Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

August 2007: Lucinda is laudable but Pretty Ricky is a dud

I knew going in that I'd be dealing with lots of soul-identified females this month, some of them statistically pop. The females whose pop has a punk or alt edge snuck up on me -- and, for the moment, have that humorous distance and sense of earned, just-discovered entitlement without which punk turns into emo.

The Chalets: Check In (Setanta) Big in Ireland, where this album is 2 years old, two gals and three guys prove a little too cute and through-conceived to fully exploit the innocence of the "Two Chord Song," as their most compelling number is entitled. But excellent gender conflicts bedeck their well-enunciated lyrics, and if you can imagine yourself being unable to resist a chorus that goes "I know you love me but you're f***ing crazy/I know you love me but you're f***ing crazy," you definitely won't resist this one. B PLUS

The Fall: Reformation: Post TLC (Narnack) This does get weird, quiet and slack second half, although, really, why shouldn't his wife sing "The Wright Stuff"? In any case, the first half regales and/or lacerates with the mad purity and/or skeptical hilarity Mark E. Smith was put on the planet to take to his grave. Recorded with Los Angeles pickup musicians, although now I guess we just call them the Fall, immediately after his band of seven years ditched him in Phoenix, it states its business out of the box: "I think it's over now I think it's ending/I think it's over now I think it's beginning." Then it does its business with "Insult Song," a six-minute shaggy groove story about being stuck with ree-tards from the Los Angel-eeze district. A MINUS

Hyphy Hitz (TVT) I don't just admit it, I wear it on a sandwich board at Lincoln Center -- I love stoopid, retain clishayed misspelling please. And there's no hip-hop anywhere, not the drunkest Atlanta crunk or the screwiest Houston purple-slurp, as stoopid as this wasted Bay Area electro derivative. From the A'z' siren-enhanced knowumsayin variant "Yadadamean" to the "Family Guy" poo-poo of the D.B.z' "Stewy," there isn't a sound effect too cartoon for these illegally illing sillies. They gulp, they duh, they gabble, they slur and of course they drawl. Street dealers who pass the time joking around, they bitch about snitching, and occasionally one of them manages an erection. But they generally lack the discipline to pimp and the braggadocio to lie about it. A MINUS

Los Campesinos!: Sticking Fingers Into Sockets (Arts & Crafts) "Trying to find the perfect match between pretentious and pop," eh? You weren't hoping I'd quote that, were you? You must know that today's pop gets a lot more pretentious than this, and a lot deader, thus testifying to the perfection of your match. Pretty sharp for Cardiff U kids -- Raymond Williams would be proud (I hope). Do they really dance to "You! Me! Dancing!" in Wales? They'd better, since it lasts six minutes and claims, credibly, that you yourself "can't dance a single step." Which, right, you also hoped I'd quote. A MINUS

The Oohlas: Best Stop Pop (Stolen Transmission) Olivia Stone sings nine of this L.A. trio's fetching tunes with a plaintive modesty that's just fetching enough. The standout lyric concerns a dead goldfish, but most stick to Stone's normally troubled love life. Alt-retro without being polemical about it, the tunes themselves are enough to prove she cares about relating, in part because they prove she's not trying to look cool. But that trick only goes so far. When one of the guys sings the other three he's just a whiner. A MINUS

Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women: Deluxe Edition (Alligator) A dynamite post-vaudeville act enters history on a best-of that preserves its choicest lines and deepest riffs. Where in the true vaudeville era Butterbeans and Susie regaled the T.O.B.A. circuit with connubial comedy, recovering science teacher Gaye Adegbalola and gap-toothed blueswoman Ann Rabson dramatize not just feminist sex but post-menopausal sex. They prefer young men for their malleability and take shade from no one -- only once do they slip into the ladies-love-outlaws trope male songwriters should outlaw. Adegbalola sums up the prevailing mood in "Middle Age Blues Boogie": "I'm throwing away my dustmop/Got a brand new vacuum cleaner/You should hear me when I holler/'Eureka, eureka.'" A MINUS

Lucinda Williams: West (Lost Highway) The young are right to think she's old -- having finally broken through at 45, she's now 54. She affects authenticity as shamelessly as her role model, Bob Dylan. But with respect to all the other noble old pros deploying blues and country readymades, the craftiness of Williams' vocals, meaning their unnaturalness, secures their vitality. She doesn't fake spontaneity -- she honors it as one of the constellation of life virtues she hopes her songs evoke and subsume. Protruding from this metaphysical quest, her palpable concern for her ex-lover and warm affection for her mom are strengthened rather than compromised, and when she disses her dead mom's funeral, the bile seems organic by contrast. Certainly not what I would call soul. But it knows things about soul that the soulful may not. A

