Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2015

March 6, 2015

Link: Kate Tempest / Wormburner / Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott / Pet Shop Boys

Kate Tempest: Everybody Down (Big Dada) In which a young Ted Hughes Award poet fashions a concept album with a fully coherent narrative that engages solely as music when you don't feel like following its well-mapped twists. Starring a coke dealer who wants out, his underemployed younger brother, and the waitress turned masseuse both have a yen for, the plot sketches an alienated love triangle hooked on a heist with a hole in it. London electronipop luminary Dan Carey enhances Tempest's accent, which is firmly antiposh without the slightest Cockney affectation, and flow, which is unfailingly distinct without a hint of elocution lessons. The story gives London's boho-pop demimonde family ties, and the songs are so specific about alienated love in that demimonde that you could imagine Tempest making a novel out of it. That novel is due out later this year. A

Wormburner: Pleasant Living in Planned Communities (Dive) Retro is different when you sound like the Hold Steady and get compared to Harvey Danger--a considered formal choice rather than golden-age BS. Hank Henry doesn't swallow a word as he shouts his tuneful tales into the void, and unlike Craig Finn, he doesn't specialize in or even much notice the human dregs and heroes of the alt-rock scene. In part this may be because there's no scene for him to be on anymore, but mostly it's the concept of a guy who sounds like he was an English major back when you selected that course of study so you could read novels. Not only does the album feature three war songs in the war-movie sense, another medicates itself with a real smoke--Parliaments. Pretty literary--and so last century. A MINUS

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott: What We Have Become (Virgin EMI) To my surprise--Heaton is a genius who's been warehousing songs for years, Abbott his tartest opposite number--something about the Beautiful South concept (moment?) (band?) upped his game and I wish they'd somehow stuck it out ("I Am Not a Muse," "When I Get Back to Blighty") ***

Pet Shop Boys: Electric (X2) Cyborgs have feelings too, and us human beings are here to tell you about it ("Love Is a Bourgeois Concept," "Vocal") **

March 13, 2015

Link: Angola Soundtrack 2 / Aby Ngana Diop / Ata Kak / Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako / Rough Guide to the Best African Music You've Never Heard / Monoswezi / Lala Njava / Dieuf Dieul de Thies / Alpha Blondy / Afrobeat Airways / Seun Kuti / William Onyeabor / Mark Ernestus

Angola Soundtrack 2 (Analog Africa) The vocals weren't the point on the first volume of this crate dig, and that must have been it for quasi-pop, because here the vocals are pretty much irrelevant. When Tony Von--who I hope is still alive and bet isn't, this was 40 war-torn years ago--starts chanting "N'hoca se" 45 seconds into "N'hoca," which comes up third, the call to party is pretty much pro forma albeit inviting enough, and that's a pick hit songwise. The guitars, however, are entrancing, various, pretty much transcendent. Play it loud and you probably will party if you're good enough to dance to this tricky stuff. Play it soft and you'll waft off on the hopes of a pre-civil war culture bravely and sometimes breezily forestalling the horrors to come. A MINUS

Aby Ngana Diop: Liital (Awesome Tapes From Africa) In 2010, I was lucky enough to hear music like this at 3 a.m. in a rundown Koranic school cum social club north of Dakar--a woman named Khady Mboup bellowing and expostulating over two xalams, four sabar/tama drums, a plastic washtub, and a female sidekick as three or four dozen paying customers came back at her with impossibly athletic dancing. It was so unrelenting I figured it couldn't translate to record. Yet the YouTube I've found on Mboup is supper-club stuff compared to this 1994 barrage from a long-gone heroine of a female griot rap poetry called taasu. Four drummers and a drum programmer provide the instrumentation, three subsidiary female vocalists respond in unison to her call, and for half an hour the onslaught never lets up. Diop's voice is pitched high for something so powerful, intense, and conversational. It gets hard to take without dance accompaniment after three tracks or so, and although to non-Wolof speakers it's of a piece, the opening "Dieuleul-Dieuleul" tends to dwarf and subsume the five equally tuneless songs/poems/tracks that recapitulate. But it's also almost otherworldly, with an energy that reminds me of great hardcore, Minor Threat or Bad Brains. Stop, please stop. No, keep going. A MINUS

