Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Anti-Gravitational Boots

Some very rough guides to living in a nation that won't share and will never be the same

AUTOMATO (Coup de Grace) A hip-hop band, only not funky like Stetsasonic and the Roots. Or then again, a rap-rock band, only not heavy like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park. White, I assume--I'm positive about the rapper, who I met before he became an alienated teenager, and Jewish names predominate among his bandmates. The DFA production is enhancement only--the music is Automato's. Less accomplished and sensational than the Rapture's, it's a lot trippier when it comes together and also when it threatens to jump the tracks, both of which happen plenty. Usually the chapstick-packing rapper figures out what to do with it, too. "All I ever wanted was truth, peace, harmony, and anti-gravitational boots," he confides, only then: "Truth is a bitch when you're living in sin." So be glad he got the boots. A MINUS

JON LANGFORD: All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot) Purportedly a concept album in which Mr. Deeds goes to Nashville because he's outgrown his band, and life will never be the same because fame can do that (also death). Actually a bunch of songs in which Mr. Langford goes to Chicago because he can't stand Margaret Thatcher, and life will never be the same because George W. Bush can do that (also Satan). The "hard road that always brings you back" has brought him back to where he once escaped, so now he's considering Switzerland, yodel-ay-ee-oooo. True love aside, how the hell did he wind up in America? "The country is young . . . not too good on the sharing," so let the zombies tear it apart. Only he loves its music, which sustains him even in the absence of one of the ad hoc bands he'll never outgrow--the arrangements, early Cash with extras, are as committed as the singing we've learned to assume. The glory of America at war with its shame, and don't bet it'll hold up its head forever. A

THE MAGNETIC FIELDS: i (Nonesuch) The concept is, not only do all these deadpan titles start with an i, they're performed (in alphabetical order!) by the deadpan I in question. When the songs are not just clever but lively--most spectacularly on the unrelenting "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend"--Stephin Merritt's demo-ready monotone could pass for a singing voice. When they're not--often not lively, and once or twice, heaven forfend, not clever--he sounds as if he's waiting to be swept off his feet by Sophie Von Otter. At which point we who were rooting for more "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend" sneak out the back door. B PLUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF ETHIOPIA (World Music Network import) Finally, after umpteen volumes of Buda Musique completism, a peaky, fluent introduction to one of the European diaspora's stranger and more consistent national musics. Sonically, horns dominate. After World War II, instructors from Austria, Armenia, and other non-Abyssinian places imposed themselves along with the sway of victorious swing on military brass bands that never abandoned their indigenous scales. These bands only went pop decades later, and on Buda, a sameness besets them. Here, in contrast, solid vocalists show off their best tunes, and incongruences like the émigré with King Curtis's taste for major keys merely shift the mood. Smack in the middle and right in a row, an old master of an ancient lyre that sounds like a bass zither, a future émigrée backed by quasi-classical piano, and an instrumental with string section disrupt the vocals-with-horns norm, never alarmingly. Then the norm bounces back refreshed. From beginning to end, what a sound. A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO THE MUSIC OF KENYA (World Music Network import) Kenya isn't just diverse tribally, the way all African nations are diverse. Among the larger ones, only Nigeria sustains such a pronounced Christian-Islamic split, with the Muslims holding sway over pan-African Swahili and the arriviste Christians aligning with the animists their grandparents once were and also with Congolese rumba speculators come east to rake in the shillings. Traversing generational boundaries as well, this is a travelogue. But Kenya is a populous place with a prosperous history whose music has made few international inroads, and compiler-annotator Doug Paterson has ears. So here's chiming benga never heard stateside, traditional Swahili taarab and upstart Swahili rumba, distinctly Muslim hooks, rappers worthy of the name, and--best of all, really--three modern female voices on the first six tracks. The country's a mess; Daniel arap Moi saw to that. But its spirit would appear to be strong. A MINUS

PIPI SKID: Funny Farm (Peanuts & Corn) From secret hip-hop hot spot Winnipeg, just what the genre needs--an angry Caucasian with space and germ issues and rotting teeth he can't afford to fix. Plus, for that urban touch, a producer from Vancouver. By adding elegance and eloquence to Pipi's congested utterances and anti-American analysis--check the basslines, which are sometimes organlike, once I think bowed, and always mixed to accentuate melody--McEnroe makes the rapper seem fully socialized. No hip-hop lyric this year will get more done than "5:20 AM," which is when Pipi wakes up for his job in the nursing home. A MINUS

PATTI SMITH: Trampin' (Columbia) No, she hasn't regained her sense of humor, but aren't you fast losing yours? "I'm no Sufi but I'll give it a whirl" makes light enough of the mystic path her political obsessions follow. And if sometimes her hymns vague out like "Trespasses" or over-generalize like "Jubilee," the boho reminisce of "In My Blakean Year" represents where she's coming from, the sweet solemnity of "Gandhi" and "Peaceable Kingdom" sings the sacred, and the amateur-Arabist rant-and-release of "Radio Baghdad" speaks poetry to power. It won't prevail. But it's a comfort. B PLUS

