Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy (Stony Plain) "Good time music for hard times," jug re-revival division ("The Panic Is On," "He Calls That Religion").
  • Bygones: By- (Sargent House) Busy beaver Zach Hill and a guitarist 10 times as obscure make some, what else, noise, only this time--what? can't hear ya--it congeals even as it flies apart ("Cold Reading," "Click on That [Smash the Plastic Death]".
  • Basement Jaxx: Scars (Ultra/XL) As good as their cameos as usual, led by Yo Majesty, Yoko, and Ms. Paloma Faith, who is clearly worthy of domestic consumption ("Twerk," "Day of the Sunflowers [We March On]").
  • Richmond Fontaine: We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River (El Cortez) More three-dimensional in his novels, Willy Vlautin's not-yet-down-and-outers are uncommonly humane in his murmured songs ("The Boyfriends," "A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses").
  • Think Global: Tango (Riverboat) Sometimes rougher (good), sometimes artier (not), sometimes jazzier (depends), Chris Moss picks 15 Oxfam-approved tangos for the well-meaning market (Juan Carlos Caceres, "Cumtango"; Melingo, "Leonel El Feo").
  • THe BAcksliders: Thank You ( Dumb capitalization to distinguish them from Backsliders who didn't rock this hard, didn't write this hard, featured male singers, and never gave their albums away ("Maybellene Don't," "Things").
  • The Donnas: Greatest Hits Vol. 16 (Purple Feather) Remakes, remixes, B sides, live versions, and other previously unreleaseds become one shallow, sexed up, hard rock thing ("She's Out of Control," "Fall Behind Me").
  • Cymbals Eat Guitars: Why There Are Mountains (Sister's Den) One step up the evolutionary ladder from indie-rock eats itself--you can hear it sprouting tunes, grooves, feelings ("Living North," ". . . And the Hazy Sea").
  • Lightning Bolt: Earthly Delights (Load) What they were put on earth for--loud guitar and very little else, which happens to include a pastoral interlude ("Sound Guardians," "Rain on Lake I'm Swimming In").
  • Blitzen Trapper: Black River Killer (Sub Pop) Dubious albeit arresting title track justified by six warm, likable, nicely unfinished folk-rock tunes ("Shoulder Full of You," "Preacher's Sister's Boy").
  • La Roux: La Roux (Polydor) Torn between the eternal polarities of "emotion" versus "feeling," "sensation" versus "fascination" ... hey wait, are those things actually all that different? ("In for the Kill," "Bulletproof").
  • The Rough Guide to Tango (World Music Network) Not the older stuff, necessarily--just the cornier stuff (Damian Bolotin, "Escualo"; Fleurs Noires, "Urbano").
  • The Pica Beats: Beating Back the Claws of the Cold (Hardly Art) Weedy vocals, flowering tunes, imagery from God's great material world ("Poor Old Ra," "Hope, Was Not a Smith Family Tradition").
  • Mission of Burma: The Sound the Speed the Light (Matador) Includes a melodic gloss on "Okie From Muskogee" ("After the Rain," "1, 2, 3, Partyy!").
  • Loudon Wainwright III: Recovery (Yep Roc) 62-year-old applies a lifetime of singing lessons and emotional travail to the coruscations of his youth ("Muse Blues," "Old Friend").
  • Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La Music) Fuzzy monsters, definitely--poking around for a band sound to believe in ("Whole Lotta Losin'," "His Master's Voice").
  • The Avett Brothers: Emotionalism (Ramseur) Victims of the folkie fallacy that unambiguous lyrics require unadorned instrumentation ("Die Die Die," "The Ballad of Love and Hate").
  • Future of the Left: Travels With Myself and Another (4AD) Not punk harangues, not comedy routines--some barely digestible combination of both ("Throwing Bricks at Trains," "Lapsed Catholics").
  • Paramore: Brand New Eyes (Fueled by Ramen) Hayley girl--it's OK to rock, it's OK to agonize, but you really don't have to yell so much ("Careful," "Ignorance").
  • Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Loyaut/Glassnote) Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Phoenix, if anything ("Lisztomania," "Rome").

Choice Cuts

  • White Denim, "Transparency," "You Can't Say" (Exposion, Transmission Entertainment)
  • The Slits, "Pay Rent," "Trapped Animal" (Trapped Animal, Narnack)
  • Anjulie, "Boom" (Anjulie, Hear Music)
  • Lightning Bolt, "The Heart Beat" (Dancing With the Thunder Beings, Load)

Dud of the Month

Arctic Monkeys: Humbug (Domino) "Dark"--everybody says so. Alex Turner's a closet Sabbath fan, hence the bass-heavy atmospherics by king of the stoners Josh Homme. Those who believe the serious and the ponderous are linked at the brainstem will welcome Turner's strained metaphors and sour mood. Those who can't stand it when a bright young band heads for the toilet will try to forget the slick tile that was his Last Shadow Puppets thing. Talented lad, Turner. Not on this evidence incapable of ever writing quick, clever, cynical little songs again. But consider Paul Weller. Bummer. B

More Duds

  • The Avett Brothers: The Second Gleam (Ramseur)
  • Franz Ferdinand: Blood (Domino)
  • Tango Around the World (Putumayo World Music)
  • Telepathe: Dance Mother (IAmSound)
  • Martha Wainwright: I Know You're Married but I've Got Feelings Too (ZoŽ)
  • Wild Beasts: Two Dancers (Domino)

MSN Music, November 2009

October 2009 December 2009