Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Spreading the Net

When the pickings get thin, roam. Find below old music from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Colombia, and Brazil. Three of these albums are imports, the last old-not-current rather than old-archival--and the best "new" album I've heard all this thin year.

ATMOSPHERE: God Loves Ugly (Fat Beats) Slug is hip hop's finest poet of everyday life because he's come to terms with moderate success, the amenity that affords him opportunity to look around. Neither resentful nor driven, he doesn't feel sorry for himself, doesn't overrate himself, doesn't think the world owes him a promotion budget. Metaphoric tough talk aside, he doesn't bitch about r&b or bling, either; sure he wants more, but he's got too much pride and too much self-knowledge to waste emotion blaming the system. His one obsession is unrequited love, which he analyzes with such thoughtless candor and penetrating introspection that I not only believe the someone exists, I think it's possible her name's really Lucy. He raps like a man thinking, over strong, simple beats that put his thoughts in order and his body in gear. If Lucy says he's ugly, he's too good for her. A MINUS

BHUNDU BOYS: The Shed Sessions (Sadza import) Where the stoned undertow of Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga remembered struggle, the light, bright jit of Zimbabwe's Bhundu Boys was pure liberation music. Leader Biggie Tembo named them after his role as a runner in Mugabe's army, but that was over, and did they ever sound happy about it. Revving mbira guitar into soukous flights as they loosened intense Soul Brothers harmonies, they caught Britain's sole Afropop wave in the middle '80s and concocted an English-language crossover album nobody found as accessible as the two Shona LPs that made it possible. A decade later four of them were dead--three of AIDS, the long-departed or -ousted Tembo a suicide and Mugabe was a certified tyrant. In historical perspective, the ebullience of this two-CD set, everything from the first two albums plus half a dozen nonfiller extras, is pop innocence at its most poignant. They're not faking a thing--they were young, and they'd known triumph. But soon enough they would be. A MINUS

THE CAPRICORNS: In the Zone (Paroxysm) Two girls and two Casios play Cadallaca to Delta Dart's Sleater-Kinney. Formed 2002 in a town between Chicago and Milwaukee. Recorded their second album/first CD in Athens with an Elephant Six guy. Heterosexual, but not religious about it--the kind who threaten to steal an annoying boy's girlfriend. Like young stuff, as in "Teenage Boyfriend." Also like new stuff, as in "The New Sound." Their sound isn't new. But it gains pep from their belief that it is. A MINUS

COLOMBIA (Putumayo World Music) The excellent World Circuit and very good Rough Guide cumbia comps are narrow not only genrewise but labelwise, leaving plenty of room for the pop exotica Putumayo hawks up. In fact, only four of these 12 tracks are even cumbias. Instead we get reclaimed mountain beats and bastard salsas, ambitious neofolkies and singing TV hosts, '90s hits and anthemic oldies. And hooks, always hooks. You could learn as much about Colombia at a restaurant in Woodside if its jukebox measured up. And have a darn good time doing it. A MINUS

DJ SHADOW: The Private Press (MCA) Accusing Josh Davis of repeating himself is like bitching that Between the Buttons came after Aftermath--or that Light in August begat Absalom, Absalom! Sui generis masterpiece--which for all its influence has never been replicated, much less topped--then excellent effort in the same sui genre. The overall effect is less grand than that of Endtroducing six years ago, popper and rocker and r&ber. But an overall effect there is, grounded in Shadow's trademark-tremendous bass 'n' drum, which, among many other things, recontextualizes small-timer big talk from the prophet rock of Colonel Bagshot's "Six Day War" to the gangsta rap of Hollywood's "Gangster Rap." If only those schmos had taken their music higher, Shadow believes, we might have glimpsed the beauty and profundity within them. He's wrong. But he mounts quite an argument. A

