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: January, 2021

Music from Morocco, Senegal, Kingston (Jamaica and New York), Minneapolis, and Omaha, Nebraska. Plus rhyme as analysis and rhyme as meaning, and Taylor Swift's future Christmas classic.

Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher (Dead Oceans) If articulated depression is what you crave, does she have lyrical and musical detail for you--philosophical solace or melodic relief, no ("I See You," "Graceland Too") **

Drive-By Truckers: The New OK (ATO) Not a good sign if also no disgrace when the standout tune on the conscious album no one blames them for needing to make began its life with the Ramones ("The KKK Took My Baby Away," "Sarah's Flame," "The Perilous Night") ***

Open Mike Eagle: Anime Trauma Divorce (AutoReverse) For a decade now, Eagle--the surname he was born with 40 years ago on Chicago's South Side--has been an exceptionally logocentric rapper in an alt-rap he's always seemed too alt-rock for and an exceptionally analytic one in a hip-hop that commodifies the personal. As he reports on a traumatic 2019 when his 14-year marriage went the way of his Comedy Central series and also his waistline, he finally turns confessional. But what puts the album across is music: the atmospheric beats of Nedarb, an emo-rap pro unknown to me. Beyond the occasional "What the hell is self-care?" and "I really don't want to log into my bank account," anime fans will understand the lyrical details better than I can. Netflix sci-fi fans, too--"The Black Mirror episode ruined my marriage" is such a striking refrain I'd check out whichever episode it was with my arm around my honey and my fingers crossed. Good thing he can still afford a therapist. Good thing too that he hands the final track over to his son Asa, Lil A$e to you. A MINUS

Fox Green: The Longest April (self-released) Classic rock in the formal tradition of, gee, the Stones even, only milder--oftimes hooky songs delivered in a caring, affecting voice, they peak with a joke-rock classic and and seldom sink into anonymity ("The Day Marc Bolan Went to Nashville," "Cloud #9") ***

Group Doueh & Cheveu: Dakhla Sahara Session (Born Bad) Recorded over nine headlong, unharmonious January 2016 days in a Western Sahara ocean town, this conflict-ridden one-off collab between a non-Tuareg desert band and a Parisian rock trio rangier and less punky than you'd expect, this is one of those wildly impolite guitar records you're lucky to trip over twice a year. It begins with handclaps that soon combust past the French singer's male groans into exultant woman-to-woman byplay, and by explosive track five "Azawan," which it's worth remembering is how Tuaregs say homeland, everybody sounds desperate to get on with it or out of there. Only then follows "Charâa," a long waltz-time centerpiece split into three distinct case studies in peaceful coexistence. All over this record, hoarse roar meets soaring contralto while flute tweets, keyb tinkles, and squishy noises fit right in. A

Guiss Guiss Bou Bess: Set Sela (Helico) No, you silly Amazon autofill, I didn't mean "guess guess boy boss." I meant what I typed, and am rather shocked that you didn't even guiss the climactic "bass," because both musically and verbally bass is the very foundation of this coherent sabar-Eurodance trio. The conceptualizer and connection is French "bass culture" specialist Stéphane Constantini, but dominating both the flavor and the power of the trio's sound are two Senegalese movers and shakers, hereditary griot Mara Seck and sabar rhythmatist Aba Diop. Whatever the fusion's connections to "trance step," "deep dubstep," "afrobeats/house," "bass house," "trap-ditional" (ughh!), and to be sure "afrobass," it's conscious lyricist Seck and conscious rhythmatist Diop who put this unapologetically amelodic piece of West African propulsion across, although it's true enough that the whole thing was mixed and mastered by Chico Correa, who's from Brazil. A MINUS

McCarthy Trenching: Perfect Game (self-released) Alerted by Phoebe Bridgers's cover of this "band"'s "Christmas Song," I spent a fine little Spotify morning checking out all 57 of Dan McCarthy's entries. These date back to 2007 with the band part mostly theoretical--guitar strummer McCarthy doubles on the piano that dominates here and has hooked up with a bassist who I presume inflected the horn arrangements that add welcome color to his latest and most impressive tunes--most of which, to be clear, truly are tunes. McCarthy sings clear, mild, droll, calculated, casual and writes clever and inventive without ever overwhelming his offhand affect--the many laugh lines are more chuckle lines. "Why Don't I See You Anymore" devotes single lines and whole stanzas to 16 reasons before "Phaethon" modernizes Greek mythology. "Red Maple" and "Russian Olive" chronicle dead trees. "I Didn't Come to Town to Get a Haircut" is something his uncle used to say only by the time Dan finally gets around to it the town doesn't even have a barber. And that's only the half of it. A MINUS

Munson-Hicks Party Supplies: Munson-Hicks Party Supplies (Soft Launch) This sufficiently tuneful, extremely literary Twin Cities alt-rock combo not only got lost "on the road from Judy Blume to Michel Foucault" but lost their very asses "on the road to Damascus," which may be why they need a new intake manifold and may not. Hicks chokes up when he spots that intern he fell for in the spring of '02. Munson will forgive George Sanger for ridiculing his walker when the pennies are on the s.o.b.'s eyes. They still have their landline and the number ain't changed. But they don't have it in them to tell us exactly what befell them at the demo--something about the glare off the riot shields. A MINUS

