Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide: Minstrels All

R&b, megapop, indie-rock--I was busy with all three when along came a boomer birthday boy with the album of the year. My apologies for all the parallel entries I've missed. I'll get there, I promise.

BABYFACE: Face 2 Face (Arista) Five years ago his best album exploited his superstar connections with cameos from Stevie, Mariah, Kenny G. Here he updates on a new label newly headed by his old partner with coproductions utilizing the Neptunes, Tim & Bob, Heavy D. Beat mechanics don't guarantee a thing, of course. But for all his platinum balladry, Kenny Edmonds has been funky on demand since the Deele, and the showcase tracks up front are as tricky as any to surface all year--just when you think you've balanced all five or six elements in your mind's ear, up pops number six or seven. He leaves the tricks behind eventually, if only so as not to alienate his normal market share, and after bottoming out briefly returns with enough ballads to make you stop humming "What If" until it goes platinum. A MINUS

BURNT SUGAR/THE ARKESTRA CHAMBER: Blood on the Leaf: Opus No. 1 (Trugroid) Like most major writers, Greg Tate--the young Ironman turned older-than-that-now Ionman--pursues music at his peril. When I've heard him play guitar in public, I've only wished he'd go finish his novel--or, better still, write more about music. So call this dimly mastered Black Rock Coalition spinoff living criticism. It's electric Miles with soul, "Maggot Brain" with a Ph.D., the Hendrix-Evans band of dreams, the underwater funk some hear in A.R. Kane. With due respect to badmuthashutyo guitarist Morgan Michael, Mandarinsprechen banshee guitarist Rene Akhan, and unstemmed crimson tide guitarist Kirk Douglass, the standout player is piano virtuoso Vijay Iyer, and let us now praise Human Switchboard and Freedy Johnston stalwart Jared Michael Nickerson, though Tate hisself wrote the basslines. But the ensemble is all, and the opus subsumes its parts. A MINUS

BOB DYLAN: "Love and Theft" (Columbia) Before minstrelsy scholar Eric Lott gets too excited about having his title stolen--"He loves me! Honey, Bob Dylan loves me!"--he should recall that Dylan called his first cover album Self-Portrait. Dylan meant that title, of course, and he means this one too, which doesn't make "Love and Theft" his minstrelsy album any more than Self-Portrait's dire "Minstrel Boy" was his minstrelsy song. All pop music is love and theft, and in 40 years of records whose sources have inspired volumes of scholastic exegesis, Dylan has never embraced that truth so warmly. Jokes, riddles, apercus, and revelations will surface for years, but let those who chart their lives by Dylan's cockeyed parables tease out the details. I always go for tone, spirit, music. If Time Out of Mind was his death album--it wasn't, but you know how people talk--this is his immortality album. It describes an eternal circle on masterful blazz and jop readymades that render his grizzled growl as juicy as Justin Timberlake's tenor--Tony Bennett's, even. It's profound, too, by which I mean very funny. "I'm sitting on my watch so I can be on time," he wheezes, because time he's got plenty of. A PLUS

LARS FREDERIKSEN AND THE BASTARDS (Hellcat) No ska, no progress, no wages of success. Just a bunch of Clash homages about the Rancid sidekick's misspent youth in Campbell, California, produced by Rancid frontman and fellow Campbellite Tim Armstrong. Starts off oi, speeds up, and never lacks tune except on the Holland-Dozier-Holland cover. Highlight: the Billy Bragg cover. Climax: "Vietnam." Message: You can go home again. A MINUS

GIMME INDIE ROCK V. 1 (K-Tel) If U.K. Virgin's Best Punk Album in the World . . . Ever! was the ultimate K-Tel joke, this must be the postultimate. Reducing an anti/post-commercial movement/tendency to 30 putatively/frequently catchy songs, it represents indie far more accurately than Michael Azerrad's severe rockism--boys and a few girls, Yanks and a few furriners, talents and a few geniuses, guitars and a few synths, ugly and pretty and both at once. Half the bands released good albums once and a few still do. Most of these are in print if anything strikes your fancy, though the track that takes you home may not lead you to the album that'll pay the rent. Traces of a world gone by. Intimations of the one we live in now. A MINUS

