Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Taj Mahal, Jenny Lewis and More Get Nods
But Jeffrey Lewis Is Named Dud of the Month

In what is traditionally back-to-school month in the record business as well as the education business, students are targeted with: Juno spinoff, Rilo Kiley spinoff, Congotronics, the best mashup album ever and a TV on the Radio record that so far has gone over this prof's head. But trust the prof on those soul and blues resuscitations.


Kimya Dawson and Friends: Alphabutt (K) Although anybody who thought Juno was icky better get a barf bowl, my only problem with the flick was that its soundtrack recycled songs I preferred in their natural habitats. So take these 15 ditties in 28 minutes as the soundtrack to the sequel, in which the adoptive mother cuts off her blond mane so she can occasionally escape the bouquet of talc, poop and sour milk that follows babyparents everywhere. Jollied along by an anarchic chorus of 4-year-olds, it's definitely for kiddies--hearing a 4-year-old sing along with the fart jokes cured my own ickophobia. But it's also the rare work of art that captures the dizzy infatuation that is dedicated infant care. All that's missing is a song about sleep deprivation. A MINUS

Girl Talk: Feed the Animals (Illegal Art) My body already knew what my powers of distinction told me when I replayed the Pittsburgh DJ's 2006 breakthrough mashup Night Ripper, which is that this is the one that goes for the jugular: historically guaranteed barn burners like "Gimme Some Lovin'," "A Whiter Shade of Pale," "Rebel Rebel" and "96 Tears" validating modern-day filth on the order of UGK's offensive "International Players Anthem" and Three 6 Mafia's odious "I'd Rather" (the one where Project Pat pretends he did his bid as a top). But only when I printed out Wikipedia's list of samples [Wikipedia]--good enough for downloaders, though an official version comes with the official release--did I get it. It's like reading along with lyrics no one can fully make out unaided--by the Clash, say. Mining classics like "Mickey," "Bad Girls" and "Mama Said Knock You Out" for beats you can't ID without a scorecard, chipmunking such totems as the Band, Radiohead, Sinead O'Connor, Styx and the Beastie Boys, marching Kelly Clarkson to Nine Inch Nails and Britney Spears to Air, fabricating duets by Trina and M.I.A. or Public Enemy and Young Leek, Gregg Gillis has plenty to say about music. What he has to say about life, which is that "I'd Rather" equals "Gimme Some Lovin'," remains more limited. Nevertheless, sequences here give me hope. In my favorite, Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" turns into Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner." A

Jaguar Love: Jaguar Love (Matador) This three-song skyrocket of an EP begins with the opener and closer of the pained, poetic album it renders a luxury instead of proving a necessity. With a reformed Blood Brother shrieking his mad visions like Kathleen Hanna on Halloween and a Pretty Girls Make Graves guy overseeing the hooky noise-punk, it's like riot grrrl turned into a style after its surprise factor played out. The non-album track shouldn't have been. It's about one Townes Van Zandt fan ditching another in a Spanish train station after the ditchee tells him he's knocked her up. A MINUS

Kasai Allstars: In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic (Crammed Discs) Where Konono No. 1 play unpolished though by now self-conscious street music, the second band to get its own Congotronics album is a "cultural" collective in which five ethnic groups from Congo's strife-torn, diamond-producing Kasai region fuse and spread their traditions. It serves up the distorted buzz Congotronics fans jones for, sonics that are generally raunchy even though the thumb pianos also generate balafon beauty, and five lead singers. The long track lengths and ritualistic vocals are more village than metropolis even though Kinshasa is their home--and also more village than the Afro-indie hipster might prefer. Afro-indie folkies won't care. B PLUS

Jenny Lewis: Acid Tongue (Warner Bros.) Like so many solo statements, this one's awash in freedom of choice--string section on demand, a drummer who knows her place, arrangements jenny-rigged beneath verses that could use a groove, and three male notables, including Elvis Costello himself. Only a talent as major as Lewis could half bring it off. But note that it's Rilo Kiley's Jason Boesel whose drums set off the lazy "See Fernando," about a secular saint who'll always buy a sinner a beer, and the wicked "Carpetbaggers", about dirty-booted jezebels tricking innocent young things into helping with the groceries. With Boesel helping, the nine-minute "The Next Messiah" may well convince you that her dad or someone like him was a power-mad con artist. But he fails to deliver "Jimmy Killed Mom" from the skeptical scrutiny due all songs on oedipal themes since the Doors' "The End." B PLUS

