Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Turkey Shoot 2005

Seventeen courses you'll be better off skipping at this year's musical overfeed

BURT BACHARACH: At This Time (Columbia) When I ask myself which of the many horrible things about this adoringly promoted "political" record is the very worst, I'm tempted to go for broke and say the arrangements. For in truth, it is difficult to imagine circumstances under which the pop paragon's latest instrumental divertissements would signify. Chris Botti provides a few high points on trumpet--that's right, Chris Botti, high points, canceled out and then some by the anonymous saxophone soloist, who sounds to my unschooled ears like a moonlighting Kenny G. Then there are the weak yet obtrusive beats hired out to such humanitarians as Kon Artis and Dr. Dre. Rufus Wainwright doesn't really believe "Love's the answer like I said before/It's the one thing needed maybe now even more," Elvis Costello maintains a suspicious distance from "Who Are These People?" before belting it with equally suspicious enthusiasm, and both outsing--by a lot--John Pagano (?), Josie James (?), and Donna Taylor (?), who in turn outsing--by a whole lot--chief vocalist Bacharach. Who are these people? C MINUS

BACKSTREET BOYS: Never Gone (Jive) Lest you doubted it, this is grotesque, and not just because stardom ruined Nick Carter like so many young people before him. It's more that nobody loves a man group. Blue-balled yearning becomes AJ-said-you-swallowed whining, which wasn't the formal challenge their Swedish Svengalis signed on for. Maybe they could learn their instruments and call themselves a man band, which rhymes. An album of Four Lads covers is also a thought. C

BARLOW GIRL: Another Journal Entry (Fervent/Curb) These three Christian sisters from Illinois specialize in arena-emo love songs to that perfect Guy, who unlike so many guys forgives them when they fail Him. One exception, if I'm not mistaken--and I may be, Christian code is a motherfucker--is "5 Minutes of Fame," apparently a message song for the "secondary virginity" movement. Not that they're in need of the secondary kind themselves--they're lucky if "maybe I gave in more than I should" (for "popularity") recalls anything heavier than a copped feel. Here's hoping they meet Sufjan Stevens at prayer meeting. C MINUS

THE BETA BAND: Music: The Best of the Beta Band (Astralwerks) Rock-ambient Brits, you remember. Four albums, 1998-2004. First one actually three EPs. Can't remember how I was convinced to enjoy the second--has some tunes, my notes say, and I try to be kind. Young alt fans do get weary, so their third and fourth suffered disregard, and the Betas broke up in despair, dismay, or a snit. Where those tunes might be hiding on this prematurely useless 16-song best-of I don't have the heart to figure out. Why nine of the 16 are repeated on the 13-song farewell concert that inflates the package's price only their accountant knows for sure. Kindness can be such a waste of time. C PLUS

BORIS WITH MERZBOW: Sun Baked Snow Cave (Hydra Head) Only innocent doomsayers willing to call someone plucking a guitar every few seconds for 12 minutes a "solo" will get to minute 38, when Merzbow makes some interesting noises that in just a few precious moments decay, like everything in this universe of pain, boredom, and surplus value. But be of good cheer. For verily, if a band named after a Melvins song thinks the world is coming to an end, it almost certainly isn't. D PLUS

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: Tepid Peppermint Wonderland: A Retrospective (Tee Pee) Touted by the Dandy Warhols in the impressive Dig, Anton Newcombe gets a no doubt small, no doubt excessive cash advance to prove his genius with 38 songs the world passed on the first time. The world was right, and will be right again every time Newcombe revives. His recombined riffs rarely break the shambolic surface, and whenever two consecutive lines of lyric grab and hold, they complain. The Dandy Warhols' drones have some pull to them, their hooks some sock. They're funny, too. They overrate Newcombe because they do with panache and professionalism what he does with heroin and lies, and feel guilty about it. C PLUS

KELLY CLARKSON: Breakaway (RCA) Unlike young Hilary Duff, 23-year-old Clarkson feels the responsibilities of stardom, which demand melodramatic overkill. The doctors give her stronger pills than, say, Clay Aiken--the prefab kissoff of "Walk Away," the new wave heartbreak of "Since U Been Gone," "Because of You" may just describe an occurrence, here's the verb "implode," and "There's no light at the end of the tunnel/Just a bridge that I gotta burn" could hold up its end of a bargain. None of these survives Clarkson's larger-than-life ambitions or compressed-to-oppress production regimen. But she may have a heart, and it may end up in the right place. B MINUS

FALL OUT BOY: From Under the Cork Tree (Island) Stuck between pretentious young purists who believe catchy love songs betray their hardcore heritage and eager younger fans who believe catchy love songs fulfill their teenthrob destiny, these Warped Tour cover boys aren't terrible, but are they ever ordinary. Only their record company would claim that emotional vocals, dramatic dynamics, poppy-punky tempos, and not actually all that catchy tunes add up to "their own sound." They have some talent, they're cute, and they work hard. Thus they get to pretend that "Douse yourself in cheap perfume it's/So fitting of the way you are" is a lyric for the ages, a/k/a next week. C PLUS

