Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Throw Your Hands in the Air

Pazz & Jop handicappers often look to this prepoll CG for clues to previously ungraded finishers, and a few do sneak in below. Mostly, however, I've been coming to terms with the hip hop crop of late 2001, which caught Christmas sales and escaped the fair scrutiny of our oft unfunky electorate.

BASEMENT JAXX: Rooty (Astralwerks) I wish they'd hire human singers. Cyborgs can grate on the ears, and I bet they don't suck dick that good either. Still, no catchier collection of jingles has come to my attention since Steve Miller made his mint off jet airliners. So though I know it's dance music, that's not how I hear it. A*Teens my a-hole, this is the real Europop--such as it is. A MINUS

BUCK 65: Man Overboard (Anticon) Richard Terfry from Mount Uniacke is pushing 30 now, a Derek Jeter wannabe turned Halifax hip hop godfather who did business as Stinkin' Rich before settling into this professional identity. Connoisseurs prefer 1999's Vertex, whence sprang the legendary "The Centaur" ("Sure it's larger than yours I'ma centaur for Christ's sakes," which, by the way, rhymes with "rice cakes"). But that one he cut in 48 sleepless hours; this one he pieced together gradually, and the reflection shows. Terfry doesn't believe in titles or track listings, the better to foil Morpheus and induce the listener to perceive his albums as DJed wholes, and this time he gets most of the way there. He's not deeply funky--more trip hop in spirit, even poetry-with-jazz. But the poems pack narrative logic and jokes galore whether they're justifying the album title, mourning his mom, positing a caper that requires divining rods and rosin bags, or assuming the voice of a guy older than Bob Dylan himself. A MINUS

BRUN CAMPBELL: Joplin's Disciple (Delmark) The pianist-turned-barber was 14 when he turned pro in 1898, 24 when he quit the road, past 60 when he began recording. So since there's no sign that his modest chops deteriorated or his ham-fisted aesthetic developed, playing this record of classic Scott Joplin creations and ungainly Brun Campbell originals is like tossing a century of deodorized air out the window. Ragtime contemporaries unheard by me may have taken a more refined approach, but Campbell's ingrained indelicacy yanks the arty veil off the style. The only good pianist I know with a heavier touch is Jerry Lee Lewis, who has more rebop if less technique and should go into training for a rag album of his own. On a lovely and necessary 1998 tribute, Butch Thompson made a point of re-emphasizing Joplin's pulse. Campbell's left would KO Thompson before he'd finished flexing his fingers. A MINUS

DE LA SOUL: AOI: Bionix (Tommy Boy) Sampling Tavares, Wings, Dr. Buzzard, Laura Nyro, and the Fat Boys--but just barely, more as a sign of what they've been playing than of how they want to sound--they flow as smooth as the '70s grooves they once left back in the old school. Philosophically woman-friendly and musically woman-dependent, they segue effortlessly into Slick Rick sex ed and the orgasmic mock-mock-melodrama of "Pawn Star"; their gospel chorale is no less on concept than their Reverend Do Good takeoffs. Anyone who ever wondered what hip hop might sound like when it grew up now has an answer. It sounds like a good marriage in a black 'burb, complete with doubts, weed, and a principled refusal to ignore the existence of Somalia. A

FUGAZI: The Argument (Dischord) Shades of Gang of Four, Minutemen, Mission of Burma even, to update for appearance's sake, Dismemberment Plan, one of many bands Ian MacKaye hath wrought. Punk minimalism evolved into song forms that bifurcate like art-rock. Everybody hip to tempo shifts, rhythm changes. And on this album, finally, recording equal to the tough dynamics that keep Fugazi alive as much as its integrity and idealism. Political chamber music isn't what they envisioned. But it's what they've accomplished, and an accomplishment it is. B PLUS

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: Bulletproof Wallets (Epic) With the Wu so cash-poor it's concocting best-ofs from two-album catalogs, Ghostface remains rooted enough to rhyme as both Dennis Coles the insecure project kid and Tony Starks the tough guy with an eye. His high wail intimating banshee and crybaby, he tells a pathetic tale of small-time violence, lets sex get to him, and launches song-and-dance routines that bespeak his deep commitment to show business. Limited partner Raekwon pulls no more weight than the up-and-coming second-raters who provide alternative raps because this album is where Ghostface really steps up. Sure RZA's the man when he chips in, as in "Walking Through the Darkness" (ignore the booklet and go to track 11). But every beat belongs to the man with his name on the slug line, and that's all most of them need. A MINUS

