Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Four very different indie/alt-rock records, three almost as equally various trumpet records, one greatest singer in the world, one new queen of the pop universe, and an alt-rap poetess who deserves to get noticed beyond NPR. Hey, the noticing can start with you. She starts impressive, makes you worry she's too proper, and then comes on strong.

David Bazan: Curse Your Branches (Barsuk) Long criticized for the newly minted sin of doubt by born-again Pedro the Lion fans as obsessed with purity as their secular indie-rock brethren and sistern, the former Christian artist takes his faith seriously enough to embrace skepticism straight up. Plodding for clarity's sake like he's gotten the gospel from James McMurtry, he debates a God he's no longer sure exists as he details the suffering he's pondered, observed, and caused. His salvation is humanistic empathy, spiritual complexity, and melodies more unfailing than back when the Holy Ghost was inspiring into his ear. Credo: "It's hard to be, it's hard to be, hard to be a decent human being." A MINUS

Dessa: A Badly Broken Code (Doomtree) Boy, will the keep-it-real claque do their best to ignore this dame, who got her B.A. in philosophy from Minnesota at 20 and now, at 28, has the effrontery to teach Language of Rap and Spoken Word in a degree-level hip-hop program at a local music college. Not only does she refer glancingly to Dorothy Parker and Gabriel García Márquez, her idea of a boast is "Chicago Manual of Style/Keeps the prose right crisp." But that's how it be. Nobody owns hip-hop, and if some relationship-parsing white female hooks up with a beat-making crew where 40 years ago she would have taken guitar lessons, there's not a damn thing anybody can do about it. Dessa is so good at psychology--so clear and penetrating, so sharp-tongued and tender-hearted--she might have turned off the psych-spewing freak-folkers and nostalgic romantics of the former coffee-house circuit anyway. Love, friendship, anxiety, ambition--she addresses these things as if Nashville wasn't the last bastion of realism in the musical universe. Imagery--she's got it, right crisp sometimes, though she's partial to flying and sky. She can even sing her own hooks. Sans Auto-Tune. A MINUS

Everybody Was in the French Resistance . . . Now!: Fixing the Charts Vol. 1 (Cooking Vinyl) In which Eddie Argos of Art Brut (!) and Dyan Valdes of the Blood Arm (?) write second-cousin answer songs to, among others, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, the Mamas and the Papas, Avril Lavigne, and P.D. "Creeque Allies" is a capsule history of the Maquis. "He's a 'Rebel'" disses a romantic rival who got his moves from a Nirvana biography. "G.I.R.L.F.R.E.N." fends off b.o.y.f.r.e.n.-poaching stalker."Hey! It's Jimmy Mack" swears he hasn't really been gone that long. A MINUS

The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (Warner Bros.) Although I gather there's a concept here, knowing what it is might ruin the gently wigged-out dystopianism the lyrics cozy up to. More important, it might undercut the otherwise irreducible pleasures of their exploding guitars, unworldly synths, and crazy drums. So take this articulated chaos as rock musique concrète, and use it the way we infidels use Kid A. A jumpier, scarier, more ridiculous ride, it doesn't make such suitable dinner music. But it might loosen you up enough to go in and agitate for that raise--though you probably don't have as much in the bank as Wayne Coyne should your demands rub the wrong person the wrong way. That's how dystopia is. A MINUS

Gabriel Johnson: Fra_ctured (Electrofone) Though this 30-year-old soundtrack and session trumpeter recently informed his publicist that trumpet jazz "hasn't moved on since 1965," in fact his horn has crystallized more ace electronica experiments than any other traditional instrument. Somebody play that fella Jon Hassell, Nils Petter Molvaer, and how about some '70s Miles? Fortunately, Johnson didn't therefore go reinvent the wheel, mostly because he's got no minimalism in him--his sound and his backdrops are bigger and hotter than his predecessors'. "No Words" could be an arena-rock fanfare. "Be Serious" has club roots. "V.T.F.O" is mucho ominoso. "Lullabye" whispers "Someday My Prince Will Come." A MINUS

Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster (Interscope) I liked the 14-track 2008 version of this album, augmented in this two-CD set by an eight-song EP of comparable quality. But only after being overwhelmed by the sheer visibility of her warp-speed relaunch did I realize how enjoyable and inescapable her hooks and snatches had turned out to be. Even if you consider her videos and such overelaborate, as I do, her songs are streamlined pop machines. Some are more efficient than others--I prefer the "Poker Face" hook as jacked by Kid Cudi and Lil Wayne to Gaga's sandbagging original. But even the slower ones have a way of taking off, in part because she writes lyrics like a paper gangster. The tell is "Money Honey," an apparent descent into ever crasser materialism that instead revives a short-lived slang usage of "money." His Jag, enjoyable. His kisses, money. A MINUS

Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar: Devla: Blown Away to Dancefloor Heaven (Piranha) With son Marko now firmly in command--his trumpet leads all but one track--Serbia's premier Gypsy brass ensemble has gotten not funkier but peppier. Amid an abundance of singing guests male and female and young and old, the most striking solo turn is by clarinetist Erol Demirov, and the wildest track is the one that features paterfamilias Boban double-tonguing his flugelhorn as "little-known idol" Mustafa Sabanovic gravel-barrels his vocal. That falling-down-drunk thing is in abeyance. But if you've ever read an ecstatic account of a great polka band who proved too cutesy by half on record, this is what you hoped they'd sound like. A MINUS

Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love (Nonesuch) The leader of the world's greatest band has never released a true live album in this country, including this spinoff from the reverential, revealing documentary of the same name. It's softer-edged than his shows, more suasion than arousal or declamation, with percussion quieter and synths gooeyer. That said, it's a keeper and maybe even an entry point. Distributing selections discreetly from across his catalog and underlining his good intentions with translations, the main thing it is is beautiful. I can't imagine owning too many versions of "Birima." A MINUS

Spoon: Transference (Merge) So hermetic, so dynamically contained, Britt Daniel's music discourages identification however impressive its skill set. Ratcheting his reticence up half a turn, he opens with his bleakest new song, and only if you follow his chronically noncommittal lyrics will you notice his emotions opening up along with his tunes, his attitudes along with his structures. First it's "All I know is all I know," then it's "I'm part of this world." Smart enough to have figured out that he's "got nothing to lose but bitterness and patterns," he combats his own unease, and there's a payoff--not the nicer girl than he deserves so much as the grace to write her an adult lullaby: "Your worries are meant to stop for now/You know they're not for keeping." A MINUS

Vampire Weekend: Contra (XL) They're sticking their SATs in yo face, dumb-ass, and as Tom Petty once put it, they won't back down. Whatever the extent of their world travels geographical and virtual on this album, the actual money remains with people they only know, particularly the putative ex-girlfriend to whom Ezra Koenig addresses half his new songs. One exception is the guy who inspired "Giving Up the Gun"--still plays guitar down at that ex-skinhead bar, but his ears are shot to hell and he feels obsolete. Vampire Weekend give him respect, but "Contra" establishes that his band has chosen another path, celebrating the world's contradictions, contraindications, and contradistinctions with a new pop sound made up of old pop sounds that aren't the same old pop sounds. As for that controversy you may have read about, they spell too well to care. A

