Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2013

Lloyd Price

That bad man, that cool Stagger Lee
Tuesday, September 3, 2013  

Lloyd Price: Greatest Hits (MCA '94)
There's nothing like this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from the Big Easy. Now 80 and pushing an autobiography and a Broadway musical based on same, he knows how to take care of business--he's a rough hombre who owned a nightclub and a label in Manhattan before he was 40. But he doesn't sing like a rough hombre. He sings like he's taking care of business, which is why he followed 1959's chart-topping "Stagger Lee" with two lyrics so insipid they could do battle with Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell: "Personality" and "I'm Gonna Get Married." And never was he more cheerfully pragmatic than in the 2:25 "Stagger Lee" itself, which remains a fairly grisly murder tale, but one in which the femme chorus that's been chanting "Go Stagger Lee" since 0:45 continues to cheer Stack on as he fetches his .44 and shoots Billy so bad he breaks the bartender's glass. Call me a cynic, but I think it's one of the funniest records in rock and roll. It leads this hard-to-find 18-track package. It also leads the now standard 12-track, 28-minute The Best of Lloyd Price: The Millennium Collection, where I miss, among other things, "That's Love," a/k/a "I Got Married and Liked It," and "Three Little Pigs," designed for what he thinks marriage was designed for, and I don't mean conjugal ecstasy. I mean kids. A MINUS

Lloyd Price: Specialty Profiles (Specialty '06)
Price was the biggest, roughest shouter in New Orleans r&b, and gumbo aficionados will tell you it was a tragedy when those bad Northerners stole him away. Price didn't agree, and I know what he means. Even honed down to 14 tracks in 36 minutes over Dave Bartholomew's ace band, his Specialty material is so unthinkingly generic that few of the songs distinguish themselves even as novelties. In addition to Price's signature "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," which I like no less and also no more in this lowdown version than as the sub-two-minute rocker ABC-Paramount made of it, my best candidate would be the accurately entitled "Oo-Ee Baby," which no one has ever heard of because it ain't all that novel. Nevertheless, this is pretty entertaining for a historical document, and it's augmented by the label's generic 26-minute bonus disc, which you'll probably play more: 10 r&b classics that include Roy Milton's "R.M. Blues," Joe Liggins's "Pink Champagne," Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do," Don & Dewey's "Leavin' It All Up to You," and Larry Williams's "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy." B PLUS

The Julie Ruin/Neko Case

The straightforward forties
Friday, September 6, 2013  

The Julie Ruin: Run Fast (TJR)
Although I read in the Times that late-stage Lyme disease sufferer Kathleen Hanna's first album since 2004 includes "several peppy numbers about euthanasia," I dare you to figure out which they are. What's easy to tell is that at 44, the riot godmotherrr commands pretty much the same old skinny soprano, only with soft edges that sound tender or thoughtful sometimes. You can make out enough lyrics to determine that these vulnerabilities don't come at the cost of crazee abandon, modulated tantrum, or childish drawl. And you soon realize that the music continues a trajectory that runs from Bikini Kill through Le Tigre to this version of the pop music every great punk loves: surf guitar, bongo effects, keyboard hooks from Hammond to EDM, and--crucially, I think--a male voice on occasion, mostly for deep ballast. Some say she's from Mars, or one of the seven stars that shine after 3:30 in the morning. But she isn't. A

Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (Anti-)
Now 42 and three years past her most readily parsed solo album, Case confesses that the mortality she's seen in the interim moved her to write more confessionally. That seems to mean, although no one's talking, not just lyrically but melodically and structurally, which translates to more parsably still. There are hooks here, folks, and literalism fan that I am, I say they're most effective on the strictly reportorial "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" and the lost-love "Calling Cards." Favorite metaphor: "Man"'s "I'm a man." Favorite obscurity: "You never held it at the right angle." A MINUS

No Age/Burial

Noise boys--well, men
Tuesday, September 10, 2013  

No Age: An Object (Sub Pop)
With drummer-etc. Dean Spunt's vocals mixed up front and enunciated like he means them, you'd think they'd gone pop on us except that, in the great Moore-Ranaldo tradition, pop is well beyond Spunt's manful monotone. But in the same great tradition, he and guitar-wielding Randy Randall are committed to rendering noise as music. Is that a saxophone lowing underneath "C'mon, Stimmung"'s I'm-OK-I'm-OK? Are those electric cellos bowing behind "An Impression"'s Monet appreciation? Is that a full orchestra plus ornithological field recordings--oh, never mind. I hope not. There's a pleasure on the far edge of song in imagining that two DIY purists are making all these musical noises with their guitar collection and their home studio. A MINUS

