Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Radicals of the Moment

Public enemies tricoastal, and that doesn't even count the Balkan guys

CONOGOTRONICS 2 (Crammed Discs) Even the mbaqanga originators, who took as their conscious project the transformation of village tunes into city songs, tried to make pop music. Konono No 1 became the sole stars of Congotronics 1 just trying to make themselves heard. Though happy to sell their musical wares on the international market in the end, they weren't assimilationists, and it was their tribal loyalties as much as their avant-naive sonics that captivated alt-rock ideologues who regard any hint of slick or catchy as an indicator of spiritual contagion. Never big on lo-fi (or bush drum circles either), I missed the tune factor in Konono, the muscle factor too. So on this multi-artist comp-with-DVD it was the combined efforts of Masanka Sankayi and the Kasai Allstars that softened me up to the buzzy, beaty sound of crudely electrified thumb pianos deteriorating midair. This being anthropology, pretty much, a sampler is the ideal introduction. A MINUS

DR. JOHN: Right Place, Right Time (Hyena) This 1989 Tipitina's set is so enjoyable that at first you might assume every song is another "Wang Dang Doodle" or "Such a Night." Instead, four of the nine are very obscure and fairly generic: "Traveling Mood," which the witch dr. first borrowed from Snooks Eaglin in 1973, anti-domestic "Kinfolk" and anti-woman "Black Widow," and the best of them on the merits, "Renegade," a gangsta number Mac Rebennack cooked up with Gerry Goffin. The merits don't matter much because his interactions with his no-name band are so loose and swinging, and his vocals so projected, never a given in this fetishizer of the New Orleans drawl. Even so, I remain unsure of one word in the phrase "no more sign of this funky-knuckle son of a bitch." A MINUS

FATS DOMINO: Alive and Kickin' ( What connects these 13 tracks to Hurricane Katrina is that without the disaster they might not have been released until the man died. All were recorded by 2000, and only two, neither the stone standout you'd assume, didn't originate with Domino, who says it took years to write some of them right. You'd never guess it. The descending four-note piano hook on "One Step at a Time," for instance, could be played by a three-year-old--with a perfect sense of rhythm. But just ask Ernest Hemingway when you get the chance: Artistic simplicity can be that way. Compared to the uncredited studio work here, Richard Perry's tastefully star-studded Fats revivals of the late '60s sound like, somewhere between Phil Spector and Phil Ramone. Calm and meditative rather than playful and ebullient, this is a record only the most congenial of rock 'n' roll legends could have created. We're lucky to have it. A MINUS

JESUS H. CHRIST AND THE FOUR HORNSMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE ( Risa Mickenberg writes and sings satirical theater songs accompanied by g-b-d-and-sometimes-k, two trumpets, and two trombones. All assume the p.o.v. of a neurotic young professional woman--loan officer, publicist, social planner, perhaps even actress--who may be Risa Mickenberg. Some of these songs are funny, the rest very funny. "Connecticut's for F*cking" seems self-explanatory, "Ellen's Bicoastal" cl*se enough; "Happy Me" is about falling in love on meds, "Vampire Girls" about sucking knowledge from your boyfriends. The jewel is the jealous fit "Obviously"--"I don't care. I mean I think she's a skank, but whatever, I don't care. I just don't see why you're denying it when it's obvious you two slept together . . . " You'll like it or you won't. In the latter case, don't send me your jokes. A MINUS

BOBAN MARKOVIC ORKESTAR FEAT. MARKO MARKOVIC: The Promise (Piranha) In which the most invigorating Balkan brass I know becomes a tad neater under the watchful production of Meddlin' Ben Mandelson. The general air of woofled hilarity continues. But in a slack-wire music of crooked harmonies, naturally occurring dub, and unisons that are no such thing, virtuosity is best deployed in the vicinity of a near miss, and there aren't quite enough of those here. B PLUS

PUBLIC ENEMY: Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk) PE's best album in nearly a decade was overseen by Oakland Muslim-stockbroker-revolutionary Paris, who puts his stamp on its functional funk and unyielding class consciousness. In fact, with its international perspective and bitter "People on the bottom kill each other for scraps, "Paris's "Hannibal Lecture" boasts the sharpest lyric on the record. But he's got competition--from a retrofitted Jesse Jackson, from Professor Griff if you can believe that, even from reality TV 'ho Flavor Flav: "I'm in your mouth when you wake in the morning/I'm the stink on your breath when you're yawning." But mostly, of course, from Mistachuck, whose musicality carries the record--and who folded in a Katrina song after the CD was done. A MINUS

ROMICA PUCEANU & THE GORE BROTHERS: Sounds From a Bygone Age: Vol. 2 (Asphalt Tango) Puceanu was indeed beloved in Bucharest, and playing her album twice proves she deserved to be. To call her the Gypsy Holiday or Piaf is to diminish her individuality: She's more virtuosic than either without showing off, and less pained whatever the cultural baggage of her appointed repertoire. Led by the two cousins who discovered her, the band is her other half--clean, swift, and economical--with Aurel Gore's violin determining the tone, Victor Gore's accordion dominating the coloration, and some cymbalom whiz or other tearing up the background. A MINUS

