Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

The Paranoid Style

  • The Power of Our Proven System [Misra, 2013] A-
  • Rock and Roll Just Can't Recall [Worldwide Battle, 2015] A
  • Rolling Disclosure [Bar/None, 2016] A-
  • Underworld U.S.A. [Bar/None EP, 2017] A-
  • Rock & Roll Just Can't Recall + 3 [Bar/None, 2018] A
  • A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life [Bar/None, 2019] A
  • For Executive Meeting [Bar/None, 2022] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Power of Our Proven System [Misra, 2013]
Collectors are a mixed blessing, artificial scarcity is a bitch, and this band has yet to release a dull song. So The Power of Our Proven System, which added four tracks to Bar/None's download-only EP The Purposes of Music in General for a Cassette Store Day (!!) limited edition of 100, is the iteration you might as well buy, covet, seek out, steal, or storm the barricades for. Named after a 50-year-old work of political analysis by ironic left-liberal historian Richard Hofstadter and led by Elizabeth Nelson and Timothy Bracy, a pushing-40 D.C. couple who've worked as lobbyists and written their share of quality rock criticism, the Paranoid Style mine a pop-rock vein that braces Wilson's cleanly uncrystalline articulation against Bracy's noisier guitar and a straight four that doesn't quit. With scarcely a word swallowed or a turn of phrase obscure, their disturbing ditties delineate a worldview Nelson has said is "rooted in the small-c conservative conviction that Man is neither perfect nor perfectible--and don't get us started on Woman." The mix should be crisper because the tunes demand nothing less. But for lyrics like "Do it with a flick of wrist/Like you're a magician/Oh you're such a solipsist/There's only one position" and "I'm your friend and I'm your lover/Give me those clogs I'll be your mother," you'll settle. We often do, don't we? A-

Rock and Roll Just Can't Recall [Worldwide Battle, 2015]
Faster and louder, slower and more reflective, better recorded with a better drummer, this five-song EP is where Elizabeth Nelson fully vents her contempt for the 60s, structural injustice, the 60s, escapist liberalism, a charismatic mentor who brainwashed her with reason, the 60s, and the musical style she and her husband mean to be better at than anybody else in the world except maybe Sleater-Kinney. Her motto: "Don't think twice, it's all over now." Her self-promo: "Glam-rock for the end times." A

Rolling Disclosure [Bar/None, 2016]
On the scene-setting "The Ambassador's Morning Lift," a term Google tells me denotes a punch comprising egg nog, rum, cognac, and creme de cacao, massed guitars--three gang up live--are juiced a dozen seconds later by a busy bass line that quickly buries all hope of indie decorum. So say for purposes of argument that Elizabeth Nelson always needs to get a little blotto, because otherwise she sees more than she can bear. And say too that she needs to rev that blotto up. Her aversion to nonsense isn't merely acerbic--calm and well-spoken though she remains, she can still run you over with her full-on bitterness. This is so self-evidently an intelligent and experienced woman that when she finds 10 concise ways to tell you the world is a setup she convinces you she's been close enough to power to know she's not getting any. "We'll still be fighting the next war tomorrow." "Everything you did exists somewhere, you're on certain lists." "I've been on TV and I've been in the bag." "You know that I'll fuck anything that doesn't fuck me first." All zingers guaranteed tune-equipped, the better to assure you lend them your ears. Now somebody pay her what they ought to be worth. Right. A-

Underworld U.S.A. [Bar/None EP, 2017]
"We tried to figure out exactly the point of show business during this most lurid of all impasses," Elizabeth Nelson noted recently, and whether avocational indie counts as show business or not, it's clearly been a trial. The title tune is properly scary: "It's like the founders said the jaws of power are always open to devour," soon followed by "You dined on us so long you lost the taste for delicacy." But "I Believe U Believe U Can Fly" is the one great song on this EP because it torpedoes a catchphrase we figured out long ago. Other zingers of varying quality are dropped here and there--the throwaway "Langford's still an atheist" is one I like. But the lyrics tend opaque--pretty sure "Hawk Vs. Prez" is about Lester Young, for instance, but that took a lot of delving that only got me so far. What makes this lacuna doubly frustrating is that Nelson probably knows more about the ins and outs of Washington politics than any songwriter working, and it would be nice to think she could make something of what may not actually be an impasse. It would also be nice if she roped in a more limber rhythm section. A-

Rock & Roll Just Can't Recall + 3 [Bar/None, 2018]
Beefed up to eight songs to mark its embrace by a venerable label of indie luminaries from They Might Be Giants to Ezra Furman, this digital-only reissue of a superb self-released 2015 EP is designed to make fresh converts as first responders download the three new ones. As Elizabeth Nelson fans come to realize, how deep the songs are is a trickier call than her command of political rhetoric makes you think--lines like "Are we not men/Are we mere clients" and titles like "Slush Fund City" never quite launch the intellectual content her hard groove and enunciated multisyllables gesture toward. She's a songwriter, folks--let others waste their smarts on letters to the editor with op-ed dreams. Especially since Nelson has just nabbed the rock critic slot at a political blog with the excellent rock and roll moniker Lawyers, Guns and Money. The anti-'60s cracks that animate her enthusiasm for Dylan's Slow Train Coming are enough to make one hope that before too long she gets to sound off about Bernie Sanders. A

A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life [Bar/None, 2019]
Elizabeth Nelson is a fine rock critic (Lawyers, Guns and Money, Oxford American, terse jabs and judgments on Twitter) leading an able rock group, and fuck me if these aren't both side jobs insofar as they pay anything at all--she makes her living as a literacy consultant for an educational nonprofit. So as a bandleader she's earned . . . not royalties, get real, but the right to write one that adds a parenthetical "(Economy)" to the dreamy Neil Young title "Expecting to Fly." Beyond "Turpitude," as the opener is called, every unmistakably enunciated word here is known to most Americans, which doesn't mean many of them will get the jokes--my favorite: "I learned to smoke from the Contract With America/I learned to smoke from Pulp Fiction/I learned to smoke from Mojo Nixon." Squeezing 11 songs into half an hour, her voice relaxes enough to make them a pleasure. I don't get all the jokes either--as a dual citizen, Nelson understands more about Irish history and politics than I ever will. But I do know a lot about Alan Greenspan and They Might Be Giants, whose songs establish that Nelson knows more. Every catchy number is marked by linguistic specifics, and the title tune is a rock-biz masterpiece. Subject: 11 dead at a Who concert in Cincinnati, 1979. A

For Executive Meeting [Bar/None, 2022]
The only sensible way to categorize the five dozen or so concise, literate, unfailingly catchy mid-tempo-plus songs Elizabeth Nelson has eked out or poured forth over the past decade is to slot them as pop-rock. Although she's as well-informed politically as any rocker or even rapper at our disposal--Jon Langford, can we say? a Randy Newman too punctilious to finish what he starts? Carsie Blanton or Dawn Oberg to get more obscure?--she limits the subject matter on her most playable album yet to the arts. Among the topics she addresses or at least names she drops are Steve Cropper, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Smith, XTC, Charles Bissell of the long lamented Wrens, album illustrator Barney Bubbles, half-witting Nazi collaborator P.G. Wodehouse, and partner Tim Bracy's overdue tribute to the Velvet Underground's secret weapon, Doug Yule. When she closes with a cover of Rosanne Cash's indelible "Seven Year Ache" it seems barely an upgrade technically. Her craft is that sure. But it may well leave you with the feeling that there are emotional places her music has yet to venture. A