Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Eating Again

April's Bunny Stomp was purgative, but it put me off my feed. In the report below I regain my appetite by digesting many of the young rock bands who are making news if not history. Next time I'll throw on some hot sauce.


GENE AMMONS & SONNY STITT: God Bless Jug and Sonny (Prestige) The tenor battle in which two saxmen blow each other's brains out is a format often cited and seldom documented, and as someone who's sought examples for years, I feel lucky I threw on this live CD--released 2000, recorded 1973. Zoot Sims and Lockjaw Davis's roughly similar The Tenor Giants Featuring Oscar Peterson is hobbled by jazz decorum and a stiffer rhythm section; the justly legendary 1950 meeting of these two Billy Eckstine grads, "Blues Up and Down," is constipated by comparison. The Baltimore crowd brings out the brawler in both Albert's boy Gene, with his woogie-steeped r&b tendencies, and the famously facile Stitt, known for his eagerness to replicate Bird solos and cut crap in the studio for cash on the barrelhead. The combat is friendly and uncerebral--Stitt pushes Ammons's big gruff Hawkins chops toward modernism as Ammons drives Stitt to a raucous showboat bebop that keeps on churning as tracks approach the quarter-hour mark. Cedar Walton, Sam Jones, and the incomparable Billy Higgins are so fluid you hardly mind when the leaders sit out for a Walton feature, and the 2002 sequel is almost as good even though two Etta Jones vocals intrude. Called Left Bank Encores, it was cut the very same night. Must have been some show. A MINUS

GILAD ATZMON: Exile (Enja) I knew they were playing Middle Eastern jazz--loved the sound of Atzmon's 'Trane-driven sax up against Kuwaiti-schooled diva and tango accordion. But it was four or five spins before I found out they were Israeli exiles whose theme is Palestine and whose strategy is to Arabize Israeli hits. Not much, but as near to resolution as any Palestinian is liable to get right now. Recorded in London. Tell Tony Blair the news. A MINUS

JOHNNY CASH: American IV: The Man Comes Around (American) The selection here is at once so obvious and so inappropriate it feels redemptive--as if that old softy Rick Rubin gently advised his fast-failing charge that if there was ever a song he wanted to sing he'd better not put it off till next time, 'cause there probably wasn't gonna be one. In fact this is Cash's second "Danny Boy," just his first croaky one (at the Kettle of Fish in heaven, Dave Van Ronk is mad he didn't do one first). He's recorded the evil-minded campfire chestnut "Sam Hall" before too. But Cash kills "In My Life" as hard as he kills Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails, and though upon reflection Ewan MacColl wrote "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," you'd have thought Roberta Flack defolkified it forever until Cash got his heart on it. Only the pomposities of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Desperado" resist his advances. And first and best comes the newly written title tune, a look at death as cold as "Under Ben Bulben." All that could top it would be American V: Send in the Clowns. A MINUS

KAITO: Montigola Underground (Devil in the Woods) True juvenilia--very Oh-OK even though I doubt these Brits have ever heard of Oh-OK. So nursery-rhyme tuneful! So jump-rope preverbal! Inspirational Verse: "I love it, I love it, I love it." No? How about "Ohh ohh ohh"? A MINUS

KAITO U.K.: Band Red (SpinArt) So I searched the review database of this gender-balanced quartet, a more orderly thing than any of their songs, and found only one Liliput citation--by Jessica Winter in this newspaper. Much commoner were references to ye olde Sonic Youth, whom they resemble somewhat less than they do the Go-Go's. Guess indie rock is wasted on the young, because Liliput is the analogy even if Nikki Colk has never heard of them either. Kaito are noisier, faster, girlier; Colk mispronounces her English not as a Marlene Marder homage but so people will think she's from Sweden. But the two share a rare, rambunctious sense that noise is fun and life is livable, a tremendous relief in a time when so many new guitar bands never hint at their reason for existing. Eventually Kaito might get full of themselves like Bis. Or they might cover "Ain't You." Not both. A MINUS

