Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Diffusion Rools

Below find several of the culture-specific exotics I catch up on when the rock bands get thin. What's new is the culture-unspecific exotics. Can it be . . . world music?

KING SUNNY ADE: Synchro Series (IndigeDisc) Two vintage Nigeria-only albums back-to-back, both previously unknown to me: 1982's mild and sweet Gbe Kini Ohun De and 1983's Synchro Feelings, "a medley of remixes of earlier tracks, dub versions and outtakes from the Island [Synchro System] sessions." Not the ideal way to ease peak Ade into the American marketplace. I hope it's surpassed--may I mention Bobby, Ajoo, Check "E," and of course The Message? But the American marketplace being what it is, I wouldn't count on it. B PLUS

ARABESQUE TLATA 3 (React import) The third and reputedly best of Algerian-born London restaurateur Momo's world comps, this Maghreb survey has its quirks. Up-to-date though it must be, it leads with "N'Sel Fik," the definitive rai classic since Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui released it 20 years ago. It also leans on Cheb Khaled's arty 1988 crossover Kutché, and in general starts roots and goes soundtrack as if that's progress. Which for Momo it is. On London DJ Hamid Zagzoule's terrific 2001 Tea in Marrakech (with which this CD shares a great hit by a Spanish nanny from Sudan), North African authenticity redounds to preservationists with an ear for the hooks every old culture recycles. Momo is drawn to diffusion. Natacha Atlas is fine with him, ditto the arranged marriage of Cheb Mami and Nitin Sawhney. And since in London up-to-date means dance music, dance music it will be--Moroccans jarring Egyptian shabi toward electronica, theories of trance merging like record labels, an ethnotechno excursion named "Ford Transit." A MINUS

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: Decoration Day (New West) First six songs are perfect--incest, elopement, foreclosure, and "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" from main man Patterson Hood, Stones song of a bitterness that passeth superstar understanding from second banana Mike Cooley, and young Jason Isbell hitting the road with his dad's blessing: "Have fun but stay clear of the needle/Call home on your sister's birthday/Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus/Don't give it away." Without fussing over bridges and such, they treat their job like a calling--verses are packed with stories they need to tell and choruses ring out with why. The intensity wanes as they mull two suicides and several busted marriages, at least until a hard-rocking dirge about a feud brings the title into focus. But throughout they succeed in rendering Southern gothic as social realism. Somebody tell Charlie Watts jazz is for hobbyists. A MINUS

HORACE X: Sackbutt (Omnium) Lined up all in a row, the half-assed headliners they've supported for over a decade--Fun-Da-Mental, Transglobal Underground, Asian Dub Foundation, Banco de Gaia (no Three Mustaphas Three?)--compel one to admit that in the U.K., attempted world-music bands aren't the New Age saps who spread their agape over our folk circuit like tofu mayonnaise. Techno plus ragga plus bhangra plus West Asia plus Eastern Europe equals fully multicultural fusions that invariably misfire in the end. But this one sparks like I'd hoped Fun-Da-Mental would--which means it sounds like nothing I've heard. Nonstop dance drive, Roma clarinet jazz, violin sans bluegrass or sonata, ragga-flavored because the singer's Jamaican. Plus they named their debut after a medieval trombone normally spelled with one T. A MINUS

MAMANI KEITA & MARC MINELLI: Electro Bamako (Palm) When white Parisians meddle in the music of African Francophones, I shudder. I recall Salif Keita's fused keybs, Angelique Kidjo's dull disco, Lokua Kanza studying le jazz in la France, sideburned sidemen and crotch-pumping yé-yé girls anonymous to me. Minelli is an obscure alt-pop lifer with no background in Malian music. He'd barely met Salif's identically surnamed former backup singer when a mutual acquaintance importuned him to build her the sampled jazz-lounge-reggae-jungle-bambara-soundtrack settings here. Yet the mesh is blessed whether it aspires to beatwise pastiche or tuneful corn about aiding les enfants. Neither half would mean much without the other. As it is, however, Minelli could be a Diabate, and Keita sounds like she's spent her life strolling the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I wonder whether they've ever tried going to bed. If I were them I'd be scared. A MINUS