Burial: Truant/Rough Sleeper (Hyperdub)
In which the mystery man follows up the Kindred EP with what is nominally a two-"song" "single," each title divided into silence-separated sections and the whole thing clocking in at 25:32 it says here. Background music it's not--while I admired it fine doing my daytime musical tasks, I only got it when I put it on at five o'clock in the morning, whereupon I discovered that its spooky gravity and deliberate movement suggested elegiac or perhaps even inspirational goals. Fifteen years later, the Alan Lomax gospel samples of Moby's Play are regarded as shamelessly corny in the techno world. I wonder whether the opening organ melody and very nearly hooky keyboard-ostinato facsimile that comes in around 8:30 of "Rough Sleeper" will offend ascetic snobs another decade or two down the line. A MINUS

ZZK Sound

That Latin tweak
Friday, September 13, 2013  

ZZK Sound Vol. 3 (ZZK/Waxploitation)
The third compilation from this adventurous if narrowcast Buenos Aires label--which on its first comp five years ago (see below) classified its milieu as "cumbia digital"--has gotten some respect in the U.S. dance world, but zero comprehension near as I can tell, which may not matter much when you're dancing but ought to when you're verbalizing into the infosphere. For instance, the first thing this Anglophone in an office chair wants to know is whether it's dance music at all. The most detailed review I've found references "intoxicating electro-pulsating beats derived mainly from the Buenos Aires club scene" and promises it will render the listener "better aquainted [sic] with the dance and electronic underground of South America." And these electro-pulsations sound how, exactly? Find hints in the label squib: "there's a darker, last hour of the club feel to it, everybody sweaty and grooving to deep bassy cumbia infested tracks." To which promo poetry I add a few prosaic facts. Moderate-to-submoderate tempos that speed up gradually over 15 tracks. Low-end sonics not so much bassy as buzzy. Never ambient or chill-out, there's always a beat, but not floor-fillers either. Cumbia roots submerged. DJs mostly Argentinian but also from Paris, Barcelona, NYC, Mexico, Caracas, maybe Sweden. General ambience tends humorous--and friendly, as befits the cumbia tradition. Animators seeking soundtrack could do worse. A MINUS

ZZK Sound Vol. 1--Cumbia Digital (ZZK '08)
Spawned not so much by as in Buenos Aires's Zizek club, these teched-up variations on the pokier Colombian alternative to salsa divide into two conveniently block-programmed sub-variants. Tracks nine through 14 have their fun with the tidy tweedling of what I classify as early electro, and maybe you could throw track five in there too. The rest, through eight and 15 to 17, are lower, wilder, freakier, epitomized by but hardly limited to Fauna's seven-and-a-half-minute "Canibal," with its feral shouts, squelching bass, and funny sound effects. The tweedling gets annoying. But the rest makes a dandy playlist. B PLUS

Nuggets/Flamin Groovies

Reconceiving the garage
Tuesday, September 17, 2013  

Nuggets (Rhino)
Crammed onto one CD, here are Lenny Kaye's 27 selections for the first of more garage-protopunk crate-digs (multivolume series dubbed Pebbles, Flashback, etc.) than any sane person could count. Kaye's terrific notes are included, as is a useful addendum from Elektra's Jac Holzman. Assembled just a few years after the singles it comprises were first released, this is punk's Anthology of American Folk Music, the most influential rock comp ever. And some of it is absolutely classic: for me, the Standells' "Dirty Water," the Knickerbockers' "Lies," the Castaways' "Liar, Liar," the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard," maybe the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream," and definitely the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction," the only one of the 27 to go top 10. In fact, note that all of my six designated classics went top 40, while a mere five of the remaining 21 did. With early efforts by Roky Erickson and Todd Rundgren, this signifies nothing. But too many of these records were marginal because they weren't all that good, and are now evocative period pieces only. As Kaye contextualizes them, they make a hell of a variety show, with plenty to say about mass bohemia hippie-style. As a dream to build a band on, they have limits rockin' guitar crazies have been failing to get a bead on ever since. A MINUS