Taj Mahal: Maestro (Heads Up) Maybe I have a weakness for African-Americans from Hawaii, or maybe this one knows how to bend the blues, croon the diaspora and also sing Hawaiian. Then again, on his strongest non-collaborative album since the '70s, it's possible he's just extra excited. At 66, he leads multiple bands, including Los Lobos and Ivan Neville's crew through previously unmined naturals, from "Scratch My Back" to "Diddy Wah Diddy," and keeper originals such as "Strong Man Holler," in praise of a woman who was sweet 17 in halcyon 1959. A MINUS

Raphael Saadiq: The Way I See It (Columbia) In 1996, Saadiq turned the climactic Tony! Toni! Toné! album into a virtuoso history lesson. Six years later, he tried to dazzle Maxwell in his own reflected glory. Six years later yet again, he outdoes himself with a fearless return to retro. Singing with the obliging malleability of last Temptation Dennis Edwards, emoting with the sweet specificity of miracle worker Smokey Robinson, he goes Motown with so much joy in one-man-band craft he'll not only convince the girl he's sweet-talking that this is forever, he'll convince you. This late in the game he's got no time for filler. Even the Katrina lament "Big Easy" stays within the parameters of a genre he inhabits from the inside out. A

Wire: Object 47 (Pinkflag) Deprived of Bruce Gilbert's guitar, these fractious lifers return to and improve on their dance-rock '80s. From the scene-setting new-wavey relationship-gone-sour of "One of Us" to the climactic electropunk historo-fatalism of "All Fours," though not always in between, they remind you why they were a great band. But they should know better than to dis the Mekons, who still are a great band when the time seems right. B PLUS

Honorable Mention

  • Portishead: Third (Mercury/Island) Beth Gibbons' solipsistic melodrama remains an indie meme as her guys corrode their electrodes toward something more outgoing ("We Carry On," "Machine Gun").
  • Wire: Live at the Roxy, London-April 1st & 2nd 1977/Live at CBGB Theatre, New York-July 18th 1978 (Pinkflag) First Cockneyfied punk aspirants, then art-rockers in utero--the madness to their method ("Mary Is a Dyke [1]," "Mercy").
  • Wussy: Rigor Mortis (Shake It) Placemark EP hooked to re-released title killer, three new ones and three live versions recommended to talent bookers nationwide ("Airborne [Live]," "Skip").
  • Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell: Stride Piano Duets: Live in Toronto, 1966 (Delmark) The master, pushing 70, and the acolyte, just 50, push each other forward and around ("Sweet Georgia Brown," "Charleston").
  • Greta Gaines: Whiskey Thoughts (Justice) The grown-up, brainy tomboy of country's least sexist dreams ("L Is 4 L-O-S-E-R," "Braggart").
  • The Bug: London Zoo (Ninja Tune) Warrior Queen, Tippa Irie and cohort add dancehall content to dub-step concept ("Poison Dart," "Angry").
  • Otis Redding: Live in London and Paris (Stax) Hot mix of two concerts that duplicate the one memorialized as Live in Europe way back in 1967 ("Try a Little Tenderness," "Respect").
  • The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revolution (World Music Network) In klezmer revolution, so-called, there's the Klezmatics and then there's everybody else, with kudos to the following (Amsterdam Klezmer Band, "Sadagora Hot Dub"; Margot Leverett & the Klezmer Mountain Boys Feat. Michael Alpert, "Leibes Tanz").
  • Bill Easley: Business Man's Bounce (18th & Vine) Swinging lounge saxophone without sleaze, soul corn or a case of the cutes ("Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Memphis Blues").
  • Tricky: Knowle West Boy (Domino) Hmm-long-aborning rock album asks that we look past his sonics and hear his wordy wisdom ("Puppy Toy," "Council Estate").
  • The Rough Guide to Klezmer Revival (World Music Network) Often sprightly, always contained (Di Naye Kapelye, "Schwartz's Sirba/A Briv Fun Yisroel"; German Goldenshteyn, "Moldavian Freylakhs").
  • Harry Shearer: Songs of the Bushmen (Courgette) Enjoy today's best-researched protest songs while they're still funny ("The Head of Alberto Gonzalez," "Stuff Happens").
  • Paul Shapiro: Essen (Tzadik) The saxophonist's Ribs and Brisket Revue scarfs Borscht Belt blues and coffee-colored bagels-a-rooney ("Essen," "A Bissel Bop").
  • Hanggai: Introducing Hanggai (Riverboat) From Beijing, classic folk-revival dynamics--Mongolian ex-punk discovers throat singing, enlists provincial conservatory students to authenticize and traditional tune stock and urban musos to homogenize it ("Wuji," "Haar Hu").
  • Michael Winograd: Bessarabian Hop (Midwood Sounds) Klezmer clarinet master salutes Russian-Romanian region far from Arabia ("Freylekh for Gwen Stefani," "Patriot Bulgars").
  • B.B. King: One Kind Favor (Geffen) Other mainstays of 82-year-old's meticulous retro combo: steadfast Jim Keltner and mercurial Dr. John ("The World Gone Wrong," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean").
  • Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby: Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby (Stiff) Recorded at their home studio in the south of France, just like Exile on Main Street, only without a drummer, a producer, or an engineer ("Please Be Nice to Her," "Men in Sandals").
  • She & Him: Volume One (Merge) You'll wonder: Is Zooey Deschanel homier than Feist, or just a good actress? ("I Should Have Known Better," "Sentimental Heart").
  • B.B. King & Friends: 80 (Geffen) Eighty is the new 64, and I don't mean Roger Daltrey's 64 ("All Over Again," "Never Make Your Move Too Soon").