HOUND DOG TAYLOR: Release the Hound (Alligator) Live and redundant--six of 15 titles also on best-of, almost all on the three studio albums. But none on his 1976 live set. And who do you prefer when it comes to redundant--the laid-off prole who gets the job done night in and night out or the college-educated goon who pronounces him excessed? Taylor had less class than a metal-shop teacher in a finishing school, and he always believed that making music was the same thing as having fun. Few artists in any genre, most certainly including the dogged bar blues he inspired, have generated such effortless enthusiasm or made ruder noises with an amplifier. His studio legacy is pretty rough. But live he was even rougher, and with him that means better more often than not. A MINUS

WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN: POOR MAN'S HEAVEN (Bluebird) As music, the sixth volume in this all-over-the-place RCA series is even more all over the place. But by segregating the showbiz folk up ahead of the folk musicians, it suggests that citified pop dreamers were even angrier about the Great Depression than the rural immiserated. Jug-blowing Mississippi Sarah moaning "this depression has got me," the Cedar Creek Sheik denied credit in his Afro-Swedish accent, and Blind Alfred Reed entering heaven with "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" are all hard hit. But they aren't as bitter as Bob Miller, whose 7,000 published songs included "The Rich Man and the Poor Man" ("Oh the rich man gets acquitted while the poor man gets the rope") and "It Must Be Swell" (death, he means). Between categories is the jazzified title tune by country pro Carson Robinson, which craves not just relief but revenge. Not that I myself would want some number cruncher serving me breakfast. But with a little training maybe he or she could do my filing. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

THE THRILLS: So Much for the City (Virgin) If an American--a disaffected suburban boy from the professional class, say--were to concoct this sentimental cutesification of surf and country-rock, drawl and harmony and whisper and mewl, it would be even harder to forgive. Americans have an obligation to comprehend their own culture. But there's something in Conor Deasy's timbre that renders his Dublin version even more saccharine in its artifice. The cure for what ails him? I dunno. A quick chop to the Adam's apple? C

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • New Estate: Considering . . . (W.Minc import): The kind of young band that's doubly convincing on tunes it can't quite handle ("Open," "Don't Like the Way")
  • Booker T. & the MG's: Soul Men (Stax): Never Before Available Covers of 25 of Your Favorite '60s Hits! ("Harlem Shuffle," "Downtown")
  • Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope): Are we allowed to wonder whether she's spunky enough for a Nashville legend with a new lease on life? ("Red Shoes," "Story of My Life")
  • Mission of Burma: On Off On (Matador): Easy for abstractionists to pick up where they left off, hard for them to represent ("Nicotine Bomb," "Fake Blood")
  • The Thermals: Fuckin A (Sub Pop): "History will show our progress is slow," so they make sure their music isn't ("A Stare Like Yours," "Remember Today")
  • Los Lobos: The Ride (Mammoth/Hollywood): From Chicano r&b to Chicano bricolage and most of the way back, with famous friends pointing the way ("Kitate," "Hurry Tomorrow")
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of the Indian Ocean (World Music Network import): Tourist attractions of half a dozen competing island paradises (Seychelles String Band, "Polka"; Kaya, "Sensé")
  • Ryan Adams: Rock N Roll (Lost Highway): Sound effects, emotional affects, he's got 'em all ("Note to Self: Don't Die," "This Is It")
  • Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam): Don't worry, Ghost--no matter how much you cry we'll never call you "faggot" ("Be This Way," "Save Me Dear")
  • Gang Starr: The Ownerz (Virgin): Why hip-hop heads worship Premier ("In This Life . . . ," "Who Got Gunz")
  • Las Rubias del Norte: Rumba Internationale (Bardés): Before you say rumba wasn't meant to be this civilized, study danzón ("Perfidia," "Ambrosa Guajiro")
  • Eyedea & Abilities: E&A (Rhymesayers Entertainment/Epitaph): Especially abilities ("One Twenty," "Kept")

Choice Cuts

  • Little Richard, "Get Down With It," "Rocking Chair" (Get Down With It: The Okeh Sessions, Epic/Legacy)
  • Hieroglyphics, "Halo" (Full Circle, Hiero Imperium)
  • Dilated Peoples, "Big Business" (Neighborhood Watch, Capitol)
  • Kinky, "Do U Like It?" (Atlas, Nettwerk)


  • Ryan Adams: Love Is Hell Pt. 1 (Lost Highway)
  • Ryan Adams: Love Is Hell Pt. 2 (Lost Highway)
  • The Sleepy Jackson: Lovers (Astralwerks)
  • Starsailor: Silence Is Easy (Capitol)
  • The Stills: Logic Will Break Your Heart (Vice)
  • Tortoise: It's All Around You (Thrill Jockey)
  • Women of Africa (Putumayo World Music)

Village Voice, May 25, 2004

Apr. 27, 2004 July 6, 2004