THE KINGS OF HIGHLIFE (Wrasse import) How irritating--uncounted hours of music out there and this duplicates four tracks on Rough Guide's highlife comp. Makes one doubt how deep the genre goes. Pluses: brighter mastering, original version of Osita Osadebe's "Osondi Owendi." Minuses: multiple titles by Osadebe, Celestine Ukwu (including one repeat), Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson (ditto), Dr. Victor Olaiya (ditto), and Sir Victor Awaifo (ditto; also, me and the annotator thought it was Uwaifo.) Clearly, all of them deserve dedicated comps. Because, actually, I don't doubt how deep the genre goes--the four lesser lights in the middle only amplify the glory of its grace and groove. Voices caress, guitars strut and undulate, horns butt in. A MINUS

THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS: Electric Version (Matador) Earns its buzz. Tremendous craft, winning enthusiasm. You'll remember every song when it comes on--maybe even when it doesn't, hum hum. But if it has a point beyond whistling at the void, it declines to mention what that point might be. Also, I wish the sparingly deployed Neko Case would abandon her faux-country career. Carl Newman likes a lot of things about British pop that I don't, starting with vocal filters (his seems built-in) and that cute accent (signifying not class but artifice as a virtue). Is this what Zumpano sounds like? Who cares? B PLUS

NOFX: The War on Errorism (Fat Wreck Chords) Unlike most punk lifers, they've always yukked it up, accepted outsiders, and thought about their feelings. So I was pleased rather than surprised to learn that they'd made their politics explicit. Their attacks on religion and hater hating are right on, and why shouldn't the guy who reads Zinn and Chomsky and then votes Nader be confused? Concomitantly, I was disappointed rather than surprised to find that the songs about their personal world are deeper than those about our political one. So I'm glad quadriplegic Nubs gets her impolitic two minutes. And my hopes for all humanity leap when a boy and girl fall in love over the vinyl they both own. A MINUS

SHANGO, SHOUTER AND OBEAH: SUPERNATURAL CALYPSO FROM TRINIDAD 1934-1940 (Rounder) Yoruba rites, Holiness Christianity, and witchcraft were all banned by the British, and compiler Dick Spottswood is probably right to insist that calypsonians who mined them masked their commitments--that concealed beneath satire and critique were sympathy and support. But even when Lion or Caresser sings in Yoruba, the camouflage starts with the music, the formulaic charm of which depends on stock melodies and well-rehearsed orchestras. As un-African as any contemporary black Caribbean style save the politest danzón, calypso exemplified what the old ways resisted. Artists may have been attracted to those ways, but not like they were to calypso's urban airs. A concept that subsumes such mixed motives is exploitation, which I mean unpejoratively, although a religious person might demur. Why not play to the rustics who guarded tradition as you exoticized them for your core audience? Why not hot up your formula with the spice of their lives--a gospel chorus, a little Yoruba? What a great idea for a novelty record. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

