Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
As Long As I Still Can

It is a great privilege to review records for a living. It is a great pleasure to review records for a living. I am lucky to live in the same world as the artists recommended below. So are you. So are we all.


AALIYAH: I Care 4 You (Blackground) A half measure that's anything but "definitive" and the best we're likely to get until she's a trivia question: both soundtrack smashes plus a hit-or-miss best-of and six previously unreleaseds whose consistency rescues the project. From "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number" when she was 15 to "More Than a Woman" just before she died (the latter included, the former discreetly not), she was lithe and dulcet in a way that signified neither jailbait nor hottie--an ingenue whose selling point was sincerity, not innocence and the obverse it implies. Timbaland's beats add essential eccentricity, but R. Kelly's ditties suited her almost as well. And what can it mean that a good new one celebrates the machinations of the bitch queen of All My Children? Such mysteries are beyond the ken of mortal males like me. A MINUS

DAN BERN: The Swastika E.P. (Messenger) In 2001 Bern wrote an endlessly corny nine-minute 9/11 elegy that I liked that way. Then he mourned securities traders and lusted for revenge. Now the meanness of "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" is just as apt--in two lines the WTC is down, an atrocity that quickly pales against slavery and the Indians, and we're off to a John Ashcroft theme park as per Dylan-does-Woody. Elsewhere Bern writes a NORML ad in jail, waxes warm about wayward friends and Jewish forebears, and reclaims a symbol from Nazis, punks, everybody. Protest music--we need it bad. A MINUS

BETTIE SERVEERT: Log 22 (Palomine) A bigger and looser band than the one that made its name with Palomine in alt's salad days--brawnier, brainier, sweeter, more direct. But where once they were the future, now they're near forgotten, because what for their admirers was a game, a phase, or a fleeting passion, for Carol Van Dyk is a life. Alt's college cheerleaders have matured. Van Dyk's just gotten older, embracing soul and skill but not the mainstream: "Smack in the middle of ridiculous places, smack in the middle where I shouldn't have been." Of course, part of their gimmick was how alt they weren't. They've always gravitated toward straightforward tunes and guitar voicings, which is why horns that would obtrude in any ordinary alt-fledged band seem natural horning in here. So please, somebody make me feel stupid and tell me what '60s solo they quote outright on the eight-minute "White Dogs" jam. It's driving me crazy. A MINUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: Bright Yellow Bright Orange (Jetset) They say they're a band again, and I believe them--bye Forster, bye McLennan, welcome back Forster-McLennan. What I don't believe is that they're as integral or rocking a band as they once were, or that the strummy arrangements turn back on themselves like they should. But after longer than any neutral party will wait, the songs flower if not bloom into tints subtler than the noontime hues of the title. I don't mean the opener, which snaps into place with a classic identiriff, or the one where Robert wants to go to Brazil. Those are quick. I mean every single song. Too slow, too slight, still remarkable. B PLUS

THE GO-BETWEENS: Spring Hill Fair (Circus/Jetset) The new "expanded" version, which I'm not plugging for Spring Hill Fair, a classic those who care already own, but for the bonus disc, if you can believe that--outtakes, mostly, plus a B side and a 12-inch instrumental they must have put out as a joke and one from the lost 1978-1990 best-of. Often raw or gawky, lyrically or instrumentally--and busting with circa-1984 we-can-do-no-wrong. "Newton Told Me" and "Sweet Tasting Hours" could go on their set list tomorrow. A MINUS

JON LANGFORD AND HIS SADIES: Mayors of the Moon (Bloodshot) Right, he's got all those other albums--Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Mekons of course, Waco Brothers. But there he was just the compere, or had to share the writing with his mates. This isn't enough when you have a calling to pursue, a family to support, a world to curse and mourn--when nothing can shut you up. Lyrics that despair of politics, find true pain in true love, unhinge from terra firma, and gripe about the road are delivered with country plainness, glimmers of spirituality, plenty of rolled r's, and the sense that by singing reality you can make it mean something, at least while you're at it. Not "Before they stop me"; more like "As long as I still can." A MINUS

