Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2012

Listen . . . Oka!/Oneohtrix Point Never

Post-Everythingism Meets Nature
Friday, February 3, 2012  

Listen . . . Oka! (Oka Productions)
This beguiling piece of post-rock is neither a proper soundtrack nor a field recording--not with the African musicians offered the chance to hear their own inventions on headphones and add overdubs. It's a soundtrack-based Bayaka Pygmy audio collage, very much doctored by producer and frequent co-composer Chris Berry, a Californian adept of Zimbabwean thumb piano. With their dream songs, 54-bar structures, and propensity to turn anything from a babbling brook to a scrap of plastic pipe into an instrument, these culturally threatened Central African Republic hunter-gatherers seem to live music even more than most Africans. Women are the chief creators, which has major consequences as regards both prevailing pitch and how much the music hunts and how much it gathers. But either way, it pervades their lives. By manipulating recorded sounds and songs and inviting the Bayaka to do the same, Berry translates that pervasiveness into a form comprehensible in a culture differently pervaded by music--ours. A

Oneohtrix Point Never: Replica (Software)
Daniel Lopatin may be a deconstructionist, but he's no ascetic. Unlike too many post-rockers, he has a taste for content as well as form and for creation as well as contrarianism, harvesting a healthy plateful of diverse sounds and textured note sequences from his beloved analog keyboards and then arraying them in songlike tracks that stay in the four-minute range until the quietly celebratory seven-minute finale. Chugging, grinding, crackling, swelling, bubbling, babbling, these tracks don't sound like part of the natural world, but they certainly sound cognizant of the natural world. And although I may be missing some of their formal interrelationships, I swear they behave as one thing. A MINUS

Thomas Anderson/Craig Finn

Heartland Tales
Tuesday, February 7, 2012  

Thomas Anderson: The Moon in Transit (Four-Track Demos, 1996-2009) (Out There)
By electing to expend his Dutch East India advance on a fancy tape recorder instead of the Velvet Underground reunion, this Austin singer-songwriter acquired the means to preserve his songs in analog form, and here's the fruit. There were two good albums and then three marginal ones over two decades, so who'd expect a grab bag to be his best? Yet it is. With all four tracks laid down DIY, it's even squarer rhythmically than his norm, and his calm drawl verges on the spectral. But it also verges on the hypnotic, and the guy can write stories and work up tunes. After a brief fanfare, there's an opener about the Donner Party so gruesome and precise I sometimes skip to the merely spooky "Heckling Houdini." Also featured are a 33-year-old groupie-turned-granny, a cross-dressing uncle, Ubangi-stomping Warren Smith, a painfully slow lunch with Nefertiti a few years or millennia too late, driving till you're dizzy in a dumbshit town, and the one about lost love and "Antihistamines": "Chlorpheniramine, Diphenhydramine,/Doxylamine, Phenindamine,/Tripolidine and Pheniramine,/I can't cure my pain with antihistamines." A MINUS

Craig Finn: Clear Heart Full Eyes (Vagrant)
On a wittingly laid-back solo debut where the declamatory Hold Steady frontman knows he can't bring off the country vocals his best songs deserve, he nails three flat-out anyway: "Terrified Eyes" (couple destroyed by their hospital bills), "When No One's Watching" (snazzy scuzzball seeks needy women), and "Balcony" (she does with her new man what she did with her old man back when he was new). The rest tend more, how to say it, evocative. But at least they evoke specifics--Middle American dramatis personae as marginal as Wussy's. B PLUS

Omar Souleyman/Original Sound of Cumbia

Standing Out and Having Fun
Friday, February 10, 2012  

Omar Souleyman: Haflat Gharbia: The Western Concerts (Sublime Frequencies)
I don't know how I missed this guy, but though maybe his three earlier compilation-style albums on Sublime Frequencies render this one redundant, I doubt it--played blind, it grabbed me by the what-the? from the moment track two speeded things up and didn't quit till the end of track nine an hour and change later. A Syrian not to be confused with the Egyptian placeholder president of approximately the same name, Souleyman is a local wedding singer turned world-music attraction playing a supposedly dumbed-down, synthed-up, hickoid-metal variant of a major Levantine pop style called, how loosely or precisely I know not, dabke. Recorded in such exotic locales as Berlin, Melbourne, Philadelphia, and Kortrijk, Belgium, this delivers the kind of intensity Lester Bangs craved and almost got when he tore the shrink-wrap off the Count Five's Cartesian Jetstream. And don't nitpick--Lester couldn't understand the lyrics either. A MINUS

