Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mary J. Blige, Manu Chao and Jill Scott Make the Grade

Supposedly this was going to be another hip-hop month, but for several reasons it turned into an R&B month--the main reason being a profusion of gorgeous R&B (plus, admittedly, how long it took me to get my hands on Disc 2 of Lil Wayne's Da Drought 3).


Mary J. Blige: Growing Pains (Geffen) Back in the day, the Aretha comparisons were ignorant--Mary's early albums weren't all they were cracked up to be, and neither was her voice. But a decade and a half later, she deserves respect. Like Aretha, her hip-hop soul has long since transmuted into a working relationship with actually existing black pop, which right now just means pop. On 2005's breakthrough The Breakthrough, that was interpreted to mean soft. This time, happily, Busta Rhymes and Ludacris get her back to where she once belonged for the duration of their openers. After that, it's an expensive, honorable, credible sampler of the hottest current R&B brands, with multiple nods to Ne-Yo and "Umbrella." Even the homiletic "Stay Down" will grow on you, though not for as long as Geffen hopes. The comparison this all doesn't quite live up to: Aretha's multiproduced, hip-hop-friendly A Rose Is Still a Rose, now disgracefully out of print (though you can buy it cheap used). Ten years from now, this best-seller won't have suffered that fate--if "in print" means anything at all in 2018. A MINUS

Burial: Untrue (Cargo) Unlike most New Ambient, Burial's music is emotional, which helps its funk a lot, and eventful, which helps its interest even more. Fifteen years ago, we would have called it trip-hop or, stupidly, illbient (remember that one?). Now it's supposedly dubstep. I wouldn't quite class this with Maxinquaye--melodies and voices could be more distinct with no loss of atmosphere. But Burial--a single, scrupulously anonymous guy (although not so scrupulous that anyone suggests he's a woman)--has a sonic imagination worthy of Mr. Tricky himself. Burbling electronic ticktocks vie with a carillon of bell simulacra, and rarely have vinyl crackle or laser malfunction generated more musicality. The moniker and, apparently, the worldview, are dark, as the kids say. But when the mix is as rich as this, dark goes to a better place. A

Manu Chao: La Radiolina (National/Because)e What Chao does seems so easy that it's hard to believe it took him seven years to follow up the sweetly relaxed, justly beloved Proxima Estación. Maybe he's just lazy--it's not like he's a work ethic guy. Or maybe he wanted to do something different and took a while settling into what that might be--namely, a new tempo. This is a speedier pop suite suitable for dancing or straightening up the flat. The guitars remind us that Chao launched his career from the Eurorock-en-Espanol Mano Negra, and the lyrics in French and Spanish seem as conscious as the English-language offerings "Politik Kills" and "Rainin in Paradize." These are rock moves, you could say. Yet the deepest accommodations are with glitzy, synthy, militantly shallow Europop. Seven years after 2001, what other populace can a radical internationalist such as Chao hope to enlighten? Not ours, I'm afraid. A MINUS

The-Dream: Love/Hate (Def Jam) For "Umbrella" fans only--all you stick-in-the-muds, go suck an egg. Out of his extended-syllable trick, dollops of falsetto, male backups going hey and stuff, and the good nature of someone who figures there's no point being mean when you're lucky, the guy who wrote "Umbrella" fashions an utterly slight, utterly captivating R&B album. True, he pursues other's girls, leaves one shawty because she's not quick enough on the get-down, and moves on to the speedier, needier Nikki when another doesn't immediately accept his tender offer. But mostly he just enjoys himself in bed and makes pop in the studio. In "Luv Songs," he does both simultaneously. A MINUS

The Go! Team: Proof of Youth (Sub Pop) Just when you're ready to give up and apply to graduate school, along comes a simple band who get everything right. True, they're not very tuneful. But they're danceable, Ninja raps plenty well enough, and have there ever been beats like Ian Parton's, with their chants and strums and melodica statements? Plus a warm-up from Sha Rock and Lisa Lee, who I hope got their checks, and a sum-up from Chuck D, who I expect secured his in advance. A MINUS

Nellie McKay: Obligatory Villagers (Hungry Mouse) In an antirockist moment when faerie folkies airier than Joanna Newsom and disco dollies emptier than Rihanna are thought to promise a braver, freer future, why isn't this manifestly hypertalented young person a generational hero? Couldn't have any connection, could it, to the fact that no fewer than three netcrits--all, as it happens, men--don't understand that the opening laugh line, "Feminists don't have a sense of humor," is the well-turned piece of satire that makes everyone I play it for giggle? I agree--she's scattered, unfinished, self-indulgent. But she's also ebullient, funny and political. Her future looks brave and free to me. A MINUS

No Age: Weirdo Rippers (Fatcat) These two senior skateboarders' distended guitars and obtrusive trap drums are the sound of realized misery, which is so much better than some egomaniac screaming because adulthood is scary. They know they hurt because that girl is gone and they know they hurt because America is spilling its coffee on them. They're saving room for their baby in the pit, but they'd rather not fight you for it. Sometimes they think death is hope, sometimes pain. But they're "not afraid of laughter because it's all feeling too." And they're not afraid of beauty either. A MINUS

