Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2017-01-01 - 2017-07-01

2017-01-06

Sheer Mag: III 7" (Wilsuns RC/Katorga Works EP, 2016) This not-actually-punky Philly rock quintet keeps upping the ante in four-song increments, here divided two political and two love. Tina Halladay's shriek doesn't clarify every consonant, I know. But if they didn't want you to know why she's hanging around so intense they wouldn't put the lyrics on their Bandcamp page. Above all they understand that the two poles actually aren't--"So hold fast to the ones you love/Before they're ripped away," on the political "Night Isn't Bright," signifies more acutely in this ripped-apart time than it did when it surfaced in March. Their punkiest move is to seize the intro to Television's "Venus." Not actually a punk band, remember. Also not a band that ever understood love as well as this one already does. A-

Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (Mom + Pop, 2013) Although in fact album three is where tiny-voiced Alexis Krauss achieves aesthetic parity with humongous-noised Derek Miller and where megasynths do duty for guitars that always eschewed articulation anyway, I get the general tendency to assume this 2013 entry was more of the loud-minimalist arty-nihilist same. That's the kind of thing that happens when you eschew articulation. But listen just a little closer and admit that actual nihilist it ain't. "Young legends die and so will" admittedly cuts it close. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should," however, most decidedly does not. And note that the title "To Hell With You" shortens a line with a different feel: "I'll go to hell with you." Which even in this much more hellish time we can hope proves unnecessary. A-

Sleigh Bells: Jessica Rabbit (Torn Clean, 2016) On their own label, with Eminem/Fiona Apple adjutant Mike Elizondo overseeing half the album, they shift focus to Alexis Krauss's teenpop roots--"I Can't Stand You Anymore" has the killer chorus, "I Can Only Stare" the balladic gravitas, and both are Elizondo tracks. This is a healthy development with plenty of upside, but it works better in principle than in practice. Krauss may never master pop's heartfelt commitment to putative sincerity, and the one with the killer chorus is also one of the two where Elizondo claims composition as well as production credits. The sincerest is "Baptism by Fire" toward the end, where Krauss's "I want to listen to your heart" adds a welcome sweetness to the band's raging rhetorical parameters. Elizondo has a writing credit on that one too. B+

2017-01-10

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels (Fool's Gold, 2013) Beats ain't black or white, hard ain't black or white, sexism ain't black or white, etc. ("A Christmas Fucking Miracle," "She's Mine Pt 2") *

2017-01-13

Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice Two: Still Buggin' (Rhymesayers/Stones Throw download EP, 2016) "I hated myself before it was cool," claims Aesop; "I'm looking for a mystery bigger than me to remedy," sez Homeboy, which is why I prefer him ("Oatmeal Cookies," "Mud") ***

Death Grips: Bottomless Pit (Harvest/Third Worlds, 2016) Enough to make me wonder whether hip-hop's rawest sonic warriors are getting more death metal, but not enough to a-b the albums and find out ("Giving Bad People Good Ideas," "Eh") **

Fantastic Negrito: The Last Days of Oakland (Blackball Universe, 2016) Unflinchingly specific and analytic protest blues-rock counts on musical torque it doesn't get from a soggy hummed groan that's half misprised field holler and half godless gospel rip ("Working Poor," "Rant Rushmore") ***

Run the Jewels: RTJ3 (self-released, 2017) "Fear's been law for so long that rage feels like therapy," raps lost angry man El-P as if it just occurred to him. In fact, of course, rage has been the heart of his art since Company Flow, and rage is what his NYC-Atlanta duo was selling to the testosterone-stoked alt-rap subculture when it launched in 2013. True, they were funny about it, and Killer Mike added some give to the hard beats by sounding preacherly even when advocating atheism. And now, three albums into what was supposed to be a one-off, public acclaim, economic security, and the historial moment have transformed them--they're funnier, hookier, and kinder as well as brainier and more political. From Mike's opening "I hope, I hope, I hope with the highest of hopes" to El-P's culminating "You talk clean and bomb hospitals/I speak with the foulest mouth possible," they transform the Bernie love that turned Mike into an election-year player into a call for resistance. In a time when street rebellions are one inevitable response to DT's inevitable atrocities, we need somebody quoting MLK loud and clear: "A riot is the language of the unheard." So if Mike wants to waves his supposed "banana dick" in the process, all we can say is yes, we have no objections. A-

T.I.: Us or Else: Letter to the System (Grand Hustle/Roc Nation, 2016) In an odd move commercially but a fortuitous one culturally, the well-fixed ex-felon absorbs all six tracks of the political EP he dropped in September into a doubly unexpected 15-track album. The new songs are no stronger than the old ones and never top the Killer Mike throwdown "40 Acres"; they make room for the regrettable hook "You know why you broke you niggaz is lazy" and the provocative refrain "Pain just a weakness when it leavin' the body." Yet the bubble-funk of the opener eases its iconoclasm down, the tongue-in-cheek patriotism of "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it" adds cred to the title track's Black Lives Matter, and the don't-trap-like-I-did admonitions gain cred by association. Between its timing, its heft, and its complexity, the whole is more than equal to the sum of its parts. A-

YG: Still Brazy (Def Jam, 2016) Not only does he no longer just [insert verb here] the pussy all the time--unlike DT, he knows when he's being recorded about it ("Fuck DT," "Blacks & Browns") *

2017-01-20

Brian Chilala & Ngoma Zasu: Vangaza! (SWM, 2015) Cheerful Afropop absolutely, Zimbabwean-Congolese get it, pan-Zambian if you say so, rebel lyricist over my head ("Jombo," "Mailesi") ***

Fofoulah: Fofoulah (Glitterbeat, 2014) European Afrogroovers benefit mightily from actual West African input ("Reality Rek," "Hook Up (Nango Dereh)") *

Aly Keita/Jan Gallega Bronnimann/Lucas Niggli: Kalo-Yele (Intakt, 2016) Swiss-Camerounian bass clarinet and trap drums join Ivoirian balafon master in jazz trio that in a narrower world might settle for a vibraphone instead ("Kalo-Yele," "Makuku," "Adjamé Street") ***

Youssou N'Dour: Africa Rekk (Sony Music, 2016) Former tourism and culture minister pitch-corrects, synthesizes, Anglophones, and otherwise makes nice on an album whose strongest track--about his Sufi sect, the notes say--led the much stronger Senegaal Rekk EP he released locally six months before ("Serin Fallu," "Gorée," "Money Money") **

Awa Poulo: Poulo Warali (Awesome Tapes From Africa, 2017) From rural southwestern Mali, Poulo is a Peulh a/k/a Fulani, a mere 20 or 25 million of whom are dispersed across an arid yet mostly sub-Saharan third of the continent. Peulhs have their own culture, which neighboring peoples feel in sharper detail than I can. So for me Poulo's eight songs in 35 minutes captivate as West African with a twist, softening those circular grooves with singing more dulcet than, say, genteel Rokia Traoré's, never mind alarm-bell Noura Mint Seymali's. Although the grooves ride the Peulh variant of the strummed and plucked ngoni lute, they come into their own when a one-stringed violin the Peulhs call a soku echoes the vocal line. The press release indicates that Poulo's lyrics praise traders, blacksmiths, a marabout, and of course her patrons. But what tourists like us grok is the endearing, hypnotic fact of the praise itself. B+

Noura Mint Seymali: Arbina (Glitterbeat, 2016) Seymali's wonder-of-nature, awesome-as-in-forbidding voice doesn't oblige ordinary Bombino or Khaira Arby fans to like it any more than ordinary boxing fans need appreciate the finer points of mixed martial arts. So it's good that her second album moderates that deep, accomplished sandblast a little--so subtly that no non-Mauritanian will notice without direct comparison and so skillfully that folkies manque still hoping she's Oumou Sangare will keep listening to her praise of a God they don't believe in. Ultimately, they may even notice that in addition to commanding a hell of a voice, she leads a band that rocks harder than, for instance, Bombino's. A-

African Rumba (Putamayo, 2016) Every so often the safest and most pan-touristic of the shifting cadre of "world" labels digs into its pockets and pulls out something gorgeous that goes down as easy as its target market supposedly insists. This one documents a pan-African phenomenon, as over a span of stylistically evolving decades, the rumba clave into which Cuban musicians converted Congolese rhythms proved ripe for reconversion from Dakar in the northwest to Luando seven thousand miles thataway. While slightly favoring Zairean variants, Putumayo smooshes all this action into ten tracks that mix godfathers with revivaliasts with expats with pretenders with senior citizens glad for a payday. Yet somehow there's not a tuneout in the bunch, and I'm amazed that I've pursued these musics for so long without ever registering Senegalese legend Pape Fall's "Boul Topato" or running across Togo queen Afia Mala. Too sweet on the whole, you think? Then go suck a lemon. A

2017-01-27

The Highwaymen: The Very Best of the Highwaymen (Columbia/Legacy, 2016) Nelson, Jennings, Cash, & Kristofferson joined their voices in American song during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years, and listening back, the greatest of these was Nelson--the man could sing (and still can). As a group, NJCK are better passing lines around than joining their voices grandly in song--"Desperados Waiting for a Train" gets buried alive, "Born and Raised in Black and White" lost in the crowd. But they top Arlo's wistful "City of New Orleans" as well as Bob Seger's mawkish "Against the Wind," equal George's slapstick "The King Is Gone," and forever define Robert Earl Keen's highwayman saga "The Road Goes on Forever." Also, believe it or not, they have politics: "Welfare Line" describes white people, "American Remains" shovels a foreclosure on top of a drought, and a crucial cameo from Johnny Rodriguez extracts every ounce of outrage from the Woody Guthrie classic properly entitled as it is here: "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." A-