NDALA KASHEBA: Yellow Card (Limitless Sky) Congo-born in Tanzania, he's what guitar paradise is made of even though that heavenly collection passed him by. Definitive is the 12-string acoustic he cradles in both photos. Sustaining is gentle singer Baziano Bweti, who died in 2002 preaching AIDS education. Of good cheer are King Malou's perky alto themes on "Massamba" and the super-collectible "Kokolay." Also nice are the clicks, the claps, the coro. You believe in staying positive? East African soukous is still writing the book. A MINUS

THE NAYSAYER: Pure Beauty (Carrot Top) Because Anna Padgett's voice is deadpan by divine design, her brain better back her body up--like on these five quietly outrageous, wickedly funny songs. A young angel waits while her living lover dates. A young ne'er-do-well hires her liver a lawyer. A young dumpee's faucet drips and lightbulb goes out. Amputation saves a marriage. And then there's the climactic title trope: "Your dick is like a stick of pure beauty to me." She said it, I didn't. A MINUS

AMY RIGBY: Til the Wheels Fall Off (Signature Sounds) Much as I love her songs, with this her best batch since her first, I love her singing them more. The way she starts the album by calmly drawling "I'm tired of bein' tired of bein'/Why am I always disagreein'" over murmured accordion and tick-tock percussion is so sturdy and so musical that it still catches me short. Outspokenly ordinary, she's hard on her man, hard on herself, hard on her life, which like most American lives is fairly hard. Although her romantic ups and downs aren't the disaster she believes sometimes, she really would like to know if she's "ever gonna have sex again." Answer--definitely. She's attractive if by some juvenile standards mature, and she feels the love in her and the lust in her at the same time, which always helps. If only the millions of women in her situation had the time and funds to test-drive alt-country CDs, she'd be as famous as Lucinda. A MINUS

TODD SNIDER: Todd Snider Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms (Oh Boy) Folkies with a sense of humor are always better off cracking jokes than waxing lyrical. With Snider, though, the differential is near absolute--the one tolerable serious song among these career highlights is the 12-step memoir "Long Year." Snider's live-studio differential is steep as well--a crowd sharpens his timing and intonation. "Beer Run" was funny enough on 2002's New Connection, but both versions here, including one of those annoying bonus cuts where the artist's buddies can't stop laughing, are eternal nonsense classics. Because he's funny, he does sardonic and bittersweet right. Also because he's funny, the monologues are why you replay the record. A MINUS

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: World Without Tears (Lost Highway) Like Dylan before her, she discovers how hard it is to write the simple ones. She also discovers how hard it is to turn out an album every two years. So she stops at pretty good songs instead of worrying them toward great, and just in time. Concrete nouns are her passion, but here sometimes they break the mood, and when she pulls out her place-name trick she goes nowhere. To compensate, she sidles up to her beau ideal--a band record, a groove record, a riff record; something lowdown, dirty, smoky. Why not? Sue Foley has never recorded a lyric as strong as "Those Three Days" or "Sweet Side" in her life. And a strong Sue Foley album can hold up the sweet old world for a spell. A MINUS

WIRE: Send (Pinkflag) Up against the fussy vocals and structures of 1993's excellent second-phase best-of The A List, the muscular mud of what amounts to a third-phase best-of--they were going to release six consecutive EPs until this album occurred to them--is a deliberate regression. The model isn't Pink Flag, it's Roxy London WC2. Melodically, "In the Art of Stopping" is a relative of "Mr. Suit"; sonically, it's a relative of Slaughter and the Dogs. In short, they "rock." Finally. A MINUS

YEAH YEAH YEAHS: Fever to Tell (Interscope) With help from that bad corporate money, they get a striking sound out of the no-bass thing. It's both big and punk, never a natural combo, and up against the Kills it's killer--Nick Zinner commands more than any man's allotted portion of dangerous riffs. But to care about this band you have to find Karen O's fuck-me persona provocative if not seductive, and since I've never been one for the sex-is-combat thing, I find it silly or obnoxious depending on who's taking it seriously. Duly noted: two human-scale songs toward the end. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

