Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as exclusive content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Consumer Guide: November, 2019

Looming anxiety and avant-garde commitments, from Bud Powell to Kim Gordon

Gauche: A People's History of Gauche (Merge) Political anxiety intensified into barely contained losing-it hysteria ("Pay Day," "Rectangle") *

Kim Gordon: No Home Record (Matador) Pre- or post-breakup, Gordon's non-Sonic Youth music has always indulged her avant-garde commitments and pretensions. Tossing off punky jingles or slathering on the noise, she's honored the dada-derived throwaway, "experimental" in the sense of an aesthetic conjecture no one will miss if it leads nowhere. This is very different--its unfinished sound further enriches a musical goal Gordon and producer-collaborator Justin Raisen clearly labored to get right. A few plays in, consigned by surgery to a portable sound system, I concluded that I wouldn't hear the album for what it was till I was back in my office with some real speakers, and though I'd enjoyed and admired it before, I was right. The guitars credited throughout meld with the electronics that dominate in a rough but also eloquently textured construct that complements the fragility and directness of Gordon's sometimes pained, sometimes whispery vocals. Definitely there are verbal coups here--"Air BnB"'s skeptical post-hedonism, "Earthquake"'s "sand in my heart for you." But you'll come back for the sounds. A

Little Scream: Speed Queen (Merge) Sweet soprano surrounds eight unassumingly sharp songs about love with two outspokenly sharp songs about oppression ("Dear Leader," "Privileged Child") *

Mourning [A] Blkstar: The Garner Poems (Electric Cowbell) Gospel in mood, jazz in skill set, woke in content, solemn and smart, "multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture" makes that musical mouthful signify ("Emancipation," "Garner Poem") **

Bud Powell: Eight Classic Albums (Real Gone Jazz) Poking around Amazon I came across this compact, unannotated, four-CD, 74-track set for 13 bucks and said what the hell--I'd never investigated Powell and Carola can't get enough jazz piano. When it arrived I was alarmed to discover that among the P's and R's hidden behind my office door resided the equally compact, richly annotated, five-CD, 101-track 1994 The Complete Bud Powell on Verve, '40s-heavy material that I was relieved to learn shares not a single recording with this set and bemused to learn remains in print for, well, 70 bucks. Unsystematic comparison listening indicates that you might as well start with these '50s sessions. Personally Powell was a wreck--his pal Thelonious once took a heroin rap for him. But more than Monk, whose deepest musical commitments were to his unimaginable melodies and implacable left hand, Powell was a pure bebop improvisor. Only one of the eight full albums here is a full classic: 1951's The Amazing Bud Powell, with drummer Roy Haynes and, crucially, Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins's horns. Except for 1957's The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 3, where Curtis Fuller's trombone adds color, the others are trio jobs, with Art Taylor usually on drums as the bass passes from George Duvivier to Paul Chambers to Sam Jones to Ray Brown. My favorite is 1958's The Scene Changes--The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 5--hear Chambers rise to the surface of the eight-minute "Comin' Up." For sheer piano, check out the title track of Time Waits--The Amazing Bud Powell Volume 4. And the thick, speedy, bop-infused "Bud on Bach" reminds me to specify that never as I've ranged unsystematically through this bargain has a single track riled my tinkle-averse side. A MINUS

The Rails: Cancel the Sun (Thirty Tigers) The kind of band whose strongest song musically is called "Save the Planet" is the also the kind whose next line is "Kill yourself" ("Save the Planet," "Dictator") **

Raphael Saadiq: Jimmy Lee (Columbia) Having made his solo name as a reinvigorator of tight, hooky, complexly cheerful Motown retro, the former Tony! Toni! Toné! headman's first album since 2011 reverts to an updated version of T!T!T!'s slick modernist r&b. Musically, the effect is to locate it stylistically in a tragic vision of black life that's devoid of street and hood--of realities turned hip hop commonplaces that too often ignore the complexities Saadiq addresses on this one-of-a-kind album: stress, addiction, AIDS, domestic combat, love that's not enough, money problems that keep on keeping on, and mass incarceration. The only surefire hook is the whole of a gospel march called "My Walk" that's even darker than the climactic "Rikers Island Redux." But Kendrick Lamar will get your attention when he leads a finale that's also a coda: "How can I change the world but can't change myself?/How can I please the world but not God himself?/How can I have the world still need some help?/How can I see the world stuck in this box?" A MINUS

Ed Sheeran: No. 6 Collaboration Project (Asylum) Much preferring Sheeran's old soft shoe to One Direction's precision pyrotechnics and Justin Bieber's asshole cutie-pie, I admit I never understood why so many proud pop middlebrows looked down on him. But I also admit that he never made me go ooh until this much disparaged proof that he has what it takes to sign up 21 count-'em 21 all-star cameos including Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Eminem, 50 Cent, Stormzy, Meek Mill, Khalid, and Bieber himself. It's mostly his guests, led by the three at the top of my list, who make his modesty shine by adding sparkle to his nice-guy shtick. But that modesty is winning and a relief. Unimaginably wealthy, songwriter to stars he outshines, he wants us to know that he hates parties and doesn't much fancy the celebrity round either. He uses his fame and fortune to convince us how ordinary he is. B PLUS

