Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2011

The Extra Lens/Todd Snider

Narrative Strategies
Tuesday, February 1, 2011  

The Extra Lens: Undercard (Merge)
Twelve songs in 34 minutes by John Darnielle on "vocals, instruments" and Franklin Bruno on "instruments, vocals," and as someone who's long felt Darnielle was trying too hard, I'm so glad he's cut himself some breathing room. Ofttime Mountain Goats keyboardist Bruno deserves very nearly half the credit, less for his three-and-a-half songs (which Darnielle sings, so where are Bruno's "vocals"?) than for the keyboards enveloping "Programmed Cell Death," the piano undergirding the Randy Newman cover, and for all I know the guitar splattering "How I Left the Ministry." If the verse-chorus-verse of these gorgeously understated, quiet but hardly grooveless artsongs makes your teeth hurt, Grizzly Bear will give you something to suck on any year now. A MINUS

Todd Snider: Live: The Storyteller (30 Tigers/Aimless)
His second live album in eight years lacks the full functionality of the first, which doubled as a better best-of than the studio one Hip-O put out two years later. But Snider's hang-loose performances are so infectious they reproduce on record even when he's showing the crowd how two unconscious people sprawled into a perfect T across a fondly and farcically remembered stage. So though the songs are from his much improved studio albums of the past decade, most worth owning in themselves, the "storytelling" isn't just in the songs. There are stories proper galore, plenty more than the three tracked as such, and every one is worth hearing--always as narrative and usually as music, where Snider's acquired drawl provides a species of musicality akin to that of prime rapping, especially over a vamp. Snider's promise: "If everything goes particularly well this evening we can all expect a 90-minute distraction from our impending doom." Pondering the Comcast power grab and the perils of democracy in super-Saharan Africa, I wasn't fully distracted. But Snider's stoned-humanist humor eased my soul. A MINUS

Now That's What I Call Club Hits 2/Taylor Swift

Give the Charts Some
Friday, February 4, 2011  

Now That's What I Call Club Hits 2 (EMI)
If the Now cartel's records weren't so uniformly patchy I'd think they'd done it on purpose: 10 straight "dynamite" tracks, to borrow Taio Cruz's cutting-edge metaphor before he tries to copyright it, followed by six straight--well, not quite duds, but songs to sit down to. What differentiates good from ordinary isn't purity of talent or purpose, though Christina Aguilera and Adam Lambert certainly fulfill their dull destinies. Lady Gaga excepted, it isn't genius either, though Ian Nieman, whoever he is, comes close, expanding and overdriving Jason Derulo's high-generic "Ridin' Solo" into ramalama history. It's just inspired mechanics, as the same sounds and techniques that make it such a chore to dance to most dance music once your adrenalin recedes are propelled from the booming din by one or more extra-clever tricks. A trifecta of synth hooks on David Guetta and Chris Willis's "Gettin' Over You." La Roux's "Bulletproof" goosed with both treated echoes and "natural" crooning--and then seguing directly to drum 'n' electrosqueezebox custom-designed to juice the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be." Etc. A MINUS

Taylor Swift: Speak Now (Big Machine)
The 14 songs last upwards of 67 minutes, some 4:45 apiece; they're overlong and overworked. And I believe what I read about their origins in the romantic and other feelings of America's Ingenue for identifiable major and minor celebrities, which may thrill her fanbase but means approximately nothing to me. Even in their overwork, however, they evince an effort that bears a remarkable resemblance to care--that is, to caring in the best, broadest, and most emotional sense. I even like the one about Kanye West--including when I remember that it's about Kanye West, which usually I don't. A MINUS

Jazmine Sullivan/Drake

Role Players
Tuesday, February 8, 2011  

Jazmine Sullivan: Love Me Back (J)
Although overdoing the soulful melodrama doesn't beat overdoing the suave cool as decisively as the retro-nuevo believe, the songwriting here is a big extra difference maker, with enough pop moves to lighten the overall mood. Except on a multi-sampled opener shared by a record-seeking 19 creative partners, Sullivan is front and center, role-playing with unflinching intelligence: fluttery in "Stuttering," steadfast in "Love You Long Time," unable to break it off in "U Get on My Nerves," giddy to be free in "Luv Back," sure-likes-to-ball in "Don't Make Me Wait." Sure these could all be personal history, with the crack whore/domestic abuser one added for consciousness points. But it's simpler just to wish every pro was such an astute student of the female condition. A MINUS

