Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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History Lessons

Brazil, Beliz, San Antonio, Soho, Mother Africa--all journeys into paradise

AFRICA REMIX: AH FREAK IYA (Milan) Where usually Afrocomps look backward, this one is 21st century. And while most of the names are familiar, only five of the 16 tracks are in my collection, with all except Orchestra Baobab's improved by this cross-continental mix. Nor are the prime attractions the old reliables--Oumou's remix, Youssou's Senegal-only track. Far more striking are the radical techno-soukous by the son of a Franco guitarist, the Kinshasa rap with four names on it, Malouma's Mauritanian breakout, orthe Mariem Hassan & Leyoad wail somehow left off the Sahara comps. Things in Africa are probably no better than you think. But Afropop lives--hard, but undaunted. A MINUS

BEIRUT: Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing!) Play Boban Markovic or Kocani Orkestar and you hear contained chaos and wild drums. Play Beirut, most of it multitracked by young Zach Condon working alone, and you hear irrepressible melodicism tempered by harmonic melancholy. Rather than a watering down, this mildness is a détournement, the personal stamp of a romantic caught twixt Keats and Ossian--half prodigy, half bullshit artist. He might even bring off the Buckley-Wainwright-Yorke vocalisms if he minded his words instead of melismating croons and moans. But only twice does Condon's mumble venture into the light: "What can you do when curtain falls/What will you do when curtain falls/You're left right, left right, left right, left right, left right, left right, left right, left right" (the Balkans, fucked coming and going) and "The times we had/Oh, when the wind would blow and rain would snow/Were not all bad/We put our feet just where they had to go" (the sorrows of young Zachary). B PLUS

FROM BAKABUSH: THE FIRST TEN YEARS OF STONETREE (Stonetree) Circa 1796, when the Afro-Carib Garinagu were expelled by the conquering British from St. Vincent to Roatán Island for the sin of being insufficiently Carib, there were 2,000 of them by landfall. Now there are 200,000 in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. A world dance Garifuna-style was briefly and inconsequentially promoted as punta rock in the early '90s. This Belize label cultivates the more folkloric paranda strain. Though its guitars are Latin, paranda adds a laid-back Caribbean groove to melodies that could go back to the Arawaks and a gentleness that feels Bahamian. Aurelio Martinez is the big preservationist. Adrian Martinez has the best tune. Mr. Peters' Boom & Chime throw down two brukdown breakdowns. Leroy Young the Grandmaster wears dreads and raps. Godfather Paul Nabor contributes an anthem he wrote for his sister's funeral that they can play at mine. A MINUS

JOURNEY INTO PARADISE: THE LARRY LEVAN STORY (Rhino) Though disco was supposedly an underground, minor-label phenomenon, Rhino's corporate muscle is what makes this two-and-a-half hour mix the most successful attempt to evoke the mythic vibe of the great DJ's Soho dance haven. Fifteen of the 22 tracks originated with WEA, including a few that provide songful relief from the cult hits of divas-in-waiting--Yaz's "Situation," Womack & Womack's "Baby I'm Scared of You," and a weirded-up Nile Rodgers remix of Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music." But mostly it showcases the ambient abandon and steady-state serial orgasm of 12-inch singles often fashioned by Levan himself, cutting extravagrant orchestration with spare percussion and breaks he could protract to infinity if the mood was on him. Not really infinity, of course--not here, and not at the Paradise Garage either. The sun always did come up. And Levan died in 1992. A MINUS

THE KLEZMATICS: Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie (JMG) What a treat to have Lorin Sklamberg singing in English, with the gentleness and precision non-Yiddish speakers sense in him elaborated and specified by the dozen Guthrie lyrics Sklamberg and his cohort turn into music. He's cheery for the neighborhood pep rally, transported for the mystic prophecy, tenderly humorous for the lullaby, delicately feminine for the tale of two rings, a wedding singer when the music gets Balkan (or is that Middle Eastern?), a Marxist simp with a Scotch-Irish melody dreaming of roads paved with the "finest of plastics." One of the age's signal voices, finally available on terms an Al Green fan can understand. A

SIR DOUGLAS QUINTET: Live From Austin TX (New West) Although Doug Sahm's cult has never assembled a best-of consistent enough to convert listeners who think Tex-Mex equals burritos, he defines a style as purely rock 'n' roll as doo-wop or grunge. Buoyed by Augie Meyers's organ and borrowing tunes from the polka conjuntos of his San Antonio raising, the best of his simple songs riff as infectiously as Allen Toussaint's. This 1981 Austin City Limits show, consumer-available as one of a fans-only series that also includes an unnecessary Texas Tornados set, catches him just right at 40. Hard living hasn't wrecked his voice, the musicianship is more disciplined than anything Huey Meaux imposed, new guy Alvin Crow is breaking out, and Sahm is flogging a strong late album. Even beats that Bottle Rockets tribute, I swear. Add tortillas, homemade salsa, and "96 Tears," and you're all set. A MINUS

