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: December, 2019

Century-spanning soulfulness and truth telling, rants and classical training

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Great Summit: The Master Takes (Roulette Jazz) The Penguin Guide reports Ellington was "more or less slumming" during this two-day 1961 session while allowing as how it's Armstrong's gig anyway and in the end a "moving and quietly eloquent" reflection on Ellington's songbook--a songbook I should mention is augmented by a simple, irresistible opener called "Duke's Place" that producer Bob Thiele claimed a piece of. Seventeen tracks, 11 vocal with an 18-minute instrumental segment in the middle, all rendered by not just Armstrong but his band, although clarinetist Barney Bigard put in 15 years with Ellington first. From "Duke's Place" to "Azalea," the woke simplicity and droll soulfulness of this music is something Ellington was too soulful not to take pride in and too smart to believe anyone but Armstrong could have imparted. Beyond "Duke's Place" itself, my faves include a hooky "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" and the brief solo that precedes the "What good is melody" preamble to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Listen and come up with your own. A

Danny Brown: uknowwhatimsayin? (Warp) Although the 38-year-old ex-dealer and ex-con's first album since 2016 clocks in at 10 tracks in 31 minutes, to me it feels major as it puts its stamp on the verities of a hip-hop I've treasured since the year he was born: voice, verbiage, beats. Brown's nonstop flow is unique yet in the tradition, distilling his comic, caustic Detroit drawl into something suitable for streetwise tale-spinning and both-sides-now truth-telling alike. His lyrics are undiminished from "Stand-up niggas taking shots to the knees" and "Boarded-up houses in between lie the killing fields" to "Mixin' Ripple listening to Minnie Riperton" and "Got more pills than the Olsen twins." And from Q-Tip and JPEGMafia to 10cc and Ota Petrina and oops here's Yoko Ono too, the music never stands still. A

Guy Clark: The Best of the Dualtone Years (Dualtone) Spurred by Steve Earle's stopgap tribute album to finally get a bead on this Texas-to-Nashville Americana legend/totem, a manifestly good guy who died at 74 in 2016, I was surprised to end up plighting my troth with this scant, late double-CD, 19 tracks including five deal-making live oldies and three unusually solid "unreleased writer demos." As indicated below, the RCA best-of falls off fast after a wham-bam start, and the most likely-looking of the Spotify playlists ignores the morning-after "Instant Coffee Blues," which along with the after-midnight "Out in the Parkin' Lot" stands as Clark's best song not counting "Homegrown Tomatoes." Although the young Clark sang better than Earle ever has, by his Dualtone sixties he was getting by on savvy and charm, which suffice. The live "L.A. Freeway" tacks on a story about his landlord that reminds me of how ready I was to leave my own North Hollywood garage apartment in 1971, four years before I ever heard of Guy Clark. Like a lot of this record, it makes me sorrier he's gone. A MINUS

Guy Clark: The Essential Guy Clark (RCA) Six of the seven or eight terrific songs on a compilation that equates "essential" with "everything on RCA" graced his 1975 debut, which it grieves me to report that I underrated back then, although I was right to skip the follow-up ("Instant Coffee Blues," "Texas 1947," "Let Him Roll") ***

Steve Earle & the Dukes: Guy (New West) However righteously you and the fellas rock out, swallowing Guy Clark's words is the oral equivalent of crossing your fingers behind your back ("Out in the Parking Lot," "New Cut Road") **

Craig Finn: I Need a New War (Partisan) As Finn has aged, so have his protagonists. All 10 of these are tired, their escapes meager and their day-to-days dull and depressing; only one "had a kid and all the rest" and only one is in a relationship; most struggle or worse economically, grinding their way through shit jobs if they have jobs at all; even when they're middle class they don't enjoy it. Is it really that bad out there, statistically? Not quite. But with his singing reflective and his arrangements relaxed, Finn's compassion for these lost souls is educational and exemplary. My favorites include the hapless hopeful who wants to blow an insurance payout on a trip to the mountains that'll give Joanie "something to hope for," the pilgrim who manages to search out his ex-wife waitressing in St. Paul before the numbers the doc found in his chest finish him off, and the bank clerk who leaves a 20 on the kitchen counter for the well-meaning loser she wishes she could lift from his misery. Beneath the 20 is a message for sufferers everywhere: "Have a decent day." A MINUS

Ezra Furman: Twelve Nudes (Bella Union) At 33, wandering Jew and transgender seeker Furman erupts into 11 punk rants in 27 minutes because she's always had an album like this in him and somebody had to do one quick: "Working people are killing themselves to get by, and they're working for billionaires," s/he's said. With the world in worse shape than at any time since I was smart enough to notice, I don't know why there aren't many more such, though they'd probably be cruder than this--today's few explicitly political punks favor a metal macho Furman has no heart for. Instead, the scratchy, screeched tunes grow on you, and there's enormous variety to lyrics that don't always equate political awareness with rage or certainty and can even be droll--try not only "I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend" but "My Teeth Hurt." Inspirational Facebook comment: "Something is wrong; everybody knows it; this is not the century we wanted." A MINUS