Dave Van Ronk: Down in Washington Square (Smithsonian/Folkways, 2013) Born in 1936, Van Ronk was the paterfamilias of the Macdougal Street folk scene from approximately 1958, shortly before its inception and well after his career began, until 2002, long after its demise and too damn early for his. He was an agitator and a port in a storm, a wag and a songbag, a virtuoso without portfolio who played Scott Joplin on guitar and banjo in a Dixieland band--almost everything but much of a singer. So while this three-CD set is the nearest we'll get to a comprehensive overview, it may be too gruffly hewn to convert you, and there's a sense in which I'm equally taken with the outtakes and rarities CD The Mayor of Macdougal Street, which Elijah Wald compiled while editing Van Ronk's text, leavings, and interviews into the terrific autobiography of the same name. Nevertheless, it established Van Ronk as a hero whose conception of American song was almost as all-embracing as Willie Nelson's. And one more thing. The label in parentheses up there? Smithsonian Folkways? That label is owned by a federal government a loud minority has delivered into the budget-slashing hands of yahoos bent on extirpating any trace of the demon leftism from Our Nation's Capital. It may not be long for this world, and it deserves both our support and our preemptive collectoritis. So check out, oh, "Haul on the Bowline," "House of the Rising Sun," and "Garden State Stomp" and discover a gravel-voiced post-Trotskyite who never stooped to protest music because he was just too damn smart. A-

Neil Young: Peace Trail (Reprise, 2016) Anything but "predictable," these political ditties rank among the strangest songs of his career, as in "Hope that was confusing, looking like a bright light/Blinding you forever with its power" ("My Pledge," "Glass Accident") ***

Chartbusters USA: Special Country Edition (Ace, 2016) Nashville crossover in the 60s is the concept--major country hits that creased the pop charts and exemplify how corny, hopeful, humanistic, and relatively unpolarized that time was (Tommy Cash, "Six White Horses"; Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A."; Roger Miller, "Chug-a-Lug") ***

Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie's 26 Northwest Songs (Smithsonian/Folkways, 2017) No no no fellas--throwing a bone to every folkie lifer within driving distance is not how you spruce up his catalogue (Cahalen Morrison, "Lumber Is King"; Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters, "Eleckatricity and All") *

The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues (World Music Network, 2017) Be aware of a superior if barely findable alternative: the expertly annotated 1993 Columbia/Legacy double-CD White Country Blues (1926-1938): A Lighter Shade of Blue, which splits 50 tracks among 31 artists who include nine of the 25 here, four with repeats that deserve it. But this is a viable substitute, less for its songs (especially with two standouts also on 2015's more useful Rough Guide to Blues Songsters) than for the fancy picking where most of these fellas claim bragging rights--rags and jigs, a "bluegrass twist" and even a "fandango." Also check talking blues pioneer's Chris Bouchillon's light-blue comedy routine "Born in Hard Luck," which took me half a dozen plays to start wearing out the way skits do. And don't forget Walter Smith's "The Cat's Got the Measles and the Dog's Got the Whooping Cough" because it's a losing battle--the thing implanted itself in my head for a week. B+

2017-02-03

Atmosphere: Fishing Blues (Rhymesayers, 2016) Rap lifer is so glad he got there and hopes you are too ("Next to You," "The Shit That We've Been Through") ***

J Cole: For Your Eyez Only (Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope, 2016) So dweeby he's got balls about it, and you gotta love two of the most domestic love songs in a hip hop canon guaranteed to ignore them ("Foldin Clothes," "She's Mine Pt 2") *

Injury Reserve: Floss (Las Fuegas, 2016) Two rappers from, well, suburban Phoenix--native Arizonan Ritchie With the T, a year short of a B.A. with his dad dead and his mom fighting cancer, and Oakland immigrant Steppa J. Groggs, pushing 30 with drug, alcohol, and weight problems and a new daughter--generate the most unpretentious hip-hop you ever heard. No bitch fictions unless protecting her bad self with their dad self counts. No street fictions either--if you must come strapped, they request you leave it in your pants. No preaching even as they dispatch anti-black bias, anti-Native American bias, consumer fetishism, global warming, and the trans bathroom perplex in one 100-second interlude. No flexible flow or crystalline enunciation, yet every apt word distinct. Parker Corey's production nothing to tweet about, yet every beat strong and hook real. The sole questionable moment comes when Ritchie anticipates his Grammy nomination in "Look Mama I Did It," a longshot even if you give him props for not claiming the statuette itself. But when they say they're making a living at it, you'll believe they deserve to earn more in this perilous year than they did last. A-

Injury Reserve: Live From the Dentist Office (Las Fuegas, 2015) Still deciding what to rap about on their debut, they deliver the eternal we're-good-rappers-so-listen-up with their already trademark matter-of-factness. To hammer their point home, they provide hooks in highly reliable fashion, two of the best attached to lyrics more lyrical than the titles "Yo" and "Wow" portend. On two successive six-minute closers, however, they either run out of ideas or mistake slowcore for a good one. B+

Ka: Honor Killed the Samurai (Iron Works, 2016) 46-year-old NYC firefighter--a "job," not a "calling," he stresses--crystallizes Brownsville gangsta knowledge into finely worked rhymes gruffly and grittily served ("Finer Things/Tamahagee," "Just") **

Kool A.D.: Official (self-released, 2016) Boy Crisis founder changes shit up on theoretically hit-seeking hyphy album ("Es Nada," "U Kno We on the West Side") *

Noname: Telefone (self-released, 2016) On the brink of a poetic breakthrough, gentle sweety-pie with a Hennessy habit isn't ready to assume the burden, not quite yet ("Yesterday," "Casket Pretty") ***

Battle Hymns (quasiband.com, 2017) Pay what you want, but with every penny forwarded to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and 350.org, I clicked the suggested 20 bucks for this Portland-scene "protest record." Though it does fade at the end, a perceived historical imperative focuses these aesthetes on the proudly political. Not only is there no alt-poetic obscurantism, there's nothing preachy-programmatic-etc. about the sure shots, which outnumber the OKs two-to-one unless you're "bored" by phraseology like "We Won't Go Back," "Fight the Hate," "Save Our Soul," and "Love in the Time of Resistance," in which case Love Always, Mary Timony, Boss Hog, and Corin Tucker will get in your face about it. Most historic are Quasi's allegorical "Ballad of Donald Duck & Elmer Fudd" and Mac McCaughan's post-slack motherfucker "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)." "This year it seemed like nothing really mattered / You could be any horrible thing and rise to the top of the shitheap," he recalls. "Next year might be better / But I don't see any proof," he admits. Yet he brims with love and energy anyway: "Play the long game, muster up some cheer," he advises, then predicts "The South won't rise again." He's from North Carolina, so let's hope he knows something. A-

The Hamilton Mixtape (Atlantic, 2016) Few of the three dozen featured performers are any kind of hanger-on--Jimmy Fallon sure, maybe Andra Day or Francis and the Lights, but not, for instance, Snow Tha Product or Riz MC or Residente, who take the multilingual "Immigrants" home. But it is a mixtape--up, down, and all over the place. So its lessons and pleasures hang together in only one respect--by proving that committed rappers and pop stars do more for these theater songs than the actors who rendered them a phenomenon. It also reminds us that a hyper-intelligent rapper of dubious flow will eventually sound iconic if granted sufficient access to our earholes--Kanye West, meet Lin-Manuel Miranda. It affords Kelly Clarkson the smartest big ballad of her leather-lunged life. It finds a social use for Ja Rule and Wiz Khalifa. It folds in an anti-slavery bonus. It gives Dessa a chance. In some kinda way, it works. A-

2017-02-10

Ab-Soul: Do What Thou Wilt (Top Dawg, 2016) "Mischievous, mysterious, miscellaneous," he calls himself--with exceptional self-awareness if you ask me. This big reader with the pathologically light-sensitive eyes will never write a senior thesis--college rap he ain't, which is a positive, nuhmean? But his music emanates intellectual excitement and pleasure as he grows up. Confused though the particulars of his "heroine addiction" are, his tree-huffing doggishness recedes whenever he rhymes his feminist-curious yearnings, and if his politics are too Aleister Crowley, at least he's down with the Beatles' psychedelic seer rather than Zeppelin's megalomaniac. As listening, more fun than his fellow Black Hippy's outtakes for sure. As wordplay too. As thinking, leaves room for improvement and reason to hope there'll be some. A-

Ab-Soul: These Days (Top Dawg, 2014) In love with a suicide in a world controlled by forces he can't quite grasp, half-blind autodidact retains more brain if not reason than the average black hippy ("Closure," "Sapiosexual") *

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp, 2016) Brown has reached the point where success deadens more than it animates, conspicuous consumption turns trope turns bore, and copping to your "downward spiral" loses its pedagogical mojo. He's still plenty clever, but saying "Some people say I think too much/I don't think they think enough" only begins to prove it, and blaming his biochemistry as he keeps bitches on rotation is getting "old," as one might say. What saves it more than ever is musicality. Not only does Brown add the voice of a thoughtful struggler to his squealing weirdo and caustic thug, he sees to it that the tracks permute and evolve into something that feels thought through. So when he dubs himself "Coltrane on Soul Plane," Coltrane he earns, sort of. But I read where Soul Plane--never saw it, never will--was an unfunny hip-hop/blaxploitation parody of the already dumbass laff riot Airplane. Right, even bad jokes are better than going on about what a mess your life is. But they don't straighten it up. B+

Danny Brown: The Hybrid (Deluxe Edition) (Hybrid Music, 2011) The cadences and dope tales too pat, the joys of fressing generics and jacking sunglasses far from it ("Thank God," "Cartier," "Guitar Solo") ***

