The Music Club

The Best Country Album in As Long As I Can Remember
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 18 2007 7:41 AM

The Music Club

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Miranda Lambert. Click image to expand.
Miranda Lambert

Dear Jody and Ann, Well, mostly Jody—the exigencies of parenthood, daily newspaper coverage, and Celine Dion's Journey (Through Life) have switched up our order here. So, I'll deal with two of Jody's themes, humor and humanism (note alliteration). I love funny music, have loved it since Chuck Berry and the Coasters and all the vaudevillians I got to glimpse in their seniority on TV. Humorlessness counts as strike 2 ½ against whole genres by me—prog, Nick Drake and Tim/Jeff Buckley folkiedom, the indie cult of sad, plus, of course, Journey, Celine Dion, and all their epigones. But funny isn't so hard to find. Allow me to guide you through my top 10 albums. Among many other glorious things, M.I.A.'s Kala is a hoot—without even looking it up I remember how she puts boyz in their place up top and those didge-fridge didjeridoo rhymes in the middle and, my favorite until I get my pocket picked, "Paper Planes' " cheerfully asserted subaltern intention of taking your/our/my money, complete with ca-chinging cash-register beat. Like so many visionary gurus, Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hutz has a lot of clown on him: "Have you ever been to an American wedding/ Where's the vodka, where's the marinated herring?" Rochereau, maybe not—my Lingala's even worse than my French, and his Kinshasa rival Franco is said to be the satirist—but I chuckle every time I inform someone that the loveliest song on his glorious two CD best-of is a soap commercial. Arcade Fire, no, their record (like Bright Eyes', which I also enjoy) is all about the sort of humanistic heart-on-sleeve Nashville regularly mushes up. But Lucinda Williams, who favors tragedy to an oft-perilous degree, does some excellent dick dissing on "Wrap My Head Around That" and, especially, "(You Couldn't Even Make Me …) Come On." As often happens with records I like, Miranda Lambert's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is so sharply written that its wit always makes me smile, and includes the purely comic "Dry Town," which I didn't know Gillian Welch had in her. Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight also scores, mostly in that well-worded way, but let me cite this couplet from "Dejalo": "My mama is an atheist/ If I stay out late she don't get pissed." Lily Allen's, Alright, Still … could almost be a music-hall tribute—its biggest laff riot is "Knock 'Em Out," in which Our Lily fobs off a masher over a Huey Smith run. Fountains of Wayne's not-so-mysteriously slept-on album (they write for the movies and had an MTV hit, plus they crack jokes, so obviously they can't be Art) is also funny throughout—check out the phone call with Mom in "Someone to Love" or "Yolanda Hayes' " tale of imaginary interracial love. Finally, there's Against Me!, whose best-emo-record-of-all-time (including other "political" ones—yes, I have listened to whole Thursday CDs, twice!) many will no doubt find laughably sober-sided. I say that anyone who can call a song "White People for Peace" and hook it to a sarcastic yet irresistible chorus that goes, "Protest songs in response to military aggression" has some sense of humor. A grim one, no doubt—but some sense of humor. Which brings me to humanism, and Brad Paisley, whom I've admired since his 1999 debut album—which I reviewed favorably with reservations, just as I have all but his sophomore slump. Replaying 5th Gear—and I love the songs Jody linked to, especially "Letter to Me"—the first thing I noticed was that "Ticks," which made my singles list because for a week there I was playing it for everyone who came in the house, didn't tickle me so much anymore. Oh well, jokes are that way, could change again. But what won't change is how much I hate the next track, "Online," where the butt is some fat kid with a Mac pretending he's a Hollywood hunk with two honeys. Now, I yield to no one in my dismay at online culture. (Both of you guys actually read the blather flamers click your way, don't you? Not me. Let 'em figure out how to write my site—doable, but not hit-me-baby-one-more-time—or spend 41 cents.) But fat kids who wish they weren't? They're my people, and not because I've ever been one. Paisley should know better, but he doesn't, just as he's equally happy with this album's metrosexual-baiting (no, he doesn't use the word, just neutered and feminized) in "I'm Still a Guy" and the last album's magnificent "Waiting on a Woman," which follows some gentle gender stereotyping to metaphorical orgasm and death in so many words. What Jody didn't quite say, but I will, is that country humanism is about the domestic. The best thing I've ever done in my life is marry the woman I married, and that's one reason I care about country music, where marriage is taken more seriously than in rock or R&B. I too dig Lori McKenna, with her cornily (also realistically) pro-marriage "Witness to Your Life" and painfully near-splitsville "Drinkin' Problem" (Jody, Blake Shelton's "The More I Drink" should have been on my auxiliary singles list, and let us not forget Paisley's 2005 "Alcohol"). And for all that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the best country album in as long as I can remember. It grows—it's the late-placed promiscuity lament "Guilty in Here" that nails it shut. But it begins with Miranda offing her abusive boyfriend like she was trying out for Three 6 Mafia. (Cf. another more altish country album, Amy LaVere's Anchors and Anvils.) Also running out of room, but need to squeeze in two points. The first is that domestic realism is only one kind of humanism, and that for all of indie's insufferability, I found plenty of humanism on indie albums in 2007, humanism with room for fat kids and metrosexuals. Some are renowned, like the aforementioned Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes, both of whom emote somewhat inchoate feelings and ideals that I found far more heartening and vivid than those on, for instance, Arcade Fire hero Bruce Springsteen's honorable entry, or that lovely little Plant-Krauss number. Sometimes the bands in question are aging and know it: the transported Apples in Stereo, careering adults Imperial Teen, Cincinnati's guaranteed-to-Velvets-and/or-Ass-Ponys-fans Wussy. Others are exuberant kids who may pose but have no evident interest in flaunting obscurantism or ruling cool: the Go! Team and Los Campesinos! (from Britain!), and from Baltimore (!), a mad art band one of my Princeton students turned me onto called Ponytail. The second is, although I hardly lack for work, I do miss the autonomy I enjoyed so long at the Village Voice. Reading how both of you feel obliged to keep with "the celebrity machine" (Ann) or "the new and the now and the next" (Jody) reminds me of how damaging journalism's narrative demands are to criticism—almost as bad as in electoral politics. A key to that narrative really ought to be: what sounds good this week and what doesn't. As someone who never writes 1,000 words on one subject these days, I have my own narrativity problems to solve. But if I liked that Grinderman record just a little more, I'd suggest we devote our last round to it. Instead, I'll remind Ann that she made a promise about Lil Wayne, note that Wu-Tang reached my provisional top 30 and Ghostface Killah came close, and ask both of you poppists—I know, just shorthand—whether there weren't some indie bands you liked in 2007 even if Pitchfork did, too? Xgau

Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide column appears monthly at msn.com. He is a contributing editor of Blender, a columnist at the Barnes & Noble Review, and a contributing critic for All Things Considered.

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