Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Quantity-wise, I came up a little short this month--only seven A-list records, and often not the ones I'd figured from the release schedule. But the two full A's are wonderful surprises, one from the Congo in its prime, one by a country artist just hitting hers.

African Pearls: Congo: Pont Sur le Congo (Syllart) From the early '70s, before the plunderers went bonkers, the music on this extraordinarily sweet and gentle double-CD flows and glows where later soukous accelerates and coruscates. There are features for Franco, Rochereau, Zaiko Langa Langa. But it achieves its steady-state bliss by showcasing second-level artists rarely heard in the States: Franco's brother Bavon Marie Marie, dead in an automobile accident at 26; outspoken Congo-Brazzaville progressive Franklin Boukaka, executed after a leftwing coup at 31; Franco's adaptable guitarist mentor Dewayon; sax man as big man Verckys; silken guitarist Docteur Nico; and many others who won't let you down. Amid plenty of rhythm workout and enough rough stuff, the purpose is beauty rather than passion or ecstasy. And the effect is to make you feel how deep this musical culture ran. A

Elizabeth Cook: Welder (31 Tigers) First you tell me the fourth album by a thick-drawling Opry regular from rural Florida assembles 13 pieces of harmonically received verse-chorus-verse, and then I'll tell you they pack more aesthetic power and sophistication than any college-educated art damagee has scared up in a while. Although it helps that she's a college-educated art damagee herself, it helps even more that her bootlegger-turned-welder dad was in a band with her mom. Cook has been perfecting her craft long enough to recognize that her mama's funeral and her heroin addict sister are the stuff of art--those are both exact titles, but capitals and quotation marks would reduce them to mere songs rather than experiences the non-irony-damaged can share. And she's been living her life long enough that she won't let her suffering, to call it by its rightful name, dampen her appetite for good times. Inspirational Verse: "And if I wake up married I'll have to annul it/Right now my hands are in his mullet." A

Hole: Nobody's Daughter (Mercury) Most people don't like her, and actually, I don't either. So I can't claim you owe it to yourself to enjoy Courtney Love's much-delayed first-album-since-2004. Nor even that these songs cast a revealing light of her scabrous persona--beyond "Pacific Coast Highway" ("I'm overwhelmed and undersexed") and "Never Go Hungry" ("I don't care what I have to pretend"), they're typical wails of punk-schooled rage from "Skinny Little Bitch" to "Letter to God." Thing is, I can use some new punk rage in my life, and unless you're a fan of Goldman Sachs and BP Petroleum, so can you. What's more, better it come from a 45-year-old woman who knows how to throw her weight around than from the zitty newbies and tattooed road dogs who churn most of it out these days. I know--for her, BP Petroleum is just something else to pretend about. But the emotion fueling her pretense is cathartic nevertheless. A MINUS

Nas & Damian "JR. Gong" Marley: Distant Relatives (Def Jam) The most political mainstream rapper and the most talented Tuff Gong scion make this a true collaboration except for one thing--beyond two Stephen Marley tracks, it's all produced or co-produced by Damian. One reason JR. Gong gets hip-hop better than his brothers is that he has the sense to subsume it in what he knows. The result is an exceptionally melodic reggae album that's intensified by rapping devoid of dancehall patois and a hard edge unknown to roots revivalism. The result is also an exceptionally political hip-hop album that's most convincing when it doesn't multiply Afrocentric distortion by Rastafarian reasoning. Go after bankers and raise the poor up, fellas. But simmer down with the ancient wisdom. The First Amendment you consider so lame or self-evident or whatever is a product of the European Enlightenment, and you are very much its beneficiaries. Back in ancient times you might be chiefs. But more likely you'd repeating some other chief's every word. A MINUS

Ouaga Affair: Hard Won Sound of the Upper Volta 1974-78 (Savannahphone) Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984, when Thomas Sankara reformed the corrupt government of this landlocked, not quite sub-Saharan backwater and simultaneously undermined a fan base consisting, as so often in Africa, of bureaucrats and businessmen with other people's money to burn. Not that the infrastructure amounted to much--a few venues and fewer labels, the largest of which supplied these 15 tracks. Recording quality varies from primitive to clear, but the music is remarkable for an impoverished nation of six million, no matter the input of educated immigrants from Europe and Francophone Africa. Singer and trade unionist Sandwidi Pierre contributes three indictments of urban decadence that include the instantly captivating lead cut. Manding guitarist Mangue Konde raises up a Latin-styled track before moving to Abidjan to join Super Mande. Harmonie Voltaique debate whether to save your mother or your wife from a raging river and make you feel their pain. Sahara and sub-Sahara mix and mingle. B PLUS