ALICIA KEYS: Songs in A Minor (J) The minor in question is the keys-sweeping Keys, not yet 21, who earns the musty "classically trained" as if it was bequeathed her by Donny Hathaway. Enough song doctors show up in parentheses to make the realist in me wonder just exactly how finished the material she'd begun at 14 was when she signed her deal. But the same realist notes that Brian McKnight gets sole credit for one of the bores that threaten to sink the project midway through, just as Keys does for one of those that buoy it back up at the end. And the grace and grit with which the first half skirts gentility would merit the musty "auspicious debut" regardless. If only Donny Hathaway had been so unassuming. A MINUS

PERNICE BROTHERS: The World Won't End (Ashmont) His title poised between wise promise and grim prediction, Joe Pernice chooses life because he can't stop the music, which last time conjured Hollies and this time channels Zombies-- Odessey and Oracle, to be precise. Whiners with a knack for melody regularly make hay off admitting the girl was too good for them. Just buy my songs, they promise, and I'll prove I've learned my lesson, for now I can love. With thematic input from one of those girls, Pernice rests his stronger case on dulcet vocals bursting with emotion and melodies whose credulous surge inundates all references to suicide and such. I'm almost convinced. But not quite. B PLUS

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (Label M) Ulmer's singing has always been Delta, but on the blues album of his life Vernon Reid hooks him up with Willie Dixon, and the three unmatched neoprimitivists make roughslick music together. Not all the best tracks are Dixon songs: here's to old-time DJ Holmes Daylie's "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal," John Lee Hooker's whistled "Dimples," the eight-minute "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" turbocharging over the dull memory of the nine-minute "Walking Blues." And if Dixon ever heard anything like the harmolodics Ulmer lays on "Little Red Rooster" and "I Love the Life I Live," Pete Cosey was God. A MINUS

DON WHITE: Little Niche (Lumperboy) Seven songs and four stories, and without question the stories have more bite. If topics like crying when your son leaves for college and coping with your father's prostate cancer seem mawkish by definition, God help "Marlene," home from the hospice and dancing with her son in the backyard, or "A Little More Love," White's prescription for everything this side of prostate cancer. I mean, "Like a Friend" makes me gag, and I'm a fan. On the other hand, the belief that stories about crying when your son leaves for college are mawkish by definition is a social disease. Those ready to combat it should avail themselves of White's humorous-to-hilarious, insightful-to-incisive antidote--cracked tunes, acoustic strum, and all. B PLUS

THE WHITE STRIPES: White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry) I'm down with the story that rather than brother and sister they're a divorced couple like Quasi. It suggests that Jack White got the blues someplace else besides the blues and grounds his deprived love songs, which are more grounded than Quasi's anyway. This third album is where he takes both love songs and the blues down the road a piece. "The Union Forever" is about marrying for life and also about serving the poor, "Little Room" is about making sex last and also about making indie-rock last, and neither is any richer than "Hotel Yorba," which is about plighting your troth with the one you love most. "If I could hear your pretty voice I don't think I'd need to sing at all," he sings. But all she'll promise is to play the drums. A