Danny Brown: Old (Fool's Gold, 2013) "They want the old Danny Brown," begins "Side A (Old)." So he executes a straight street-dealing rhyme like the ex-con he is, tells us how seven-year-old Danny got stomped by fiends on a trip to the store, and pairs off two lookbacks as convincing as anything in the hood-life literature--"25 Bucks," where his mom braids hair on the stairs for their supper, only then there's "Torture," where one fiend beats another with a hammer and another has pit bulls loosed on her pussy. "Side B (Dope Song)" begins with his very last, yeah sure, dope song before dealing up some of hip-hop's most detailed porn--Brown is the rare rapper for whom sex is about pleasure not power, flesh not hot air. But the climax is "Kush Coma," which is about what it says it's about and rides an eerie synth sustain to prove it. And the clincher is Ab-Soul's cameo on "Way Up Here," because Ab-Soul is a top-tier rapper who in this context you barely notice. That's how musical Brown's flow has become since the sing-song boilerplate he started out with. A-

Danny Brown: XXX (Fool's Gold, 2011) "It's the Adderall admiral writing holy mackerel/Your bitch say my dick long like the strap on a satchel/I took me a capsule with no hassle/Now it's like I dip feathers of ink in a castle." For Brown, these lines are subaverage. But they were playing when I decided to describe his writing, and instantly I realized that his subaverage was 90th percentile at least--vocabulary like "satchel," vernacular like "holy mackerel," arcana like the quill pen, six off-rhymes in four lines, the news that he spun them off on speed. Also, he raps in at least two voices--one higher than his Detroit homeboy Shady's, one so street-manly he sounds like someone else. By changing up the usual fatalistic dope-fiend hedonism with new verbiage and situations--I direct sex fiends to the cunt-lapping relish of "I Will"--Brown's first proper album means to show us he's got a right to "Die Like a Rockstar," meaning rich, high, and verging on bored. But two-thirds in it suddenly turns as bleak as his ruined city. "DNA" blames not his father but his father's genes. A two-song sequence frames the downhill choices of a middle-class groupie as the tragedy they are. And the social-realist "Scrap or Die" gives us the dirt on the hood's heaviest junk--scrap metal stripped from condemned buildings. A-

2017-02-17

Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia, 2016) A few weeks before this was released, Cohen deflected rumors of his imminent passing by telling reporters that he intended to live forever; a few weeks after, he cemented his well-earned reputation as an incorrigibly courteous liar by dying. Thus he transformed how these eight songs would be heard and remembered, and accentuated how shrewdly his living will's gravity, austerity, and sparse wit dovetail with its thematic and emotional preoccupations. Feeling impossibly frail and weary, the 82-year-old Cohen parried with a thoroughgoing renunciation--of Jahweh, Jesus, Vishnu, sex, and the acrid jokes he'd been cracking for half a century. A company of musical pallbearers added touches that hint at a consoling spirituality if you give them time and don't insist on actually being cheered up. But note that the most soothing softens a final statement credited solely to the dying man, which you could call a parting gift if it wasn't topped off by an instrumental track that reprises his most enigmatic farewell song: "I wish there was a treaty we could sign/It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then, but now we're borderline/I wish there was a treaty/I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine." To those literal last words one can only add: hmmm. A-

Allison Crutchfield: Tourist in This Town (Merge, 2017) Indie-rock notes from a sweet, intense, failed romance, or maybe a few of them--not her last, anyway, and just maybe these songs will help her achieve that consummation ("Dean's Room," "Expatriate") **

Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian, 2017) Beginning with a Mormon missionary mourning Lady Di and a guy showing his friend a plastic model of his tumor over lunch, Lekman is no longer mooning toward the bland anonymity of his 2012 breakup album. But as with so many great songwriters, his chief concern continues to be love. Usually but not always this means romantic love, although "How I Tell Him" cuts that distinction close and those first two songs make you wonder exactly how secular this humanistic Swede might be--the Mormon is envied, the cancer survivor learns his friend was praying for him. From back when he came on like a nicer relation of Stuart Murdoch, Lekman's romanticism and indeed sexuality have always had a lot of agape in it, hinting at social consciousness only insofar as agape is social consciousness's engine and embodiment. I believe that's because he's Swedish. Be grateful there's still a nation where a fellow can preach an ostensibly apolitical humanism with a clear conscience. A

Jens Lekman: Oh You're So Silent Jens (Secretly Canadian, 2005) Juvenilia recorded 2003-2004, when he was 22 and 23, make clear why Lekman is compared to Jonathan Richman and Stephin Merritt--he too was a pop adept who talked his songs more than sung them. But spiritually he's so different. He shares Richman's sweet innocence. But unlike Richman, he's devoid of irony, slapstick, or post-rockist snark--his words and melodies project his innocence so unassumingly you have to assume that's who he is. As it happens, his "I just want someone to share my life with" is attached to one of his less memorable tunes. But it sticks even so. Your daughter can bring him to dinner any time. A-

Jens Lekman: When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog (Secretly Canadian, 2004) It would be silly to insist that there's much musical magnetism in the archly received/sampled arrangements or sad-sack delivery of this young Swede's official debut album. But it would be stupid not to want to hear the lyrics again--and again. "Yeah I got busted/So I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio"? Quiet yet audacious. "When I said I wanted to be your dog/I wasn't coming on to you/I just wanted to lick your face"? You can't argue with that. "Lick those raindrops from the rainy day/You can take me for a walk in the park"? But that doesn't mean he can't top it. B+

Angel Olsen: My Woman (Jagjaguwar, 2016) Never convinces me her melodramatic manner reflects deep pain as opposed to raw aesthetic self-regard ("Intern," "Never Be Mine") *

2017-02-24

Fanfare Ciocarlia: 20 (Asphalt Tango, 2016) Like the Markovics' Serbian orkestar, this Romanian Gypsy horn band poses a discographical dilemma for gadje casuals--just how much of this high-energy stuff do committed eclectics need? That's why the Markovic catalog has always driven your faithful marginal differentiator crazy. But though said differentiator has never heard a Ciocarlia album he didn't like, including 2016's Onward to Mars with the zippy "Crayfish Hora" opener you won't find here, he believes you can make do with two: the guest-studded live 2007 memorial concert Queens & Kings, and this vinyl-and-download-only double album, which cherrypicks a catalog they were accruing long before vinyl fetishism became a thing. Trad though they are, they began recording well into the CD era in 1996. Gili Garabdi owners should be aware that that 2005 breakthrough provides seven of its 26 tracks, but what can you do? None of them are 20's most audacious moments, which Balkanize two American classics that suddenly take on equal weight: "Summertime" and "I Put a Spell on You." A-

The Klezmatics: Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village, 2016) The definitive modern klezmer band's first album of new originals in well over a decade finds them as lovely and lively as ever, with Lorin Sklamberg's tenor plenty pliant in his sixties. Note, however, that it's entirely in Yiddish. I can attest from the booklet that the lyrics bite, uplift, and amuse in translation if you read along. But I advise that you ascertain what you get musically from tracks four-five-six--in English, the frolicsome "Party in Odessa" to the bereft "Dark Is the Night" to the defiant "Heretics" itself. If suitably entranced or intrigued, buy the CD with its cheat sheet. If not, play Possessed again and proceed with your life. B+

Tom Zé: Cancoes Eroticas Para Ninar (Irara, 2016) Sadly, I can no longer locate the YouTube promo clips of the lithe, black-haired, 80-year-old Zé, naked except for black socks or red shoes, demurely concealing his privates behind an acoustic guitar as he sings the opening "Sexo." But the music makes amply clear that this isn't sex as his fellow rhythm masters usually conceive it--the album's 12 compact "erotic lullabies" abjure the lilting sensuality so many Braziliansbend toward. They're punchy, pop the way the advertising jingles Zé used to write are pop, and although a Brazilian review Google translated for me suggests that the breaths that punctuate "Sexo" "carry the dynamics of the sexual act," I wouldn't have known that just from hearing it. So even more than most Zé and granting that the Brazilian CD I've acquired has a lyric sheet, I must note that most Americans would enjoy this album more if it came with clear verbal guidelines--an inserted or online trot, em ingles por favor. I want to know the words! Especially since his chief collaborator is the wife who long ago told him that if writing more music meant losing their house, they should sell the house. That woman clearly has a mind on her--a sexy one, I bet. A-

2017-03-03

John Legend: Darkness and Light (Columbia, 2016) "My history has brought me to this place/This power and the color of my face"--not an easy brag to bring off modestly, and the more I listen the more I appreciate the trick ("I Know Better," "Darkness and Light," "Marching Into the Dark") **

NxWorries: Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge: Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw, 2016) Love man projects minimum modicum of empathy with his salable burr yet somehow sounds cuddly even so ("Another Time," "Lyk Dis," "Fkku") ***

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya: DROOL (Father/Daughter/Sooper, 2017) Normally I snort at new rappers claiming "you could never write shit like this." But for starters, Ogbonnaya's not really a rapper. He's a Chicago multi-instrumental quadruple-threat functioning as an alt-r&ber replaces tune with mood as he croon-talks around his wavery beats in a voice that evokes an antique space-organ synth. And I do admire, as he puts it, his writing. Challenging to follow even though they're seldom slurred or speeded up, his lyrics evoke without defining a humorous humanism that takes the immaturity off his subcultural jousting and erotic ups and downs--and thus firms up the stuff that preoccupies most newbies who think you could never write shit like this. Try the adoring "Cindy OsO," the erotic "let gO Of my egO," the overarching "drOOl/drink that." (All strange capitalizations in original. Pray he gets over it.) A-

Syd: Fin (Epic, 2017) These days almost all r&b goes for voice-plus-sound rather than voice-plus-song, with the sound ranging from precision track-and-hook to idiosyncratic atmospherics. What distinguishes Odd Future fixture, Internet instigator, and matter-of-fact lesbian Sydney Bennett is that she powers her solo venture with one of the smallest voices in popular music--not tiny, just soft and slender. No fan of power tonsils, I've always been drawn to her brave sighs and whispers, and love how easily her voice carries this music unaugmented by her former guitar and drum kit. I also like how she celebrates an economic success I hope is as permanent as she thinks--"middle to upper class," you don't hear that much. But since love is more important than money, I warm most to these tracks when they turn to eros, and admit that the most winning, "Dollar Bills," is also the only one to avail itself of some male timbre. Very deep. Very resonant. A-