THE HISTORY OF TOWNSHIP MUSIC (Wrass import) Unlike Music Club's '50s-focused Township Jazz 'n' Jive, this is an educational tour rather than a stylistic overview, with jaunty 1939 stride-boogie piano representing legendary marabi to begin and misplaced 1978 soul guitar heralding attempted disco at the end. And as on the more sloppily organized Mandela soundtrack, it's the '50s stuff that stands out. Start with one of the two tracks it shares with Township Jazz 'n' Jive, the Solven Whistlers' "Something New in Africa," a pop moment whose big-band pennywhistles could get a Martian patting his pseudopods. Then backtrack to Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters' "Meadowlands," on which if you knew Zulu or Sotho you would hear Jacobs praising the razing of Sophiatown, the 1954 debacle that signaled the cultural triumph of apartheid, and if you knew the thug pidgin Tsotsitaal you would hear the same singer condemning that debacle. Cue over to the insouciant strut of the Elite Swingsters' "Thulandavile" and wonder what kind of debacle could leave such a rhythm alive. Segue directly to "Midnight Ska" and doubt skank is purely Jamaican. Not a rhythm nation, a vocal nation. But somehow its groove snakes or lopes or bunnyhops all the way to mbaqanga. A MINUS

THE HIVES: Veni Vidi Vicious (Sire/Burning Heart/Epitaph) These Swedes know the great selling point of the Voidoids was the guitars they can't come near, not the vocals they irremediably recall. How dumb--if it was that easy some emo kids would do it. The Hives explode where a hundred other punk bands are proud to rock. If they're not openhearted like Rancid they're also not cute like Green Day, who dominated that punk revival anyway, and I'll take their wage-slave rants over the Strokes' ass-man ennui any day. Really, so what if Max Martin writes 'em? A MINUS

NORTHERN STATE: Hip Hop You Haven't Heard (Northern State) Three white-girl voices from the farthest reaches of Nassau County: Hesta Prynn angular and willfully ill-bred, Guinea Love zaftig and a touch guttural, the misleadingly handled DJ Sprout well-rounded and sometimes pretty. Their aesthetic is old-school; they quote Roxanne Shanté and cop an all-time beat from Hitman Howie Tee. But their live bass is as hooky as any sample on two of the four tracks on this EP they think is a demo. There's none of that self-abnegating underground minimalism about them, and plenty of regular school, always a reassuring complete disclosure in artists who've been to college: "Keep choice legal, your wardrobe regal/Chekhov wrote The Seagull and Snoopy is a beagle." Twice they boast about their "optimism," and I love them for putting it so literally. Optimism is always the secret, after all. Not only do they believe in their own talent, they're blessed enough to enjoy it. Life isn't eternal. But as long as it renews itself we can pretend. A

ORCHESTRA SUPER MAZEMBE: Giants of East Africa (Earthworks) These are the Zairean émigrés whose early-'80s soukousification of the Kenyapop classic "Shauri Yako" takes Guitar Paradise of East Africa over the top at track seven. Situated in the same position here, the song's thoughtful melody and surprisingly undemonstrative guitar don't work as much magic, because Mazembe are giants, not angels, and "Shauri Yako" is merely the greatest hit of a band centered around a sparkling-not-stellar guitarist. They can't top it or even equal it. But they're worthy of it every time. Listen for Lovy Longomba, a/k/a "ya Mama," who's so high-voiced he takes the wife's part once. Listen for the dabs of horn. What the hell, listen for the guitar. A MINUS

TOM ZÉ: Jogos de Armar (Trama import) Too bad Luaka Bop passed on this 2000 album--the French BMG version includes translations, and an English trot would have been nice. Nevertheless, the music speaks so clearly in Zé's out-front avant-pop language that words would be trimmings, as they aren't on Luaka Bop's 1998 Zé push, Fabrication Defect. Zé is my favorite Brazilian because insofar as he's subtle--in the harmonies mostly--he's obvious about it, and usually he's anything but. You can hear those herky-jerk beats on found and fabricated instruments, those sudden stops and starts, those jingle-jungle tunes, the energy if not groove that propels everything forward regardless. On this record he has a lot of fun with choruses, predominantly female, which carry the crucial tunes, often in humorous timbres and combinations. A bonus CD includes many of the tracks from which he constructed these songs, supposedly so you can create others just as valid. I appreciate the impulse, but I doubt you'll get there. A