TOKYO POLICE CLUB: A Lesson in Crime (Paper Bag) For 16 minutes and seven songs, four Toronto DIYs make it seem easy--not their talent, their spirit. Articulated guitar cycles don't occur to every indie wannabe, which is why so many pretend they have bigger plans; the trick of skirting meaning without risking the full monty leaves most bands with their panties in a bunch. But so often those who have the talent don't believe, or convince us, that such feats are beautiful, engaging, worth doing. These kids know the gift is for sharing. A MINUS

TROPICÁLIA: A BRAZILIAN REVOLUTION IN SOUND (Soul Jazz) Ideologically Brazilian though it was, the style Gil, Veloso & Associates devised in the late '60s was not a groove music. Brought forth by classical and avant-garde trainees who loved "Strawberry Fields Forever" and had a full-on right-wing dictatorship to subvert, tropicália anthologizes awkwardly, especially for non-Lusophones. So at first this lavishly annotated, ecstatically reviewed disc seems to jump around too much, in the arch art-pop manner of Os Mutantes, who get six of its 20 tracks. But relisten some and it takes on the inevitability of a song cycle-- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, for instance. The beats roll and rock even as the groove stops and starts; the melodies leap over the language barrier even though trots would be nice. Occasionally, the singers break into English, or in the case of Tom Zé's "Jimmy Renda-Se," toward English--did he say "Billie Holly hollyflex"? The verve is as audibly miraculous as that of any certified Anglo-American acid prophet, more here than on Hip-O's 1999 Tropicália Essentials (which does, however, provide trots). A MINUS

Dud of the Month

NELLY FURTADO: Loose (Mosley Music/Geffen) Although the Toronto hopeful remains an Intriguing Meld who identifies Latina and loves hip-hop, her Timbaland album has the paradoxical effect of bringing out the Canadian in her. Running the show for the attempted sex symbol is an undistinguished singer-songwriter hawking her Intriguing Meld. "Maneater," "No Hay Igual," and the Arab-Indian "Wait for Me" might accomplish God's great plan on the dance-floor. But as songs they're not much. Which doesn't stop the artist from pointing out that "Maneater" isn't solely about one of those mythical creatures--it "speaks to the consumerist world we live in." Oh really? B

Honorable Mention

  • Mr. Lif: Mo' Mega (Def Jux): When world death threatens, don't expect El-P's beats to lift anyone's spirits for the struggle ahead ("Brothaz," "Murs Iz My Manager").
  • Gilberto Gil: The Early Years (Wrasse): I've tried to find translations, really I have ("Chuckberry Fields Forever," "Volk, Volkswagen Blues").
  • Sinéad O'Connor: Throw Down Your Arms (That's Why There's Chocolate and Vanilla): The words of the prophets are clear, people--so clear ("Curly Locks," "Throw Down Your Arms").
  • Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways (Lost Highway/American): Dead man singing ("Like the 309," "God's Gonna Cut You Down").
  • Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental (Rhino): Slowly receding into alienated resignation ("The Sodom and Gomorrah Show," "Casanova in Hell").
  • Atmosphere: You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having (Rhymesayers Entertainment): "Let's watch a rapper get bitter like the city winter"--and he makes something of it ("Watch Out," "Pour Me Another").
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Central America (World Music Network): Travelogue that makes the subcontinent seem more Creole than it actually is (Philip Montalvan, "Bilwi Luhpia Mairen"; Lincoln Lewis, "Wabouga").
  • Willie Nelson: Live From Austin TX (New West): September 1990--making hash of tight versus loose with the same band as 15 years before and after ("Stay All Night," "Help Me Make It Through the Night").
  • The Bottle Rockets: Zoysia (Bloodshot): "If I could be a little bit younger/If I could be a little bit older/If I could be a little bit friendlier/If I could be a little bit colder/Then I could be a little bit better" ("Zoysia," "Middle Man").
  • The Pussycat Dolls: PCD (A&M): Sexier than your average prefab sexpots, but no fabber ("Wait a Minute," "Beep").
  • Rockdownbaby: Love & Sex & Rock & Roll (Life Force): Deena Shoshekes throws Cucumbers fans a curveball ("I Feel My Sex," "Test Drive").
  • The Meat Purveyors: Someday Soon Things Will Be Much Worse! (Bloodshot): Members of bluegrass band by default "need some help to make sense of it all," including 666 packs and Foreigner covers ("Hot Blooded," "Look on Your Face").
  • The Magic Numbers (Capitol): So winsome you want to cuddle 'em, so cutesy you want to smack 'em ("Forever Lost," "Mornings Eleven").

Choice Cuts

  • Matisyahu, "Time of Your Song," "Youth" (Youth, Epic/Or/JDub)
  • Dixie Chicks, "The Long Way Around," "Not Ready to Make Nice" (Taking the Long Way, Open Wide/Columbia)
  • Las Rubias del Norte, "Baby" (Panamericana, Barbés)


  • Big City Rock (Atlantic)
  • Ray Charles: Genius & Friends (Rhino/Atlantic)
  • A Hawk and a Hacksaw: Darkness at Noon (Leaf)
  • Matisyahu: Live at Stubb's (Sony)
  • Rock Kills Kid: Are You Nervous? (Reprise)

Village Voice, July 25, 2006

June 27, 2006 Aug. 22, 2006