Expert Witness, an MSN Music blog by the dean of music criticism, Robert Christgau

Girl You Are a Woman Now

Posted by Xgau Friday, May 20, 2011 5:49:24 AM


Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966 (Phil Spector/Legacy)

This one-CD Philles comp reflects the murderer's loss of his mad grip on his overrated legacy and brings its limitations front and center. Of course there are great records among these 19 oddly sequenced selections‑-by a generous count, as many as a dozen. But there are also three Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans tracks, including the regrettable "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah." Especially given the Crystals classics here that feature La La Brooks or Barbara Alston, these should be enough to convince you to skip the simultaneously released Darlene Love best-of. The Ronettes songs are the only ones in which the lead singer is personable enough to carry material less inspired than "He's a Rebel," "Uptown," and "A Fine Fine Boy." Sometimes, anyway‑-their much better best-of is spotty nonetheless. Too often, Spector's wall of sound was a miasma. Respect him as a girl-group maestro even more gifted than the Shirelles' Luther Dixon. The great exception isn't the Righteous Brothers, who have worn poorly. It's "River Deep Mountain High." A


Etta James: The Essential Modern Records Collection (Virgin)

With awe for the atypical Arlene Smith and respect to the late-breaking Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee, Jamesetta Hawkins had the most physically remarkable female voice of the '50s. "So gritty it was filthy and so sweet it was filthier than that" is what I came up with to promote 2000's Chess Box. But on these 15 pre-Chess tracks, the first recorded when she was 15 and the last before she was 20, the grit is sometimes a gurgle in a soprano on its way down to alto, a serration in an instrument she used  to cut‑-quite a weapon for jailbait whose flirty ways survived well into her long junkie decades. Relieved by straight novelties like "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and "The Pick-Up," where Harold Battiste's tenor sax plays the part of the mack, the material tends boilerplate r&b, and half a century later, Leiber-Stoller's "Tears of Joy" doesn't sound all that much craftier than Davis-Josea's "Good Lookin'." There's too much of the same on Flair's 25-year-old R&B Dynamite, which omits "Shortnin' Bread Rock" and adds only the very early "Be My Lovey Dovey" to her A list, though it includes all the obvious keepers. I prefer this in part because it's shorter. Makes the voice easier to treasure. A MINUS


Craploads of 20-Somethings

Posted by Xgau Tuesday, May 17, 2011 6:18:41 AM
Let's Wrestle: Nursing Home (Merge)

Hiring Steve Albini in a doomed attempt to stave off those twee rumors, these three London slacker-punks or whatever they are do what s.-p.o.w.t.a. always do‑-mature. Fortunately, they also do what all maturing s.-p.o.w.t.a. wish they could do‑-write better songs. I noticed the guitar roar first and the tunes second. But I stayed for the lyrics. "There's a Rockstar in My Room": "But they wouldn't want to stay." "I Forgot": "I may be a few hours late." "In the Suburbs": "I'll have dinner with my mother then play computer games all night." "For My Mother": "If the children need to go to school/Well I'll do that." And my favorite, "I Am Useful": "I will not let my big emotions get ahold of me today/I'm gonna put an English face on this." A MINUS


The Henry Clay People: Somewhere on the Golden Coast (TBD)

Although their new EP sounds suspiciously like a reject pile, this talky 2010 tunefest showcases a six-years-running LA g-g-b-d who like Neil Young, Tom Petty, and especially the Replacements, the latter of whom they resemble but fall well short of matching, as goes without saying for the first two. Says chief songwriter Andy Siara: "The situations I find myself are situations that a whole crapload of 20-somethings who don't know what they're doing are in as well." Their gift is transforming these situations into songs that don't have quite the juice to inspire a movement, including songs with titles like "Working Parttime" and "End of an Empire." They named themselves after The Great Compromiser because they wanted something historical-political, adjudged the Forgotten Presidency of Chester A. Arthur too long for a marquee, and settled‑-too soon, as compromisers will. I think of them as the Displacements myself. B PLUS



Posted by Xgau Friday, May 13, 2011 3:01:31 AM

Gurf Morlix: Blaze Foley's 113th Wet Dream (Rootball)

Eccentric even for a city that brags about its eccentrics, Austinite Blaze Foley inspired Lucinda Williams's "Drunken Angel" and had the best luck of his star-crossed career when Merle Haggard made "If I Could Only Fly" the title song of an excellent 2000 comeback album that didn't sell much. By then he'd been dead a decade, killed by the gun-toting son of a friend he was standing up for. His legend hasn't been helped by master tapes that kept getting lost, stolen, or seized by federal agents, but on these 15 songs his guitarist friend Gurf gets to cherry-pick and hook up with a drummer. Irresistible as John Prine for an opening section capped by the homelessness ditty "No Goodwill Stores in Waikiki," they sink into a slough of despond that starts feeling right comfy before the record rises up with "Small Town Hero," in which the duct tape abuser gets the last word on the high school sports star. Foley never mistook his dysfunction for a cause or felt sorry for himself about anything but women, and even there not much. He made his bed wherever. A MINUS


Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah (Lost Art)