The Whitefield Brothers: Earthology (Now-Again) Guitarist Jan and drummer Max Weissenfeldt got the hang of deep funk in boogie-down Munich under their Poets of Rhythm alias. But on this reassuring piece of big-bottomed exotica, the "Sahara swing" they concocted with Karl Hector is the tipoff. They love the continuity bass-and-drums lay below; I love the content koto and flute and malletophone add on. The reassuring part being that somehow, without marshaling Middle Eastern instruments, the gestalt evokes a cradle of civilization we need to motorvate. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • Jon Hassell: Maarifa Street (Nyen) "Improved" world-ambient trumpet concerts that "migrate" layers between shows and even from older studio to newer live ("Darfari Bridge," "New Gods").
  • The Magnetic Fields: Realism (Nonesuch) Rhymes that could give Eminem a hernia, music that could give Sondheim the giggles ("You Must Be Out of Your Mind," "The Dolls' Tea Party").
  • Whiskey in the Jar: Essential Irish Drinking Songs & Sing Alongs (Legacy) Close the windows tight, pour yourself a second beer, and enjoy St. Patrick's Day the fun way--vicariously (Dropkick Murphys, "The Dirty Glass"; the Dubliners, "Weila Waile").
  • Mary J. Blige: Stronger (Geffen) Plainspoken, low-drama, midtempo love vows, with attempted glamour relegated to the cover shoot ("Tonight," "I Am").
  • V.V. Brown: Travelling Like the Light (Capitol) U.K. soul retro without angst, substance abuse, melanin envy or even much romanticism--her songs are too peppy, and too poppy, as may well be her life ("Quick Fix," "Shark in the Water").
  • Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport (ATP) For synthy no-lyrics psych-dance, pretty rocky--pretty funny, too ("Surf Solar," "Rough Steez").
  • Annie: Don't Stop (Totally/Smalltown Supersound) Norwegian dolly with ingenue-size voice sings of hooking up, making do, starting your day the healthy way, and girls gone missing by their own hand ("Marie Cherie," "The Breakfast Song").
  • BalkanBeats: A Night in Berlin (Piranha) Bosnian expat DJs a Balkan disco night (Al Lindrum & His Magic Hat, "Come Together"; Shantel, "Disko Partizani [Marcus Darius Meets Tricky Cris Remix]").
  • Clem Snide: The Meat of Life (429) The kind of record that makes you wonder whether he's feeling sad about selected American lives, or really just his own ("Walmart Parking Lot," "Denver").
  • Hot Club de Norvege: Django Music (Hot Club) The Gypsy spirit recollected coolly and modestly, with photos of 120 wooded road scenes for Nordic spice ("My Heart Belongs to Daddy," "Karius & Baktus").
  • Jon Hassell: Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (ECM) Being the moon and only wearing a few veils anyway, it did this very, very quietly ("Abu Gil," "Courtrais").
  • DJ /Rupture & Matt Shadetek: Solar Life Raft (The Agriculture) Global-warming riddimscape inna praise-Jah style (DJ /Rupture & Matt Shadetek, "Underwater High Rise"; DJ /Rupture & Matt Shadetek, "4th Story Waterline").
  • Next Stop . . . Soweto (Strut) Rare old mbaqanga 45s, invariably lively and often off formula (Ubhekitsche Namajongosi, "Ngizitholile Izinkomo"; Amaqawe Omculo, "Jabulani Balaleli [Part 2]").
  • Shout Out Louds: Work (Merge) Delving the progressively more familiar truths of the four-minute pop song ("Show Me Something New," "1999").
  • Queen Ifrica: Montego Bay (VP) Conscious reggae with a woman's touch, not that you'd always know it from her timbre ("Yad to the East," "Daddy").
  • Sade: Soldier of Love (Epic) I'm glad she finally put some beats on her sang-froid, but by the time she gets around to setting Ghost up with a 16 he'll probably be out of the life ("Soldier of Love," "Babyfather").
  • Nneka: Concrete Jungle (Yo Mama/Decon/Epic) Nigerian soul expat whose idea of poetry is "What is a song without a melody" smartens up when her songs have beats ("Kangpe," "Africans").
  • Blk Jks: After Robots (Secretly Canadian) Zulu prog beats Chicano prog, but then again, Ladysmith's angels beat prog's angel ("Banna Ba Modimo," "Molalatladi").
  • Four Tet: There Is Love in You (Domino) Formerly naturalistic soundscaper begins with "Angel Echoes" and privileges pretty throughout ("Plastic People," "Sing").
  • Fool's Gold: Fool's Gold (IAmSound) Israeli-born muso applies trained tenor to bad lyrics (in Hebrew, thank Jah), mixes in African flavors, and somehow survives without hiring the groaner he so badly needs ("Surprise Hotel," "Ha Dvash").

Choice Cuts

  • Burkina Electric: "Bobo Yengu"; "To Mi To Zi"; "Ca va chauffer"; (Paspanga, Cantaloupe)
  • Sister Fa: "Milyamba" (Sarabah: Tales From the Flipside of Paradise, Piranha)
  • Ke$ha: "Tik Tok" (Animal, Jive)
  • Discovery: "Carby"; "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" (LP, XL)
  • Florence + the Machine: "Kiss With a Fist" (Lungs, Universal Republic)

Dud of the Month

Alicia Keys: The Element of Freedom (J) It's far from a shock but definitely a disappointment to watch Ms. Trained Pianist survey her branding options and choose the bland card over the brains card. There are at least three catchy numbers here--the two lead singles plus the consciously silly "Say It in a Love Song," which had better be--and it's not like she remains calm elsewhere. On the contrary, she goes for melismatic pain whenever she sees an opening. But this is formal ploy merely, a diva-by-default's privilege. Her true self comes out in the half-heartedly relentless "Wait Til You See My Smile," a stab at the chin-up franchise once claimed by a young Mariah Carey, and the first thing newcomers will notice even though it's the last track on the album: an inspirational, evasive "Empire State of Mind" sequel that establishes Jay-Z's vocal and spiritual superiority so decisively it's hard to imagine her ever attending a Yankees game again. B

More Duds

  • Blk Jks: Mystery (Secretly Canadian)
  • The Horrors: Primary Colours (XL)
  • Leona Lewis: Echo (Syco/J)
  • Matisyahu: Light (Epic)
  • Neon Indian: Psychic Chasms (Lefse)

MSN Music, March 2010

February 2010 April 2010