Ghostface Killah: Ghostface Killahs (Music Generation Co.) Imagery his richest in years, beats old-school thick without overdoing the soul retro, plus he throws in a PSA from Angela Davis, but if the gangsta conceit seems less tired as a result, it remains dated ("Flex," "Conditioning") ***

Tim Heidecker: Another Year in Hell (Jagjaguwar) Glad he's trying, but he won't hit the potbellied pigwad's hogseye until he's both drawn blood and made his audience cringe ("Ballad of ICE Agent Ray," "Tobin and the Judge") **

The Hold Steady: Thrashing Thru the Passion (Frenchkiss) The return of keyboardist, sparkplug, prose moonlighter, and de facto second banana Franz Nicolay signals and embodies a new burst of energy from alt-rock lifers' favorite bar band. As Craig Finn devotes his solo work to loser sociology, the band where he makes his nut can turn its full attention to its lifelong passion: rock and roll with literary standards. "Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn/Mick Jagger at the Mandarin/Once you get good you can get it wherever you are." As Hemingway said to Donna Summer after rhyming "Cafe Select" with "discotheque": "It's a living." B PLUS

Jeffrey Lewis & the Voltage: Bad Wiring (Don Giovanni) Lewis's folk-rock has the usual musical limitations: strophic and strummed, it proceeds in a straight line with scarcely a bridge to the final iteration of a chorus catchier than the verse, with Lewis's nagging East Village sprechgesang fusing built-in sarcasm with earned yearning. But half the verses proceed so hummably you could call them catchy, which gives the album room to let the rest sink in at a more leisurely pace. The "And about our relationship" refrain of "My Girlfriend Doesn't Worry" will have you replaying the album instantly, the better to shake hands with the tragic alt-everything takeoff "Exactly What Nobody Wanted" and the pre-vinyl-revival "LPs," followed next time by "Except for the Fact That It Isn't" and "Dogs of My Neighborhood." And eventually you'll realize that the statement of principle here is "Take It for Granted," a cliche Lewis has learned to appreciate. In this frightening time, he's old enough to have figured out that the shock of the new isn't always an up while something that'll be there next time can be. And in this vinyl-reviving time he's packaged the CD with a cartoonist's art-directed intricacy that mere downloaders would never guess was there without me kvelling about it. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: Dusty (Mello Music) "I'm trying to be slower on the draw/But more and more seems like a loss to draw at all/I think that's noteworthy"--but Mono En Stereo jazz-lite beats or not, is it really? ("Pussy," "Noteworthy") **

Derek Senn: How Could a Man (self-released) In 2014 Senn mailed me a pretty good CD called The Technological Breakthrough with a hand-written bio IDing him as "a singer-songwriter from San Luis Obispo, CA with a wife, a couple of young kids, & a day job." In 2016 followed the better Avuncular. And now comes this unlikely culmination--or is it? As with any singer-songwriter, there's no real telling what's autobiographical and what isn't. But I gotta believe the adoring title song describes his wife: "an EMT she won't shy away/she'll suture cuts/she'll pick a tick right off your nuts," or how about "if you ask her to learn to play the drums and go onstage/she'll learn to play the drums and go onstage"? Ditto for the "Some Chase a Girl" saga in which "she" spurns him in Peru only to track him down in Toledo. But is "The Nuclear Family" sociological or just a bad patch? Is he really turning 50 like in "Have a Nice Day"? When you work nights in "The Song Mine," sometimes the song asserts its own logic. And sometimes, too, it'll hand you an actual tune, which heretofore in Senn's part-time career has been a problem. A MINUS

Sudan Archives: Athena (Stones Throw) Cream all over FKA Twigs's intermittently beatwise ogloudoglou if that's your idea of class. I'll take the less extruded pretensions of a violin-wielding, LA-based Cincinnati expat nee Brittney Parks, who after two experimental EPs that half-evoke her musical moniker unassumingly exploits the time-tested tunelets and classy sound effects classical training can be good for and identifies most African on a song she says is an Irish jig. Her sweet, sometimes murmured vocals the main attraction, she documents or evokes an emotional life that is sometimes also a sex life on 10 unobtrusively beatwise songs, three interludes, and a demo. She's growing and you can hear it. You root for her. A MINUS

And It Don't Stop, December 2019


Nov. 13, 2019 Jan. 15, 2020