LFTR-PLLR: Soft Rock (The Self-Starter Foundation) Nobody's gonna sit and listen for two hours and 20 minutes without even a chorus to ease the rush of words and riffs and bumpy beats--not unless they're working, like I was when I did. But the sheer bulk of these two CDs is their charm. Debut and singles and EPs and compilation cuts, almost every piece of crap this Minneapolis four-piece ever recorded except an album that's less impressive for being better shaped, and not counting a few early losers stuck in back they form one pretty damn good song: postpunk noir at the economic margins, drugs and sex and rock and roll in that order, an epic best intoned in toto around a verboten communal ashtray in some after-hours den. Craig Finn spouts like a jaded Conor Oberst and tells his underworld tales like a slacker Hamell on Trial, whose fame he may yet match. I wonder how many he made up. That's the fun part, right? A MINUS

THE LIBERTINES: Up the Bracket (Rough Trade) Forget all the well-meaning comparisons to good bands present and especially past. Every guitar-based four-piece with enough sidelong flair and I-don't-care gets those nowadays, and these Londoners have more talent and panache than most if not all of them. They're plenty songful if you give them half a chance, which is hard because they conceal such a bewildering wealth of compositional tactics within a fast, loose, lyrical, vulnerable sound that's their own even if they've never given it a moment's thought which is what the sound wants you to think, and which I very much doubt. Let the past take care of itself. They want the world and they want the handcar it's going to hell in. A

KOFFI OLOMIDE: Best of Koffi Olomide (Next Music import) Soukous is pass, the Congo is a war zone, and from his old Kinshasa home this brown-eyed handsome egotist has become a pan-African star of the old school. Not that he's "soukous"--with African punctiliousness in the matter of genre names, he calls his music "tcha tcho" and "Congo" and no doubt other things. He's a university graduate whose compositions were being picked up while he was still a student, and you could say he sounds like one--singing with more brain than body, he deploys his breathy baritone for subtlety and leaves the heavy lifting to the hired hands. But what he really sings like is a songwriter, specifically a ballad specialist who cares about sound play and emotional complexity. I have no way of judging how responsibly he's programmed this inexpensive double-CD from his several dozen albums except to report that it includes early and late titles of some renown. I can say that the slower disc is more beautiful than the Olomide Stern's put out in 1990, and that the special remix CD makes room for the animateur-driven seben beats he claims he's too deep for. A good thing, because he isn't. A MINUS

LOU REED: The Raven (Sire/Reprise) Only a Lou-lou could love this concept album with a hole in the middle, by which I mean the theater piece that supposedly held all the new songs, old songs, new instrumentals, poetry readings, and cameo turns together. But though it's less than the sum of its parts, the parts are pretty arresting--Antony's castrato version of "Perfect Day," for instance, is a terrible idea in theory that ends up beating the original. Gee, maybe Poe actually was the progenitor of Selby and Burroughs and, more importantly, Reed himself, who delivers the theme-setting "Edgar Allan Poe" with a rhythmic intensity that is, let's be frank, a rare thing in literary criticism. Best Performance in a Supporting Role: Steve Buscemi as a somewhat younger Lou Reed doing a lounge act the older Reed wrote. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

