Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2013-08-27

2013-08-27

Sam Baker: Say Grace (self-released, 2013) "Say Grace" itself leads, as well-limned a miniature as he's ever recorded, and he's got a bunch: one of many divorcees he's paid his respects, this one's better off than the orphan who's not an orphan on Pretty World, to say nothing of "Migrants"'s 14 dead with 12 lines in the paper to show for it. But still--there's a hole in her robe, she falls asleep to the TV, and she still hears her mother saying "don't give me that face any more." Baker's voice is no prettier, but his music is less rough-hewn--here cello, brushes, and Leonard Cohen harmonies, there Gurf Morlix's blues-tango guitar. And the literary ambitions are out front--the way "feast" rhymes with "rough beast," the Emily Dickinson quote he sneaks into "Road Crew," the Jimmy Cagney mythos that falls flat as such ideas sometimes do. The third-happiest song is "Ditch": "My crazy-ass wife/nutty as her brother/supposed to marry rich/according to her mother." Second-happiest is "Isn't Love Grand," about a gimpy schoolteacher and her fat husband wearing fishnet and leather when the boys are off at his mother's. The happiest is "Button by Button." Baker does literally believe it's a gift from God when a woman takes off her clothes. A-

James McMurtry: Live in Aught-Three (Compadre, 2004) Last time I saw him he was switching off on six guitars, none of which he played with much verve--it was more like they were place holders, delaying tactics, a way through a 90-minute set, proof he wasn't just a writer. But though he does plod here, he also showcases his best early tunes, as a plodder had better. These are more likely attached to sardonically Dylanesque tales of personal inadequacy than to the sociopolitical extended metaphors and local-color narratives that came to the fore as of "We Can't Make It Here." But spurred by a Chuck Berry riff, it's the nine-minute meth-industry saga "Choctaw Bingo" that puts the set in gear, with "60 Acres," "Out Here in the Middle," and "Levelland" riding the same highway. That last one is dedicated to Max Crawford, identified as a member of the American Workers Party: "Max was a communist, so he didn't fit in too good in Floydada." James is a guy who prides himself on getting around. A-

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