2017-03-10

Whitney Rose: South Texas Suite (Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers EP, 2017) Rose isn't the first country singer from the Canadian Maritimes, although neither Hank Snow nor Anne Murray was blessed with or limited by such a crystalline soprano. But a debut that favored the folk-angelic also showed a fondness for verities like the "Hearts Made of Stone" piano triplets that open it, and now come five simple songs where verities prevail. "Three Minute Love Affair" turns a single roadhouse dance into the lovely fleeting thing it can be, and soon "Analog" is exemplifying the corny notion that tunes this fetching shouldn't have to coexist with newfangled annoyances like robocalls, GMOs, and the pitch correction Rose plainly doesn't need. And that the other three are plainer doesn't mean they're dull--although somebody must have beaten her to "Looking Back on Luckenbach"'s built-in pun, I doubt anybody's done it nicer. A-

Sunny Sweeney: Trophy (Thirty Tigers, 2017) Last time bad girl was her play, and she was funny, feisty, and sexy about it. This time it's more bad girl's progress, bad girl gets older, in there. She begins by getting smashed at a bar and daring the guy she goes home with to come up with a better bad idea. But soon she's off those pills, and then it transpires that the "Bottle by My Bed" she craves comes with milk and a rubber nipple. Proceed to "Grow Old With Me"--next line: "I'll keep you young forever"--and a title tune in which a proud trophy wife skewers his ex with the perfect putdown: "I'm his trophy for putting up with you." Why am I not surprised that these last three, the finest songs on an album filled with good ones, are Lori McKenna cowrites? "Grow Old With Me" to "Trophy" bears the mark of someone who's looked at marriage from many sides now. And "Bottle by My Bed" is an infertility song--a rare thing, as I happen to know--brought to fruition by a mother of five. A-

Becky Warren: War Surplus (self-released, 2016) Warren is a singer-songwriter who put her music on hold in 2006, when her new husband came back from Iraq with PTSD. The marriage didn't survive, but they gave it a hard try, and years later Warren's solo debut, a muscular, bro-country sounding concept album where she sings five "June" songs and seven "Scott" songs, is born of that effort. June's a dive bar sweetheart whose love for her man is ironwood strong, Scott a casual patriot looking to escape the day-to-day who comes home with a mouth that explodes whenever he pulls the pin. Scott's memories of the girl who loved him best are painful. But they have nothing on the Iraq memories of "Stay Calm, Get Low," borrowed from memoirist Colby Buzzell, who liked Warren's adaptation so much he wrote liner notes. A-

2017-03-17

Stef Chura: Messes (Urinal Cake, 2017) Wobbly indie rocker staggers beckoningly but keeps on going, so don't even think about thinking she hopes you'll hold her up ("Human Being," "On and Off for You") **

Frontier Ruckus: Enter the Kingdom (Sitcom Universe, 2017) Somebody marry this winsome sad sack, whose increasingly plausible rhymes now include open-ibuprofen, gauche-precocious-neurosis, salad on the tennis court-valid passport, speckled melanin-freckled up your skin, and the very sexy errands-gerunds ("Visit Me," "27 Dollars") ***

The Goon Sax: Up for Anything (Chapter Music, 2016) My brilliant wife heard Go-Betweens in this high school band well before I learned that Robert Forster's son Louis was a cofounder or that they were "driven" by a female drummer or even that they were Australian. Nah, I told her, though I liked them fine--too crude. And indeed, they're cruder than even the earliest Go-Betweens, who were a university band after all, and somewhat static at their worst. Usually, however, they're charming at least. When Louis fantasizes about a "Boyfriend" or James Harrison hates the "Telephone," it just accentuates the specifically adolescent angst they pin down so much more candidly and affectingly than any other high school band that comes to mind. "If you don't want to hold my sweaty hands / I completely understand"? Pretty mature, in its way. A-

Let's Eat Grandma: I, Gemini (Pias America, 2016) Anyone who thinks these two self-consciously childish British teengirls are a mess is a tightass, and anyone who thinks they're geniuses is a doodyhead ("Eat Shiitake Mushrooms," "Rapunzel) ***

Lithics: Borrowed Floors (Water Wing, 2016) Portlandia Delta 5 fans are coy about who's on guitar, probably because they're afraid he's the star, and yes I'll bet money it's a he ("Labor," "Seven People") *

Priests: Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon, 2017) Musicianly postgraduate postpunk steals one of its few credible melodies from X-Ray Spex and proves hookiest when ranting ("No Big Bang," "Suck") **

Thurst: Cut to the Chafe (self-released, 2017) For the how-many-hundredth time, it's the punk miracle, here performed by late-twentysomething singer-guitarist Kory Seal with help from older sister Jessie Seal on drums and backup vocals plus a bassist friend. The tempos are brisk but seldom speedy as the tunes mine the nursery-rhyme and playground-chant riches of punk drone and whine, with Kory laying in guitar hooks whenever he intuits we might be getting bored. His core attitude is earned alienation, his "I'm always just gonna be me" neither boast or self-laceration. By living "Paycheck to Paycheck" he earns the right to dis the "Struggling Artist" whose parents pay the rent. But he backs it up by branding "fuck the government" "an excuse," by admitting he should "interact with people," and by wondering where the "Lonely Webcam Girl"'s parents are. B+

Vagabon: Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter, 2017) Demographically enticing indie-rocker emotes credible strum'n'drum but should fool around more with the electronics thing ("Mal ŕ L'aise," "Minneapolis") *

2017-03-24

Craig Finn: We All Want the Same Things (Partisan, 2017) Finn's Americans are beyond politics. Barflies and hopheads, petty criminals unlikely to kill or maim, working stiffs with a hustle on the side, fuckups milking disability checks and insurance settlements, the musical lifers who bleed into all these categories--none of them are kids anymore, and of course, neither is Finn. My personal interest in this demographic has never been all that personal and continues to wane--I wish a few of his antiheroes had kids. But he sure can sing a sad story if you call that singing. And there's no denying the wah-wah hook of the opener, the musicality of the spoken-word "God in Chicago," the unrequited love at first sight of "It Hits When It Hits," or the secret love of "Rescue Blues." B+

Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch, 2017) You know the drill. Five 10-song CDs that'd fit onto two, and thereby cost less than 40 bucks, with each year of Merritt's life allotted one song and each decade one CD as neatly as 69 Love Songs's three 23-song discs add up to that magic number. But this edition of the Magnetic Fields is barely a band--with occasional aid from Thomas Bartlett, David Handler, and scattered others, Merritt plays over 100 instruments all told and assigns every lead vocal to his own depressive bass. Aptly autobiographical though 'tis, this is a negative, especially on disc two, which also honors John Foxx of Ultravox, who Merritt loved as a teenager and admires today--musically, there are numerous dead spots. Over the medium haul, however, every song is a grower, not merely because Merritt is quite a lyricist but because he's documenting an exceptional life that includes a childhood in a panoply of hippie communes and a young adulthood in a hodgepodge of bohemian penury. And some songs you'll connect with right away. Among my candidates: three-year-old loving a cat who hates him, five-year-old internalizing a Grace Slick rant, 13-year-old upgrading a duo called 1 1/2 into a trio who make the Shaggs sound like Yes, college man failing ethics, college grad loving Ethan Frome, twentysomething enjoying a live-in four-way, thirtysomething XXX-ing his ex, and fortysomething reaccessing a permanently impermanent NYC. But especially, 50-year-old kissing off the most horrendous of his stepfathers and 50-year-old emoting what kinda sounds like a love song. A-

Sleater-Kinney: Live in Paris (Sub Pop, 2017) Proof that their now superceded farewell, 2007's The Woods, was actually a turning point: great punk band to great rock band. Half the tracks on a placeholder they've long since earned are from The Woods and 2015's No Cities to Love. Tempos are identical, arrangements unchanged; there's not a gift cover or a new song. But live and new, the old punk material does more than hold up--it changes, not exactly for the better but for the firmer. If Carrie is our Joey Ramone, Corin is our Mick Jagger. And you gotta love how Janet dominates the mix. She was always the genius musician here. B+

2017-03-31

Mariem Hassan: La Voz Indómita (Nubenegra, 2017) "(Del Sáhara Occidental)," a subtitle explains, but the Western Sahara wasn't big enough to contain Mariem Hassan. Dead of bone cancer in 2015 in a Sahrawi refugee camp, she was postcolonial Africa's most striking female singer. Before, during, and after a European career of over a decade, her powersaw voice was intense at any volume, with none of the sensual comfort of the equally stirring Oumou Sangare, whose forested Wassoulou was so much more forgiving than Hassan's desert. Yet because this onetime nurse had the spiritual wherewithal to resettle in Barcelona, she got to make music with fellow Sahrawis and many others. Her sixth and final album is a DVD soundtrack, recorded solely in her last five years but digging back stylistically. Guests range from the Sahara ululators who haunt "Najter Alaila Anadal Lihuela" to New York avant-bassist Shanir Blumenkranz contrapuntalizing the desert blues "Latlal," from Yemeni-Israeli Ravid Kahalani to Sierra Leonean-Nigerian Seydu. I haven't figured out who's in the jazz combo that backs "Illah Engulek Di Elkalma," but I love the way her easy mesh with the idiom segues abruptly into one where the sub-Saharan Seydu softens her dry wail only to be overtaken in turn by a searing Sahrawi haul. The "Al Widaa" finale was recorded five months before she passed on in her haim, a word than means both family and tent. If 82-year-old Leonard Cohen made his death album, then 58-year-old Mariem Hassan made hers--and it's less sere. A-