Honorable Mention

  • E-40: My Ghetto Report Card (Reprise) Dope jokes offensive and funny, pimp jokes offensive and stupid (retain pejorative correct spelling please) ("Gouda," "Yay Area," "They Might Be Taping").
  • Junior Wells: Live at Theresa's 1975 (Delmark) Including a "Snatch It Back and Hold It" that incorporates "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" ("Scratch My Back," "Little by Little," "Happy Birthday").
  • Kanye West: Can't Tell Me Nothing (no label) Get this while you can from the mixtape man no matter how much of it is destined for the real album (Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; Bentley Feat. Pimp-C and Lil' Wayne, "C.O.L.O.U.R.S").
  • Jill Scott: Collaborations (Hidden Beach) A little writing help from her friends ("8 Minutes to Sunrise," "Daydreamin'," "Good Morning Heartache").
  • Peter Bjorn and John: Writer's Block (Almost Gold) Music is their native language, English not ("Amsterdam," "Objects of My Affection").
  • Akon: Konvicted (Universal) Answers the burning question of whether R. Kelly's priorities would be improved by hard time more ambiguously than one would hope ("Smack That," "Don't Matter," "Tired of Runnin'").
  • Chrisette Michele: I Am (Def Jam) She believes in love, she's not silly about it, and unless you're a creep you'll wish her well ("Like a Dream," "Let's Rock").
  • Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Universal Republic) Pray her marriage lasts -- she's observant, and it would broaden her perspective ("You Know I'm No Good," "Rehab").
  • Ray Charles + The Count Basie Orchestra: Ray Sings Basie Swings (Concord/Hear Music) That's "plus" not "and," because the (Basieless) band came in 30 years after Charles sang the bejesus out of these faves -- and it still works ("Let the Good Times Roll," "Feel So Bad").
  • Tegan and Sara: The Con (Vapor) Negotiating different power relations than heterosexual women, they have trouble getting out of themselves ("Back in Your Head," "Hop a Plane").
  • Art Brut: It's a Bit Complicated (Downtown) Kept a band going, they kept a band going ("People in Love," "Jealous Guy").
  • Swamp Dogg: Resurrection (S.D.E.G.) Old soul tragically widowed, triumphantly remarried, and madder than ever ("In Time of War Who Wins," "They Crowned an Idiot King").
  • Aaron Neville: Bring It on Home . . . The Soul Classics (Burgundy) Finally, repertoire worthy of his voice/shtick ("Rainy Night in Georgia," "Respect Yourself").
  • T-Pain: Epiphany (Konvict/Nappy Boy/Jive) Except for the aspiring knuckleheads' guide to getting her high enough to freak, an OK guy for a sex-seeking simpleton ("Bartender," "Yo Stomach").
  • James Blood Ulmer: Bad Blood in the City (Hyena) Silty with guitar, Blood and Vernon's levees-broke album would be for naught without his ever grittier voice ("Dead Presidents," "Katrina").
  • John Legend: Once Again (Columbia) So subtle, or slippery, you can't tell whether he's in love with a video pro named Maxine or doing her on the side ("P.D.A. [We Just Don't Care]," "Where Did My Baby Go").
  • Smokey Robinson: Timeless Love (New Door) From the '70s vaults, Quiet Storm as per the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and similars who sound even better ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "You Go to My Head").
  • Bonnie Bramlett: Roots, Blues & Jazz (Zoho Roots) As mixed up and unapologetically Southern as the title says, another voice improves with age ("Love the One You're With," "I'm Confessin'").
  • Ill Ease: All Systems A-Go-Go! (Cochon) Do-it-herself punktoons with murmur and drum machine ("One Hell of a Bender," "Walking Pneumonia").
  • Maria Muldaur: Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (Stony Plain) Blue blues and educational double entendres, New Orleans-style ("One Hour Mama," "Down Home Blues").
  • Ciara: The Evolution (LaFace/Zomba) If this hottie next door believes she's moving on up toward "I'm Just Me" and "I Found Myself," I want to know why they're not the singles (yet) ("That's Right," "Like a Boy").

Choice Cuts

  • The Soul Clan, "That's How It Feels" (Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Brothers, Atlantic/Rhino)
  • Aretha Franklin, "My Way"; Margie Joseph, "It's Growing"; Esther Phillips, "Cheater Man" (Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters, Atlantic/Rhino)
  • Timbaland, "Give It to Me," "Release" (Timbaland Presents Shock Value, Blackground/Interscope)
  • Rihanna, "Umbrella" (Good Girl Gone Bad, Def Jam)
  • R. Kelly, "Best Friend," "Real Talk," "The Zoo," "Same Girl" (Double Up, Jive)
  • Margo Thunder, "Expressway to Your Heart"; Doris, "Beatmaker" (Mama's Got a Bag of Her Own, Stateside)
  • Bekka Bramlett with Sam Moore, "Don't Play That Song" (Overnight Sensational, Rhino)
  • John Lee Hooker Jr., "Do Daddy," "You Blew It Baby" (Cold as Ice, Telarc)
  • DJ Drama & Lil Wayne, "Sportscenter," "What U Kno," "Georgia . . . Bush" (Dedication, Vol. 2, Gangsta Grillz)

Dud of the Month

Pretty Ricky: Late Night Special (Atlantic) A fellow has to wear panties to convey them to the floor. And no matter how pretty Ricky is, that's as much as either of us need know about the prospects of our relationship. C

More Duds

  • Marc Broussard: S.O.S.: Save Our Soul (Vanguard)
  • Solomon Burke: Nashville (Shout! Factory)
  • DJ Shadow: The Outsider (Universal)
  • Billie Holiday: Remixed & Reimagined (Columbia/Legacy)
  • Janet Jackson: 20 Y.O. (Virgin)
  • Ne-Yo: Because of You (Def Jam)
  • Diana Ross: Blue (Motown)
  • Diana Ross: I Love You (Manhattan)
  • Irma Thomas: After the Rain (Rounder)
  • Von Südenfed: Tromatic Reflexxions (Domino)

MSN Music, Aug. 2007

July 2007 Sept. 2007