Dud of the Month

JANET JACKSON: All for You (Virgin) Fifth time through or so, having vaguely enjoyed the title tune's thirdhand chic and patted my figurative foot to two other early songs and conceived something a little more fattening when she invited/implored me (me--we hardly know each other, but hey) to "taste" her, I got to the Carly Simon duet again, and finally it hit me. This wasn't just weird, it was revolting. Once Janet was a repressed young thing discovering her sexuality, and that was fun for everybody; now she's a rich 35-year-old demanding sex, and even if her body wisdom is manifestly subtler than Carly's, the thrill is gone. And then there's a fabled production team that has achieved precisely nothing on its own since she turned into something slinkier and more carnivorous than a cash cow--a cash mink, say. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Unitas, Porch Life (No Idea): "This THEY you're screaming about, please elaborate," "punk/indie/whatever" designated drivers demand ("Porch Life," "Ballad of the Designated Driver")
  • Hamell on Trial, Ed's Not Dead--Hamell Comes Alive! (Such-A-Punch): de facto best-of cum fine how-de-doo to you and several hordes of Ani DiFranco fans ("Sugarfree," "7 Seas")
  • Missy Elliott, Miss E . . . So Addictive (The Goldmind, Inc./Elektra): a little too worried about her weight ("Lick Shots," "Get Ur Freak On")
  • Chris Knight, A Pretty Good Guy (Dualtone): good old dirtbags raise hell as they go there ("A Pretty Good Guy," "If I Were You")
  • Charlie Watts, Jim Keltner Project (CyberOctave): the multiculti drum trip of Mickey Hart's interviews, with a secret ingredient--jazz ("Art Blakey," "Elvin Suite")
  • Moulin Rouge (Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corp./Interscope): the direct link between Toulouse-Lautrec and Phil Collins, and right--seeing the movie helps (Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, and Jamie Allen, "Elephant Love Medley"; Ewan MacGregor and Alexandra Safina, "Your Song")
  • Maxwell, Now (Columbia): he can't outbeat D'Angelo, so he works on outsinging and outsonging him ("Temporary Night," "This Woman's Work," "Lifetime")
  • Mary J. Blige, No More Drama (MCA): positive attitude's a bitch, not to mention a drag ("PMS," "Steal Away")
  • LFO, Life Is Good (J): just normal stars like Jackie, Diane, and the Great Houdini ("28 Days," "6 Minutes")
  • The Fast and the Furious (Murder Inc.): hip hop on acceleration fuel (Ja Rule, "Furious"; Funkmaster Flex, "Tudunn Tudunn Tudunn [Make You Jump]")
  • Lil' Romeo (SME/Priority) gangsta pop at its funniest, sickest, and safest ("My Baby," "Where They At")
  • The Yayhoos, Fear Not the Obvious (Bloodshot): Eric Ambel as Ron Wood OK, but would you believe Dan Baird as Rod Stewart, and if not why not? ("What Are We Waiting For," "Dancing Queen")
  • K.T. Oslin, Live Close By, Visit Often (BNA): senior moments of an aginger sex bomb ("I Can't Remember Not Loving You," "Neva Sawyer")
  • BBMak, Sooner or Later (Hollywood): Brit boychiks go pseudo-American, not sussing how old jeans and guitars have gotten in mall-land, which is a relief ("Unpredictable," "Ghost of You and Me")
  • The Apples in Stereo, Let's Go! (SpinArt): best of the Powerpuff Girls plus collectibles ("Heroes and Villains," "Signal in the Sky [produced version]")
  • *NSync, Celebrity (Jive): they survive "writing their own songs," and they positively enjoy their bells and whistles ("Selfish," "Do Your Thing")
  • Foxy Brown, Broken Silence (Def Jam): regrets, she's got a few ("Na Na Be Like," "Candy")
  • Res, How I Do (MCA): something to suck on while you dream of Lauryn ("Golden Boys," "Ice King")
  • Cursive, Burst and Bloom (Saddle Creek): with a bang, a whimper, a yowl, and a hook you can take with you ("The Great Decay," "Sink to the Beat")
Choice Cuts:
  • Geoff Muldaur (With Jenni & Clare Muldaur), "Chicken" (Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt, Vanguard)
  • Dave Van Ronk, "Puttin' on the Ritz," "I'd Rather Charleston" (Sweet and Lowdown, Justin Time import)
  • Paul Jones, "Goin' Back Home" (Not the Same Old Blues Crap II, Fat Possum)
  • The Explosion, "No Revolution" (Flash Flash Flash, Jade Tree)
  • Blessid Union of Souls, "Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me)" (The Singles, V2)
  • Brooke Allison, "The Kiss-Off (Goodbye)" (Brooke Allison, Virgin)
  • ATC, Planet Pop (Republic/Universal)
  • Backstreet Boys, Black and Blue (Jive)
  • BS 2000, Simply Mortified (Grand Royal)
  • Eden's Crush, Popstars (London/Stone Stanley/143)
  • Keb' Mo', Big Wide Grin (Sony Wonder)
  • Samantha Mumba, Gotta Tell You (A&M)
  • Carly Simon, The Bedroom Tapes (Arista)

Village Voice, Sept. 18, 2001

Aug. 7, 2001 Oct. 16, 2001