Mariem Hassan & Vadiya Mint El Hanevi: Baila Sahara Baila (Nubenegra, 2015) Right, Spanish speakers, it's a Saharan dance album where Hassan's indomitable voice is augmented by percussionist-dancer Hanevi's chirpier one. Tempos vary perceptibly, rhythms decisively, yet although the results are galvanic, they'll wear down anyone who hasn't internalized those rhythms. So although Lamgaifri Brahim is the guitar virtuoso here, I find myself equally drawn to the downtempo Nayim Alal instrumental "Bleida." A one-of-a-kind document most pleasurably consumed in controlled portions. B+

Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit, 2017) Specialist in All Styles and Made in Dakar, the 2001 and 2008 albums that reunited this world-class band, climaxed a career that began with a 15-year run in 1970, went into abeyance rather than "modernize," and then surged back. But because guitarist-arranger Barthelemy Attisso would rather be a lawyer in Togo than a star in Senegal, this long-delayed sequel was a challenge. Attisso's young Beninois replacement is deft enough without approaching his calm mastery or getting as much room, overshadowed as he is by a well-integrated kora add-on who, while hardly the usual mystagogue, sometimes renders the ambience perilously world-musicky even so. But though singer Ndiouga Dieng is indeed gone, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis remain frontmen to reckon with as their voices roughen, and where Baobab's other 21st-century albums reconstituted their greatest hits, here they generate new titles worthy of their legend. For orientation, start in the middle with "Woulinewa" and the only remake, the Dieng-identified "Sey," which a cameo from Baobab alum Thione Seck takes home. Then start again from the beginning. A-

Tamikrest: Kidal (Glitterbeat, 2017) Their groove has evolved into a given, which does happen in Azawad ("Wainan Adobat," "Ehad Wad Nadorhan") **

Tinariwen: Elwan (Anti-, 2017) Yet finer marginal differentiations on the theme of holy Azawad, this time rendered more "accessible" by, well, Kurt Vile and Mark Lanegan (of, you remember, Screaming Trees) ("Nizzagh Ijbal," "Assŕwat") **

2017-04-07

The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord, 2017) Carl Newman's ad hoc outfit could be the greatest band in the world if he didn't write so obsessively about purveying their tune-porn, but he'll settle for the status he's got. Claiming Krautrock and shrugging off the departed Dan Bejar, he generates 11 soaring new pop songs, which in some abstrusely Krautrock way are sparer than the 13 on Brill Bruisers. And from those songs let me corral a few snatches of meaning. "I only play for the money honey." "You can imagine all the factions/That form around high ticket attractions." "A scalper's price built into the design." "Colosseums of the mind / An ancient con, the shadows of a song." "This is the world of the theater / Come up with some highbrow move / Think of all the lives we're saving / Think of all the ways we'll cave in." "With the ignorance of a poet." "Second-rate Socrates" (second, eh?). "Cottage industry." "I wasn't hoping for a win / I was hoping for freedom / You couldn't beat 'em / Forget the mission just get out alive." "Didn't choose what we mean / Just went along with what's played / There were rules once before / There should be rules again." But until that by no means impending day . . . A

Conor Oberst: Salutations (Nonesuch, 2017) Musical cult heroes come in all gradations of quality. So Randy Newman is a genius, Chris Carrabba ain't, and Oberst falls in between in more ways than one. As is clear from 2016's Ruminations, where 10 of these 17 songs surfaced as acoustic demos, material per se isn't enough. You need support to put songs across, here organized by 74-year-old master drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, you bet Randy Newman, also Russ Giguere, Henry Gross, Firefall). Attitude also matters, so good thing that by the time he cut this--after ruminating not just on Ruminations but on 2013's stillborn Upside Down Mountain--Oberst had become more upbeat, not to mention concerned about his professional future. This time "A Little Uncanny," which compares Ronald Reagan unfavorably to Jane Fonda without falling for either, is nothing like a dirge, and neither is "Rain Follows the Plow," which meditates on sin. Make him a gifted guy with a good heart, a handy tune sense, and a signature throb in his voice. Believe that he's not callow anymore and never will be again. A-

Old 97's: Graveyard Whistling (ATO, 2017) Stretches Rhett Miller's skill set most impressively when he takes the name of the Lord in vain ("Good With God," "Jesus Loves You") **

The Shins: Heartworms (Columbia, 2017) Not a band, of course--a shell company for a less boyish and supple James Mercer, who keeps things simple enough only on his memoiristic, hot sex, and feminist numbers ("Mildenhall," "Rubber Ballz," "Name for You") ***

Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador, 2017) If you start them up, well, they'll never stop, never stop, never stop, never stop ("Shotgun," "Tear It Down") ***

2017-04-14

Kevin Abstract: American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (Brockhampton, 2016) The parents of its intended audience might recognize a P.M. Dawn vibe in this 20-year-old's teen-targeted pop/rap concept album about a confused young middle-class black male's requited love for a white football player. His mom's homophobia includes kids who sometimes think they're bisexual like her boy; his inamorato's parents are down with the gays but "hate niggers"; his boyfriend has a girlfriend too. So of course sometimes he hates himself, as in: "I hate my yearbook photo/I hate my passport/I hate my last name/I hate everything it stands for/[wait, he's not done] I should probably transfer." But other times he's transported instead, saved from himself by the love he shares. Here he raps, there he croons. Frank Ocean pal Michael Uzowuru is with him both ways. A-

Khalid: American Teen (RCA, 2017) Deft line by deft line, each self-evident, each unprecedented, the first half of this R&B album justifies its title with a clarity and candor so astonishing it overshadows the music's racial identity: "I'm 18 and I still live with my parents," "Young dumb broke high school kids," "Let's do all the stupid shit that young kids do," "There's so much trouble to get into," "I don't want to fall in love off of subtweets," "I'll keep your number saved," "I let the words come together/Then maybe I'll feel better," and most tellingly of all, "We don't always say what we mean." Second half is skillful but conventional--seven succinct, catchy unrequited love songs all in a row. Khalid Robinson sings in a winning conversational murmur with room for growth, and because the vocals are as unassuming as the words, the song structures he concocts with various pals and pros seems more straightforward than they are. Figure this is a nice young man with a big future, and hope with all your heart that the latter doesn't swallow up the former before we know it. A

Kingdom: Tears in the Club (Fade to Mind, 2017) With big help from some singers he knows, Syd in particular, "disruptive" "post-club" DJ- soundscaper lowers himself to living room level. ("Nothing," "Breathless") *

Sampha: Process (Young Turks, 2017) Beyoncé and Drake's go-to angel finds time for his own piano-rooted reflections, which between his unforced falsetto and his electronic atmospherics prove so intimate they're best-suited for headphones--good ones. ("Plastic 100°C," "Kora Sings") **

2017-04-21

Body Count: Bloodlust (Century Media, 2017) There've been other Body Count albums in the quarter century since "Cop Killer" put a police bull's-eye on the pre-Law and Order Ice-T's back. But it took Donald Trump to revive Tracy Marrow's active interest in the metal band he assembled with his Crenshaw High buddy Ernie C. back when he was a hot rapper. In this year of the rock protest song, there hasn't yet been a lyric as bitter, complex, and powerful as "No Lives Matter." From the lead "Civil War," set in the present and let's hope it remains a fiction, to "Black Hoodie," less hard-hitting but wider-ranging than Vic Mensa's "16 Shots," you feel both a mind at work and an entertainer putting himself across. In the title track, Ice includes himself in the humanity whose propensity for murder he's been going on about. In "Here I Go Again" he concocts a horrorcore fantasy so gruesome he figures most people won't want to hear it twice and bets some sickos will put on repeat. A-

Matt North: Above Ground Fools (self-released, 2017) North is a Nashville session drummer whose solo music is neither bro-country nor folk-rock. This is a rock album purely--loud, obvious, devoid of punk or funk. Big drums, efficient tunes, equal helpings of keyboard and guitar, and a muscular rather than burly voice all serve what is clearly the point for a 47-year-old who's also gotten paid as an actor and standup comic: the lyrics. A solid musician, this great-nephew of Kentucky local colorist Jesse Stuart is an absolutely first-rate better songwriter. If he's any kind of feminist you'd never know it, so be glad the one where the "damsel in shining armor" fails to rescue the "white knight in distress" compensates for the "Badgering the Witness" charges and "No Hard Feelings" g'bye. And be gladder that from the acid-etched local color of "A Good Day in Nashville" to the DIY bile of "Come Here Go Away," he serves up so much lyrical idiosyncrasy--topped for me by the nonstop "I Sold It All," where I understand the meaning of every line without being sure I know what the damn thing's about. A-

Zeal & Ardor: Devil Is Fine (MVKA, 2017) Challenged to join black metal and black music in holy sacrilege, biracial Swiss New Yorker Manuel Gagneux said either fuck you or fuck yeah and began hollering faux field hollers of "devil is kind" and "devil is fine" over chain-gang percussion. Various metal usages follow--guitar din, guitar arpeggiation, toy-piano scene-shift, drum flourishes untouched by human hand. But soon it's another field holler--"A good God is a dead one," this one goes. Whole thing's over in 25 minutes--too long for a joke, too short for an artistic statement, just right for a helluva parlor trick. A-