Drake: Thank Me Later (Universal/Motown)
Neither thug nor thug wannabe, he's plenty talented, but pretty shallow and without much focus as a mack. That's why his very first official album, pleasing and hookful though it be, consistently bemoans the confusing emoluments and accoutrements of fame. Given his limitations, his famous friends are a mixed benefit, because they show him up. Weezy schools him with wheezy jokes from jail. Nicki Minaj's nasty mouth comes as a turn-on. And Jay-Z's 16 takes up the self-doubt theme not to explore that narrow seam of his expanded consciousness but to show the young man how it's done: "And since no good deed go unpunished/I'm not as cool with niggaz as I once was/I once was cool as the Fonz was/But these bright lights turned me to a monster." B PLUS

Old 97's

Bob Dylan, We'd Like to Introduce You to the Fratellis
Friday, February 11, 2011  

Old 97's: The Grand Theatre Volume One (New West)
The punk-come-lately intensity of Rhett Miller's first three songs is so far from their silly old alt-country pigeonhole that when second songwriter Murry Hammond moseys to the mic to deliver the Marty-Robbins-come-even-later "You Were Born to Be in Battle" they could be a separate-and-unequal band. After that, however, Miller pipes down without giving up. He credits "Champaign, Illinois" to Bob Dylan for the excellent reason that it (thoroughly) rewrites "Desolation Row," and if Uncle Bob really wants to shake things up some night he should master the lyric, which at this point in history is more apropos than the original. Soon Hammond's "You Smoke Too Much" is fitting right in. As together as can be expected, and as Miller requests with a hint of desperation, "Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving." A MINUS

Old 97's: Mimeograph (New West)
Well after you realize they have no business covering "Rocks Off" because they're not the Rolling Stones, "Rocks Off" continues to rock. Then there's a Fratellis song about fandom rescued from Britfan oblivion, an early R.E.M. song with every word enunciated by lit guy Rhett Miller, and David Bowie's greatest song with the possible exception of "TVC-15" (which, really now, isn't the Old 97's' kind of thing). A cover band? Why not? B PLUS

Drive-By Truckers/Hayes Carll

Good Old Songwriting
Tuesday, February 15, 2011  

Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots (ATO)
A song band and proud, they turn down the boogie so we're sure to get the lyrics, which except for the two Eddie Hintons are laid out as well in a booklet so handsome the habitual downloader may want one for himself (or herself, I wish). Beyond the tribute to a glamorous aunt who knew how to show a five-year-old a good time, Patterson Hood's are most impressive when he channels two lost good old boys we might not like so much in person: well, a vet afraid to own that automatic weapon OK, but how about that cop thrown off the force? Mike Cooley owns the best tunes and the best lines: "like bringing flowers to your Mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor." Shonna Tucker shows Eddie Hinton a good time in the grave. A MINUS

Hayes Carll: KMAG YOYO (Lost Highway)
A little too decisively to instill much hope for his love life, the rowdy songs are deeper than the thoughtful ones, especially the duet with Young Republican Cary Ann Hearst, who thinks she might screw him even though he can't afford to tip the stripper. But he does rowdy real good. And the filial "Grateful for Christmas" enters the canon of alt-country unholiday songs well ahead of the Drive-Bys' competing entry--maybe even on a level with James McMurtry's and Robert Earl Keen's. B&nbp;PLUS


Besting the Rarely Parlayed Perils of Juvenilia and Entrepreneurship
Friday, February 18, 2011  

Robyn: Robyn Is Here (RCA '97)
So front-loaded it could almost be a vinyl album with a hot side and a cool side, only since the singer is 17 call them perky and caring. Positioned at four and six, the Max Martin-aided "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)" are key, but without Robyn and her boys' "Bumpy Ride," "You've Got That Somethin'," and "The Last Time" at one, three, and five you wouldn't listen twice. Then, a few spins in, you notice a hint of velvet in her timbre--more like suede, really--that suggests not sensuality but emotional depth. Which in turn makes the orchestrated popsongs about romantic responsibility sound thoughtful rather than mawkish. Too bad she'll turn 21 like every other teen idol. B PLUS