Jill Scott: The Real Thing (Hidden Beach) The Aretha analogy here is her weight. The front cover has her looking dusky and curvacious, spring coat over medium decolletage; on the back she's sitting on the floor all pensive with an open composition book covering her bosom. In neither does she fake skinny, and that is as it should be. At the very least, "real thing" means something for once. Through almost as many producers as Mary, this album has a single identity, a contour and a groove that suits its well-inhabited breakup concept. There's plenty of sex before and after, and the sex has content. I don't mean emotional content, either, though I have faith the emotion is there. In her timbre, her phrasing and the words she writes in that composition book, Scott is someone for whom sex is about physical pleasure--not athletic ability, boundary transgression, novelty or dominance and submission. A MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • DJ Rekha: Basement Bhangra (Koch) Variety-wise, the new and-it-don't-stop is more house than hip-hop--the beats do repeat (DJ Rekha and Sunil Sehgal featuring Bikram Singh and Wyclef Jean, "Basement Bangra Anthem"; Tigerstyle featuring Amar Arshi, "Aaja Nachiye Boliyan Paiye").
  • will.i.am: Songs About Girls (Interscope) A rich guy can hook like crazy and rap enough to pass, and not only that--a rich guy can care about your humps and the planet at the same time ("I Got It From My Mama," "Over").
  • Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (Geffen) A guy for whom well-made pop songs have serious disciplinary advantages ("Puttin' on the Ritz," "You Made Me Love You/For Me and My Gal/The Trolley Song").
  • Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar) Crude but ultimately likable singer, willing band, decent melodist, better writer than the Decemberists' Colin Meloy ("For Real," "In a Radio Song").
  • Okkervil River: The Stage Names (Jagjaguwar) The most affecting song is the least literary--and yet without storytelling the music would be styleless arrangements gathered around the intermittent tune ("Savannah Smiles," "Unless It's Kicks").
  • Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR): Etudes 4 Violin & Electronix (Thirsy Ear) Beat-seeking classical violinist connects more deeply with Philip Glass than with DJ Spooky, mostly just because Glass is deeper himself ("Metamorphosis," "The La La Song").
  • Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy Appendix (Jagjaguwar) Don't worry--he isn't really as sad as he makes his bindle sound ("No Key, No Plan," "Missing Children").
  • Burial (Cargo) Maybe he figured get your beats working first and later for humanism--or maybe he still had a ways to go in the humanity department ("Southern Comfort," "Broken Home").
  • Wives: Erect the Youth Problem (Non EMI) "I'm much too young to look this old" and other agonies ("All Dads Alike," "Brickface").
  • Say Anything: In Defense of the Genre (J) The double-disc sprawl makes Max Bemis seem less pretentious, not more--as if he can't be bothered to pretend he's not a mess ("Sorry, Dudes. My Bad," "Retarded in Love").
  • The Pierces: Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge (Lizard King) Two wicked sisters harmonize the arch, melodic lowdown on the wine-bar set ("Ruin," "Go to Heaven").
  • Keyshia Cole: Just Like You (Geffen) Well, maybe not exactly like you ("Let It Go," "Just Like You").

Choice Cuts

  • Sum 41, "Underclass Hero" (Underclass Hero, Island)
  • Chris Brown, "Down," "Hold Up" (Exclusive, Jive/Zomba)
  • Amerie, "Work That" (Because I Love It, Sony/BMG)
  • Toni Price, "Talk Memphis" (Talk Memphis, Texas Music Group)

Dud of the Month

Stars of the Lid: And Their Refinement of the Decline (Kranky) One of those records--they abound in "post-rock"--that get nothing but raves because only believers bother to listen. This drone duo met at the University of Texas in 1990; one is now a muso expatriated to Belgium, the other a debate coach expatriated to the University of Southern California. This two-hour double-CD/triple-LP, their first product since 2001, is grand, somber, amelodic, arhythmic and slow, leaving plenty of time to admire the notes' altered states. Nothing is dreamy, misty or languorous--minimalists though they are, they're committed to accruing aural mass. An early advocate observed that their music made "consciousness seem like an annoying state." He considered that a compliment. C MINUS

More Duds

  • After Dark (Italians Do It Better)
  • Beastie Boys: The Mix-Up (Virgin)
  • James Blackshaw: The Cloud of Unknowing (Tompkins Square)
  • The Field: From Here We Go Sublime (Kompakt)
  • Good Charlotte: Good Morning Revival (Epic/Daylight)
  • Jonas Brothers: Jonas Brothers (Hollywood)
  • Kenna: Make Sure They See My Face (Star Trak)
  • Marissa Nadler: Songs III: Bird on the Wire (Kemado)
  • Sally Shapiro: Disco Romance (Paper Bag)
  • Angie Stone: The Art of Love and War (Stax)

MSN Music, Feb. 2008


Jan. 2008 Mar. 2008