BILL FRISELL: The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch) Jazz sophisticates who long ago followed Frisell into the fog won't gainsay his groove at this late date. Swing isn't on his product list, and as for swing's West African or Brazilian equivalents, isn't that what now-Parisian percussionist Sidiki Camara and now-New York guitarist Vinicius Cantuária are on board for? Hardly. They're there for color. Frisell cares about color the way Sigur Rós cares about color, and if his hues are somewhat brighter, he doesn't have Iceland for an excuse. Every once in a while a drone or pattern emerges, reminding me of what I treasure most in "world music"--articulated rhythm. Then he gets some tech genie or steel player to throw on another synth substitute and it's back to the miasma. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Sidestepper, 3AM (In Beats We Trust) (Palm): English DJ runs Colombian salsa through Jamaican dub--spare, soulful, beats first ("Deja [Mary]," "In Beats We Trust")
  • Ugly Duckling, Taste the Secret (Emperor Norton): clever, nerdy, well-put alt-rap propaganda trumped by imaginative, disgusting, facetious vegetarian propaganda ("The Drive-Thru," "Opening Act," "I Wanna Go Home")
  • Anthology of World Music: The Music of Afghanistan (Rounder): the old wisdom--not exotic, just many shades of different ("Chant From Azerejot," "Song of Kataran")
  • Ballago Thione Seck & Raam Daan, Allo Petit (Djoniba): authentic Senegalese mbalax, high-powered but resistant to export ("Allo Petit," "Abibatou")
  • Gotan Project, La Revancha del Tango (XL): Astor Piazzolla goes ambient ethnotechno inna musette style ("Queremos Paz," "Triptico")
  • Adrian Sherwood, Never Trust a Hippy (Real World): mates ambient and beatwise so deep down they almost procreate ("No Dog Jazz," "Boogaloo")
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Turkey (World Music Network import): folklorically atmospheric because that's what it means to be (Belkis Akkale, "Bendeki Yaratar"; ÜmitSayin, "Ben Tabli Ki")
  • Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham, L'Avventura (Jetset): murmured joke throwaways and covers from nowhere, casually tuneful and willfully slight ("Threw It Away," "Ginger Snaps")
  • Maria Muldaur, A Woman Alone With the Blues (Telarc): Peggy Lee's boîte sex becomes Maria's juke sex--drawled, growled, vamped, and moaned ("Fever," "I Don't Know Enough About You")
  • Tony Allen, Home Cooking (Comet/Virgin/Narada World): he makes good drummer's records, and I haven't heard a great one since early Tony Williams ("Home Cooking," "Kindness")
  • Enrique Ferrer, Buenos Hermanos (Nonesuch): at 76, finally an official pro, with Jim Keltner the proof ("Boquiñeñe," "Buenos Hermanos")
  • Cesaria Evora, The Very Best of Cesaria Evora (Bluebird): if it was, no one would know, but juicier than average ("Sodade [Remix]," "Sangue de Berona")
  • Buddy Guy, Blues Singer (Silvertone): still more real folk blues--no, more than that even ("Moanin' and Groanin'," "Lucy Mae Blues")
  • Gogol Bordello, Voi-La Intruder (Rubric): New Yorkers to the Slavic bone ("Greencard Husband," "God-Like")
  • Steely Dan, Everything Must Go (Warner Bros.): dying in stereo, nothing left to say ("Slang of Angels," "Things I Miss the Most")
  • Cesaria Evora, La Diva Aux Pieds Nus (Windham Hill/BMG Heritage): she wasn't young in 1988, but she was younger, and the lightness of her voice carries the strings if not the horns ("Bia Lulucha," "Destino Negro")
  • John Mayer, Room for Squares (Aware/Columbia): lyrically, "She keeps a toothbrush at my place/As if I had the extra space" sure beats Norah ("No Such Thing," "City Love")

Choice Cuts:

  • Mutant Press and Friends, "Blood for Oil," "Nothing" (Blood for Oil: Songs of the Fugs, 500 Pound Weasel)
  • Khia, "My Neck, My Back"; Public Enemy and MC Lyte, "Dark Angel Theme"; Samantha Cole, "Bring It to Me" (Dark Angel, Artemis)
  • The African Brothers, "Self Reliance"; Honny & the Bees Band, "Psychedelic Woman" (Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk and Fusion in 70's Ghana, Soundway import)
  • Leonard Zhakata, "Bhora Rembabvu" (Jit Jive: Zimbabwean Street Party, Sheer Sound import)
  • Taj Mahal & the Hula Blues, "Livin' on Easy" (Hanapepe Dream, Tone-Cool)


  • Caitlin Cary, I'm Staying Out (Yep Roc)
  • Caitlin Cary, While You Weren't Looking (Yep Roc)
  • Cesaria Evora, Sao Vicente (Windham Hill)
  • Alvin Youngblood Hart, Down in the Alley (Memphis International)
  • Jesse Harris & the Ferdinandos, The Secret Sun (Blue Thumb)
  • Robin Holcomb, The Big Time (Nonesuch)
  • Etta James, Let's Roll (Private Music)
  • Diana Krall, Live in Paris (Verve)
  • John Mayer, Any Given Thursday (Aware/Columbia)

Village Voice, June 24, 2003

June 10, 2003 Aug. 5, 2003