Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet [extended]

  • Big Science [Warner Bros., 1982] A-
  • Mister Heartbreak [Warner Bros., 1984] A-
  • United States Live [Warner Bros., 1984] A
  • Home of the Brave [Warner Bros., 1986] A-
  • Music of Bill Evans [Landmark, 1986] B
  • Strange Angels [Warner Bros., 1989] A
  • Pieces of Africa [Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992] Neither
  • Bright Red [Warner Bros., 1994] Neither
  • The Ugly One With the Jewels and Other Stories [Warner Bros., 1995] B+
  • Life on a String [Nonesuch, 2001] *
  • Floodplain [Nonesuch, 2009] A-
  • Homeland [Nonesuch, 2010] ***
  • Heart of a Dog [Nonesuch, 2015] A+
  • Ladilikan [World Circuit, 2017] A-
  • Landfall [Nonesuch, 2018] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Laurie Anderson: Big Science [Warner Bros., 1982]
Like protest singers, novelty artists put too much strain on the words. Anderson's performance, as they say, is richer and subtler than Si Kahn's or John Prine's. But her music is more, as they say, minimal, which diminishes replay potential. Don't get me wrong--she achieves moments of humor so exquisite (timing and timbre of the pilot's chuckles on "From the Air," for instance) that I just have to hear them again, and when I do I enjoy the rest. But while Anderson's alienated patriotic (and romantic) affection is clearly her own invention, it's just as clearly a variant on your basic boho Americanism (and sexuality)--a variant that adds only a voice, not words, by which I mean ideas. Richard Pryor she ain't. A-

Laurie Anderson: Mister Heartbreak [Warner Bros., 1984]
It should come as no surprise that art-rock is what this art-world heroine is up to, at least on record. And though for sheer wordcraft I'll still take Dave Alvin or August Darnell, as art-rock lyricists go she's top-class--compare Fripp & Co., or collaborator Peter Gabriel. Given how often art-rock projects are sunk by literary malfeasance, not to mention Anderson's fundamentally verbal shtick, she'd better be. And given how often art-rock projects are sunk by silly music, it's a good thing too that this putative violinist-composer has accrued so much studiocraft, utilizing sometime co-producer Bill Laswell not so much to pin down a groove as to perfect the kind of coloristic electronic effects semiexperimentalists like to fool around with. As a result, the aural content is as suggestive as the lyrics, with a sensuality and sonic panache Anderson the narrator has no trouble living up to. For art-rock, rich stuff. A-

Laurie Anderson: United States Live [Warner Bros., 1984]
Taking a deep breath, I dutifully put on side one the moment the box arrived and to my surprise raced through the rest almost consecutively. Then I was able to jump around--which I have, just about daily, ever since. This is partly a function of sheer quantity--hard to get tired of four-and-a-half hours of fairly good anything very fast. Maybe after playing all ten sides five times minimum I should have a favorite, and it's true a few jokes have paled. But even though the live set is more conceptual comedy à la Big Science than rockish breakthrough like Mister Heartbreak, the composer-turned-performance-artist's three years as a nominal pop star have done something for her. Words carry this aural document, but minimal (if not minimalist) accompaniment and arrangement (and of course, performance) assure that their movement is always musical. And if the meanings could be more pointed, Anderson is hardly the first major artist to leave the driving to us. A

Laurie Anderson: Home of the Brave [Warner Bros., 1986]
Multimedia ain't omnimedia, and if she ever gets to do a movie again I hope she hires Jonathan Demme or at least Julien Temple. A credible groove ain't a compelling groove, and I'm inclined to blame the auteur rather than Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Bralower, or even Adrian Belew. But this soundtrack establishes her as a dynamite entertainer nevertheless. Her timing and intonation are so slick that even when she says something strange you catch yourself taking it for granted. Most of her material is perfectly comprehensible to anybody with a working knowledge of lower Manhattan. And if you're thinking this is faint praise, stop condescending--she's got more to say than 98 percent of those plodders, stumblers, and lurchers whose chief aim in life is keeping their avant-garde credentials in order. A-

Kronos Quartet: Music of Bill Evans [Landmark, 1986]
This ain't jazz, it's chamber music, and where the same not-quite-swinging strings worked up an agreeable tension on Monk Suite, here the compositional mesh is too neat--Evans damn near wrote chamber music to begin with. On the cute tunes there's an endearing novelty effect, but all the impressionistic watercolors gain is a gravity of tone that will challenge the assumptions of nobody interested enough to listen. B