INTERPOL: Turn On the Bright Lights (Matador) They bitch because everybody compares them to Joy Division, and they're right. It's way too kind, and I say that as someone who thanks Ian Curtis for making New Order possible. Joy Division struggled against depression rather than flaunting it, much less wearing it like a designer suit. What's truly depressing is that, just as the hairy behemoths of the grunge generation looked back to the AOR metal they immersed in as teens, these fops tweak the nostalgia of young adults who cherish indistinct memories of much worse bands than Joy Division, every one of them English--Bauhaus, Ultravox, Visage, Spandau Ballet, Tears for Fears. At a critical moment in consciousness they exemplify and counsel disengagement, self-seeking, a luxurious cynicism. Says certified British subject Peter Banks: "Emotions are standard and boring. I'd like to find another way to live." That's thinking either big or very small. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Rilo Kiley, The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek): conquering depression indie-rock style, only cleaner, which they'll get over ("The Good That Won't Come Out," "A Better Son/Daughter")
  • George Harrison, Brainwashed (Capitol): say this for death--it focuses the mind ("Any Road," "P2 Vatican Blues [Last Saturday Night]")
  • Milky Wimpshake, Lovers Not Fighters (Troubleman Unlimited): now imagine a tuneful weed who covers Phil Ochs and gives Jack Straw the business ("Jack Ass," "Scrabble")
  • The Rogers Sisters, Purely Evil (Troubleman Unlimited): no, not as good as the Bush Tetras--better, which is the least we should insist on ("Purely Evil," "Zero Point")
  • Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Sammy Davis Jr., The Rat Pack Live at the Sands (Capitol): master singer, underrated comic, disruptive symbol ("Dialogue [Track 15]," "Medley: Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes/I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine/I Love Vegas [Paris]")
  • t.A.T.u., 200 KM/H in the Wrong Lane (Interscope): contains six versions of their two girl-love hits, including a video ("Not Gonna Get Us," "All the Things She Said")
  • Pretty Girls Make Graves (Dim Mak): four early songs twixt thrash and Sleater-Kinney ("Liquid Courage," "Modern Day Emma Goldman")
  • Fat Beats Compilation Volume Two (Fat Beats): amazing how much brains and music alt-rap can still lay on us (Atmosphere, "My Songs"; Alchemist Feat. Twin, "Different Worlds")
  • Jenny Toomey, Tempting: Jenny Toomey Sings the Songs of Franklin Bruno (Misra): she doesn't sing so great either, but she's better than he is, and his writing deserves it ("Unionbusting," "Let's Stay In")
  • The Rough Guide to Sufi Music (World Music Network import): not just qawwali (Hassan Hakmoun & Adam Rudolph, "Saba Atu Rijal"; Sheikh Yasn Al-Tuhmi, "Qlb Yuhaddithuni")
  • Cody Chesnutt, The Headphone Masterpiece (Ready Set Go!): just what alt-r&b needed--loads of ideas, considerable talent, and all the stern self-discipline of a trust fund baby ("Family on Blast," "The World Is Coming to My Party," "My Woman, My Guitars")
  • Pearl Jam, Riot Act (Epic): masters of their own audio, with soft spots where their emotions can go ("Save You," "Bushleaguer")
  • Kathleen Edwards, Failer (Zo): Canadian folkie walks on the wild side, really ("Westby," "One More Song the Radio Won't Like")
  • Dan Bern & the IJBC, Fleeting Days (Messenger): as life goes on, his lyrics follow it everywhere ("Eve," "Graceland")
  • The Coral (Columbia): nice Liverpool lads--very enthusiastic, bit confused ("Waiting for the Heartaches," "Skeleton Key")

Choice Cuts:

  • The Go-Betweens, "Man O'Sand to Girl O'Sea," "This Girl, Black Girl," "Hammer the Hammer" (Before Hollywood, Circus/Jetset)
  • The Corb Lund Band, "Five Dollar Bill" (Five Dollar Bill, Stony Plain import)
  • The Go-Betweens, "Sunday Night," "I Need Two Heads" (Send Me a Lullaby, Circus/Jetset)
  • Chitlin' Fooks, "Did It Again" (Did It Again, Palomine)
  • Amber, "Yes!" (Naked, Tommy Boy)
  • Nina Nastasia, "In the Graveyard" (Nina Nastasia's the Blackened Air, Touch and Go)
  • Tegan and Sara, "Time Running" (If It Was You, Vapor)

Duds:

  • The Aislers Set, How I Learned to Write Backwards (Suicide Squeeze)
  • Audioslave (Epic/Interscope)
  • The Sadies, Stories Often Told (Yep Roc)
  • South, From Here On (Kinetic)
  • Mia Doi Todd, The Golden State (Columbia)
  • Peter Wolf, Sleepless (Artemis)

Village Voice, Apr. 1, 2003


Mar. 4, 2003 Apr. 29, 2003