Robyn: (Konichiwa/Cherrytree/Interscope '08)
Initially I was disoriented by the hype for "With Every Heartbeat," the nearest thing to processed gouda electro Robyn has put on the table, although "Eclipse" is pretty goopy too. But without that add-on, which does grow on you the way pop breakthroughs will sometimes, this 2005 EU release might never have materialized here to prepare the way for Robyn 2010, and it's not like I thought "Konichiwa Bitches" was a sell track even before I deciphered my favorite couplet a dozen plays in: "Come in with the postman like I'm a mail bomb/Comin' in your mouth make you say yum-yum." Also before I realized that the slow one tucked away at the end is also the most political song she's recorded, and it's got competition. It posits Clubland as a safe haven for life's unfortunates be they good, bad, or ugly. Yum yum. A MINUS

Aaron Neville/El DeBarge

Falsettos for God
Tuesday, February 22, 2011  

Aaron Neville: I Know I've Been Changed (EMI Gospel/Tell It)
I'm glad Mavis Staples won her Grammy. She's a generous talent with a brave history. But where her civil rights-themed 2007 We'll Never Turn Back is a perfect Grammy-type record, You Are Not Alone is standard-issue Mavis with Jeff Tweedy cachet: soul as grit plus conviction. Even at that, though, I figured it to outshine a devotional album concocted by angelic-in-voice-mostly Aaron Neville and minister of good taste without portfolio Joe Henry, and I was wrong big-time. As a devout backslider, I knew nothing of Neville's previous "spiritual" collections, and found myself impressed by 2000's Devotion until choirs and such butted in. But here Henry's taste prevails, and it's all good: a transcendent groove record in which Neville's high-end shtick is shaped by Allen Toussaint at his subtle best and Chris Bruce doing Pop Staples's holy work. Neville never strains for effect--a Roman Catholic who thanks St. Jude in the booklet, he sounds completely at home with every Protestant word he utters. You don't have to believe in Jesus to believe in faith, not with a higher power emanating from your speakers. All that's missing is Pops himself. Anybody ready to mash up a remix? A MINUS

El DeBarge: Second Chance (Geffen)
This minor genius peaked pre-1985 as the reason for being of the family harmony group DeBarge, which also gave the world ex-con lite Chico DeBarge and Janet Jackson annulment survivor James DeBarge. Although he hung on solo for a while, in this century his chief creative outlet has been the police blotter. But a minor genius he remains, and here he conquers the demon cocaine with a little help from the opiate of the people and records his first solo album since 1994 with a little help from the keeper of Geffen Records' flickering flame. It may bore or offend Babyface diehards. But those with a tolerance for prefab promises and schlock choruses won't care that the songs are the same old hyperromantic BS as long as his tenor remains intact. And though he turns 50 in 2011, it's unspoiled. DeBarge's special gift has always been combining the boyish innocence of J5-era Michael Jackson with intimations of physical congress. The quirky murmurs, yelps, and coos of his head voice, a high end of unequalled softness and give, sound responsive where Jackson's sound willed. There's a girl there, or just as likely a grown woman. And whether or not El seems manly to you, he's turning her on and vice versa. A MINUS

Rough Guide to Desert Blues/Konono No 1

Africana Revisited
Friday, February 25, 2011  

The Rough Guide to Desert Blues (World Music Network)
The blues tag is a marketing gimmick we should all hope works. Saharan music deserves an "accessible" variant of 2004's Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara, and if a few comparatively undistinguished minutes of Ali Farka Toure from the Niafunke delta does the trick, all the better for the scene-setting Terakaft, the humbly imperious Mariem Hassan, the male-led Euro-African women's collective Tartit, the foghorn diva Jalihena Natu, the knot-tying Tamikrest, and various masters of various instruments whose names we have trouble remembering even if we've encountered them before. The most arresting track is Tinariwen's "Tenhert," which convinced many advocates that the stage-savvy Tuaregs' latest album is their best. It's better contextualized here. A MINUS

Konono No. 1: Assume Crash Position (Crammed Discs)
I don't expect their diminishing lo-fi claque to care, but the third album from these briefly modish Kinshasa techno-primitives is also their best, for solid yet marginal reasons that boil down to recording quality: the buzzing distortions of their DIY-amped likembes are more distinct, and so are the unpop although not therefore untrained voices of three singers it is safe to assume got their first lessons before they were three. A jam band to the core, they don't craft their "songs" any more cunningly, but the effect is more song-like. Then, after 52 minutes, there's an unbuzzy finale: four minutes of acoustic likembe and aged voice which I call a coda and you may call a bore. To my medium-fi ears, this is where to begin. If having begun one then chooses not to continue, that would be reasonable. There's a lot of great music in the world--even in Kinshasa still I bet. A MINUS

MSN Music, February 2011

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