Laurie Anderson: Strange Angels [Warner Bros., 1989]
Anderson feels powerless, a speck of dust at the speed of light, and these are the bleakest songs she's ever written. Positing progress as the force that prevents history from righting itself, she looks the death of nature in its prosthetic eye and sees bad changes coming a lot sooner than, for instance, equal pay for women, which she calculates is due along about 3888. But she also feels connected to the pop firmament, often constructing her lyrics like a human sampler, and this is the most mellifluous music she's ever recorded. She's taken voice lessons to match the tunes she's writing, and hired sidepeople--notably Graceland bassist Bakithi Khumalo, whose fretless flow unifies the four lithest tracks--who she knows will add a savvy, sensual sheen to her most cerebral constructs. Some find these two pop moves a mark of compromise; I find them pleasingly complex. A soothing glimpse of the end of the world. A

Kronos Quartet: Pieces of Africa [Elektra/Nonesuch, 1992] Neither

Laurie Anderson: Bright Red [Warner Bros., 1994] Neither

Laurie Anderson: The Ugly One With the Jewels and Other Stories [Warner Bros., 1995]
The difference isn't between "spoken word" and "music." The difference is that this is stories and the dull Bright Red is songs--and that right now she can better justify her obsession with the limits of American sense by telling about her travels than by devising metaphors for her displacement. Anyway, Bright Red's music retreats so far downtown from Strange Angels that it's reprised (minimally, of course) in the portentous swells and eerie punctuation employed so effectively on this album--which showcases her most striking musical talent, for recitative, even if the clipped phrases and drawn-out final consonants do get predictable. Not something you'll play a lot. But broadening. B+

Laurie Anderson: Life on a String [Nonesuch, 2001]
in Juilliard-style postmodern artsong, "can't sing" is perhaps an advantage ("Slip Away," "The Island Where I Come From") *

Kronos Quartet: Floodplain [Nonesuch, 2009]
Usually this staunchly eclectic string quartet forges alliances with non-Western musicians I'd as soon stand alone or works with Western composers who aren't to my taste. This collection of traditional music, classical music, pop songs, and special commissions from a broadly conceived Middle East is different. Dumb me found out from the notes that it was the two pop songs that always rang my chimes--one from Egypt circa 1940, the other from '70s Iraq. In the wrong mood, some of the others can seem too solemn, histrionic, drawn-out--slow. But there's nothing here that doesn't suit the right mood. There are cathedrals in Sicily that overlay Christian imagery on Islamic design in buildings that can accommodate all comers. This album brought them back. A-

Laurie Anderson: Homeland [Nonesuch, 2010]
Very scary stories whose endings nobody knows ("Dark Time in the Revolution," "Transitory Life"). ***

Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog [Nonesuch, 2015]
The soundtrack to a film I missed is also Anderson's simplest and finest album, accruing power and complexity as you relisten and relisten again: 75 minutes of sparsely but gorgeously and aptly orchestrated tales about a) her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle and b) the experience of death. There are few detours--even her old fascination with the surveillance state packs conceptual weight. Often she's wry, but never is she satiric; occasionally she varies spoken word with singsong, but never is her voice distorted. She's just telling us stories about life and death and what comes in the middle when you do them right, which is love. There's a lot of Buddhism, a lot of mom, a whole lot of Lolabelle, and no Lou Reed at all beyond a few casual "we"s. Only he's there in all this love and death talk--you can feel him. And then suddenly the finale is all Lou, singing a rough, wise, abstruse song about the meaning of love that first appeared on his last great album, Ecstasy--a song that was dubious there yet is perfect here. One side of the CD insert is portraits of Lolabelle. But on the other side there's a note: "dedicated to the magnificent spirit/of my husband, Lou Reed/1942-2013." I know I should see the movie. But I bet it'd be an anticlimax. A+

Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan [World Circuit, 2017]
Brought together by Malian music promoter turned ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran, the Trio da Kali is a fabricated supergroup designed to preserve a format that dates to the 13th century. The Kronos Quartet is a standard violin-violin-viola-cello unit that has specialized in cross-genre collaboration since the '70s. So this is neither authenticité or a new fad. But as a skeptic regarding such well-meaning endeavors, I guarantee that it's gorgeous, by which I do not mean merely pretty. For me its deepest attraction is timbral--the way the full quartet's evolved harmonies and pizzicato comping flex against Lassana Diabaté's deep-tinkling balafon and flesh out the funky thrum of Mamadou Kouyaté's bass ngoni. But all this texture needs the melodic anchor provided by lithe power contralto Hawa Diabate, daughter of the renowned Kassé Diabate in a culture where music is a vocation passed generation to generation. The mood isn't ceremonial, but it doesn't party either. Grave and secular down to its two Mahalia Jackson covers, it honors, celebrates, and enjoys music as a calling. A-

Landfall [Nonesuch, 2018]
Audio version of string-quartet-driven multimedia meditation on loss and Hurricane Sandy stops at elegiac except when the artist uses her words ("All the Extinct Animals," "The Water Rises") ***