Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Extraordinary Machines

We didn't get what we wanted but we haven't entirely lost what we had

FIONA APPLE: Extraordinary Machine (Epic/Clean Slate) Instead of delivering the music a sharp-tongued breakup record by an empowered young female would imply--if not folk-rock plain and simple, then emotional piano-woman pop--Apple adapts Broadway show tune to confessional mode. Although Mike Elizondo adds momentum, Jon Brion's colors still predominate, and the melodic and structural contours are all Apple's. Ira Gershwin she's not; Betty Comden she's not either. But she wouldn't be half as inspiring if they were what she was aiming for. A MINUS

CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH (clapyourhandssayyeah.com) Since the indie-rock story of the year has been compared to every vaguely appropriate band you can think of as well as some you can't and also Wilco, I'm not the first to say Feelies. But Feelies it is. What sticks out right off is a drive that can't be taught or approximated. They're on top of a drone that crests over atmospheric interludes and hooks-are-for-squares songwriting even though they're glorious twice--on "Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)," which gradually elaborates a beyond-trebly guitar?? figure that could easily be played on a triangle, and the climactic "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood," which claims it's about child stars and is. It's also about Iraq. That's what indie obliqueness is for. A MINUS

JOHN COLTRANE: One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse) There's so much posthumous Coltrane I don't even want to hear it all. So I resisted this somewhat overpriced, somewhat underrecorded 87-minute double CD--until I played it a second time. The selling point is the title tune, at 27:40 the longest Coltrane solo on record even though it begins in the middle. It gets really good after bass and piano sit out so Coltrane and his friend Jones can bash and blow at each other undistracted. A MINUS

COMET GAIN: City Fallen Leaves (Kill Rock Stars) These Brits always had the right sound but never the right songs, and now they've probably found their jangle-punk tune sense too late. The title sums up an autumnal mood as unlikely to excite site-hopping hot-new-banders as the grim statistic that this is their seventh album. But as a 30-ish look back at a life untriumphant because you weren't quite talented enough, it's superb. The indie-rock scene anchors the details, but the story told by the pensive "Days I Forgot to Write Down" and the headlong "Just One More Summer Before I Go" are for anyone who didn't fucking get what they wanted and still fucking lost what they had. A MINUS

LADY SOVEREIGN: Vertically Challenged (Chocolate Industries) Horizontally challenged as well, both voicewise and beatwise. But grime minimalism suits the female register--voice and beats fit together nice and snug. And though her wisdom is hemmed in by her accent and the youth she puts on the auction block, this shorty has more cheek than Dizzy Gillespie, never mind Dizzee Rascal. A MINUS

MADONNA: Confessions on a Dance Floor (Warner Bros.) She did make an album like this before: her debut, where she flitted so astutely between producers that fools took her for a casting-couch queen. But where Madonna had a distinct feel, disco that partook simultaneously of electro minimalism and pop sellout, it also had distinct parts. Here she subs out the flitting to producer Stuart Price, who digests the entirety of '80s dance music into a flow that subsumes all details and referents. If anything, it's more a dance record, leaving those of us with a sentimental weakness for distinct parts a little lost. So not only am I glad she rhymes "New York" and "dork," I'm glad she put her kabbalist on the guest list. B PLUS

JAMES MCMURTRY: Childish Things (Compadre) Although Larry's boy has been arranging strong words into stolid strophes since 1989, it took four years of King George II to get a political song out of him. "We Can't Make It Here," now Bernie Sanders's 2006 campaign theme, is still a hell of a downloadable loss leader at jamesmcmurtry.com, where the slogan is: "We tour so we can make albums. We make albums so we can tour." No other track quite matches its simmering rage, but a few come close, including two that mix carnage on America's holiday highways and carnage in America's holy wars. In the past, McMurtry's square-set solemnity has buried him in the Americana section. This time it makes him sound like a prophet. A MINUS

THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET: Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) Funny ha ha and funny peculiar, Monk's startling block chords, disdain for the romantic arpeggio, and flat-out genius have long rendered him rock's favorite jazz pianist, and the spiritual ambition of Coltrane's endless sheets of sound left a deeper impression on hippiedom and its musical aftermaths than any other jazz. Both musicians were at some kind of peak the night of this miraculously unearthed 1957 performance, and though Coltrane was playing Monk, not Coltrane, his longing to bust out just adds dynamic tension. It's humbling to realize that if someone with a decent tape machine had captured another 50 minutes of this band's music . . . well, it would have been looser, the multi-artist concert format of this gig does provide formal discipline. But discard the bass and drum solos and it could have been almost as remarkable, ad infinitum to a never-to-be-determined point of satiety. A