Sonic Youth: Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008 (Matador) Having enjoyed this free concert at a well-shaded distance, I'd best attest that my rave can't be nostalgia because this is more intense than what I remember. Played back to back with 1989's Daydream Nation, which provides half its 10 titles, or the live Daydream Nation pieced together for the 2007 "Deluxe Edition," it holds its own--the guitars sharper, more abrasive, higher in pitch. No doubt newish bassist Mark Ibold enhances this effect by relieving Thurston and Lee of the need to augment his low end as they sometimes did with Kim on bass--which in turn may well free her to dominate vocally even more than she did before. Knowing the bitter breakup that already lies in wait for this great band, it's fitting that the cover photo depicts Kim singing alone and up front. This was her record. A

The Spaniels: Goodnight, Sweetheart 1953-1961 (Jasmine) They stuck with a black-owned label that stuck around. They were blessed with two well-mismatched singers--lead tenor Pookie Hudson for slow romance, up-front bass man Gerald Gregory for comedy and change of pace. Also, Hudson could write--except for the "5" Royales' Lowman Pauling and biz lifer Harvey Fuqua, more resourcefully than any other performer on the doowop continuum. Slow romance was of course their specialty--"You Gave Me Peace of Mind" and "I'm Gonna Thank Him" are both deeper than their title song and greatest hit. But they had fun upping the tempo--the bassy "Bounce," the partying "A Rockin' Good Way," the mind-boggled "Play It Cool." Predictably, this double-CD is a little too much of a good thing: among 53 tracks that encompass both of their albums and all remaining A and B sides, there have to be generic moments. But the albums hold up as such--in the '50s!--and although Hudson is less spectacular than the Drifters' Clyde McPhatter or the Platters' Tony Williams, he's warmer than either, happy to fit in. In a vocal group, fitting in is a serious virtue, and the Spaniels were a great one. A MINUS

Rachid Taha: Je Suis Africain (Naïve/Believe) Taha was working on this album when he died six days short of his 60th birthday in 2018, and it's not his best. But for someone who was arguably both the greatest French rocker and the greatest Algerian rocker, that's a high standard. Resettled in Lyon at 10, by age 17 he was DJing for roughnecks from both sides of the Mediterranean in a punk era that hadn't yet crossed the channel. Soon enough he was leading a rai-rock band that didn't worry about which was which, and over the years he became a self-made intellectual smart and soulful enough to school himself not just in French thought that added edge to his humanism but in Algerian ballads that added warmth to his grit. After a title track that celebrates such Africans as Mandela, Hendrix, Fanon, Malcolm, Marley, and Derrida follow a cameo for Swiss-Algerian feminist-shaman-autodidact Flèche Love, "Andy Waloo" a/k/a Warhol, songs worthy of the titles "Insomnia" and "Striptease," and his first composition in English, which he designated "Like a Dervish" as he whirled away forever. A MINUS

that dog.: Old LP (UME) Two decades on, Anna Waronker's band sound as fresh and tuneful as they did in their twenties. With melodies on their way from catchy to exquisite, it's alt-rock primarily by historical association--far from obtruding, the many chamber-string parts complete a sonic concept you always sensed was there. Though the hyperconscious lyrics often seem constricted, resentful, unresolved, the music lifts them up, and then the the title finale lifts the whole album up. Having vaguely expected a fond joke about Waronker and bandmate Rachel Haden's deep vinyl-era roots--Anna's dad Lenny Waronker, son of Liberty Records founder Simon Waronker, produced Arlo Guthrie, Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Rufus Wainwright, and his lifelong friend Randy Newman--I was instead bowled over by a devotional tribute to the power of recorded music to allay mortality. "I can hear you breathe," the pushing-50 Waronker sings to Rachel Haden's departed father, bass giant Charlie Haden. "I can see you right in front of me." For those few minutes, her mixed feelings go to heaven and the whole album seems to follow. A MINUS

Jamila Woods: Legacy! Legacy! (Jagjaguwar) This poetry-with-sophistofunk tribute to a sharp selection of 20th-century African-American art heroes plus Frida Kahlo will always be a tad too atmospheric and impressionistic to suit me. But it does both flow and signify. I highly recommend the dippy keybs that flavor "Miles," the futuristic electrothump that grounds "Muddy," the Malvina Reynolds lift that situates "Zora," and how pissed off "Basquiat" sounds. B PLUS

And It Don't Stop, Nov. 13, 2019

Oct. 9, 2019 Dec. 11, 2019