ORCHESTRA BAOBAB: Pirates Choice (World Circuit/Nonesuch) Jazz, r&b, soul, disco, reggae--no African band has ever emulated a New World music as gracefully as this Cuban-style unit, the essence of snazz in '70s Dakar who became old hat when Youssou made his move. They've been my Afropop primer of choice in Puerto Rico for a decade, and this 1982 swan song is regarded as the best of their four estimable albums. It was never officially released here till now, and I used to find it too casual. But as the even more relaxed previously unreleased disc makes clear, getting in the mood is good for your blood supply. Baobab's taste in salsa was charanga in aura if not form, there's no Iberian schmaltz in their singers rough or smooth, and their horn section consists entirely of Issa Cissoko, a drolly doleful individualist whose tenor provided a foil for Barthelemy Attisso's bilingual guitar. A MINUS

ORCHÈSTRE VÉVÉ: Vintage Verckys (RetroAfric import) Saxophonist-careerist Kiamuangana Mateta, stage billing Verckys, could just see the guitars taking over O.K. Jazz as the '70s loomed, so he started a rival band to accommodate Franco's exiles. Verckys's soukous had a sweet tooth, with horn room in the sebenes. His tenor matched that of his garbled namesake King Curtis about as precisely as his sobriquet, and his sound was never as individual as Dudu Pukwana's or Issa Cissoko's. But wait till you hear him quack like a duck as he takes "Londende" home. A MINUS

SALSA CLASICA (Music Club) Licensed from the Miami-based Kubaney label, this "taste of classic Latin flavors" barely dips into Nuyorican salsa, which eliminates a lot of distractions--star turns, crossover dreams, big-band penis envy, shows of force in which moonlighting jazz hotshots do their damnedest to play the same notes better than the guy in the next chair. Merengue mainstay Johnny Ventura is the big name, and his two tracks find him in a trad mood--he even offers up a guajira. With compiler John Armstrong keeping things subtle, trad comes naturally to such journeymen as Machito-Puente pianist Luis Varona, tres lifer Jorge Cabrera, Dominican speedster Pochy. Garnished just enough, clave is the main course. A MINUS

THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (Winter & Winter import) Tin Pan Alley represented, not re-created--with hyped tempos, with maestro Uri Caine arranging like a time-traveling Kurt Weill, with homage to James Reese Europe's boys rather than the white studio stiffs who backed Nora Bayes on the original "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" and Bert Williams on the original "Nobody," with multiethnic buddies making passes and kidding around. Compensating for well-meaning missteps like Barbara Walker's 11-minute soulification of "Some of These Days" are well-deployed sound effects and singers who achieve intonation in the vernacular--sprightly contralto Nancy Opel, talky baritone Stuart Zagnit. And while favorites inevitably get missed--I nominate "Bully of the Town"--the material proves there is such a thing as the test of time. A MINUS

TARAF DE HAÏDOUKS: Band of Gypsies (Nonesuch) I don't know whether they're the world's only great Gypsy band (funny title, no?) or just get great production advice. Their U.S. debut cherry-picked three Belgian albums; this one cherry-picks three Bucharest concerts featuring previously unrecorded material and guest virtuosos from Bulgaria, Turkey, and Macedonia. Faster than a speeding stallion, deeper than the well they'll throw your mother down, these leathery oldsters and manly upstarts alternate testosterone-packed displays of time-tested tunes and time-testing rhythms. If you liked the first one, this is just as good and different enough. If you're exploring, buy whichever's cheaper. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

