Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2014

September 12, 2014

Link: Atmosphere / The Roots / Homeboy Sandman / Open Mike Eagle

Atmosphere: Southsiders (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
Rarely has such a modest record been so in-your-face about it. Ten years since Sean Daley d/b/a Slug started disengaging from the old-boy alt-rap he hoped he'd outgrown, lines like "The world might not live through the night" and "I highly doubt that y'all think about sex anywhere near as often as I think about death" add a gravitas you may shrug off and I believe keeps him up nights. I also believe that as he "write[s] it all down before it vanishes," he feels "Fortunate" to make music from his words and a living at it too. For CD purchasers only: a portfolio of proudly unpretentious architectural photographs documenting the workaday housing stock of his mixed Minneapolis hood. A MINUS

The Roots: . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Def Jam)
With Questlove forswearing all songwriting, with Black Thought sharing the few true raps with benchwarmers Dice Raw and Greg Porn, with cameos and guest tracks and goddamn musique concrête bringing the runt up to weight, with the moral burden of the climax handed over to a neosoul obscurity who lost his label deal in 2010, feel free to slot this 33-minute "concept album" as half-assed product squeezed into their bizzy schedule. Historically, that may even be how it happened. Yet musically it coheres better than the ass-and-a-half Undun--a touching, upsetting meditation in which a sketchy gangsta wannabe embodies the limits of all striving. Every time the musique concrête squelches in, I remember how fraught the world is. Every time Raheem DeVaughn croons about our need for angels, I feel thankful for what I got. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: Hallways (Stones Throw)
After throwing down 34 straight long-"E" rhymes over a Philip Glass beat and cutting them short with a "Damn, I said 'street' before," the self-starter explains why America ain't so bad--legal protections and consumer goods that add up to "We are the 99 per cent locally/We are the one percent globally." And although the percentage is more like five for most Americans, the perspective is tonic from a man who's always been as class-conscious as alt-rap gets. Fine with me that he's no longer vegan. Fine with me that "Personal Ad" is a sex boast few this side of Jay-Z would have the cool or balls to pull off. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: All That I Hold Dear (Stones Throw)
"How can a artist make too much art?" ("Runts," "Relapse") ***

Open Mike Eagle: Dark Comedy (Fat Beats)
Beatwise enough to prop up his unpretentious absurdity-trumps-sarcasm, but not to put it across ("Informations," "Dark Comedy Morning Show") **

September 19, 2014

Link: Shaver / Billy Joe Shaver / Johnny Cash / Willie Nelson / John Hiatt / All My Friends / Hard Working Americans

Shaver: Shaver's Jewels, The Best of Shaver (New West)
Saint and sinner, born again and doomed to perdition--these are old flavors in Southern vernacular music, leached by now of their savor. So give credit to this legendary outlaw-country songwriter-frontman--whose given name is Billy Joe, and whose eponymous band went belly up when his 37-year-old guitarist son Eddy Shaver OD'd New Year's Eve 2000--for slipping so easily from one to the other. This trick is greatly facilitated by Billy Joe's knack for the simple tune and an unassuming vocal affect that makes each one sound like he made it up in the shower after sleeping in his clothes. It also helps that "Son of Calvary," "You Just Can't Beat Jesus Christ," and "Live Forever" are followed by 10 earthbound numbers that culminate with "The Earth Rolls On," which could be about Eddy and could be the woman who has him bouncing down the street in "Love Is So Sweet." A

Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod)
Raving the title track as if he has no teeth at all and topping an old reprobate's catchy cannot-love plaint with an old Christian's melodic yours-for-life pledge, the 75-year-old delivers the latest old man's summum. Striving as always to keep the tunes irresistibly familiar without making a fuss about it, he also deploys his knack for strokes of wordplay you swear someone must have gotten to first, and sometimes you'll be right--"I'm playing checkers while they're playing chess" has been turning trope, although not to my knowledge followed by "They make the big moves that make me a little less." On the other hand, "Is it a lover or a liver/I really need the most?" in the breakup-qua-detox song "Last Call for Alcohol" would seem to be his. Willie delivers "The Git Go" and "Hard to Be an Outlaw" more tellingly on his new album. But Shaver owns everything here nonetheless. A MINUS

Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars (Columbia/Legacy)
The main reason you marvel that material this good was left in the can for 30 years is how many country albums settle for less. But the main reason the material itself astonishes is that Cash is so on his game in what was historically a fallow, coming-down-again biographical moment. In one novelty he gets it on with a chivalrously unnamed Minnie Pearl; in another, he puts a hundred bucks down on a Cadillac and drives it off a cliff on his last date with his ex-wife. Two love songs achieve high seriousness without whispering mawk. And Cash gets so much more out of Adam Mitchell's death-by-cop title song than Merle Haggard or Hazel Dickens. His natural gravity helps. But n.b., Rick Rubin: so does his possession of his bottomless pit of a voice. B PLUS

Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers (Legacy)
Only the song about songwriting rises above Billy Joe's "It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore," but a few come surprisingly close ("The Songwriters," "Hard to Be an Outlaw," "The Git Go") ***

John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender (New West)
Encroaching decrepitude suits him so well vocally that he eggs one of the funniest songs ever written about old age into taking the piss out of a gaggle of musicians who can't grow up ("Old People," "Terms of My Surrender") **

All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman (Rounder)
For two CDs (and one DVD), allstars replicate Allmans with suitable flow and funk and unlikely vocal highlights--from John Hiatt, Trace Adkins, Zac Brown ("Statesboro Blues," "One Way Out," "Trouble No More," "Midnight Rider") **

Hard Working Americans: Hard Working Americans (Melvin)
Hard-headed songs about hard work are hard to find ("Stomp and Holler," "Blackland Farmer") **

September 26, 2014

Link: Road to Jajouka / Hassan Hakmoun / Rough Guide to the Music of The Sahara / Tinariwen / Bambara Mystic Soul / Oumar Konate/ Rough Guide to Mali / Rough Guide to Arabic Café / 1970's Algeria / Rough Guide to Palestine / Orchestra National de Mauritanie / Wayo

The Road to Jajouka: A Benefit Album (Howe)
The centerpiece is ghaita master Bachir Attar, inheritor by hustle of the stoned Moroccan aulos-and-oud-variants-plus-percussion music that has fascinated kif-addled Westerners since Brian Jones traipsed into the dying mountain village of Jajouka with a tape recorder in 1968. Live there's nothing remotely like its eldritch sonorities and impossible rhythms, and sometimes (not always) that's enough in itself--more than enough. On record it's dicier, with the Bill Laswell-produced 1992 Apocalypse Across the Sky the standard. Until this. The angel is drummer Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood. The other participants? Well, how can you not love desert-mountain weirdos who can make a single thing of, to name the ones I know in alphabetical order, Ornette Coleman, Aiyb Dieng, DJ Logic, Flea, Mickey Hart, Bill Laswell, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Lee Ranaldo, Marc Ribot, Howard Shore & the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and John Zorn? Largely NY-avant, sure, but on one sonically coherent record whose sound recalls none of them? Further enhanced by a female Indian vocalist unknown to me and the bassist from Ween? And the greatest of these is--who else? Hint: turned 84 March 9. A MINUS