Sault: Untitled (Black Is) (Forever Living Originals) From the U.K. and a safe distance, dancefloor positivity idealized and politicized, most militantly on their third album, which surfaced just in time for a BLM moment we're free to pray lasts approximately forever ("Stop Dem," "Don't Shoot Guns Down") ***

75 Dollar Bill Little Big Band: Live at Tubby's (Grapefruit) Recorded in Kingston, New York, on March 1, 2020, at the end of a northeastern tour and the beginning of Covid's NYC rampage, this is the most widely heralded of 75 Dollar Bill's 10 Bandcamp-available recordings, which have multiplied now that guitarist Che Chen, rhythm master Rick Brown, and associates still don't know when they'll be able to occupy the same room again, leaving them to ponder their body of work instead. This oeuvre includes 2015's previously Consumer-Guided Wooden Bag (promising), 2016's previously Consumer-Guided Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (fulfilling), and 2019's previously Consumer-Guided I Was Real (intermittently exalting). Three of Wood / Metal's six tracks are on this one, somewhat less kempt as you'd expect but no less self-aware or welcome melodically, although not like the 21-minute onetime I Was Real highlight "Like Like Laundry," where Cheryl Kingan echoes Chen's tune on broad, bracing, sour baritone sax, not unlike drummer Jim Pugliese adding articulated fills to the beats Brown extracts from his plywood box. There's even a stealth cover designated "F. & N.," the impromptu theme song to Ornette Coleman's 1970 Prince Street jam album Friends and Neighbors. That's the spirit, everyone agrees. A MINUS

Songhoy Blues: Optimisme (Fat Possum) Desert guitar for America's greener clime--as of 2021, anyway, and I said "clime" not "culture" much less "society" ("Babala," "Bon Bon") **

Taylor Swift: Evermore (Republic) The theory that this second album of manifestly unautobiographical Aaron Dessner-etc. collabs in six months is by definition less inspired than the one they put out in July isn't what I hear here, which is that they kept going because they were just getting their groove on. Oddly, the song I noticed first is the one I now like least--the super-hooky but pat police procedural "No Body, No Crime." I mean, who needs hooks when melody is a given? So instead try "Champagne Problems," in which he's all set to ask her to marry him the same night she's all set to ditch him. Or the future Christmas classic "'Tis the Damn Season," a cheating song about the Taylor who got away. Or "Cowboy Like Me," in which she turns out to be the cowgirl after all. Or "Marjorie" with Swift's "Never be so kind you forget to be clever/Never be so clever you forget to be kind." Or "Coney Island" with Dessner's "Will you forgive my soul/When you're too wise to trust me/And too old to care?" Or "It's Time to Go," in which for 15 years "I gave it my all, he gave me nothing at all/Then wondered why I left." Or "Closure," which puts the title in quotes you can hear. A MINUS

Toots and the Maytals: Got to Be Tough (Trojan Jamaica) Label owner and former Who/Oasis drummer Zak Starkey--who with Sly Dunbar on hand plays guitar here--financed what he didn't know would be a farewell salute from the eternal second banana of first-wave reggae. But when an artist has a bunch of good new songs ready as he pushes 80, now is always the time. What I like about these and Starkey must have too is how conscious they are. Having long favored danceable love songs, he spends most these 36 minutes looking time tough in its ugly face. "Just Brutal," "Warning Warning," and "Got to Be Tough"; bus fares, low wages, invisible pensions, and picking yourself up off the ground. But he's also proud to stand accused for feeding his enemies. A MINUS

Viktor Vaughn: Vaudeville Villain (Sound-Ink) Going back to the tragically foreshortened KMD, tragically foreshortened Long Island rapper MF Doom made so many albums it would take days to even count them; every discography I've seen makes a different kind of hash of his plethora-and-a-half of pseudonyms and collaborations except to establish that he slowed down after 2010, when US immigration officials wouldn't allow London-born Muslim Five Percenter Daniel Dumile to return to the nation where he'd grown up, thus exiling him in London. In 2011 I bought this 2003 effort by one of his more legible aliases, but never figured out how to make journalistic use of it until it was revealed that he'd died under undisclosed circumstances on October 31. Now I've played it some dozen times and done enough comparison listening to report that it could very well be his best. As Ta-Nehisi Coates's 2009 New Yorker profile documents, Dumile was a fundamentally comic artist for whom rhyme as opposed to meaning was king. "Rob Reiner/knob shiner" to "hucklebuck/knucklefuck" to "holding cell/told in hell"--on this album they don't stop for a single track. For an illustration of what he'll never do, however, check out the grave Sam Buca here, who's first up on the mock "Open Mic Nite, Pt. 1" intoning "This is the tone/The tone that I speak/The voice, the unheard voice of my people." With the INS presiding, Dumile became a very different kind of unheard voice of his people, so funny and so unmistakably intelligent. It was 2012 before his wife and kids could rejoin him in England. In 2017 he revealed that his 14-year-old son King Malachi Ezekiel had died. So it's not hard to understand why many admirers figure that what killed him in October was suicide. A

And It Don't Stop, Jan. 13, 2021

Dec. 9, 2020 Feb. 10, 2021