Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Parts of the Elephunk

Annual Pre-Pazz & Jop Handicappers' CG: Whose faves are whose? Tune in next week . . .

THE BLACK EYED PEAS: Elephunk (A&M) In which the unbelievably dull El Lay alt-rappers fabricate the brightest actual pop album of 2003. They remain unbelievable, but in pop that's just one more aesthetic nuance. Titles like "Let's Get Retarded," "Shut Up," and the guitar-driven "Anxiety" are what you'd hope except cleaner--tremendous ups every one. You can bet new member Fergie, a showbiz lifer who also put in a tour as JC Chasez's girlfriend, lured her pal Justin down for "Where Is the Love," an actual hit that actually called out "the CIA." Terrorists, the song claims. Rhymes with "The Bloods and the Crips and the KKK." A MINUS

DIZZEE RASCAL: Boy in Da Corner (XL) The first thing to understand about Dizzee is that his fundamental appeal is musical, and the second is that there's very little music there. Break down a track and often you'll find only an electro beat--at most three or four sparse elements, rarely long on sustain or tune. Yet as someone who mocked the minimal means of U.K. garage and considered the Streets barely music at all, I was captivated by Dizzee's sound the moment I heard the import. His adolescent gulps and yowls are street-Brit with a Jamaican liquidity, as lean, eccentric, and arresting as the beats. The voice also lends a comic, claustrophobic vulnerability to rhymes whose brilliance varies, though their winning youthfulness does not. Whether he can grow as a lyricist as he struggles to comprehend his success is the old conundrum. The smarts he's got. The right advice will be hard to come by. A MINUS

DOWN IN THE BASEMENT (Old Hat) Here be 24 of the 50,000 78s collected by fun-loving Joe Bussard, portrayed by co-compiler Marshall Wyatt as a crusty old sweetheart who'll make you mix tapes for 50 cents a song until the RIAA hits him with a writ. The same share-the-wealth openness lifts the selections, which are upful even when bemoaning life's travails. Unfamiliar arrangements of famous songs leaven the obscurities, and stars like Gene Autry and Bill Broonzy pitch in. The country breakdowns that lead it off and take it on out could convert Nas (or me). And the concept has room for the hot jazz bands of Luis Russell and Fess Williams. It's hard to imagine Harry Smith declaring either folk music. Bussard could care less. A MINUS

FOUR TET: Rounds (Domino) Charming, civilized, childish, Kieran Hebden imagines an aural space in which electronic malfunction is cute rather than annoying or ominous. Keys and strings go their own merry way toward the same pretty, toylike goal, and though the drums grumble sometimes, they can be counted on to help their friends the glitches in a pinch. The computer as music box--which is what guys like Hebden think it is, after all. A MINUS

RAMIRO MUSOTTO: Sudaka (Fast Horse) Gaby Kerpel fans take note--yet another cosmopolitan Argentinean, this one a São Paulo-based percussionist, doing the ethnotechno dance with yet another cache of field recordings. Difference is, Musotto shows no interest in conventional songs as he fuses berimbau, cuíca, Pro Tools, and such to a children's chorus, a bottle man's cry, authorized secret recordings of a warrior tribe, and several helpings of Candomblé. Most percussion records are too abstract, just like most techno records. These beats and textures are the lingüiça in the feijoada. A MINUS

THE RAPTURE: Echoes (Strummer/Universal) "House of Jealous Lovers" so dominates that it takes a while to glom onto the other uptempo numbers, which means most of them. With headman Luke Jenner flaunting his tortured-romance shtick--a clarion Ian Curtis-Robert Smith hybrid only not really depressed, because he gets off on pretending to be--this is mannerist DOR more accomplished and less sentimental than its sources. Title tune flows out of great hit so naturally you hardly notice the segue, and dig the synthesized train horn that adjoins the saxophone noises on "I Need Your Love." I wish they'd make a pass at Killing Joke's "Change" or Medium Medium's "Hungry So Angry." But more likely Jenner is on the hunt for a hit ballad even as I write. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF EGYPT (World Music Network import) The field is vast, vast--Cairo has been the cultural capital of the Middle East since the dawn of recording. And though the compiler is Yalla: Hitlist Egypt's David Lodge, the logic is unusually impenetrable: neither of Yalla's hard youth styles, no Faudel or Umm Kulthum, two tracks each for current superstars Angham and Amr Diab, plenty of classicists and also plenty of Nubians. Yet keynoted by Angham's irresistible "Leih Sebtaha," which dates all the way back to 2001, its intense, tradition-steeped politesse holds it together as it leaps not just decades but generations. A MINUS

STOMP AND SWERVE: AMERICAN MUSIC GETS HOT (Archeophone) Because David Wondrich's sourcebook cracks so wise, and because pre-electrical recordings are so tinny, you'll get happier reading about this music than listening to it. But there's a third reason: although most of these 27 1897-1925 selections are groundbreaking, the conventions they're tethered to are boulders they scarcely budge. Listening to early Armstrong is like reading Yeats--they're both so vivid and immediate you don't care how dated they are. Listening to Vess Ossman or Arthur Pryor (major innovators, as the book makes clearer than the notes) is more like reading Edwin Arlington Robinson. So take this as a hell of a history lesson. Play it half a dozen times and you'll adjust to its aural coordinates, but even then you may enjoy its quaintness more than its raunch or roll. Two great exceptions: Bert Williams's "Nobody," a barely sung set piece that gains inevitability until it stands there a masterwork, and Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," in which a black vaudevillian and her black band revolutionize the record industry and have a ball doing it. B PLUS

