Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Skip James

  • She Lyin' [Genes, 1994] A-
  • Blues from the Delta [Vanguard, 1998] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

She Lyin' [Genes, 1994]
James is in the canon for a few wildly unprecedented guitar and piano solos captured in 1931, his only session until he was yanked from his sickbed by the folk movement 33 years later. Although the two '60s albums he cut for Vanguard were hailed by the country blues claque, they lack the charm and commitment of John Hurt's. This contemporaneous exhumation isn't brilliant either, but it has more life. A detached noninnovator by the time it was recorded, James nevertheless maintained a personal take on an enduring entertainment music, notably in a falsetto that breathed mystery and sexual magnetism. A minor moment in the tangled history of a seminal genre. A-

Blues from the Delta [Vanguard, 1998]
James isn't all he's cracked up to be, especially in the '60s. If the catwalking guitar line of "I'm So Glad" could still give Eric Clapton penis envy, his piano had lost its atonal abandon; if the song he wrote for his D.C. M.D. has God in it, "Careless Love" is barely filler. But always carrying the music is a tenuous falsetto that's been through a lot of bad medicine, a voice that's looked at death from both sides now and done what it could to aestheticize the terror. A-