RZA AS BOBBY DIGITAL: Digital Bullet (Koch) Rumors of RZA's musical decline are the kneejerks of spastics. Ghost Dog got him past Bernard Herrmann, and he's produced more Wu albums in the last year and a half than in the previous eight. But as a rapper he's no less a gangsta-in-his-own-mind than Dre or Puffy. To his credit, he seems aware of this. "Bobby Digital" is truly a "character," based on the Robert Diggs who fucks bitches and loves bling, and his reggae peacemongering, female-principle antimaterial-ism, and revolutionary rhetoric--that is, the last three tracks on his record--aren't as pro forma as most shows of redeeming social importance. Nevertheless, listening to Bobby plod through his own boasts and brutalisms could make you believe Jay-Z is a good person. Is this the bullet Ghostface's wallet is proof against? Let's hope so. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Wu-Tang Clan, Iron Flag (Loud): great-not-grand beats, worried raps about the ultimate value of the Wu and all its holdings ("Iron Flag," "Dashing [Reasons]")
  • Coolio, Fantastic Voyage: The Greatest Hits (Tommy Boy): a much safer, rather shallower, somewhat catchier hook collection than Gangsta's Paradise ("County Line," "Aw Here It Goes [Theme From Kenan & Kel]")
  • Aaliyah (Blackground): a slave to her beats, but a proud slave ("We Need a Resolution," "U Got Nerve")
  • Clinic, Internal Wrangler (Domino): fun with indie-rock, good--only their idea of fun is so inarticulate ("T.K.," "C.Q.")
  • The Dismemberment Plan, Change (DeSoto): giving their displacements a flow ("Come Home," "Ellen & Ben")
  • Busta Rhymes, The Best of Busta Rhymes (Elektra/Rhino): everything you need know of a first-rate rapper and his second-rate crew, cameos unfortunately excepted ("Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check," "Everything Remains Raw")
  • Mystikal, Tarantula (Jive): his beats are supernatural, but he rips pussy linings, which whatever his physical deformities just isn't very nice ("Bouncin' Back [Bumpin' Me Against the Wall]," "Big Truck Driver")
  • Radioinactive, Pyramidi (Mush Music): multi-user shared hallucinations of an alt-rap record geek ("Pyramidi," "Clam Chowder Day")
  • The Avalanches, Since I Left You (Sire/Modular): using bits and pieces of dumb crap, which is ecological, to make smart crap, which is less so ("Frontier Psychiatrist," "Close to You")
  • Petey Pablo, Diary of a Sinner: 1st Entry (Jive): Timbaland sets him off, the 919 keeps him going ("Raise Up," "Petey Pablo," "I")
  • Mabulu, Soul Marrabenta (Riverboat import): in other words, Mozambique-beat for export ("Hlamalani," "Bula Bula")
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, B.R.M.C. (Virgin): actually, they seem to enjoy life more than Jesus and Mary Chain--not that that's so hard ("Red Eyes and Tears," "Spread Your Love")
  • Azeem, Craft Classic (Stray): how we all like our conscious--with a sense of humor ("Imma RMX," "No Lexus")
  • System of a Down, Toxicity (American): overarrangements no prob for we who avoid art-rock like the plague this means to cure ("Prison Song," "Bounce")
  • The Bullys, Tonite We Fight Again (Headlock): the punk joke fully grasped, at least by the jokers ("Watch What You Say," "I Wanna Be Famous")
  • The Dictators, D.F.F.D. (Dictators Multi/Media): "My generation is not the salvation/Who will save rock and roll?" ("I Am Right!" "Pussy and Money")
Choice Cuts:
  • Busta Rhymes, "Holla," "Intro" (Genesis, J)
  • Mystic, "Ghetto Birds" (Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, Goodvibe)
  • Freestyle Fellowship, "Ghetto Youth" (Temptations, Ground Control)
  • A*Teens, Teen Spirit (Stockholm/MCA)
  • Atom and His Package, Redefining Music (Hopeless)
  • Chocolate Genius, Godmusic (V2)
  • Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns (Columbia/Legacy)
  • Monster Magnet, God Says No (A&M)
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific: Music From the ABC Premiere Event (Columbia/Sony Soundtrax)
  • Sugar Ray (Lava/Atlantic)
  • Young Fresh Fellows vs. Minus 5, Because We Hate You/Let the War Against Music Begin (Mammoth/Melt)

Village Voice, Jan. 29, 2002

Jan. 15, 2002 Mar. 12, 2002