Hassan Hakmoun: Unity (Healing)
Born into a family of Gnawa musicians in Marrakech in 1963, Hakmoun wasn't yet 25 when he settled Stateside, where his adaptable three-string sintir soon made him bassy North African aide-de-camp to Don Cherry and thence Peter Gabriel. Through Gabriel, he released several showbizzy mid-'90s CDs, but on his first album since 2002, the resounding steady-state propulsion of the opening "Zidokan" soon had me wondering whether I'd judged too quickly. Over 12 longish tracks, Hakmoun beefs up his trad axes and hoarse humanitarian imprecations with plenty of "rock" guitar, trap drums, percussion add-ons, and electronics, and for 70 minutes his fusion never stops moving long enough for your schlock anxiety kick in. Nor does the fact that "Zidokan" is slower than most diminish its propulsion a thrum. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network)
Volume two--its sequel status unnoted as usual--showcases quite a few of the individual artists whose voices emerged from what seemed a realm of barely differentiated mystery on its magnificent 2005 predecessor, and sneaks in extra music by the extra-dry Niger cross-tribalists Etran Finatawa, who back two other Wodaabe aggregations with dreams of escaping the cattle trade. This is a positive. Except for Sahrawi diva Mariem Hassan, who deserves all the kudos she can get, and Nubian master Ali Hassan Kuban, who provides his usual shot in the arm, these artists are better served by a single song than a whole album anyway, and both Wodaabe entries provide needed weirdness. There's also a bonus disc perfect for anyone seeking a whole album by someone who can't sustain one, because Mamane Barka comes damn close on a five-stringed harp you've never heard of perfected by a fishing tribe you've never heard of either. Not Barka's tribe--in the Sahara, a high school diploma is a broadening thing. A MINUS

Tinariwen: Emmaar (Anti-)
The facts as I see them. 1) Although Tuaregs are infinitely superior to Islamists insofar as they're not Islamists themselves, the imagined Tuareg homeland of Azawad is unlikely to be any juster a nation than Mali although maybe not Niger. 2) That's academic, because there'll never be an Azawad. 3) Tinariwen are tenacious self-promoters with a strong signature sound. 4) Tinariwen was the first band to export the Saharan style, but if you favor exhilaration in your music, better ones followed. 5) Tinariwen's practical principles compel and/or permit them to sell tiny variations on the same thing to a world-music market less discerning than it thinks it is. 6) Their second album for this alt-rock powerhouse is somewhat more exhilarating than their first only because the first was designed to be quiet. 7) The first, called Tassili in case you forgot, has better cameos. 8) Aman Iman from back in 2007 has more women on it. 9) Aman Iman is the one to have if you're having only one. B PLUS

Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso 1974-1979 (Analog Africa)
Not raw--Afrofunk cooked up from the Latin beats, Islamic grooves, Manding melodies, and Malian guitars of Upper Volta's more prosperous neighbors to the west (Coulibali Tidiani, "Sie Koumgoulo"; Amadou Ballaké et Les 5 Consuls, "Renouveau") ***

Oumar Konate: Addoh (Clermont Music)
Fine Malian singer with explosive trad drummer whose best song after "Welcome" concerns a nation ruined and whose best song after that concerns shaking that thing ("Bisimillah," "Ir Ganda Hassara," "Ayéré Yéré") ***

The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali (World Music Network)
Strong enough throughout, and quite a culture at quite a moment, but does it peak when Bassekou and Oumou come on (Terakaft, "Awa Adounia"; Khaira Arby, "Goumou") ***

The Rough Guide to Arabic Café (World Music Network)
Why can't we all just get along? (Ali Hassan Kuban, "Abu Simbel"; Maurice El Medioni, "Bienvenue/Abiadi") ***

1970's Algerian Folk and Pop (Sublime Frequencies)
Going for melody rather than groove, sweet even when they don't quite hit it--and sometimes they do (Freedom [Hourya], "Abadane"; Smail Chaoui, "N'sani, N'sani") **

The Rough Guide to the Music of Palestine (World Music Network)
Such a civilized nation it has its own hard rock, tourist reggae, lounge chanteuses, and bad fusion (Le Trio Joubran, "Newwar"; Khalas, "Badek Zafi") **

Orchestre National de Mauritanie: Orchestre National de Mauritanie (Sahel Sounds)
Circa 1973, a desert land dreams briefly of cosmopolitan Conakry before its modern modal dreams are swallowed by the army and the sands ("Senam-Mosso," "Oumletna ['La Mone']") **

Wayo: Trance Percussion Masters of South Sudan (Riverboat)
Drums beating high and fast, women singing high and fast--not "hypnotic," more like scintillating ("Woe Woe Wee Odo Gbere Ni Fanini [The Beautiful Girls Are Wonderful]," "Wa Ma Bire Re Kuragi Amsmar Ni Wiri Paranga Re [When You Next See Me, I Will Have Graduated]") *

Medium/Cuepoint, September 2014

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