SEU JORGE: Cru (Wrasse) There's a reason rhythm--and not the subtle stuff: beats stated and elaborated, on percussion instruments per se or string and electronic instruments deployed percussively--looms so large for us in the music of darker-skinned foreigners who don't sing in English. Romance of the primitive not required--rhythm is where the music is, and the meaning. For non-Lusophones, this brave Brazilian favelado--who has a record out here because he's a beguiling musical presence in the minor The Life Aquatic, not because he's a commanding dramatic presence in the major City of God--is selling timbre even when he sings an Elvis trifle in the original Leiber, and timbre isn't enough. The one keeper is a Serge Gainsbourg trifle consisting of proper names and the word "suicide." And it too needs its rhythm track. B MINUS

RAY LAMONTAGNE: Trouble (RCA) I admire LaMontagne, who's had nothing handed to him. But it bodes ill that the Stephen Stills album that moved him to quit his factory job was a '90s one. Just as we live in a world where some radio stations get on Stills's latest, we live in a world where some record buyers suck up folk-rock verities--to which LaMontagne adds nothing but a backstory. Since his admirers bring up Van Morrison, it is my duty to report that he lacks Morrison's voice, poetry, Gaelic soul, and r&b feel--in other words, everything that once made Van worth bringing up. Nothing lasts forever, folk-rock included. C PLUS

NICKEL CREEK: Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill) Of course they're still "really" "newgrass," but mainly they're a prog-pop band accessorizing their chords with mountain sonics. One effuser goes so far as to claim "a younger, better-scrubbed Dave Matthews Band minus the blowhardiness, a rootsier Ryan Cabrera," while a tradder fellow adduces Bill Evans and Debussy. For some of us, unfortunately, all those loose-lipped compliments are negatives--Kind of Blue aside, we don't even like Bill Evans. Nor would I advise any three prodigies to reduce a James Joyce story to 54 words and rather more notes. The young-prodigy-tries-to-love title tune is a winning exception, and "Doubting Thomas" intimates spiritual struggles that arouse one's curiosity. But like most schmoograssers they're committed to virtuosity for its own sake, and like most young musos they've been too focused on technique to learn much about how music interacts with life. C PLUS

PETER PAUL AND MARY: The Very Best of Peter Paul and Mary (Warner Bros./Rhino) The Seeger song, not to mention the Dylan songs, no longer require introductions; neither does the John Denver song. And although the pained compassion of "El Salvador" won't make you root for the bad guys, it won't make you root for the good guys either. Hey, at least my high school pal Lenny Lipton will make a few more bucks off "Puff, the Magic Dragon," which I am dead certain is not about pot. C PLUS

MATT POND PA: Several Arrows Later (Altitude) With pleasant tune and steady groove standing in for pellucid prose, Pond's songs are the alt-rock equivalent of what used to be called New Yorker short stories: subtly realized domestic epiphanies often involving tame nature imagery. At least they're shorter on quiet desperation. B MINUS

QUEEN + PAUL RODGERS: Return of the Champions (Hollywood) Where Freddie Mercury was a true queen, Paul Rodgers is a big disgrace. And that's not even counting the Bad Company cover, the Free cover, or, facts is facts, the HIV song. D PLUS

SLIM THUG: Already Platinum (Geffen) Screwed-and-chopped-esque rather than actually screwed-and-chopped, but representing the Black Sabbath tendency in rock-based musics nonetheless: Slim:Ozzy::screwed-and-chopped:grindcore. Jesus, does that mean screwed-and-chopped will last forever too? Scary. C

STELLASTARR*: Harmonies for the Haunted (RCA) What gave Shawn Christensen and his botched tonsillectomy the idea of joining the exalted ranks of Robert Smith and Simon Le Bon? This is pop music, not the Special Olympics. I mean, at least the Interpol guy is from England. Christensen's from Pratt. C

THREE 6 MAFIA: Most Known Unknown (Hypnotize Minds/Sony Urban Music/Columbia) The pull of their gut-rumbling brew of dark keyb riffs and viscous rhythm under unison vocals isn't absolute, but it's there, distinct and original. Unfortunately for connoisseurs of the saturnine, however, it comes with rhymes that are part of the aesthetic experience. As a putative cocaine magnate, rival flava-of-the-year proprietor Young Jeezy enjoys privileges that include triumphalist fanfares, yes-man cheering sections, and a relatively abstract level of brutality. These Memphis lifers sell "street," eventuating in quite a bit of put-your-foot-up-they-ass, knock-the-black-off-your-ass, ransack-your-home, and rape-your-bitch-cause-she's-stacked. It isn't original to point out that the reality this worldview represents is a bully's reality, one that most of those who are stuck with it scheme to avoid. But originality isn't everything. Bully reality can be musically compelling, no question. But jones for it and you risk brutalizing yourself. B MINUS

Village Voice, Nov. 29, 2005

Nov. 1, 2005 Dec. 27, 2005

Postscript Notes:

Reviews of Beta Band and Peter Paul & Mary were written for this column, but lost out in the space crunch at the Village Voice. The number of courses was originally planned at 19, reduced here to 17, up from the 15 actually published.