Ata Kak: Obaa Sima (Awesome Tapes From Africa) Collectorama in extremis: seven-track, 35-minute album recorded circa 1993 in Toronto by Ghanaian emigre Yaw Atta-Owuso and then mastered back home where costs were cheaper. Some 50 cassettes were manufactured. of which an estimated three were sold. The only playable one known to survive was purchased from a Ghanaian roadside vendor in 2002 by Brian Shimkovitz, who began Awesome Tapes From Africa so he could release it. And Shimkovitz obviously has better ears than most collectors, because his pet rarity is infectious, charming, and idiosyncratically stripped-down. Credit not its preset beats but the bright tune sense and chipper singing and rapping of Atta-Owuso and the female chorus he had the sense to enlist. Atta-Owuso had no inkling that hiplife tyros in Accra were doing something similar--his Westernized Afropop is pure self-expression. Because no one heard it but his posse, it says nothing about the cultures that produced it but a lot about the musician who felt compelled to put it on tape--a lively, focused, friendly guy unlike any other you can bring to mind. A MINUS

Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako: Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako (Sterns Africa) Two discs of accomplished, formative Cuban Malian music in the evolving fusion rightly associated with the dominant Salif Keita, whose tracks outshine those of singers as top-drawer as Kante Manfila as songs ("Bolola Sanou," "Mali Denou," "Mana Mana," "Djoula") ***

The Rough Guide to the Best African Music You've Never Heard (World Music Network) Almost all from north of the equator, most roots acoustic rather than pop electric, with Senegal a wellspring and the good little Sotho Sounds album a bonus (Le Sahel feat. Idrissa Diop, "Yaye Boye"; Sigauque Project, "Alertos Da Vida) ***

Monoswezi: The Village (Riverboat) Zimbabwean-Norwegian quintet come this close to rising above exceptionally agreeable dinner music ("Nhemamsasa," "Hondo") ***

Lala Njava: Malagasy Blues Song (Riverboat) Put in time with a family band in Europe before returning consciously to her Madagascar roots deploying one of those paradoxical voices--cutting yet mellow, deep yet girlish, smooth yet with a well-tanned grain ("Sweet Lullaby," "Baovola") **

Dieuf-Dieul de Thiès: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 1 (Teranga Beat) Just exactly how many galvanic bands do you expect a city of 250,000 to power forward--to be specific, the Senegalese city that's already given us Karantamba and the Royal Band de Thiés? ("Na Binta," "Sibaye") **

Alpha Blondy: Mystic Power (VP) Ancient Afro-reggae king begins strong, and maybe "La Bataille d'Abidjan" and "Danger Ivoirité" sound more that way to those who know exactly what they have to say ("Hope," "J'ai Tué Le Commissaire") **

Afrobeat Airways 2: Return Flight to Ghana 1974-1983 (Analog Africa) Funk and highlife meet and diverge, meet and diverge (Uppers International, "Aja Wondo"; K. Frimpong, "Abrabo") **

Seun Kuti + Egypt 80: A Long Way to the Beginning (Knitting Factory) The old grooves are still good grooves, and if only the old imprecations were out-of-date ("IMF," "Kalikuta Boy") **

William Onyeabor: Who Is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop) Middle-class Nigerian mystery man lays down charming 1975-1985 Afrodisco catalogue before trading in the material world for his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ ("Atomic Bomb," "Love Is Blind") *

Mark Ernestus Presents Jeri-Jeri: 800% Ndagga (Ndagga) For sabar drum fans, a whole clan of them--with vocalists, luckily including Baaba Maal ("Gawlo," "Casamance") *

March 20, 2015

Link: Heems / Lupe Fiasco / Sisyphus / DJ Rashad / Common / Serengeti

Heems: Eat Pray Thug (Megaforce) Heems has always been explicit about the unimaginable extra burden of racism borne by African-Americans in this country. But on the 9/11 rhyme "Flag Shopping" ("We're going flag shopping/For American flags/They're staring at our turbans/They're calling them rags") and the 9/11 recitation "Patriot Act" ("They would come at night and they would make a mess and the mess upset his wife"), he documents the racism Americans who look like him suffered after the towers fell--a disaster he watched horrified from Stuyvesant High School a few blocks away. Nothing else here can match those tracks. But I'm almost as down with "Sometimes," a "Personality Crisis" for outer boroughs kids of the immigrant generation, and assume it sums up who Heems is: not bipolar because his psyche is too multi, but moody and chronically confused. Note that two out of three love songs would be a feat for the most unconfused rapper, with the placeholding "Pop Song (Games)" obviously a sop to the label--the other two project emotions too smart for radio's confused-breakup norm. And beneath all this burble beats that suit a musicality worthy of the artist one song here spells "Jawn Cage." This is rapping that foregrounds the variegations of the ordinary speaking voice--its cracks, its rumbles, its anxious highs, its distracted lows, its deep-seated imperfections and insecurities. It's very American. A