GOSSIP: Movement (Kill Rock Stars) A fat sexy lesbian teenager whose entire trio escaped Arkansas for Olympia? A big voice with its emotions out front? What's not to love? Nothing, declare gossipmongers bowled over by their strenuous gigs. To which well-wishers must inquire, Er, how about music? Beth Ditto gives no indication she could sing the tunes that aren't here. Brace Howdeshall applies punk chops to a soul concept. Kathy Mendonca doesn't know what an offbeat is. And face it, folks--when it comes to putting good old rock 'n' roll on record, a bass player really helps. C PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Pig Lib (Matador): should have figured he'd turn fussbudget on us eventually ("1% of One," "Vanessa From Queens")
  • Local H, The No Fun EP (Thick): something to be pissed about ("President Forever," "Birth, School, Work, Death")
  • Good Charlotte, The Young and the Hopeless (Epic): honest pop band presents its songs punk, and that makes some people so mad ("The Story of My Old Man," "Riot Girl")
  • The White Stripes, Elephant (V2): saying not enough with less ("I Want to Be the Boy Who Warms Your Mother's Heart," "The Hardest Button to Button")
  • Rosanne Cash, Rules of Travel (Capitol): glad she took Manhattan, wish her songwriting had stood in Nashville ("September When It Comes," "I'll Change for You")
  • Liars, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (Mute): not a bad trick--tension-and-release that never lets go ("Grown Men Don't Fall in the River, Just Like That," "The Garden Was Crowded and Outside")
  • Madonna, American Life (Maverick/Warner Bros.): learning and adjusting like always, and no, stupid, not hypocritically--although maybe inattentively ("Mother and Father," "Nothing Fails")
  • Terri Clark, Pain to Kill (Mercury): like most women, the woman in her has plenty of what the title says ("You Can't Help the One You Love," "Better Than You," "I Just Wanna Be Mad")
  • Elastica, The Radio One Sessions (Koch/Strange Fruit): nine previously obscure songs bait slack one-take best-of ("Spastica," "Four Wheels")
  • Daughter, Skin (Aum Fidelity): punk, rap, dub--from an avant-jazz perspective, it's all one music ("Misbehaving," "Hands in the Pants")
  • Dixie Chicks, Home (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia): deeper proof than they intended of the deep meaning of neobluegrass--you can't go home again ("Travelin' Soldier," "White Trash Wedding")
  • Buzzcocks (Merge): callow punk alienation as reliable folk wisdom ("Friends," "Lester Sands")
  • Shania Twain, Up! (Mercury): I'll take the "green" mixes, and fuck you for asking ("I'm Gonna Getcha Good!," "Ka-Ching!")

Choice Cuts

  • Asylum Street Spankers, "My Favorite Record" (My Favorite Record, Bloodshot)
  • Rubber City Rebels, "Your Warlord Is a Pussy," "I Don't Wanna Be a Punk No More" (Pierce My Brain, Smog Veil)
  • Alejandro Escovedo, "Wave," "Castanets" (A Man Under the Influence, Bloodshot)
  • Ladytron, "Seventeen" (Light & Magic, Emperor Norton)
  • Lee Ann Womack, "I Need You," "He'll Be Back" (Something Worth Leaving Behind, MCA)

Duds:

  • . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Source Codes and Tags (Interscope)
  • Liars, Fins to Make Us More Fish-Like (Mute)
  • Bob Mould, Modulate (GM)
  • The Naysayer, Heaven, Hell, or Houston (Carrot Top)
  • Beth Orton, Daybreaker (Astralwerks)
  • Phantom Planet, The Guest (Epic)
  • Quix*o*tic, Mortal Mirror (Kill Rock Stars)
  • Soft Cell, Cruelty Without Beauty (Cooking Vinyl/SpinArt)

Village Voice, June 10, 2003


Apr. 29, 2003 June 24, 2003