OUR NEW ORLEANS 2005 (Nonesuch) Few in New Orleans foresaw the immensity of the flood that finally came, but most lived with the belief that sooner or later there'd be one, including the thousands of musicians employed by the city's tourist industry. History-hawking formalists as party-time pros, they generally found escapist denial more useful than existential courage in their line of work, and the likable Rounder charity comp A Celebration of New Orleans Music sums up how well they did and didn't entertain. These post-Katrina recordings are something else. Not all the artists transcend the pious traditionalism of their old city or their new label, but most arrive at a harder spiritual place. Dr. John's "World I Never Made" is his deepest track in decades. Irma Thomas's "Back Water Blues" is hers. Eddie Bo's "Saints" and John Brunious's "Do You Know What It Means" are frail, felt, fun, and wrenching. Punctuating Wardell Quezergue's full-orchestra "What a Wonderful World" is a piano solo Allen Toussaint localizes down to "Tipitina and Me." And hovering over the close, scythe at the ready, is Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," the flood tale annotator Nick Spitzer reports has been sung aloud at bars all over the state ever since it surfaced in 1972. A

Dud of the Month

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian) Whose voice touches who is personal, but that doesn't mean Antony will ever reach as many humans as Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday, and up against the archer Bryan Ferry, the artier Rufus Wainwright, and the grander Nina Simone, objective physical differences manifest themselves: he's thinner, drier, more strained. Not only is his willingness to express emotion commoner than indie denizens imagine, his failure to undercut that emotion with irony or humor is a spiritual weakness. Right, he suffers. But billions of humans have it worse, and while we who are luckier are morally obliged to remember that, we're not obliged to empathize with any of them. Those convinced of the metaphoric-political centrality of transgender issues and the AIDS epidemic will feel Antony's songs. Those who don't should find a record they enjoy. B MINUS

Honorable Mention

  • Rev Run: Distortion (RSMG): He says his piece and gets out, as rare a thing in a preacher as in a rapper ("I Used to Think I Was Run," "Home Sweet Home").
  • Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts): Indie-rock as borderless utopian collective, kind of like Yo La Tengo with no heads instead of two-plus-one ("Swimmers," "Fire Eye'd Boy").
  • Kate and Anna McGarrigle: The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (Nonesuch): Great old songs they didn't write, dubious new ones they did ("Seven Joys of Mary," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve").
  • Ol' Dirty Bastard: Osirus: The Official Mixtape (Sure Shot): Weaker than his legendary final album, but way more alive than his rumored one ("Pop Shots," "Dirty Dirty").
  • Hot Hot Heat: Elevator (Sire): Pop satire, its targets obvious but left wriggling in a discomfort they deserve ("Jingle Jangle," "Soldier in a Box").
  • Another World Is Possible (Uncivilized World/UWe North America): Cross-cultural statements, many warming and three scintillating, two Clash covers among them (Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra, "Lost in the Supermarket"; Manu Chao & Tonino Carotone, "La Trampa"; Asian Dub Foundation & Zebda, "Police on My Back [Live]").
  • The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema (Matador): Weightwise, think Hollies, with the lyrics dumber and the production too full of itself ("Use It," "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras").
  • Nine Inch Nails: With Teeth (Nothing): All pretense of deeper meaning worn into shtick, he's left with the aggro mood music that was always his calling ("Getting Smaller," "With Teeth").
  • Natasha Bedingfield: Unwritten (Epic): Working things out for herself within the severe constraints of pop form ("These Words," "Unwritten").
  • Devendra Banhart: Cripple Crow (4AD): Kind of charming, with two songs so cute they should be sung by Cyndi Lauper and Paul Westerberg, respectively ("Chinese Children," "I Feel Just Like a Child").
  • The Decemberists: The Decemberists Present Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars): Know less about history (and literature) than they think they do, but more than their students ("16 Military Wives," "On the Bus Mall").

Choice Cuts

  • Death Cab for Cutie, "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" (Plans, Atlantic)
  • Antigone Rising, "Hello" (From the Ground Up, Hear Music/Lava)
  • Cyndi Lauper, "Money Changes Everything" (The Body Acoustic, Epic/Daylight)

Duds

  • Audioslave: Out of Exile (Interscope/Epic)
  • Billy Corgan: The Future Embrace (Reprise)
  • Sheryl Crow: Wildflower (A&M)
  • José Gonzáles: Veneer (Hidden Agenda)
  • Idlewild: Warnings/Promises (Capitol)
  • Magnolia Electric Company: Hard to Love a Man (Secretly Canadian)
  • New Order: Waiting for the Sirens' Call (Warner Bros.)
  • Queens of the Stone Age: Lullabies to Paralyze (Interscope)
  • Xiu Xiu: La Foręt (5RC)

Village Voice, Jan. 10, 2006


Dec. 27, 2005 Feb. 14, 2006