Z-MAN: Dope or Dog Food (Refill/Hiero Imperium) "Born free, hungry, ugly with no money," Z-Man lives the hip hop fantasy. His life is one long after-party--every night he gets wasted and has sex with someone he doesn't know. His favorite high is Cisco, the orange-colored fortified wine a/k/a "liquid crack," and his honeys could populate a Benetton ad if you airbrushed their zits. His tone of voice is slapstick, his homemade beats all freaky jocularity. But is he ever not having fun. His bacchanals invariably deteriorate into gruesome details, and after the after-party comes the aftermath: cockroaches in his glass and crabs in his pubes, arms broken in drunken car crashes, insomnia that won't quit, and then there's the STDs. This is a rapper who hocks loogies when he spits and believes in God like he believes in Santa Claus. And now--unless you have something better for his ass, which you don't--pass the Cisco. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

THE NOTWIST: Neon Golden (City Slang/Virgin) Not a fraud. That much I'll grant this evolving German unit's career album. There are tunes, and they're nicely melded to a wide assortment of putatively nonmusical sounds. Not pretentious either, though to say anything kinder about Markus Archer's command of English is to make hope a vice. Also, not cold--lukewarm at least. But then what? Not dynamic? Not exciting? Not much fun? Young people who think Kraftwerk were more important than the Ramones are free to satisfy their craving for the neu with this retreat into simplicity. But even Radiohead and Mouse on Mars contain more chaos. And the chaos is still out there. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash (Astralwerks): Is that blood the big-time vocalists smear on the tracks, or ichor? ("Lucky Star," "Cish Cash," "Right Here's the Spot")
  • A3: Power in the Blood (One Little Indian): Roots-rocking U.K. socialists access techno and Hubert Selby Jr. ("Woody Guthrie," "Strobe Life," "U Don't Dans 2 Tekno Anymore")
  • Floxy Bee: Ajulo (Tman): "African gospel" indigenous-charismatic style, which sounds nothing like Western hymnody and everything like Nigeria ("Iba Re Eledumare," "Jesus, I Love You")
  • R. Kelly & Jay-Z: The Best of Both Worlds (Jive/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam): Jay all unrepentant swagger, R. his wheedling yes-man ("The Best of Both Worlds," "P***y")
  • Abyssinia Infinite: Zion Roots (Network import): Bill Laswell designs a neo-traditionalist vehicle for his wife Gigi ("Gela," "Aba Alam Lemena")
  • African Head Charge: Shrunken Head (On-U Sound import): Two decades of mind expansion compressed onto one dub-up ("Run Come See," "No, Don't Follow Fashion")
  • Hot Women (Kein & Aber import): R. Crumb collects 24 international 78s, 24 big butts, and 24 smiles (Hamsa Khalafe and Ali Atia, "Ballali Madja"; Aïcha Relizania, "Khraïfi")
  • The Fiery Furnaces: Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade): Most Intriguing Use of Roots Riffs in an Eclectic Context Nobody Comprehends (Including Them) ("Worry Worry," "Up in the North")
  • The Vitamen: Mujer (Vitamen): "Stupid fucking job," the lyric goes ("SFJ," "Black Babies")
  • Tokyo Sex Destruction: Le Red Soul Program (10 Points Program) (Dim Mak): Only in a city as white as Barcelona could a John Sinclair tribute band sound so garage ("Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide," "You Gotta Do It")
  • The Exploding Hearts: Guitar Romantics (Dirtnap): Should have stayed, but they had to go ("Sleeping Aides and Razorblades," "Rumours in Town")
  • Andre Afram Asmar: Race to the Bottom (Mush): Ambient Arabized dub ethnotechno, for chilling out without altogether forgetting you have a body ("Scientism," "Rajamatshitan")
  • Rufus Wainwright: Want One (DreamWorks): Repays hard listening at modest interest ("Oh What a World," "Natasha")

Choice Cuts:

  • W.C. Handy, "Beale Street Blues" (Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Warming by the Devil's Fire, Columbia/Legacy)
  • R. Kelly, "Ignition--Remix" (Chocolate Factory, Jive)
  • J.C. Chasez, "Shake It," "Come to Me" (Schizophrenic, Jive)
  • Mildred Jones, "Mr. Thrill" (Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Warming by the Devil's Fire, Columbia/Legacy)

Duds:

  • Terry Hall & Mushtaq, The Hour of Two Lights (Astralwerks)
  • Kings of Leon, Youth & Young Manhood (RCA)
  • Little Brother, The Listening (ABB)
  • The Locust, Plague Soundscapes (Anti-)
  • Massive Attack, 100th Window (Virgin)
  • John Mellencamp, Trouble No More (Columbia)
  • Meshell Ndegeocello, Comfort Woman (Maverick)
  • The Notwist, Different Cars and Trains (Domino)
  • The Polyphonic Spree, The Beginning Stages of . . . (Hollywood/Good)

Honorable Mention and Choice Cuts in order of preference.

Village Voice, Feb. 10, 2004


Jan. 13, 2004 Mar. 23, 2004