Rock and Roll Music!: The Songs of Chuck Berry (Ace, 2017) Compiled to cash in on the Originator's forthcoming Chuck rather than his unexpected death, this could be better even if you forgive such budget measures as no Beatles/Stones/Hendrix, no Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (check out Etta James and also--believe it--Julian Lennon), late Elvis, later Beach Boys. Rather than Jay and the Americans' execrable "Johnny B. Goode," how about Peter Tosh's or the Dead's; rather than the Hollies' "Sweet Little Sixteen" album filler, Ten Years After's balls-out festival rocker or even Cliff Richard's Beatles move; rather than Marty Robbins's wan "Maybellene," George Jones and Johnny Paycheck's rowdy one. And amusing though you may find the obscure Brit "Nadine," I urge you urge you urge you to excavate Kevin Dunn's fey, howling early-computer-age reimagining, my third favorite Berry cover ever. Nonetheless, the Originator inspired John Prine's rockingest vocal, tickled the shit out of one-hit wonders the Syndicate of Sound, and brought out the very best from such unexpected-to-whodat artists as John Hammond, Ian Gomm, the Remains, the Count Bishops, Dwight Yoakam, and Helene Dixon. The big-name tribute albums will come, and though their hit-or-miss ratio may beat this one's, believe it when you hear it. Meanwhile, Dunn's "Nadine" is readily available via YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, etc. Lasts 4:25 exactly. A-

2017-04-28

Brad Paisley: Love and War (Arista, 2017) If you believe the only country superstar ever to record a pro-Obama song owes us an anti-Trump song, you're not getting it--not exactly. What you are getting is the antiwar title track, a John Fogerty collab that unites Iraq and Vietnam--and also, by extension, Syria and whatever else they got. And toward the back where the Christian gesture is usually tucked away you're also getting an anti-hate song that decries the evil done in God's name in both "the darkest prison" and "the largest church," because after all, "God is love." That'll do, doncha think? This is easily Paisley's strongest album since American Saturday Night--not a bum track, loaded with good jokes (including, after several failed attempts, one about the internet), hymns to marriage haters will hate because they don't have what conjugal love takes, and, word of honor, a fun Mick Jagger cameo. It begins with something called "Heaven South," which one kind of hater will dismiss as escapist piffle but I say is Paisley's way of telling another kind of hater to quit feeling sorry for themselves and be grateful for what they got. It ends by reprising the same song. A

Angaleena Presley: Wrangled (Mining Light, 2017) The onetime Pistol Annie, who last time gave us American Middle Class, the New Nashville Feminism's finest album, leads once again with her corniest stuff. Her "Dreams Don't Come True" and "High School" are sharper than most--"Flip the bird to the whores in high school" and "It's late September and she's startin' to show," respectively. But there's meaner to come as she sweetly guns down the preacher husband she knows like the back of his hand and cattily cuts down the "beauty mark on the human race" who ain't blonde enough to play so dumb. And if you wish she was feistier still, figure the reason she isn't in "Outlaw," where she identifies her career goal as "straight-shootin' hifalutin writer on the hit parade." Only instead she's on the road hoping the merch sells as she grinds out a "Groundswell," as sly a take on the economic marginalization of the job of music as Jeffrey Lewis's "Indie Bands on Tour" only much less amused about it. A-

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers: Sidelong (Bloodshot, 2017) Shook is a home-schooled ex-fundamentalist North Carolinan single mother raised in hardscrabble Rochester, New York. She disarms with self-caricature, exaggerating her drawl, her vibrato, her desolation, her drinking I hope, her "devil's book" and "mother-heart tattoo." She sings as a woman, a man, a who-can-tell; she rhymes "broken" with "Yoakam" and "buck up" with "fuck up." On my favorite track she deliberately gets too blotto to even consider driving to her ex's place. If only it was followed rather than preceded by the one where she plans to dry out tomorrow. B+

2017-05-05

Future: Future (Epic, 2017) Lesser half of a pretty decent album, in order of appearance: "Zoom," "Mask Off," "Outta Time," "Scrape," "When I Was Broke," "Feds Did a Sweep" ("When I Was Broke," "Mask Off") *

Future: HNDRXX (Epic, 2017) Better half of a pretty decent album, in order of appearance: "My Collection," "Coming Out Strong," "Testify," "Fresh Air," "Neva Missa Lost," "Turn on Me," "Sorry" ("Turn on Me," "Coming Out Strong") **

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2017) Thematically, these thoughts of a pushing-30 superstar are almost conventional compared to the rest of his official output--good kid, m.A.A.d city's top-this narrative, To Pimp a Butterfly's political ambition and jazz-hip sweep, even untitled, unmastered's barrel-scraping scatter. Old head Greg Tate is reminded of De La Soul Is Dead--it's the kind of album you make after you've experienced fame's drawbacks from the inside. But this one's much harder to resist. Lamar's pensive self-doubt and modest buying habits are reassuring if you wish him well as a person, as why shouldn't you, and the simple keys-percussion-chorus beats flatter his cushiony timbre. Musically, Damn. is as calm as To Pimp a Butterfly is ebullient; lyrically, its only misstep is a pseudo-scriptural "don't call me black no more" that inspired Tate to quote Franz Fanon. Remaining skeptics should proceed directly to what vinyl fetishists know as side two, with its hit single, its "Lust"-to-"Love," its remembrance of ass-whuppings past, and its autobiographical miracle. He got what he wanted without squandering what he had. A-

Migos: Culture (QC/YRN/300, 2017) It would be silly to deny how good this music sounds. These three rather different young men are much more than amigos--they're blood relatives raised by the same heroic mama, and while they don't harmonize like Isleys or Everlys, their pitch-corrected interactions are a consanguineous delight. Rather than bitches, cars, etc., they're about homologous voices twisting internal rhymes through associative verses, with the "ad libs" that punctuate line after line the payoff that's made them such a thing. Although sometimes these merely repeat the line's final word, that can be fun in itself, and it sets up the repeated jack-in-the-box joke of springing an improved alternative keyword instead. And as anybody who's heard "Bad and Boujee" three times knows, best of all are the sound effects: bwah, skrrrt, brrrup. Some believe these echo gunfire. I prefer to table that theory till next time. A-

Migos: Y.R.N. 2 (Young Rich Niggas 2) (self-released, 2016) Their farewell to DIY is slightly less hooky and more thug, and it makes a difference ("You Wanna See," "Chances") ***

2017-05-12

Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai (Merge, 2017) Londoner juices African rhythms with electro arrangements while dissing Boko Haram in her Nigerian-born parents' native Ibibio ("Give Me a Reason," "The Pot Is on Fire") **

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers (self-released, 2016) Although no angel, their paterfamilias sang more angelically than any of his heirs, who opt in his absence for practical songs about Christian agape and parliamentary democracy ("Phalamende," "Mina Kangivumanga") ***

Les Amazones d'Afrique: République Amazone (RealWorld, 2017) Conceived by the great singers Oumou Sangaré, Mariam Doumbia, and Mamani Keita, then joined by the dynamite organizer Angelique Kidjo after Sangaré withdrew, this loose feminist alliance out of Francophone West Africa feels more like a movement than any other stab at musical do-gooding you can name. I don't understand the lyrics, including the scattered English ones said to be in here somewhere. But the thorough notes articulate the ideology they share, which calls out sexist violence while asking men to back them up where it could just tell them to go fuck themselves. The particulars of the vocal attack differ, as voices will. But empowered by a rock-informed groove overseen by French-Irish Mbongwana Star producer Liam Farrell, the music is unbowed and declarative as it subordinates squarely rousing Euro-America to polyrhthmically engaged Africa--an Africa represented by Panzi Hospital in southern Congo, where 200 of the 350 beds go to rape survivors. A-

Oumou Sangare: Mogoya (No Format, 2017) Backed by an electro-friendly French boutique label with a specialty in Afro-Euro interaction and two welcome Mamani Keita CDs in its kit, the first album in eight years from Africa's premier female singer targets a boutique audience: non-Malians who've admired the music of this humane, well-off feminist for decades, among them my wife, who long ago wrote that "even when the liner notes tell me that Sangaré is being ironic, I just hear compassion." But admiration doesn't generate the engagement I might be freed up for if just one of the Bambara lyrics indicated how hellish a Mali wrecked by Islamist inhumanity and French passivity has become since Sangaré last recorded. Instead I'll have to settle for Guimba Kouyate's excoriating guitar on "Djoukourou," Ludovic Bruni's disruptive guitar on "Yere Faga," and synthscaper Clément Petit's spooky atmospherics on "Mogoya" itself. B+

2017-05-19

Daddy Issues: Can We Still Hang (Infinity Cat, 2015) On their 2015 debut, this Nashville grrrl-grunge trio hit the bratty thing square on its pink-haired noggin. From stupid boyfriend to thrilling girlcrush, from toughing out the bruise to impressing the coolster, from creepy to ugly to out to lunch in this shitty world, they're tough and trash-mouthed and so needy it hurts. Of course these eight songs are good for a laugh--it's in the contract they believe they'll one day sign. But right at the outset their emotional complexity puts them beyond that and in it at the same time. A-

Daddy Issues: Deep Dream (Infinity Cat, 2017) They grow up, as punk types always do, and as punk types almost always do, find adulthood as short on fun and thrills as they'd feared. So their guitars overextend into the Jesus and Mary darklands as their vocals blur over with distortion and dismay. But the songs tend musically distinct, sometimes sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. "I've been losing since I lost my virginity." "But it's unimportant now / Because I'm unimportant now." "She's a model / I'm a motel / She ditched college / I don't play guitar too well / We're both boring girls." Only then, just when they seem stuck in the dumps forever, they stick a "Boys of Summer" cover in Don Henley's smug mug. A-

Diet Cig: Swear I'm Good at This (Frenchkiss, 2017) Small voice, loud drummer, big dream: "I want to be the best one at this/But I don't want to get out of bed" ("Maid of the Mist," "Blob Zombie") **

Girlpool: Powerplant (Anti-, 2017) Far be it from me to encourage punky minimalists to Learn Their Instruments on the path to Peace Through Art or Big Bucks. Too often that's a not-so-shortcut to sterile formalism or creepy-crawly commercialism. Yet the dream-pop these Philly-based Angeleno BFFs have worked up achieves a surprising softness, vulnerability, dynamic range, and melodicism. Cleo Tucker's guitar articulates and Harmony Tividad's bass complicates as some guy named Miles bangs the drums supportively. The only hitch is all the Explore Your Poeticism. More "You'll build him a tower and he'll burn you a bridge," please. I want to know what you're driving at, meandering toward, or both. B+

