Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide:
Sonic Refuges

Rock and roll could never hip hop like this and vice-versa et cetera, part 400something

KIMYA DAWSON: Hidden Vagenda (K) Dawson's high little voice and whimsical imaginings camouflage a brave heart that gives her the courage to be silly--and enables her to confront psychological dysfunction more candidly than any mopeaholic or drama queen to come to my attention (which both types admittedly have a hard time getting). Her chin-up ditties don't connect every time, but her abandonment of home recording will win new listeners anyway. Pop quiz: Who do you think is the target of the do-what-I-do advice "They can't all be ballads Julian"? A MINUS

JEAN GRAE: This Week (Babygrande) "Oh, who's that? Oh, oh that's your girl, you're with her? She looks like everyone else in heah." The dis caps a spoken-not-rapped intro mini-skit, and the intonation is perfect: Jay-Z in cute braggart mode. Grae can rhyme, and if she had a male larynx and a production budget (plus a little luck and additional applications of promotional muscle), her hype men, chipmunk soul, minor-key piano hooks, and "I wanna rock a fella so bad" might stand underground on its head. But she doesn't have those things; she's an "insecure failure/Can barely maintain I wanna scream like Mahalia." Thus her triumph remains strictly aesthetic, and pretty strange, which in the long run can only increase her insecurity. She needs a message bad. B PLUS

HANDSOME BOY MODELING SCHOOL: White People (Atlantic) Not the better class of white people, I'm afraid, although Paul and Dan manage to ground lounge-and-proud Chan Marshall, Julee Cruise, and Jamie Cullen more firmly than usual after feckless rocker Mike Patton gets away from them. Instead, what carries the album is, I swear, the skits--Guido Sarducci and Tim Meadows turn out to be as replayable as Posdnuos and Trugoy. Suitably, the very best of these, Meadows's "Knockers" ("Oh, wait one second, my illegitimate son is here"), climaxes the multipartite tour de force "Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2," the sole occasion when the perfectly interesting rock tracks hip hop enough. The hip hop, fortunately, hip hops plenty. B PLUS

FREEDY JOHNSTON: The Way I Were (Bar/None) John Lennon gets to unveil a throwaway like "Oh Yoko" as the stroke it is. But can an unknown risk such a thing? Not if he craves respect. As it turns out, there are several such strokes among these demos, all preceding or circa 1989's overworked The Trouble Tree and 1992's fine-tuned Can You Fly. Johnston would never put the multi-tracked talkathon "Happy Birthday" or the folkie rave-up "Friend in the City" on a real album, but both achieve a fun his real albums avoid with no sacrifice in ambivalence or bite. And then there are great lost outtakes like "I Do, I Do," in which the excited suitor awaiting the delivery of his mail-order bride croons, "I'm the guy you're belonging to"--not, for instance, "I'm the guy you're longing for." Get somebody else to splice on the guitar-bass-drums and that would be a Can You Fly bonus track to remember. A MINUS

TRAVIS MORRISON: Travistan (Barsuk) Predictably, Morrison's predictably intelligent solo debut puts personality where the Dismemberment Plan's synergy used to be. If the old ploy almost works, that's because he gets synergy out of sidemen and because the album's better half focuses on his circumstances rather than his feelings, which bog the songs down toward the end. Try "Born in '72," a detailed account of privilege's lineaments and limitations, and don't think you're too well-informed for the edutaining ditties about the penny, the nickel, the dime, and the quarter. B PLUS

MOS DEF: The New Danger (Geffen) Musically, Mos Def has always been a little dull--so caught up in his own smarts he let verbal flow carry his albums. Here the defining flow is sonic--a shadowy, guitar-drenched tone poem of the streets. Songs transmute into raps as the album shifts from Black Jack Johnson blues-metal toward smoother beats that quote Hair and twice reference What's Going On in mix and mood as well as content before building to a soulish horn band, some catchy rock nonsense overdubbed entirely by Mos Def, a heart ballad he very nearly sings, and a party-ready requiem cum call to action. "My work is personal, I'm a workin' person/I put in work, I work with purpose," he reminds anyone who would reduce "hard work" to a right-wing slogan. But an equally telling lyric on an album whose secret hero is Bad Brains' Dr. Know is a silly one: "Black Jack Johnson NYC/R-O-C-K-I-N-G." A MINUS

TINARIWEN: Amassakoul (World Village) These Tuaregs never get loud. Their tempos are deliberate, their sonics indigenous; their percussion comprises a single derbouka drum and some handclaps, and their chants eschew showmanship. Not that they're above reaching out, or marketing--they consciously costume themselves as desert exotics. But rarely has such a compelling electric-guitar band offered less rock and roll release. Even when they're inventing Sahara rap their goal is contained self-sufficiency--a principled nostalgia for the community that has been wrested from them. A MINUS