The Original Sound of Cumbia (Soundway)
Subtitled "The History of Colombian Cumbia & Porro: As Told by the Phonograph 1948-1979," this is a crate dig rather than a hits collection: two CDs culled from five years of rooting around among 78s by the prolific U.K. beatmaster-bandleader Bill "Quantic" Holland, who also provides 5000 words of fact-filled notes. There's not much of the surface sparkle of the Disco Fuentes cumbia comps here, but boy, are these guys determined to stand out and have fun. Few of the 55 three-minute dance tracks by 50-plus artists are catchy in the pop sense, but most boast a mark of difference--intro or small arranging trick, yodel or spoken byplay or Donald Duck voice or comic call-and-response or lead tuba or humorous squeezebox trickery. Accordions and a panoply of local percussion dominate the Afro-mestizo groove, so that the larger horn sections that materialize toward the end are almost buzz killers sometimes. Not the kind of album you put on craving greatness--the kind of album you put on craving company. A MINUS

Skrillex/Clams Casino

Electronical Vistas
Tuesday, February 14, 2012  

Skrillex: Bangarang (Owsla/Big Beat/Atlantic)
"The most hated man in dubstep" therefore isn't "in" dubstep at all, which allowing for a few wannabes is fine by the rest of us who aren't in dubstep, meaning 99 percent if not 99.99 percent of music consumers. If you're too smart or knowledgeable for this young goof and his damn Grammys that Robyn wouldn't have won anyway, by all means enjoy your cool. I'm not. But I know this much. This is a pop record because its shamelessly hedonistic barrage of proven dancefloor tricks will obviously be more fun at home than in a club, where it would blare forth at quadruple volume to young jerks who'd get just as excited about LMFAO. A MINUS

Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape (free download)
Reconstructed from tracks created for such real-life rappers as Lil B and Soulja Boy, New Jersey beatmaker Mike Volpe's comfortably disquieting illbient glitchbeat chillwave whatsis will grow on you if you give it a chance. And because it's designed to back into your space, providing the chance won't feel all that time-consuming, preoccupied as you'll be with something more engrossing while said time passes. The opening "Motivation" powers home enough hummed 'n' moaned gravitas to remind you it's there, and the closing "Cold War" caps the 40-minute album with a vocal sample that utters the title for once. In between you'll first pick up on "What You Doin'" and "Illest Alive," better known to you as the one in the middle and the one toward the end. Then slowly the rest will ooze into place via capillary action. A MINUS

Etta James

Great Voices Get Even More Precious When You Know They're Gone
Friday, February 17, 2012  

Etta James: The Dreamer (Verve Forecast)
A hard liver, she's sounded old for a while. This is different--weary, diminished. Yet the physical and even mental diminution enriches the music. It was cool for her long-passed youngblood homeboy Johnny Watson to claim he was "Too Tired," but it's cooler for James to remember that song half a century later and sing it against tempo as if she may not get all the way to 2:34. The "Surely someone will understand me" of Bobby Bland's failed crossover title tune resonates differently from a dying woman. It's also different for a ghetto woman born and raised to seize "Welcome to the Jungle" and tell Axl, "If you got the money we got your disease." And having eased right into Otis Redding's blissful "Champagne and Wine," she then transforms his bone-tired, just-off-the-road marriage proposal "Cigarettes and Coffee" into an evocation of old love so calm you believe she achieved some bliss of her own, and domestic bliss at that. A MINUS

Etta James: Matriarch of the Blues (Private Music '00)
Produced by the well-bred rhythm section of drummer Donto James and bassist Sametto James, this is half riskily irreverent rock and roll and half perilously imperious blues. Beyond an inconclusive Creedence cover, she co-owns every non-blues--"Miss You"! "Gotta Serve Somebody"! "Try a Little Tenderness"! Otis's chortling "Hawg for Ya"! Al's unremembered "Rhymes"! "Hound Dog," which counts aab or not! But neither the horns nor the B.B. homages will inspire the dutiful bluesboy to return to his long-abandoned O.V. Wright and Little Milton studies. From Big Mama Thornton to Shemekia Copeland, no woman has sung such material with more power. So maybe power isn't what it needs. Maybe it needs more irreverence. B PLUS

Odds and Ends 006

R&B in the Broadest Sense Except That I Stuck Drake Somewhere Else
Tuesday, February 21, 2012  

Bootsy Collins: Tha Funk Capital of the World (Mascot)
Five historic P-Funk tracks fronted by Cornel West, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Al Sharpton, and a panoply of old A-game rappers followed by 11 well-meaning Bootsy tracks distinguished by cameos from Buckethead and, wouldn't you know it, George Clinton ("After These Messages," "Hip Hop @ Funk U") ***

Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops & Hooligans (Elektra)
Nice guy finishes first ("Grenade," "Lazy Song") ***

John Legend & the Roots: Wake Up! (Good Music/Columbia)
A myth of conscious soul neither the singer nor his attendant rappers can quite put across ("Compared to What," "I Can't Write Left Handed") ***

Terius Nash: 1977 (free Radio Killa download)
Living for sex gets less dreamy all the time ("Wedding Crasher," "Used to Be") ***

Betty Wright & the Roots: Betty Wright: The Movie (Ms. B/S-Curve)
It wasn't "Old Songs," it was good songs, and they were usually shorter than these ("Real Woman," "Grapes on a Vine," "You and Me, Leroy") **

The-Dream: Love King (Def Jam/Radio Killa)
We know this trickster is "the last romantic" because, in the very same song, he tells his babydoll to present "panties to the side" ("Florida University," "Sex Intelligent") **

Ray Charles: Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters (Concord)
Genius is rare even when it misfires, as with Ray it oft did, but the taste to make it glow a little is always for sale ("Why Me, Lord?" "It Hurts to Be in Love") **

The Original 7ven: Condensate (SRR)
"The band formerly known as the Time" are shocked that you should believe time is real--but of course, it is ("Condensate," "One Step") *

Al Green/D'Angelo

The Roots of Songless Soul
Friday, February 24, 2012  

Al Green: Al Green Is Love (Hi/The Right Stuff '75)
I never got with this album, which in the wake of the late-'74 grits-and-suicide incident kicked off Green's quick commercial decline with its only pop hit, the catchy, slight "L-O-V-E (Love)." That one sounds like it was waiting in the can for just such a disaster, and though eventually the post-paranoid "Rhymes" and the Afro-percussive "Love Ritual" caught my ear on compilations, the two other conventional songs here did not. Then I spun David Toop's midnight-soul concoction Sugar and Poison late this Valentine's Day and finally registered a genius piece I'd played 20 times before: the fluttering, vocalese "I Didn't Know," which makes eight minutes of impossible poetry from lines like "I didn't know that you feel like you do/Feel like you feel when you feel like you feel." Along with Sly's "Just Like a Baby," "I Didn't Know" is the linchpin of Sugar and Poison, and also the Rosetta stone of this album, which explores four or five other versions of the same idea. "Love Ritual." "The Love Sermon." It's all L-O-V-E. You got a problem with that? A

D'Angelo: Brown Sugar (EMI '95)
After getting religion about a precursor of songless r&b, I thought I'd revisit its modern wellspring, and wasn't surprised to have warmed to it--D'Angelo's concentration is formidable, his groove complex yet primal. But because it's bass-driven rather than voice-led, Brown Sugar is less subtle than Al Green Is Love, and less sociable too: D'Angelo, who was leading a great band through these songs by 2000, laid down all the instruments on four tracks and on two others brought in only co-producer Bob Power's guitar, which loosens things up nicely, though not like the string section on "Cruisin'"--a tune that originated with a pretty darn good songwriter named Smokey. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman

In It for Love
Tuesday, Febvruary 28, 2012  

Homeboy Sandman: The Good Sun (High Water Music '10)
He's a believer--once withdrew from a freestyling contest rather than rhyme to a gunshot beat. He's a vegan who forswears cursewords and caffeine although not reefer, brags about how poor he is, and is avowedly "not pop." But he's no ascetic. His songs come equipped with brief melodic hooks, his rapid rhymes brim with delight, and from gravelly to singsong his flow is always ready for whatever comes next. Sandman has heard the insult knuckleheads aim at every rapper who makes them feel guilty: "Maybe you think I'm whinin' like BeBe and CeCe." But he knows he rhymes for love and for the fun of it, and so will you. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: Subject: Matter (Stones Throw download)
He says this EP's subjects matter because no other hip-hopper has touched them, and except for the opener about his creative process, he's got a right, as in the one about his material possessions that includes his sock drawer. His beats stick, and even when he's merely rhyming there's a musicality there: "Carpe diem/As a.m. turn to the p.m./The zone I be in/Muy bien." From the grounded erotic obsession of "Unforgettable" to the down-in-the-flood nightmares of "Soap," he's got a vision. And nowhere is his subject matter more materialistic--philosophically, and maybe even dialectically--than in "Canned Goods": "Other food spoils much quicker/The spoils go to the victors." A MINUS

MSN Music, February 2012


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