Flamin Groovies: Supersnazz (CBS Special Products '90)
This apparently modest 1969 LP was recorded before these onetime San Francisco folk-rockers found a market niche as the thinking man's Sha Na Na, pointing garage rock back toward the '50s with songs that seldom approached the content-free ideal of the one we all remember, "Shake Some Action." Instead they spent $80,000 of Columbia's money trying to figure out either what kind of hippies they were or why they weren't hippies at all. Half the songs sound like '50s covers, but only three or four are: Eddie Cochran's "Somethin' Else" and Huey Smith's "Rockin' Pneumonia," good calls for the time and they did love their dropped G's, plus Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It," composed by jazzbo-for-hire Bobby Troup, and the earlier "Pistol Packin' Mama," beloved of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. The primal-sounding "Love Have Mercy" and "Bam Balam" they made up themselves in an attempt to have simpler and sexier fun than was dreamed of by Blue Cheer, the Sopwith Camel, or the blues-tripping psychedelic establishment. "The First One Is Free" may not be altogether tongue-in-cheek. "A Part From That" exposes the bummer man. And while "Pagan Rachel"'s Rachel and "Brushfire"'s Dottie may strike some as all too old-fashioned sex objects, the prize is "Laurie Did It," which quietly ponders, praises, celebrates, and mourns a dead girlfriend, shaking its fist at God all the while. A

Odds and Ends 036

Get up, stand up
Friday, September 20, 2013  

Femi Kuti: No Place for My Dream (Knitting Factory)
Lyrics sharper, angrier, stronger, band and especially voice less so ("Carry On Pushing On," "No Work No Job No Money") ***

Nona Hendryx: Mutatis Mutandis (Righteous Babe)
After a lifetime of well-regarded overstatement, her straight protest album embraces r&b subtleties no one who starts with "Strange Fruit" will believe are there ("When Love Goes to War," "Strange Fruit") ***

Firewater: International Orange! (Bloodshot)
Cop Shoot Cop's Tod A enlists Balkan Beat Box's Tamir Muskat to bring his sardonic invective, and I quote, "up from the underground" ("Dead Man's Boots," "The Monkey Song") **

Steve Earle & the Dukes (& Duchesses): The Low Highway (New West)
Still mad, which is what he's best at, but feeling his sobriety too, and good for him ("Burnin' It Down," "Calico County," "Remember Me") **

Kobo Town: Jumble in the Jukebox (Cumbancha)
Pan-West Indian Toronto calypsonian thinks always, reproves often, wines never ("Kaiso Newscast," "Joe the Paranoiac") **

Roger Knox and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts: Stranger in My Land (Bloodshot)
Jon Langford and friends bring Aboriginal "Black Elvis" to Oakland to cherry-pick conscious country songs bogged down in more protest-music mawk than anyone admits ("Took the Children Away," "Steets of Tamworth") *

121212: The Concert for Sandy Relief (Columbia)
Featured artists in order of performance quality: Springsteen, Sandler-Shaffer, McCartney, Keys, Joel, Bon Jovi, Rolling Stones, Waters, Clapton, Martin, Who (Adam Sandler and Paul Shaffer, "Hallelujah [Sandy Relief Version]"; Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, "Land of Hope and Dreams"; Paul McCartney, "Helter Skelter"; Bon Jovi, "It's My Life") *

Frank Turner: England Keep My Bones (Xtra Mile/Epitaph)
For once the campfire punkrocker nails the Billy Bragg album his excitable fans always said he had in him ("Glory Hallelujah," "I Am Disappeared") *

Kansas City Lightning

By Stanley Crouch/It Books/2013
Tuesday, September 24, 2013  

I edited Stanley Crouch at The Village Voice for most of the '80s and count him a friend today, but that doesn't mean I like, much less agree with, everything he writes. He's a rap-hater, and although it's dumb to dismiss him as a neocon--his politics are deeper than that by far--he's certainly well to my right. So when I was asked to blurb his Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, I didn't know what to expect. This book has been in the works for so long--30 years, as I recall--that it was a pleasant surprise to learn that after many years of rumors it had surfaced at all. On the other hand, there was no way to be sure in advance what it would be. So I made my usual excuses--not only don't I blurb on spec, I don't have the time to read on spec, and regularly glance at galleys I put aside after a few pages, plus I'm writing a book of my own in my "spare time." But this one I finished with considerable gusto.