Hurray for the Riff Raff: Navigator (ATO, 2017) Bronx Puerto Rican emigrates to New Orleans, where she crystallizes a rock group fit to declaim her story ("Living in the City," "Pa'lante," "Rican Beach") ***

I Am the Polish Army: My Old Man (self-released, 2017) Her emotions too strong for punk speed or indie irony, Emma DeCorsey rocks the way she feels, the old-fashioned way ("My Old Man, "Throat") *

2017-05-26

Mahalia Jackson: Moving On Up a Little Higher (Spirit Feel, 2016) In part because deciding that Jesus wasn't my savior was the toughest intellectual work of my life, I'm not much of a gospel fan, and that goes double for the kind of stately midtempo message singers I avoid in every genre--I don't even really get Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, hailed as her very peak by many nonbelievers with their fingers crossed. Nonetheless, this is Mahalia Jackson, and I've tried, Lord, I've tried--particularly by buying her early stuff, from before Columbia turned her into what the indefatigable gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut once called "a black Kate Smith." But this career-spanning, Heilbut-compiled selection of live rarities reached me as my earlier tries hadn't, so with other Mahalia versions of half its songs already in my iTunes, I compared and contrasted. Heilbut's finds won every time. At their very best--"Keep Your Hand on the Plow," "Didn't It Rain," the storytelling "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well"--they rock and roll with such grace I shout about it. Often they remind me that the piano is a percussion instrument. And at the very least they're more relaxed. Yet in the end, there's still a bunch of stately message singing here. B+

American Epic: The Soundtrack (Legacy, 2017) There will be more of these--many more. In fact, there's already a five-CD set I may spend months with and may not, and on June 9 comes a 32-track Music From the American Epic Sessions double featuring such worthies as Nas, Beck, Raphael Saadiq, Christine Pizzuti, and co-producer Jack White that I hope I want to hear a third time. Artist and genre overviews also impend. And then there's the conflict that I've known Lo-Max Records' Bernard MacMahon, whose obsession clearly drove this project, ever since he started calling me from England circa 1990. But we've talked so little over the past decade that I was astonished to get this CD in the mail, and he had zero input into my theory that American Epic is a Sony plot to poach/rescue the American folk music franchise from the Smithsonian and the great Harry Smith. Still, isn't it obvious? All copyrights are public domain, and nowadays physical compilations are for the collector types who are Legacy's specialty. So these 15 tracks from MacMahon's three-part PBS documentary, overseen by his partner Alison McGourty, constitute a starter disc. Four repeat songs from Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and six more select other material by Smith artists, all arduously remastered to augment depth and grain. But add Smith omission Sister Rosetta Tharpe as well as Lydia Mendoza, the Aloha Serenaders, and Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, and note that two of the Smith artists are Cajun, and suddenly Smith's democratic gestalt has turned a third non-English, over a quarter female, and rather more rocking. The liveliest track besides Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" is the Aloha Serenaders' "Tomi Tomi," where the chorus races to keep up with Sol K. Bright's fleet steel guitar and tongue-twisting vocal, and right behind him comes Big Chief Henry, who never walks when he can run either. If this be political correctness, bring it on. A

The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues (World Music Network, 2016) Given how much African-American rhythm sprung up in church, these guitar tracks tend shockingly static (Blind Willie & Kate McTell, "I Got Religion, I'm So Glad"; Rev. Edward W. Clayton, "Your Enemy Cannot Harm You"; Bukka White, "The Promise True and Grand"; Blind Joe Taggart & Josh White, "Scandalous and a Shame") *

The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues (World Music Network, 2017) Beats me why nobody's done this before, but it's great top to bottom. The sole Memphis Jug Band entry among these 25 finds, Will Shade's take on the ineffable work of genius "Stealin'," isn't even best in show. That would be Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band's take on the equally ineffable work of genius "It's Tight Like That," which in the course of topping the leader's canonical Georgia Tom collab on the same song encodes into history the elan vital of a woman who laughs a verse in tune. Tampa Red also musters up daredevil jug and kazoo solos, but they're a baseline--the chances taken on both primitive instruments are hilarious and heroic throughout. It's as if all these forgotten African-Americans seizing their moment in the studio are inventing not rock and roll but punk, where for a few months a simple formal idea combined with an irrepressible social possibility to light up one 45 after another. Difference is, the formal idea isn't about energy, much less anger--it's about what a precious thing pleasure is when its lucky moment arises. And it lasted the better part of a decade. A

2017-06-02

Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound (Carpark, 2017) As his fellow 25-and-thereabouts debate Dylan Baldi's musicianship and originality, I don't doubt the first, don't sweat the second, and continue to find him an admirable young guy who's less a kid every time out. But because his voice and guitar distinguish themselves within such a narrow range, you have to give each album time to sink in, and his growth isn't instantly apparent here. Where previously he wrote and recorded off the cuff, this one didn't come so easy, and it couldn't have helped that he'd taken on a second guitarist. But that may just be why his ongoing project of becoming more human opens up as lnever before if you give the record a chance. Skeptics should start with "Darkened Rings," where he propels the frustration he's lamenting into Hüsker Dü territory. A-

Japandroids: Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Anti-, 2017) Five years after their road album, their next road album, so praise G-d they know more at the end of it than they do at the beginning ("No Known Drink or Drug," "In a Body Like a Grave") ***

Los Campesinos!: Sick Scenes (Wichita, 2017) Detailing a depression so comprehensive it could convince an artist beset by buzz loss to go on the wagon--or so we hope for your sake, Gareth ("The Fall of Home," "For Whom the Belly Tolls") *

Pinegrove: Cardinal (Run for Cover, 2016) Responsive young roots-alt as a model for the awkward drama of fleshing out human relationships face to face ("Old Friends," "Aphasia") **

The xx: I See You (Young Turks, 2017) If anything, this is the most "accessible" of their three albums--four if you count Jamie xx's more eventful, more instrumental solo shot. It gets your attention right from the faux horn fanfare that occupies its first six seconds, and I can name from memory songs I actively enjoy, to be precise the catchy "On Hold," the needy "Say Something Loving," the frail "Brave for You," and... I forget. That's the problem--however impressive their originality and skill, the details always end up getting away, because in the end the band's shared aesthetic is so contained. As you probably recall yourself. Or do you? B+

2017-06-09

Arkells: Morning Report (Last Gang, 2016) On album four, hard-touring Canadian Springsteenians shade their affect toward a pop postmacho vulnerability, plus, well--such an improvement on the Tragically Hip! ("Drake's Dad," "A Little Rain [A Song for Pete]") **

Chuck Berry: Chuck (Dualtone, 2017) In the first 89 years of his life, Chuck Berry recorded two full-length albums worthy of the name, neither currently available for under a C-note although one is set for reissue: 1964's St. Louis to Liverpool, three comeback classics plus seven keepers that include the atypically companionable "You Two" and the atypically familial "Little Marie" as well as two atypically engaging instrumentals. The other is the 1979 groove album Rockit, sharpened by two back-end songs skewering the racist society he'd striven so audaciously to integrate and enlighten. That was his last record for 38 years, when he generated this de facto farewell, which stands as both a summation he put his all into and a little something he might have followed up if he hadn't up and died at 90. Mischievous and horny and locked in, he plays undiminished guitar as a few subtle guest shots add texture. His timbre has deepened--on the recitative "Dutchman," he's a relaxed near-bass. But he's hale vocally and acute verbally on eight well-crafted new ones and two savvy covers that indicate he's learned a few things--the warm songs to the long-suffering wife he married in 1948 and the progeny who chime in like they've earned it have the kind of detail he always reserved for his fictions, musical and otherwise. I've never stopped loving Chuck Berry as an artist, but it's been a while since I thought the old reprobate was anything but a fucked up human being. This miracle gives me second thoughts. A-

Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection (Geffen/Chess, 2006) I hope a few young folks out there are aware that the inventor of rock and roll made his bones with six genre- and generation-defining '50s hits: "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode." I also hope they'll believe that he later wrote three equally titanic songs: "Almost Grown" and "You Never Can Tell," in which his patented American teenager goes out on his own and gets married, and the sub rosa celebration of the Freedom Rides "Promised Land." And I hope they won't be surprised to learn that those nine titles are only the cream of a 10-buck, 30-tracks-in-75-minutes collection whose most dubious selection both the Kinks and the Rolling Stones thought choice enough to cover. ("Beautiful Delilah," to be precise--I've come around on Berry's sole #1, the naughty 1972 sing-along "My Ding-a-Ling.") Bo Diddley excepted, Berry was the most spectacular guitarist of the rock and roll era, and every '60s band learned his licks. His bassist-producer was the capo of Chicago blues, his pianist entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own recognizance, and his drummers were huge. Yet though the size of his sound was unprecedented, the penetrating lightness of his unslurred vocals was as boyish as the young Eminem's because the crystalline words meant even more than the irresistible music. In the hall of mirrors that is Chuck Berry's catalogue, this is where to get oriented. But be forewarned that there's also a 71-track three-CD box that slightly overplays his blues pretensions and Nat King Cole dreams, and that this one could tempt a person to covet that consumable too. I dare you to find out. A+

Low Cut Connie: Dirty Pictures (Part 1) (Contender, 2017) All they want is to be rock and roll's most basic bar band and rock and roll's most sophisticated bar band at the same time ("Montreal," "Death & Destruction") ***

Todd Snider: Eastside Bulldog (Aimless/30 Tigers EP, 2091) The fun rock and roll record his memoir says he's craved all century, only the memoir is more fun--I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like, buy it ("Hey Pretty Boy," "Come On Up") *