Dud of the Month

N.E.R.D.: In Search of . . . (Virgin) I only understood why I so dislike this annoyingly catchy record when I realized the name isn't an acronym. They call themselves N.E.R.D. because nerds is what they are--nerds at their worst. Sure they're clever, but they're also as shallow as Britney Spears, who I swear they're dumb enough to want to fuck, and all they know about the world is that they deserve to run it because they're clever. Ben Folds is Richard Rorty by comparison, and though I prefer their beats to Dre's beats, once again said beats fail to render the accompanying fantasies (and realities) of sexual domination palatable (or clever) (and I'm not so sure about sexual). The final blow is this American re-recording, which substitutes live instruments for the infernal machines of the U.K. version even though the studio is the only thing they've understood deeply in their short little lives. B MINUS [Later: A-]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Neil Young, Are You Passionate? (Reprise): Booker T. as first refuge of a patriot ("Differently," "You're My Girl")
  • The Selby Tigers, The Curse of the Selby Tigers (Hopeless): whatever exactly they're venting about, they've got that punk mad-funny-fucked thing down ("Dolph Indicator," "Punch Me in the Face [With Your Lips]")
  • Stella Chiweshe, Talking Mbira (Piranha import): a national treasure--in a nation ransacked? ("Ndabaiwa," "Uchiseka")
  • The Beatnuts, Classic Nuts Vol. 1 (Loud): hard hip hop dance music, bright and efficient and fun, an achievement more elusive than hards believe ("Turn It Out," "Watch Out Now")
  • Delta Dart, Fight or Flight (Paroxysm): three women clashing and meshing, meshing and clashing ("Punkrock-icity," "Love Song")
  • Girls Against Boys, You Can't Fight What You Can't See (Jade Tree): psyche-pathic brrrs, by which I mean still cold bastards ("Basstation," "Let It Breathe")
  • Wyclef Jean, Masquerade (Columbia): Frankie Valli versus thugs, Tom Jones versus deadbeat dads, Bob Dylan versus war--somehow I don't think it'll work ("Masquerade," "PJ's")
  • Insolence, Revolution (Maverick): rap-rock rides dancehall bass, further befuddling sludgehead market ("Death Threat," "Revolution")
  • Clinic, Walking With Thee (Domino): if not clinical, definitely formal ("Pet Eunoch," "Welcome")
  • Moby, 18 (V2): visionary self-starter generates commercial formula generates foregone conclusion ("In This World," "We Are All Made of Stars")
  • The Manhattan Brothers, The Very Best of the Manhattan Brothers (Stern's Africa): the Mills Brothers of Jo'burg jive, only the Mills Brothers they weren't ("Vuka Vuka," "Malayisha")
  • El-P, Fantastic Damage (Def Jux): dystopia is hard, and El Producto will flog you with it if he has to ("Stepfather Factory," "Tuned Mass Damper")
  • Blade II (Immortal): hip hop meets techno, which rises to an occasion that never quite materializes (Redman & Gorillaz, "Gorillaz on My Mind"; Cypress Hill & Roni Size, "Child of the West")
  • Ashanti (Murder Inc.): shallow orgasms aren't bad orgasms, but she could probably do better with her own hand ("Foolish," "Rescue")
Choice Cuts
  • Stereo Total, "Amourŕ 3" (Musique Automatique, Bobsled)
  • Randy Newman, "My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell," "Good Morning" (Good Old Boys, Rhino/Reprise)
  • El-P, "Day After the Day After"; Freestyle Fellowship, "Crazy" (Constant Elevation, Astralwerks)
  • The Roots Featuring Talib Kweli, "Rhymes and Ammo" (Soundbombing III, Rawkus)
  • Nash, "100 Million Ways" ( Rae & Christian, Anotherlatenight, Kinetic)
  • Black and White Brothers, "Put Your Hands Up" (Fatboy Slim, Live on Brighton Beach, Ministry of Sound)
  • Mick Jagger, "Too Far Gone" (Goddess in the Doorway, Virgin)
  • Air, Everybody Hertz (Astralwerks)
  • Felix Da Housecat, Kittenz and Thee Glitz (Emperor Norton)
  • Sharon Katz & the Peace Train, Imbizo (Appleseed)
  • Angelique Kidjo, Black Ivory Soul (Columbia)
  • Quetzal, Sing the Real (Vanguard)

Village Voice, July 16, 2002

June 18, 2002 Sept. 10, 2002