For the record--I'm writing this post the day after I finished but will only publish it when the book is available, and one never knows in advance what will be excerpted--the blurb I wrote read as follows: "Kansas City Lightning portrays a young genius named Charlie Parker inhabiting the culture that made his genius possible. Parker himself is both scrupulously documented and vividly novelistic, while the surrounding social history and character sketches culminate the love letter to American Negritude the author has been writing all his life. Crouch Lives!" Then there was another sentence I decided to delete because my in-house editor thought people might take it the wrong way: "Stanley's fans have been waiting so long for this book that there seemed no way it could live up to our expectations, and it doesn't. It's too damn original for that." But in this context I'm free to expatiate.

First of all, this is part one of what is now projected as a two-part biography, and doesn't get to bebop at all. There's a vivid section about Parker's 1938-39 sojourn in New York, before he returned to Kansas City for his nightcatting father's funeral and decided to stay, as well as a 30-page lead-in describing his triumphant return with the Jay McShann Orchestra in 1942. But the 13 years of musical shape-shifting and junkie squalor that are why Parker is a legend--described in many books, none of which I've ever gotten to--will have to wait for volume two, should it please the Lord that it appear. As I pray it does.

It could and probably will be said that there's not enough Parker in this book. In fact, I'll say it myself--for the middle hundred pages of this 334-page portrait of the artist as a young man, its ostensible subject is a little too much a side issue. But I find it hard to argue with what they comprise instead, namely, the love letter of my blurb: Crouch's detailed description of and tribute to American Negro culture from emancipation to the swing era (and yes, Crouch--who I guess I should specify is of predominantly African heritage himself--is so dismayed by the niceties of the Black Studies era that he prefers the term "Negro"). They're full of character sketches--especially but by no means exclusively of musicians--and a lot of highly unacademic sociology, rich in texture, detail, and idiosyncrasy. As always, Crouch savors the high and the low, the organic and the technological, the African and the European. He moralizes plenty--it's my guess, based on no inside info whatsoever, that one reason Crouch found this book such a challenge is the inherent contradiction of lionizing a heroin addict so influential he helped spawn thousands of others--without minimizing the criminality and deviltry of the jazz world. He's so proud of this culture in all its human complexity the buttons are popping off his shirt, which with Stanley is always a danger anyway. And he chooses his words with a loving care he doesn't always make time for in his journalism.

As for Charlie Parker himself, he's here. On the one hand, he's a spoiled mama's boy many friends and acquaintances describe as having an aloof unknowability about him. But as Crouch makes clear, a major reason he seemed aloof is that he was always thinking about musical issues and conundrums few around him could glimpse much less understand. Parker had a way of bonding with running buddies and attaching himself to mentors, and at least a dozen of these relationships are close-upped unflinchingly. His first marriage gets the respectful attention geniuses' marriages are often denied. And the long section where he ends that marriage and rides the rails to Chicago and ultimately New York are why I couldn't resist the word "novelistic" in my blurb. It's not as if Parker hasn't been clearly delineated throughout. But as the book comes to a climax he gains dimension as a living hero: selfish and in his way vain, but also courageous, hard-working, and fanatically dedicated to his musical vision. Crouch does live in these pages. But Bird lives even more.

Blind Lemon Jefferson/Rokia Traore/Robert Sarazin Blake With Jefferson Hamer and the Powderkegs

That's all he wrote
Friday, September 27, 2013  

Blind Lemon Jefferson: The Rough Guide to Blues Legends: Blind Lemon Jefferson: Reborn and Remastered (World Music Network)
Early blues' biggest male hitmaker--which means at the very least that Paramount recorded him a lot--has long been uncopyrighted, and this selection comes tagging behind the Yazoo CD that shortened the Yazoo double-LP and more European completism than any nonspecialist need explore. A solid singer and facile guitarist, Jefferson was also a mortal songwriter whose dynamic range can weary subconnoisseurs pretty quick--for most of us, one CD is enough. That said, the sound here is fuller and clearer than what competition I've been able to A-B, and why Yazoo omitted "Black Snake Moan" is the kind of mystery only aging blues boys understand. Most of the time Jefferson plays the rounder's role, but since what he really was was a pro, he rose or sunk occasionally to Christian grace, as in the ineffable "I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart." Moreover, Jefferson is only half this package. The bonus disc is one I missed, Rough Guide to Country Blues Pioneers, a refreshingly nonconnoisseur selection that leads with Big Bill Broonzy's sophisticated "Long Tall Mama" and ends with Sam Collins's lilting "My Road Is Rough and Rocky" while venturing post-1931 only to include Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, and Robert Johnson, all of whom you'll welcome aboard. A