With Foley's posthumous albums patchier than need be, this documentary soundtrack is where to pay your respects. Before he passed at 39, Foley's resonant voice had been roughed up by alcohol and the crusty life, but his easy flow was always something to hear. Without the five keepers it shares with the Morlix tribute, its slow ones would be hard to take‑-"Our Little Town" makes six minutes feel like a sermon so long the roast gets burnt‑-but Morlix doesn't do "Let Me Ride in Your Big Cadillac," "Living in the Woods in a Tree," or "Cosmic Doo Doo," and all are candidates for canonization. Too bad both records pass on "WW III," "Oval Room," and the jokingly, shockingly sadistic "Springtime in Uganda." Foley clearly never thought living in a car diminished his citizenship one little bit. B PLUS


Fight for Your Right to Forty (or Actually, Forty-Five)

Posted by Xgau Tuesday, May 10, 2011 4:01:55 AM

Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin' (Columbia)

One problem with dropping a tour de force out of the blue is that it sends expectations skyrocketing. So as we should have figured, the hook density is down three years after The Way I See It as the former Ray Wiggins declines to provide another dozen perfect Holland-Dozier-Holland songs. In fact, the born bassist now seems obsessed with groove rather than song. More Prince than Ray Parker Jr., he plays with himself to beat the band, and makes these 10 tracks bump and pulse. And then you notice even the less pneumatic ones connecting as songs. Fearing hell or working two jobs or fixing to buy what he can't afford, Saadiq sounds something like natural. Only when you do the math‑-three tracks a year, hmm‑-do you remember that natural's not in it. A MINUS


Beastie Boys: Hot Sauce Committee Part Two (Capitol)

More light-hearted than their Gotham-cheering album of 2004, and if you think light-hearted means shallow‑-especially for a rapper with a tumor threatening his salivary glands at age 42, which was where MCA found himself last July‑-you've come to the wrong art form. With a push from Nas and a whoosh from Santigold and new life from their chorusing kids, the beats spritz and submarine in signature Beasties style as the rhymes claim contexts high-living and low-life. But when they need to state their business, here come two old reliables: "Like Willis Reed or Elton John/We done been in the game and our game's still on." A MINUS


There'll Always Be an Australia‑-Also a Canada

Posted by Xgau Friday, May 06, 2011 2:41:08 AM


An Horse: Walls (Mom + Pop)

"You get up when I go to sleep/But that's just me and geography," expostulates Aussie expat Kate Cooper, who's now migrated to Montreal, at Aussie pat Damon Cox, currently situated in Melbourne, and to cover the distance she strums furiously as he barrages his kit. First emailed across the seas, then finalized in Vancouver, their music is to pop as hardcore is to punk, with the Joey Ramone fillip of Cooper's bizarre pronunciation. Search me whether they really say "Yaw hawt it seems just foine" down Brisbane way. Believe me when I say it's a hook even if they don't. B PLUS


PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant)

Polly Jean Harvey was major when she meant to shake the world, a life project she gave up on after releasing her finest album in 2000‑-much of it set, as must be mere coincidence, in New York City. Creating a suite of well-turned if unnecessarily understated antiwar songs, she's a gifted, strong-willed minor artist bent on shaking England in particular. How much that work enriches anyone's understanding of World War I is open to a debate too niggling to pursue. What's certain is that her special interest in the Great War reflects the changing contours of her chosen chauvinism no less than her evolution from the rough-hewn Howlin Wolf she absorbed in downhome Dorsetshire toward the dulcet clarity of Lancashire's prog-folk Annie Haslam.  "I live and die/through England/I live and die/through England"? You said it, lady‑-twice. B PLUS

Vaults Yield Waltz and Hail Hippie History

Posted by Xgau Tuesday, May 03, 2011 5:26:58 AM
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Tell My Sister (Nonesuch)
Since these "demos and unreleased recordings 1971-1974" are part of a superbly designed and moderately priced little box that also includes their extraordinary Warner Bros. albums of 1976 and 1977, I should specify that my grade is for the bonus disc, which although it includes only five titles unavailable in later versions is one of the most useful I know. Much as I love the debut, its intelligent gloss is no longer needed to put the music across; on the demos, spare piano highlights voices we now know to be delectable without the subtlest sweetening. Proudly selling herself, Kate especially is more forthright and less cunning‑-and also, poignantly, younger. In a few cases‑-I'd name "Kiss & Say Goodbye," "Tell My Sister," and "Blues in E"‑-the demos are even preferable. Special thanks too for Chaim Tannenbaum's unheard "Annie." And then there's the great prize: Kate's newly unearthed "Saratoga Summer Song," a fond, funny, ruefully dissolute chronicle of a hippie summer that casually epitomizes both concepts‑-not just "hippie," but "summer." A


Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Odditties (Querbeservice)

