Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2013-05-31


Handsome Family: Wilderness (Carrot Top, 2013) Since each of the 12 songs is named after an animal--including just one mammal, and a wildebeest at that--you expect a zoological concept album. In fact, however, the title creatures all have walk-ons, fly-ons, swim-ons, or crawl-ons, even the conquering flies who think General Custer looks so "beautiful" dead. Yet the only true ringer is a magic lizard whose bite requires a witchcraft cure--in all the rest, the animals are intimates of a natural world humans navigate clumsily and uncomprehendingly except in "Frogs," where the housebound are bidden to tromp down through the mud and hear their amphibian song. As always, the tales are Rennie Sparks's, the teller her dour husband Brett, and the tales themselves are why you first listen. But these are so fine you don't mind listening again. And as you do, you start noticing how deftly Brett negotiates lines and stanzas that aren't as blockish as their meter and his voice make you think. And then you listen to this uningratiating music some more. A-

Martha Redbone Roots Project: The Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake (Blackfeet Productions, 2012) Produced by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen, and for once that's a good thing. Where on Allen Ginsberg's weird old Blake album a tuneless hippie chorale rendered Blake's lyrics over finger cymbal, flute, and harmonium that cried out for a round of oms, Afro-Cherokee Redbone claims Blake for British balladry, where he belongs. Traditional lyrics are worth marveling and puzzling over. But I know of few as powerful and strange as "The Garden of Love," "I Rose Up at Dawn of Day," or "The Fly," to name three that went unannotated when I marked up my complete Blake at 19. Blake is always less obscure in Songs of Innocence and Experience mode, and between Redbone's lucid, subtle force and the modernized Appalachian settings she fits to the poet's stanzas, she's created a new body of folk song by a lyricist who compares favorably to, well, Bob Dylan. Not every track takes it home. Nothing is that automatic. But a major find nonetheless. A-

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