Rokia Traore: Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch)
Traore has been walking a tightrope since her 2000 debut, and it's not getting easier. There's limited outreach in any tongue to songs about your right to pursue a musical career albeit--translation from the Bamanan provided--"Brought up by the rules of the nobility/Forbidden to sing or speak in public." Escaped from the Malian troubles in Paris, she recorded her fourth album with Polly Jean Harvey adjutant John Parish, and musically they get results--from the opener on out, Scottish drummer Seb Rochford and Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia make Mali rock in ways unknown to Oumou Sangare or Bassekou Kouyate, and Traore is less pretty in turn. But non-Bamanan speakers may well find that her supple vocals are no more engaging should they follow her unremarkable spiritual tribulations in English or French. And non-Bamanan speakers who only start paying attention with the rote English-language populism of the continental and womanist praisesongs at the end may never go back and read along. B PLUS

Robert Sarazin Blake With Jefferson Hamer and the Powderkegs: Put It All Down in a Letter (Same Room '11)
This poetry-with-rock as poetry-with-jazz leads with the associative 17-minute narrative "I Didn't Call You From Philadelphia," over a quarter of the CD's full length, and if you shrug and decide Blake's tour of West Philadelphia eating and music spots w/ Luddite assessment of telephonemetry could just be worth the price of admission by itself, you may well be making a rational economic decision. Inexhaustibly, it cuts everything else here, including the unmailed 16-minute love letter "Magic Hour on Baltimore Ave." But not by as much as everything else here cuts the doleful recorded-in-Belfast (apparently in the same year, 2011) A Long Series of Memorable Nights Forgotten. Partly it's the band, and partly too Ana´s Mitchell's Child ballad helpmeet Hamer, because they groove, inducing Blake to bop like Lawrence Ferlinghetti with the funk rather than moan like Bob Geldof with catarrh. But mostly it's the songs. If the weary realism of "Planned Parenthood Waiting Room," "The Little Disappointments We Swallow," and the sexually explicit "We Can Roll Down Tonite" don't live up to the lead track, that's just more evidence of what a stroke that shaggy dog song is. A MINUS

Odds and Ends 037

P.S.: leftovers
Monday, September 30, 2013  

Afuche: Highly Publicized Digital Boxing Match (Cuneiform '11)
tUnE-yArDs sax section carouses even more explosively when voices join in, and not usually Merrill Garbus's ("Monster Smith," "Dance Marino") ***

Sun City Girls: Funeral Mariachi (Abduction '10)
After 50 albums, many unlistenable not just because they're out of print, "uncategorizable" trio drop what Pitchfork's smartest designates their last and friendliest record ("Ben's Radio," "The Imam") ***

Ben Folds/Nick Hornby: Lonely Avenue (Nonesuch '10)
"Ben Folds adds music and melody to Nick Hornby's words," which are so much better than Ben Folds's words, but tend cute and pat even so ("Levi Johnston's Blues," "Belinda") ***

Jenny Owen Youngs: An Unwavering Band of Light (self-released '12)
Loser in love loses label too, then bucks up rhythmically and hence maybe lovably ("Pirates," "Your Apartment") **

The Wailing Wall: The Low Hanging Fruit (JDub '10)
Songful spawn of Orthodox Judaism and Swami Muktananda seeks divine guidance and/or multi-instrumental satori ("Pineapple/Clarinet/Buffalo," "For C.M.R.") **

Ashton Shepherd: Where Country Grows (MCA Nashville '11)
She'd be fixing to backslide all the way down if there wasn't a title song making her bow her head to you-know-who ("Look It Up," "Tryin' to Go to Church") **

The Superions: Destination . . . Christmas! (Fanatic '10)
Fred Schneider and friends wish you an ebulliently ironic 25th ("Fruitcake," "Jingle Those Bells") **

Toby Keith: Clancy's Tavern (Show Dog/Universal '11)
After the anti-"American Saturday Night," he starts sounding almost like the registered Democrat he is ("Red Solo Cup," "Beers Ago") *

MSN Music, September 2013

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