Tin Huey: Before Obscurity: The Bushflow Tapes (Smog Veil) In a misguided attempt to correct for personal affection, I underrated these Akron prog-jokers' 1979 Contents Dislodged During Shipment, their only major-label and non-retrospective album. So I'm not about to make the same mistake with this one just because my wife and I wrote the liner notes (for free, speaking of personal affection). It's a hodgepodge of course, including several unusually useful live or otherwise alternate versions. But after putting it aside for a while, I find that it rarely lets down as it herks and jerks between free jazz and tight postpunk and theoretical Zombies and the usual array of key changes and tempo shifts in pursuit of what I once dubbed "the eternal secret of the whoopee cushion." The official album's better, and I am a fan as well as a friend. But why shouldn't I be? One reason I like these guys is that they're not the kind of narcissists who'll waste their own time or ours on obscurities or redundancies. B PLUS

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (XL) Their debut was one of those inexplicable accidents in which some dysfunction-channeling young malcontent recaptures the halcyon days when every punk band had something to say by simple virtue of existing. Usually these malcontents run out of jokes or tunes pretty quick. Seldom if ever do they then channel their dysfunction into, for instance, a concept album that squooshes an interstate breakup saga into a bunch of Civil War references. That's New Jersey returnee Patrick Stickles's project, only channeling is for punks and he's some indigenous emo-Springsteen hybrid--for an hour of rant and roll whose nine tracks range up to 14 minutes, it's more like sloshing or spewing, as intermittent love lookbacks evoke a social despair also contextualized by fabulous spoken epigraphs from Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis, William Lloyd Garrison, and Young Abe Lincoln. In their spirit Stickles bellows, "None of us shall be saved, every man will be a slave," "After ten thousand years it's still us against them," "The enemy is everywhere." You could complain that these cris de coeur are a loser feeling sorry for himself, and I could admit he's overstating. But at least he's stating. He may be a loser and he may not. Either way, he's not about to quit. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions

  • The Hold Steady: Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant) No, actually, their best songs weren't always about rock and roll ("We Can Get Together," "Rock Problems").
  • Jimi Tenor/Tony Allen: Inspiration Information (Strut) As with Mulatu Astake, a European challenge lifts an African icon's game ("Against the Wall," "Sinuhe").
  • Kate Nash: My Best Friend Is You (Geffen/Fiction) Girlish insecurity ripens into womanly insecurity, which involves more bluster ("Take Me to a Higher Plane," "Do-Wah-Do").
  • Fishtank Ensemble: Woman in Sin ( Name's Ursula Knudson, "opera-trained," is in fact married, to a Gypsy-style violinist named Martinez, they make love and Roma music together, the latter with their friends Smolens and Stijepovic ("Woman in Sin," "Espagnolette").
  • Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars: World Defeats the Grandfathers (Sterns Africa) In the greatly simplified rumba style of '80s Kenya, nine nine-minute songs promote the sensible life ("Utalia Na Nani," "Maria").
  • The Apples in Stereo: Travellers in Space and Time (Yep Roc) Who most of the time think it's historically correct, or maybe just cute, to sound like cyborgs ("Nobody but You," "Told You Once").
  • Egypt Noir: Nubian Soul Treasures (Piranha) Proof there's life after Ali Hassan Kuban--and also Um Kulthum, who was never known for her beats anyway (Fathi Abou Greisha, "Hager"; Salma, "Yanas Baridou").
  • Ryan Leslie: Ryan Leslie (Casablanca/Universal/Motown) Thinking man's romantic makes intelligent beats sound easy ("Diamond Girl," "Gibberish").
  • The Fall: Your Future Our Clutter (Domino) But it's a really great groove--with a really great frontman ("Y.F.O.C./Slippy Floor," "Cowboy George").
  • Robin Thicke: Sex Therapy (Star Trak/Interscope) An amusing fellow getting her into bed, kind of a bore when he's done, and what else is new? ("Mrs. Sexy," "Sex Therapy").
  • Lagos Disco Inferno (Academy LPs/Voodoo Funk) Back in the disco fever era, when post-Biafra Nigerians replicated modern records cheerfully, faithfully, and nevertheless differently (Doris Ebong, "Boogie Trip"; Paradise Stars, "Boogie Trip").
  • Tony Allen: Secret Agent (World Circuit/Nonesuch) Long lacking his frontman Fela, Afrobeat trapmaster aims to nail tracks by other means, including a piano player ("Secret Agent," "Alutere").
  • This Moment in Black History: Public Square (Smog Veil) Keeping the dream alive--Minor Threat's, not MLK's ("About Last Night," "Makes My Teeth White," "My Notes").
  • African Pearls: Côte d'Ivoire: West African Crossroads (Syllart) A recording center because it was an economic capital, Abidjan never developed a musical identity of its own (Assia Kobe Michel Bin, "Okoi Séka Athanese"; Aicha Koné, "Aminata").
  • Timbila: Remembering the Future (Timbila) Banning Eyre on guitar and Nora Balaban on malletophone-thumb piano-vocals-songwriting lead African-style African-American quintet ("Nilevile," "The Trader").
  • Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars: Rise & Shine (Cumbancha) Much more fun mixing down Afrostyles than claiming roots reggae roots--also more meaningful ("Tamagbondorsu [The Rich Mock the Poor]," "Mhloma [Let Us Be United]").
  • Mean Jeans: Are You Serious? (Dirtnap) A Ramones homage this one-dimensional requires not just unoriginality--it requires religious dedication and a good sense of humor ("Rats Roaches & Jeans," "Slime Time").
  • Eric Bibb: Booker's Guitar (Telarc) Talismanic ax hews neo-iconic songs out of neoplatonic bluesman ("Turning Pages," "Rocking Chair").
  • Henry Odem: You're Wrong for That! (cptimemusic) Bluesman-as-songster bolsters exclamatory originals with Bill Withers and David Essex covers ("Trying to Get to You!" "You're Wrong for That!").
  • Ton3x: Unspoken (Battery/Zomba) Funk-gospel pro juices self-help you can believe in with all-purpose dance-piration ("Bring It," "Blend").
  • Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie: Reinterpreting Black Flag ( Unlike the Dirty Projectors, these former band members remember the songs and like them as such--only slower and sweeter, being grownups now ("Nervous Breakdown," "Six Pack").
  • Ryan Leslie: Transition (Casablanca/Universal/Motown) Bland can be a virtue in r&b this fine-tuned, only don't get too caught up in it ("Never Gonna Break Up," "You're Not My Girl").
  • Strange Boys: Be Brave (In the Red) Garage punk contracts Dylan virus, which makes his sore throat even scratchier ("Be Brave," "Laugh at Sex, Not Her").
  • Etran Finatawa: Tarkat Taiji/Let's Go! (Riverboat) Mellower and funkier Saharan groove, though not therefore handsomer ("Aitimani," "Ummee Ndaaren").

Choice Cuts

  • Fefe Dobson, "I Made Out With Your Boyfriend"; "Johnny Cash"; "I Want You"; (Joy, 21 Music)
  • Court Yard Hounds, "Ain't No Son" (Court Yard Hounds, Columbia)
  • Mayer Hawthorne, "Strange Arrangement"; "Make Her Mine" (Strange Arrangements, Stones Throw)
  • NOFX, "Straight Outta Massachusetts" (Cokie the Clown, Fat Wreck Chords)

Dud of the Month

Julian Marley: Awake (Universal Republic) It's the curse of audibly inherited talent. Whatever your own limitations, which are often considerable, invidious comparisons shadow your every move as you negotiate between the arrogance of the privileged and the confidence of the born performer--and as your fans try not to wish you were someone else. This album has its moments--the well-worked title cut, a little homily called "All I Know," the "in a good way" aside after "everyone's going crazy" (on the dancefloor, he wishes). But for the most part it's as heavy-handed as Julian's close-but-no-spliff variation on his fathers timbre and phrasing. Granted, tracks eight and nine do give one hope--until one realizes that the agents of hope are Mr. Cheeks and brother Damian, respectively. B

More Duds

  • Colbie Caillat: Breakthrough (Universal Republic)
  • The Dillinger Escape Plan: Option Paralysis (Season of Mist)
  • The Gallows: Grey Britain (Reprise)
  • Lady Antebellum: Need You Now (Capitol Nashville)
  • Shelby Lynne: Tears, Lies, and Alibis (Everso)
  • Ky-Mani Marley: Radio (Vox)
  • Pissed Jeans: King of Jeans (Sub Pop)
  • Trey Songz: Ready (Atlantic)
  • Carrie Underwood: Play On (19/Arista Nashville)

MSN Music, June 2010

May 2010 July 2010