THE STREETS: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic) The real reason it's OK for Mike Skinner to rap about celebrity instead of blokedom is that his skills have leapt a quantum. His comic timing and mixture of slangs--not to mention his musical conception (chorus-sung choruses, a great way for a bloke to blow his recoupables)--are all so much more fully developed that he's actually made a record that's fun to play in the background. You'll sing along to the hooks, and every time you home in on a couple of lines they'll make you smile--except on the farewell to his dad, which you can bet cogitates harder than the one about international relations. A

NEIL YOUNG: Living With War (Reprise) OK, more news event than musical milestone. But a really great news event--believe me, the '60s never produced an album that felt this much like a peace march. The key is the sense of fellowship, with music carried less by the artist's broad guitar and creaky voice than by loud drums, what-the? horn arrangements, and a hundred-person chorus on every song. The second consecutive Neil Young album where you know what all the words mean (following 50-odd where you didn't) specifies that this radical-of-the-moment is not averse to supporting a repentant Colin Powell. This proves him a populist if anything does. B PLUS

Dud of the Month

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (Columbia) We shall overkill, he means. Never have his Howard Keel tendencies, or maybe now they're Paul Robeson tendencies, tripped him up so bad. The idea is to big up the music and play the jokes you don't ignore like you're working a Roman amphitheater. I'm glad to have met the anti-war lament "Mrs. McGrath" and Sis Cunningham's "My Oklahoma Home," and sort of hope young people deprived of music appreciation funding will now hear "Erie Canal," "Froggie Went A-Courtin'," "John Henry," and "Jesse James." Only are young people really ignorant of these songs? And how many of them buy Springsteen albums anyway? Amping up his strange bluegrass-Dixieland hybrid like E Street is just around the corner, he sings his lungs out. But in folk music, lightness is all--and only newbies and John Hammond Jr. lean so hard on the cornpone drawl. B

Honorable Mention

  • Kocani Orkestar: Alone at My Wedding (Crammed Discs): Macedonian tuba funk for that once-in-a-lifetime blowout, its horns, vocals, and beats imbued with Middle Eastern quaver ("Siki, Siki Baba," "Zen Nube").
  • T-K.A.S.H.: Turf War Syndrome (Guerrilla Funk): Conscious anti-gangsta talks the walk ("How to Get Ass," "American Nightmare").
  • Kal (Asphalt Tango): Roma guitar-violin-accordion postmodernists whose emotions translate better at higher speeds ("Dvojka," "Obrenovac Boogie").
  • Konono No 1: Congotronics (Crammed Discs): Your chance to eavesdrop on a genuine African ritual! ("Lufuala Ndonga," "Mama Liza").
  • Natacha Atlas: Mish Maoul (Mantra): Less mish-whatever than dichotomy--Cairo trad versus Western pop ("Haram Aleyk," "Hayam Inta").
  • Public Enemy: New Whirl Odor (Guerrilla Funk): "Preachin' to the Quiet," as in, "How you gonna say no to drugs if you don't say no to thugs?" ("MKLVFKWR," "New Whirl Odor").
  • Together Again: Legends of Bulgarian Wedding Music (Traditional Crossroads): Clarinetist Ivo Papasov of Kardzhali and saxophonist Yuri Yunakov of the Bronx show off their speed, multi-traditional command, and suitability for polite company ("Star Dimo/Mama Radojcho Gulcheske," "Oriental").
  • The Little Willies (Blue Note): Norah Jones and pals goof on the country music you'll believe she loves--and take publishing on several dull genre exercises and one funny one ("I Gotta Get Drunk," "Love Me").
  • Dr. John: Mercernary (Blue Note): Johnny Mercer's recyclable songbook, eccentrically stylized and expertly played ("Blues in the Night," "Lazy Bones").
  • Paul Simon: Surprise (Warner Bros.): 64-year-old liberal singer-songwriter reveals unanticipated knack for soundscaping ("Beautiful," "Outrageous").
  • The Dresden Dolls: Yes, Virginia . . . (Roadrunner): Do actually display many cabaret-associated gifts, a light touch not among them ("First Orgasm," "Mrs. O.").

Choice Cuts

  • Donald Fagen, "What I Do," "Security Joan," "Brite Nightgown" (Morph the Cat, Reprise)
  • Babyshambles, "Pipedown" (Down in Albion, Rough Trade)
  • Goldfrapp, "Ooh La La" (Supernature, Mute)


  • Amos Lee (Blue Note)
  • Shawn Mullins: 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor (Vanguard)
  • Unknown Prophets: The Road Less Taken (Unknown Prophets)

Village Voice, May 30, 2006

May 2, 2006 June 27, 2006