Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Clay Harper

  • East of Easter [Casino Music, 1997] ***
  • Old Airport Road [Terminus, 2013] A-
  • Bleak Beauty [self-released, 2018] B+
  • Dirt Yard Street [self-released, 2020] *
  • They'll Never Miss a Five [self-released, 2022] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

East of Easter [Casino Music, 1997]
ex-Coolie meets Wreckless Eric in totally improbable guitar-organ garage ("The Next Contestant," "Health Food and Homicide," "Airport Holiday Inn"). ***

Old Airport Road [Terminus, 2013]
In which the Atlanta restaurateur and one-time Coolie hires a female rapper, a blueswoman, an Arabic-singing massage therapist, and Colonel Bruce Hampton to deliver "beautiful songs with a despairing look at the world." In 1986 I called the Coolies "a glaring example of the postmodernist dictum that art about art is boring but junk about kitsch isn't," but although it could be said that all the guests add up to a single distancing technique, they're really there to furnish a fullness of feeling, different in each case, that Harper knows his own vocals aren't up to. Over just half a song, the massage therapist is the show-stopper. But for a restaurateur to let a rapper rhyme the praises of Red Lobster is a sure sign that he's grown in spirit. A-

Bleak Beauty [self-released, 2018]
In a counterpart to Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me, where solitary guitarist Phil Elverum processed the shocking loss of his wife Genevieve to pancreatic cancer, Harper honors the passing of his longtime partner Stephanie Gwinn, who succumbed even faster to a brain tumor. But where Elverum's miserable minimalism grabs and haunts you, the mediated art blues of a shifting ensemble of Harper's pals is less devastated and less literal, though it never quite compels the total attention it repays. Lyric worth absorbing: "Tells me what to think and objects to what I say / I don't know why / But I like it that way." And how about: "It's me again / I'll hold your hand / I'll be your man forever / But you sigh and then / Squeeze my hand / Say what if I don't get better"? B+

Dirt Yard Street [self-released, 2020]
Real-life musical enactment of just how sad bereavement can be ("Dirt Yard Street," "A Car I Remember") *

They'll Never Miss a Five [self-released, 2022]
Stretching over half an hour because they've definitely got the time, seven leisurely, ruminative, somehow sweet songs about sad lives lived because their proprietors have nothing better to do ("The Blazin Sun That's Shining Down on Me," "An Empty Parking Lot [Reprise]") ***