Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2019-03-15

2019-03-15

Leyla McCalla: Capitalist Blues (PIAS America, 2019) As with fellow Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, McCalla has tended mannered--like the trained cellist she is, so committed to her skill set she has little feel for more naturalistic conventions. But here, shoring up the overt politics I came in cheering for, she's not only more relaxed vocally but gets true band feel out of shifting personnel anchored by drummer Chris Davis and bassist-guitarist Jimmy Horn. Sure she ranges around--"Lavi Vye Neg" miniaturizes Coupé Cloué's compas groove, "Oh My Love" is a zydeco. But there's a wholeness to this music that suits an ideological purpose saturated with but not overpowered by economic oppression. Crucially, these songs make a point not just of privation proper but of worry and insecurity--including "Aleppo," which begins "Bombs are falling/In the name of peace" and then describes the everyday wretchedness of the lives still braving the ruins. A-

Leyla McCalla: A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey (Jazz Village, 2016) A dozen moderately beautiful, sufficiently lively songs going on artsongs, at least seven of Haitian origin and no more than five in English, a ratio less enlightening than she intends ("Vietnam," "Let It Fall") *

Our Native Daughters: Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian/Folkways, 2019) Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Amethyst Kiah, and Allison Russell put into practice and thus bring alive a black feminist musical tradition they just invented ("Black Myself," "Polly Ann's Hammer") **

Todd Snider: Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (Aimless, 2019) Ten songs, one dedication, and one explanation recorded totally acoustic and almost totally solo, which as the excellent booklet explains doesn't mean tossed off--you'd never know from its offhand feel how practiced this material is. That's one reason it's so replayable without benefit of notable groove or tune. The other, of course, is that the words are good. Having opened with "a song about a song you're working on" ("I mean, it's gone, man. Come on, let it go."), he jam-packs a whole lot of material into "Talking Reality Television Blues," following Milton Berle ("we all had a new escape from the world") with Michael Jackson ("reality killed that video star") with He Who Shall Not Be Namechecked ("Reality killed by a reality star"). "Serving my country under General Malaise," Snider also becomes the first singer-songwriter ever to rhyme "national anthem" with "national tantrum." All in a goofy drawl he didn't learn growing up in Oregon, because he's a Southerner by choice and no goof at all--just another "working fucking schmuck out here standing around waiting to get shot in yet ay-nother tragic addition to an already sorry state of affairs." A

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