A hodgepodge segmented to make sense as a sampler, all recorded by 1990 and most well before, consisting of: 1) Four Stephen Foster weepers, two Civil War and two early death, harmonized prettily instead of tartly. They're saccharine, yes, but wittingly so, and exposure plus comparison with a Foster comp I like convinced me that this was the most effective rendering of 19th-century parlor music I knew. 2) Two by Canadian folk icon Wade Hemsworth, a McGarrigles staple in their Mountain City Four days‑-the first a waltz that motorvates plenty after those weepers, the second in 5/4 and over my fundament. 3) A Quebecois encore done live in '76 and a Cajun two-step studio-stomped. Both leap the language barrier. 4) Four lost McGarrigles songs, three by Anna and a collaborator, one by Kate alone. All are worthy, two wondrous: Anna's threnody for her cat Louis, which is slight, and Kate's love song to Martha and her dolls, which is wiry. Play it for someone you love on Mother's Day. But be sure to check it out yourself first. A MINUS


Like It Says--Salsa Africana

Posted by Xgau Friday, April 29, 2011 3:22:21 AM

AfroCubism: AfroCubism (Nonesuch)

Here be Nick Gold's second attempt to come home with the literally Afro-Cuban record he intended when travel screw-ups kept the Afro contingent out of Havana and he concocted the Buena Vista Social Club instead. It was recorded in Madrid, and I hope all involved had a ball. But for those who never found the BVSC's creaky music as remarkable as its rocketing sales, and who know in addition that many of its key principals have passed, it's no surprise that the Africans save this enjoyable but less than historic project. Lassana Diabaté's balafon makes as much difference as Djelimady Tounkara's guitar, and though neither vocalist is prime, ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate packs more energy and gravity than second-stringer Eliades Ochoa even if his own solo album underwhelmed. Still, if you really want to hear an old man knock 'em dead, compare the Nico Saquito original of "Al Vaivén de Mi Carreta." B PLUS


Monguito El Unico and Laba Sosseh: Salsa Africana‑-Monguito El Unico and Laba Sosseh in U.S.A. (Sacodisc '05)

So my salsa-playing brother-in-law listens for a while and chides me indulgently for once again preferring African clave to the real thing. Not so abashed I don't remain into what I'm into, I think I hear what he means‑-the groove here is simultaneously more emphatic and more contained than in the Eddie Palmieri he's always promoting and the charanga he pops in now. Only as it turns out, these five tracks, which I have as an unannotated burn, were cherry-picked from circa-1980 sessions in which nasal, Cuba-born Monguito El Unico united chesty, Gambia-born Laba Sosseh with NYC salsa hotshots. In Dakar, Sosseh was a giant, supremely danceable in an era when salsa was the chosen music of the newly independent elite. In U.S.A., he was an exotic. This bypasses Sosseh's signature "Aminata" and "La Bicycletta." But the synergy of the two contrasting voices‑-plus, assuming the inevitable Nuyorican rub-off, three slightly different conceptions of clave‑-makes for yet another seductive variation on the Senegambian tinge. Not easy to find, and I've now heard other music by both Sosseh and Monguito that seems worth exploring. But this will always be where I started. A MINUS


No No Future for Them

Posted by Xgau Tuesday, April 26, 2011 4:02:22 AM

Poly Styrene: Generation Indigo (Future Noise Music)

Life after "Oh Bondage Up Yours" began with Poly's dreamily unpunk 1980 studio-rock Translucence, a sui generis switcheroo absurdly accused of presaging Everything but the Girl. Now there'll be claims her easy-skanking groove is a "dubstep" breakthrough, once again obscuring the main reason her music has connected since she wore braces, which is that it's exceptionally tuneful, if not the main reason we care, which is that she's an exceptionally good soul. She never tops the vegan opener "I Luv Ur Sneakers." But the four humanist protest songs she rolls out just before an unnecessarily dreamy closer seem so unforced you feel for all those who have striven so hard to do nothing more. Ari, Viv, Exene‑-because sisterhood is powerful, this one's for you. A MINUS


Gang of Four: Content (Yep Roc)

As they add the quaver of age to Andy Gill's slashes and modernize Jon King's animadversions with cellphone photos, comparison with the 20-year-old Mall quickly reveals how blessed the mainstays are in drummer Mark Heaney, who in the great tradition of Marky Ramone has both the musical sense to respect Hugo Burnham's simplicity and the historical savvy not to attempt an anachronistic replication. Since their consumerist analysis was never that deep and their self-doubt always had a self-aggrandizement to it, all these adjustments are welcome. In fact, my favorite song here is "A Fruitfly in the Beehive," which begins a quiet patch the original band would never have sat still for. It's not the only time they speak of repentance, for what I don't know--not some endorsement, I hope. Inspirational Verse: "Where are we headed for? For a distant shore? Or some brand new war/Don't know why i can't ask for more, don't walk out the door, what am I left here for?" A MINUS

Note: The Poly Styrene capsule above was written several weeks before she died on April 25 of the cancer I was aware she'd been battling but didn't mention in the review. I could now change the tense to "she was an exceptionally good soul" in the only place the review refers to her life as opposed to her work, which lives on in the eternal present she deserves. But I feel as if somehow that would be a kind of hedge, and so decided to let the review stand as written--and also, more strangely I'm aware, the tag. Oh death up yours.

More about the Expert Witness Blogger

Robert Christgau

Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.

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