ROKIA TRAORÉ: Bowmboï (Nonesuch) Most of the musicians are Malian, but on just two songs the dread Kronos Quartet establish the size, clarity, and justness of this young pretender's ambitions. Not merely because both tracks are strikingly beautiful--although Kronos recorded in Marin County with a separate producer, they fit right in on a collection whose delicate formalism seems deeply African despite its intermittent groove, and also specifically Malian (the lyrics are in Traoré's native Bamanan, a minority tongue). Overrated overreachers like Susana Baca and Milton Nascimento couldn't equal the lithe discretion that cloaks her sense of drama if they had the sense to try. The translations are welcome--this is a strong, modern woman. But before long that vulgar manifestation of the music's meaning is subsumed in sound. A MINUS

UTD: Manifest Destiny (Illson Media) In the mid '90s, before Black Star, Mos Def joined his little brother DCQ and great lost female Ces in this trio, and he's never been more likable--his wisdom is still eager, too untested for the quiet-confidence bit he developed soon enough. DCQ's broader style is downhome in a world where Bed-Stuy is Dixie. Ces is so articulate and direct--a woman speaking as a human, like Lyte at her best--you feel how the indie-rap boys' club must have gotten her down. And the market-ready kung fu of their demos moves with a catchy quickness. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

LEONARD COHEN: Dear Heather (Columbia) I know it's hard to get a grip on, kids, but people keep getting older. They don't just reach some inconceivable benchmark--50 or, God, 60--and stop, Old in some absolute sense. The bones, the joints, the genitals, the juices, the delivery systems, and eventually the mind continue to break down, at an unpredictable pace in unpredictable ways. Leonard Cohen has had No Voice since he began recording at 33. But he has more No Voice today, at 70, than he did on Ten New Songs, at 67--the tenderness in his husky whisper of 2001, tenderness the way steak is tender, has dried up in his whispered husk of 2004, rendering his traditional dependence on the female backups who love him more grotesque. Nor does noblesse oblige underlie all the adaptations and settings--Lord Byron, Patti Page, a Quebecois folk song, various dead Canadian poets, himself. Rather they reflect the same diminished inspiration that makes you wonder whether his 9/11 song is enigmatic or merely inconclusive. Not only do I like the guy, I'm Old enough to identify with him. But I doubt I'll ever be Old enough to identify with this. On her deathbed, my 96-year-old mother-in-law was still relying on Willie Nelson's Stardust. That's more like it. B

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention

  • Saul Williams (Fader): Poet's "industrial punk-hop" picks up big-time with just a little help from Sirj Tankian, Zack de la Rocha, or Bad Brains ("List of Demands," "Talk to Strangers").
  • Preservation Hall: The Best of the Early Years (Preservation Hall): Roots of the mecca of tourist music, roughly replicating the '20s 40 or 50 years later ("Olympia on Parade," "When the Saints Go Marching In").
  • Zap Mama: Ancestry in Progress (Luaka Bop/V2): Pygmies and babies sing the African diaspora that is her life ("Whatdidusay?" "Zap Bébés").
  • Kasey Chambers: Wayward Angel (Warner Bros.): In New South Wales as in Nashville, heart tuggers are hard to get right ("Pony," "Guilty as Sin").
  • Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11 (Epic): Rediscoveries, recontextualizations, redundancies, and new stuff (Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, "I Am a Patriot"; Zack de la Rocha, "We Want It All").
  • Afrika Bambaataa and the Millennium of the Gods: Dark Matter Moving at the Speed of Light (Tommy Boy): Electro party for the party's sake, like back in the day ("Got That Vibe," "Take You Back").
  • Iris DeMent: Lifeline (Flariella): Her heart cherishes Jesus' memory, but her mind, voice, and soul remain her own ("He Reached Down," "I've Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart").
  • Gretchen Wilson: Here for the Party (Epic): If not a true redneck woman, then an incredible simulation ("The Bed," "Homewrecker").
  • The Neville Brothers: Walkin' in the Shadow of Life (Back Porch/EMI): Funk meets junk in the real nitty gritty ("Kingdom Come," "Rivers of Babylon").
  • Medina Green: U-Know the Flex: The Mix Tape Vol. 01 (Illson Media): DCQ a/k/a Illson avoids commercial compromise, which he could use (Mos Def, "Beef"; Medina Green, "Crosstown Beef").
  • Talib Kweli: The Beautiful Struggle (Rawkus): Maybe it's beautiful to mention Sierra Leone and build chart cred on the same record, maybe just impossible ("Around My Way," "Going Hard").

Choice Cuts

  • Preservation Hall Jazz Band, "That Bucket's Got a Hole in It" (Shake That Thing, Preservation Hall)
  • Boots Riley, "Underdog"; Jill Sobule, "War Correspondent" (Tell Us the Truth: The Live Concert Recording, Artemis)
  • Blaze Foley, "Oval Room," "Springtime in Uganda" (Oval Room, Lost Art)
  • Jill Sobule, "Freshman" (Underdog Victorious, Artemis)


  • Beth Nielsen Chapman: Hymns (BNC)
  • Queen Latifah: The Dana Owens Album (Universal/A&M)
  • John Smith: Pinky's Laundromat (Peanuts & Corn)

Village Voice, Nov. 16, 2004

Oct. 12, 2004 Nov. 30, 2004