Lupe Fiasco: Tetsuo & Youth (Atlantic) Angry at the record company, angry at a racist society, not sure they're different, Too Smart throws up his hands and down his gantlet and generates a music-driven album in which violin interludes named after the seasons separate long stretches of associative protest poetry, detailing prison and hood sociology that's scarier than you expect because you thought you already knew that shit. The two strongest tracks begin the winter section: "Choppers," about buying filet mignon with your food stamps and healthcare from Obama, and "Delivery," about how hard it is to order crap pizza in a place where people get shot. But "Prisoner 1 & 2" could mess up your mind as well. The final interlude is called "Spring," only it's not an interlude. It's the end. Nothing follows. A MINUS

Sisyphus: Sisyphus (Asthmatic Kitty) Two gentle male alt-whatever thirtysomethings negotiate the tricky shoals of their kindafuckedupness, rapping and cooing to hold their bad nerves at bay, with Son Lux's beats ordering their universe. Serengeti's "Calm it down" matches Sufjan's "I won't be afraid." But it's Geti's joking around that eases their shared mind. This is, after all, a world in which Steve Urkel rhymes with Studs Terkel. That's something. B PLUS

DJ Rashad: Double Cup (Hyperdub) Either the sonic testament of the master of the Chicago dance movement called footwork or a surprisingly fun set of thick 808 beats with vocal accoutrements ("Feelin," "Only One") ***

Common: Nobody's Smiling (Def Jam/Artium) Gone back to Chitown, he "could give a fuck if it's real or a weave" ("Hustle Harder," "Nobody's Smiling") **

Serengeti: Kenny Dennis III (Joyful Noise) The rapping telephone booth repairman goes on tour with his good buddy guy Anders Holm ("Tanya T," "Tickled Pink") *

March 27, 2015

Link: The Paranoid Style / The Close Readers

The Paranoid Style: The Power of Our Proven System (Misra cassette '13) Collectors are a mixed blessing, artificial scarcity is a bitch, and this band has yet to release a dull song. So The Power of Our Proven System, which added four tracks to Bar/None's download-only EP The Purposes of Music in General for a Cassette Store Day (!!) limited edition of 100, is the iteration you might as well buy, covet, seek out, steal, or storm the barricades for. Named after a 50-year-old work of political analysis by ironic left-liberal historian Richard Hofstadter and led by Elizabeth Nelson and Timothy Bracy, a pushing-40 D.C. couple who've worked as lobbyists and written their share of quality rock criticism, the Paranoid Style mine a pop-rock vein that braces Wilson's cleanly uncrystalline articulation against Bracy's noisier guitar and a straight four that doesn't quit. With scarcely a word swallowed or a turn of phrase obscure, their disturbing ditties delineate a worldview Nelson has said is "rooted in the small-c conservative conviction that Man is neither perfect nor perfectible--and don't get us started on Woman." The mix should be crisper because the tunes demand nothing less. But for lyrics like "Do it with a flick of wrist/Like you're a magician/Oh you're such a solipsist/There's only one position" and "I'm your friend and I'm your lover/Give me those clogs I'll be your mother," you'll settle. We often do, don't we? A MINUS

The Paranoid Style: Rock and Roll Just Can't Recall (Worldwide Battle) Faster and louder, slower and more reflective, better recorded with a better drummer, this five-song EP is where Elizabeth Nelson fully vents her contempt for the 60s, structural injustice, the 60s, escapist liberalism, a charismatic mentor who brainwashed her with reason, the 60s, and the musical style she and her husband mean to be better at than anybody else in the world except maybe Sleater-Kinney. Her motto: "Don't think twice, it's all over now." Her self-promo: "Glam-rock for the end times." A

The Close Readers: The Lines Are Open (Austin) Led by New Zealand novelist Damien Wilkins, who's old enough to consider Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade a monument, this band sounds more like a cross between--sorry, I know this sounds geographically determinist--the Chills and the Go-Betweens. Wilkins is a mild singer, but his tune sense will sneak up on you, and two of his catchiest songs are about novelists. Really, why not? Especially when two of the others are about teenage wolves and Hüsker Dü? A MINUS

Medium/Cuepoint, March 2015

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