Choice Cuts

  • Paul Shaffer and Richard Belzer, "Joe and Paul"; Triumph the Insult Comic Dog With Special Appearance by Max Weinberg, "Mahzel (Means Good Luck)"; Jason Alexander, "Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max" (The Jewish Songbook, Shout! Factory)
  • Tomer Yosef, "Underground," "Little Man," "I Want to Move" (Laughing Underground, JDub)
  • Jaguar Love, "The Man With the Plastic Suns," "Bats Over the Pacific Ocean" (Take Me to the Sea, Matador)
  • KatJonBand [Jon Langford & Kat Ex], "Bad Apples," "Crackheads Beware" (KatJonBand, Carrot Top)
  • Michael Franti and Spearhead, "Time to Go Home" (Yell Fire!, Anti-)
  • Pat Todd & the Rankoutsiders, "Billion Dollars Cash" (Holdin' Onto Trouble's Hand, Rankoutsider)

Dud of the Month

Jeffrey Lewis: 12 Crass Songs (Rough Trade) Drolly self-deprecating anti-folkie covers iconic anarcho-punk Purists for ultraleft analysis in musical form--that's just what this reeling world could use, you'd think. And indeed, it's not altogether stupid. But it's also hate-filled and hateful--not just the Crass, but second-generation beatnik Lewis, who like most hereditary bohemians was brought up to think he's better than normal people. However well he understands capitalist exploitation, his emotional response is stunted: "I hate the living dead and their work in factories/They go like sheep to their production lines." ("Like sheep"--what a cool image!) Historically, people in this economy have taken what they can get and had some fun in their spare time. They like Sarah Palin because they know she's as smart as Jeffrey Lewis and suspect they're not all that far behind themselves. C MINUS

More Duds

  • Harvey Milk: Life . . . The Best Game in Town (Hydra Head)
  • Jefferson Airplane: Sweeping Up the Spotlight: Jefferson Airplane Live at the Fillmore East 1969 (RCA/Legacy)
  • Sonya Kitchell: This Storm (Decca)
  • Johnathan Rice: Further North (Reprise)

MSN Music, October 2008


September 2008 November 2008