2017-06-16

Colvin & Earle: Colvin & Earle (Fantasy, 2016) On six cowrites and four sweet covers, Steve takes most of the starch out of Shawn, who retains enough to stiffen him up like he needs ("You Were on My Mind," "Happy and Free") **

Rodney Crowell: Close Ties (New West, 2017) 67-year-old proves he's still growing in wisdom, especially when he trots out the biographical fallacy ("Nashville 1972," "It Ain't Over Yet") ***

Steve Earle: So You Wannabe an Outlaw (Warner Bros., 2017) He's tried the outlaw thing, and on his best album in 15 years sets out to tell the world why it ain't all that. Your buddies on those roughneck temp gigs always head elsewhere. When the news from home is bad, and it will be, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Hitchhiking is so over a fella could write a keeper about it. And to sum up: "Everybody reckons that they want to be free / Nobody wants to be alone." A guy who's been married seven times is more likely to know nothing about women than everything. But from "Comes to love fallin' is the easy part" to "You can't pretend / The line between a secret and a lie ain't razor thin," he gets a keeper out of that too. While I surely do agree that in love a secret and a lie are the same thing, I hope it will interest him to be told that the secret of not being alone is to let yourself keep falling--for the same one. A-

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers, 2017) The Americana pigeonhole sets up rootsy expectations Isbell has too keen a mind for. And though he obviously isn't the only Nashville guy ever to placate his demons with Jack and coke or the only folkie ever beset by night thoughts, neither "country" or "singer-songwriter" suits him either--he's too intellectual for one, too downhome for the other. So 15 years after the Drive-Bys brought in a tenor who could write, 10 years after he quit them while his first wife stayed on, five years after he got sober, and two years after there was a baby on the way, here are some of the words his tenor lets fly. Over the tolling guitars of "White Man's World": "There's no such thing as someone else's war / Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for." Over the female counterpoint of "If We Were Vampires": "Maybe we'll get 40 years together / But one day I'll be gone, one day you'll be gone." Over the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" boom of "Anxiety": "Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me? / I'm out here living in a fantasy / I can't enjoy a goddamn thing." A

Gurf Morlix: The Soul and the Heal (Rootball, 2017) Bruised and bleedin' for strictly personal reasons, he heals by putting his all into humanist hymns ("Love Remains Unbroken," "Move Someone") **

Willie Nelson: God's Problem Child (Legacy, 2017) Having invented outlaw, he long ago elected to transcend it ("Still Not Dead," "I Made a Mistake") *

North Mississippi All Stars: Prayer for Peace (Songs of the South, 2017) Never much shakes with songs per se, they put their minds into an entreaty their South needs, their hearts into their South's African-American repertoire, and their guitars into Will Shade's greatest hit ("Prayer for Peace," "Stealin'") ***

2017-06-23

Adamn Killa: I Am Adamn (Homespun Media Group, 2017) Auto-Tuned singsong-rap at its down-and-dirtiest--in other words, grime Chicago style, grime that never forgets the way literal grime gets into the creases of your hands and stinks up your underpants ("Piss in the Sheets," "Pay Your Rent") **

Big Boi: Boomiverse (Epic, 2017) Perky new pop record rides articulately rapped leads, favor-banked star power, a stanza for Colin Kaepernick, and refurbished wares from the sexist metaphor store ("Made Man," "Overthunk") *

Kano: Made in the Manor (Parlophone, 2016) What hooked me on this grime pioneer's major-label debut was a variation on Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" called "T-Shirt Weather in the Manor," a near-idyllic celebration of how nice the projects he came up in can be on one of the rare London days when the sun shines hot. Neither his beats nor his flow are as musical as Cube's, and there's no line as killer as "Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central LA." But that suits a conscious rapper who defends those who fall into the "trap trap" on grounds of option drought. In the end, he's such a chronicler that his beats and flow will do you fine. Pay some mind to "Little Sis" and "Strangers," both of which think hard about estrangement. Soulful is what I'd call them. A-

Kano: Method to the Maadness (Bigger Picture, 2010) Praising iPods and decrying consumerism, 2010 effort demonstrates why grime has always deserved more respect from American hip-hop fans and why it never quite sparks their interest ("MAAD," "Slaves") **

Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers Three (Grind Hard, 2017) Starlito, the lower-voiced half of the DIY duo who've broken through to make my favorite hip-hop album of the year, isn't the first to observe that "ballers wanna be rappers, rappers wanna be ballers." The difference is that these guys make both ways of life sound like the hard grind their label name isn't the first to claim. "My future's in that paper bag," exclaims Don Trip as he negotiates a cash exchange; "I ain't been home in the last 30 days / I've been on the road gettin' paid," moans Starlito to introduce the high-anxiety "If My Girl Find Out." Later come the carefully plotted legal murder of "Good Cop Bad Cop" and the modern-day whips and chains that enslaverappers and ballers alike on "The 13th Amendment Song." I also like the way they rhyme, say, fortune-Porsche-mortgage-abortion-divorce ya-Nordstrom-extorted-quarters-important-portion-Ford Explorer-torture-hoarder-lawyer-Jordan-Porter (with law enforcement, touring, and President Orange crammed in there too). I also like the way their kids better use their car seats. "I used to prey on my enemies now I pray for serenity"? I'll buy it. In fact, I just did. A-

Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers Two (self-released, 2016) No government "Bunk Beds" for these payers of dues and bills--they're too long on both cold-eyed perspective and human connection ("Paper Rock Scissors," "Something for Nothing") ***

T-Pain & Lil Wayne: T-Wayne (self-released, 2017) A goof for the record book slapped together in 2009, with Wayne ascendant and the Auto-Tune king jacking his steeze, is strongest at its silliest, natch ("Heavy Chevy," "Listen to Me") **

2017-06-30

JJ Doom: Bookhead EP (Lex EP, 2014) These repurposed bonus tracks from the "Butter Edition" of Key to the Kuffs cue Doom up at his most musical and connected, with guest productions so compelling they put Jarel's functional beats in perspective. The rhymes tend bleak, mad, kind of fucked up. Mixes by Beck, Jonny Greenwood, and others accept the mood for what it is and put the haunted, stormy, convulsive thing across. B+

JJ Doom: Key to the Kuffs (Lex, 2012) After 2009's Born Like This I lost track of this London-born, Long Island-raised Trinidadian-Zimbabwean MC, whose sibilantly mush-mouthed flow has long rippled and pooled comically and imperturbably over signifying beats and spoken-word samples often his own. It didn't help that the former Daniel Dumile changed his handle from MF Doom, or that where MF stood for various things, the obvious never explicitly one of them, JJ merely honors his new beatmaking partner Jneiro Jarel. Nor did it help that he was compelled by the INS to resettle in London, apparently because he never became a U.S. citizen. So on his 2012 album this hyperaware jokester plays the Brit. One track goes on about "Cockney rhymin' slang," and then there's "Guv'nor," hardly the only song where the political mindfulness that's always been there becomes a focus rather than a substratum. Here be GMOs and dead Indians and food and water as a "secure investment" and an earthquake in Iceland and a discourse on melanin. Here also be the priceless couplet: "Not to interrupt / But anybody else notice time speeding up?" A-

MF Doom Featuring Big Benn Klingon: Expektoration . . . Live (Gold Dust, 2010) Quashing those imposter rumors, Daniel Dumile fully inhabits his signature persona to reprise Mm.. Food and Operation: Doomsday stuff not quite like the originals ("Act 2") **

Emperor X: Central Hug/Friendarmy/Fractal Dunes (self-released, 2005) Assuming this 2005 "release" is a triple-"EP," the four-song Central Hug is all-A and the other two pretty duddy--winningly unkempt political songcraft fronting losingly strummed-droned songcraft ("The Citizens of Wichita," "Raytracer") *

Emperor X: The Orlando Sentinel (self-released, 2014) In 2014, a testicular cancer survivor constructs weedy-to-wispy electronic/guitar-strum/handclap songs about getting your parents Medicaid and cell plans, President Sarkozy's bake sale, AI swim laws (??), Kafka shopping at Primark, dying young with resources and integrity intact, and just generally proving the Politburo right because we've got all this capital and what good does it do anyone? I wouldn't say he sounds happy about this, or much amused. But he is philosophical, because after all: "One good effect of the crash / Now every altered state gets classified as work--at least enough to prevent an epidemic of a baseless adolescent philosophy." Which scans, in its way. B+

Emperor X: Oversleepers International (Tiny Engines, 2017) Pushing 40 now, Berlin-based Jacksonville native Chad Matheny makes his living as a musician on tours that I assume include residencies--among his many Bandcamp wares is a commissioned work entitled 10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Habitation Near Nuclear Waste Depositories. But although all his music comes with clean, computer-crafted abstract art, he comes naturally to a frugal, tech-savvy ecology-firster's skepticism of physical product. No surprise then that this is his first actual CD since Bar/None's 2011 Western Teleport--one so obscure or perversely coded it didn't show up on Gracenote when I imported it into my iTunes. Yet it would seem that he does regard physicals as special, because nowhere else does the music feature songs end-to-end instead of sucking you in with a handful and then dematerializing into strummed or noodled jams with vocal accoutrements. True, this one achieves a third of its 50-minute length by means of a quarter-hour of subliminal electropulse at the end of a closer called "5-Hour Energy, Poland, 2017" as well as bridging its halves with what is essentially a four-minute vamp. Nevertheless, the 10 songs are songs. All evoke a hard-scrabbling world traveler often caught in but never daunted by border hassles, medical bureaucracy, and crap technology. Bergson and Schopenhauer also come up. Yet amid riots and dodgy bank accounts, Matheny sounds about as chipper as a working musician on a deteriorating planet can. In fact, the whole thing is quite an up if you give it half a chance. A-

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