Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Amy Rigby

  • Diary of a Mod Housewife [Koch, 1996] A
  • Middlescence [Koch, 1998] A-
  • The Sugar Tree [Koch, 2000] A-
  • Til the Wheels Fall Off [Signature Sounds, 2003] A-
  • Little Fugitive [Signature Sounds, 2005] A
  • The Old Guys [Southern Domestic, 2018] A-
  • A One Way Ticket to My Life [Southern Domestic, 2019] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Diary of a Mod Housewife [Koch, 1996]
Personalizing the political for a bohemia that coexists oh so neatly with structural underemployment, thinking harder about marriage than a dozen Nashville homilizers, the ex-Sham leaves the comforts of amateurism for an ex-Car and some El Lay roots-rockers, throwing her voice around in the process. All the ones you notice at first--the Berryesque "20 Questions," the chartworthy "Beer and Kisses," the lovelorn "Knapsack," and the thematic "The Good Girls"--were laid down in California. But the ones you don't notice you remember, including the five where she returns to reliable locals like Tony Maimone, Doug Wygal, and her hub, who in his real-life version even gets to bang things on a couple of songs. Concept album of the year. A

Middlescence [Koch, 1998]
What's most original about Rigby isn't her analysis of the men who fail to provide the kind of love she demands so sanely and evokes so hotly. Nor is it her designated theme, age, although I wonder how many 23-year-olds will learn as much about fun from "The Summer of My Wasted Youth" as she wants them to. It's class, which she's old enough to understand for the simple reason that she doesn't have enough money--not the way the executive mom who covets a bigger co-op doesn't have enough money, the way the temp mom who buys back-to-school outfits at Goodwill doesn't have enough money. Her voice as real as Roxanne Shanté's, Rigby sings in a material world. So Trisha Yearwood, I'm begging: cover "All I Want" if not "What I Need." A-

The Sugar Tree [Koch, 2000]
I know Rigby just well enough to worry whether her songs are worth what they cost her in frustration and heartache. But I admire the nakedness of her singing and writing enough to believe I'd feel the same even if mutual friends hadn't engineered a child chair exchange for us back when she was married. Now pursuing fortune and fame in Nashville like many lesser NYC songwriters before her, she shows no signs of turning into Janis Ian, and sexual preference has nothing to do with it--except insofar as men are dicks, of course. She has perspective on her lack of funds, her healthy sexual appetite, her susceptibility to ladies-love-outlaws syndrome, and her self-knowledge itself. Rode hard and put away wet, she's funny about it--"Cynically Yours" is made for an Alt-AC format that will never exist. And she's also touching about it, which is the hard part. A-

Til the Wheels Fall Off [Signature Sounds, 2003]
Much as I love her songs, with this her best batch since her first, I love her singing them more. The way she starts the album by calmly drawling "I'm tired of bein' tired of bein'/Why am I always disagreein'" over murmured accordion and tick-tock percussion is so sturdy and so musical that it still catches me short. Outspokenly ordinary, she's hard on her man, hard on herself, hard on her life, which like most American lives is fairly hard. Although her romantic ups and downs aren't the disaster she believes sometimes, she really would like to know if she's "ever gonna have sex again." Answer--definitely. She's attractive if by some juvenile standards mature, and she feels the love in her and the lust in her at the same time, which always helps. If only the millions of women in her situation had the time and funds to test-drive alt-country CDs, she'd be as famous as Lucinda. A-

Little Fugitive [Signature Sounds, 2005]
Trying to be hardheaded, I ask myself how the soul-horned "It's Not Safe" or the wan "Always With Me" would sound on an album by someone similar I don't care for--Aimee Mann, or Gillian Welch. The answer is that a differently arranged "It's Not Safe" would be a highlight for either, and that the mournful "Always With Me" is there for mood and pace. A cover sticker quotes the claim that she's as consistent as Richard Thompson or John Prine, but Thompson hasn't been her match lyrically for decades, and Prine, bless his heart, has recorded one album of new material since 1995. It really is quite simple--no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996. She's the best, plus a fine singer in an apt doing-the-dishes mode. Not counting the heart-tugging "Dancing With Joey Ramone," my current fave is "So You Know Now," in which a beloved tells her perfect man how she was once a slut. "Year of the Binge" could be about the same woman. Who almost certainly isn't Rigby--when would she have had the time? But the mod ex-housewife knows her well. A

The Old Guys [Southern Domestic, 2018]
Between 1996 and 2005, the 37-to-46-year-old ex-wife of excellent drummer Will Rigby released five excellent-to-superb pre-Americana CDs stocked with more terrific songs than any competing non-rapper except maybe Jon Langford--including Bob Dylan on his last great run, although I'll give you Sleater-Kinney while noting that songs per se aren't really what they do. Concrete, class-conscious, cutting, forlorn or funny or both, Rigby's lyrics chronicled a single mom's quest for love and sex, so of course they were never taken as seriously as "Cold Irons Bound." Only then she hooked up with Wreckless Eric, who's ridden "Whole Wide World" for four otherwise marginal decades, in a marriage so engrossing her writing slowed down to two hers-and-his albums. So now comes her first solo work since her great run, with Eric's production lending an unmannerly distorto gravitas that suits its audacity. If you don't want to hear a 58-year-old female singer-songwriter litcrits have never heard of impersonating Philip Roth emailing Bob Dylan about his Nobel, you probably think she's on Dylan's side, and you're wrong. Robert Altman also gets a song, as does an unnamed sack of shit she resists in her mind by imagining she's Tony Soprano, Lucky Thompson, or Walter White--the NAACP one not the Breaking Bad one, as Wikipedia helped me figure out, after which I looked up the unbowed Thompson and recalled that Soprano had a specialty in assassinations. A-

A One Way Ticket to My Life [Southern Domestic, 2019]
Here be nineteen four-track demos recorded on a Tascan Portastudio between pre-Shams 1987 and post-Diary of a Mod Housewife 1997 and released in this form in 2019, with just one selection apiece from that pioneering female trio and Rigby's superb solo debut and follow-up albums. Their demo provenance isn't a positive--even the solid Nashville-style arrangements she favored pre-Wreckless Eric added more oomph than she generally manages here whether solo or with helpers. But Rigby has been one of our finest songwriters for a quarter century, and the only reason this material stayed in that Portastudio so long is that she couldn't figure out where else to put it. So though the three tracks preceding the "Tomorrow's All We Got" closer could use some of that oomph, the quality here is impressively consistent, with two songs it would have been hard to slip onto her early albums altogether remarkable: "Mrs. Gordon Ray Thomas," in which an imprisoned armed robber explains why her crime spree made her "a happy woman," and "Contractor," in which asbestos breaks up a marriage none too soon. B+

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