Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  Expert Witness
Books:
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
  Archive
Venues:
  Noisey
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

Expert Witness: October 2014

October 3, 2014

Link: Lee Ranaldo and the Dust / The Dismemberment Plan / The New Pornographers / Spoon / Arcade Fire / The Hold Steady

Lee Ranaldo and the Dust: Last Night on Earth (Matador)
There's a sweetness to Ranaldo's new music that his better-known band would have drowned out. And not only is this slept-on follow-up graced by melodies that band's tunings would have buried--beauties sometimes--but his singing, while still talkier than even the alt-rock norm, has turned tender, elegiac, lyrical. His guitar's mellower and more reflective as well. Perennial alt-NYC sideman Alan Licht sounds right at home. So does the drummer, one Steve Shelley. Play loud, so its lyricism reveals itself--which doesn't stop it from building to the avant-jams his better-known band specialized in and the play-loud dictum was invented for. A MINUS

The Dismemberment Plan: Uncanney Valley (Partisan)
Appreciated by old fans and dismissed by "critics," a word still loosely applied to anybody permitted to post music reviews on a website someone else runs, this reunion album means so much more than the average so-called comeback not just because Travis Morrison is smarter than most "critics" and possibly you and conceivably me, but on this evidence better balanced. He's happily married with a kid. He's not vaguely a punk anymore. His musical side will never consume him again. But he's still both a punchy lyricist and a guy who'll grab a good hook wherever one pokes out its business end. The centerpiece follows the grateful marriage song "Lookin'" with the cautionary parenthood song "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer," a tribute that's also a pledge not to follow in Daddy's footsteps--first "He had me and then he threw his dancin' shoes away," then, if only Daddy was still around, "I'd hand him my baby girl/And play some rock and roll." A MINUS

The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers (Matador)
So arch and so in-your-face about it, they remain a case study in obscurity as banality with an attitude problem. Yet the Brill Building tease of the title parses. All 13 tracks including the foreshortened "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" are in-your-face lessons in pop song construction, fetching verse intensified by disarming bridge powered by dynamite chorus if that's the pattern--they vary. Guitars are extraneous and electronics rule--old-school synths rather than EDM rhythms, but electronics nevertheless. So let it roll over you and find somebody else to do your meaning for you just like they're too arch to suggest in so many words. If it helps, I did find some Inspirational Verse that applies, kind of: "They say we can't make this stuff up/But what else could we make?" A MINUS

Spoon: They Want My Soul (Loma Vista/Republic)
Britt Daniel's voice is so unyieldingly masculine it could make you miss the soulful self-pity of a Gavin Rossdale. So what keeps me playing his long-delayed return to the majors is the sound effects. Hums and handclaps and whistling. Vibraphone gurgle and harp arpeggio and Fairlight fanfare. Drum rolls and digital clickety-clacks. Piano plinking, piano freaking, organ swells, keyb distorts. Guitar colors of every description--pseudo uke! fingering squelch! neck strum! There's a falsetto moment. There's a duet vocal. You too can be glued to your chair waiting for the next surprise like it's a hidden joke on a Fountains of Wayne album. Start with "Knock Knock Knock," which is jammed with them. Or if you prefer, just light up and spend 40 minutes giggling when you least expect it. B PLUS

Arcade Fire: Reflektor (Merge)
Big plans for a big party vanish into the ether as the night soars virtually on ("Here Comes the Night Time," "Normal Person") **

The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie)
Living off the low life too long ("Wait a While," "Almost Everything") **

October 10, 2014

Link: Young Thug / Migos / Future / Rich Gang / Gucci Mane

Young Thug & Bloody Jay: Black Portland (free mixtape '14) It's catchy. It's amoral. It's seductive. It's funny as shit. It's mixtape-era Lil Wayne sans, er, redeeming social value, by which I guess I mean wordplay. Over beats both spare and weird, greatest alien alive Thug trades japes with the lower-pitched and more consonant-friendly ATLien Jay: vile promises as regards sex, violence, and the joy of cooking, some brutally boilerplate and some scabrously imaginative, delivered with purple-derped, rosé-dazed, dizzed-out, carpet-soiling, carpet-chewing insouciance. It's so far beyond Thug's strangest full-lengths--although not works of genius like "Picachu" or "Angry Sex"--that I was tempted to credit it to Bloody Jay until I gave up on his Get It in Blood mixtape halfway through. True, Jay does deliver such indelible hooks as "I don't give no fucks" and "We bang we bang we bang," but musically these sound like Thug's even so. Jay does, however, embody the overarching theme: Bloods the gang rather than blood the squandered bodily fluid, the kind of Bloods who pronounce "cool" "bool" because hard C's are bursewords, or so Thug tells us. You should be glad you can't make out the lyrics. Bloods, Crips--most humans don't see much difference. A

Young Thug: I Came From Nothing 3 (free mixtape '12) The moralist in me scoffs at the rationalization that trap-rap "street" tropes are merely conventions--a song called "Molly Workin'" has to hook harder than this one to make me forget that molly generates more fellatio providers than normally occur in nature. But the hedonist in me won't deny that gangsters grok pop's Saturday night hustle in a way moralists cannot. The turning point on this freewheeling get-together is the "birthday bash" Thug announces midway through on "I'm Paid," after which tracks that were already coming thick and fast pick up speed as the party gets wilder and louder. One skittering synthbeat accelerates off another, "Angry Sex" straight on to "I Like What Ya Doin'." You want to know Jeffrey Williams's principles? How 'bout "No homo/We party though/We get gnarly though/We smoke dro/We fuck our hoes/We rock shows/That's what we here fo'"? "Time of Ya Life," that one's called, and given how much time he can count on, it should be. B PLUS

Young Thug: 1017 Thug (free mixtape '13) Midway in, the sonic breakout "Picachu" begins a five-out-of-six run interrupted only by a song from a Gucci Mane not yet put safely away--chorus fans may actually prefer the lubricious "Miss U" or the sanguinary "Trigger Finger" to "Picachu" itself. But don't let whatever noxious potion you're vicariously sipping cloud your judgment, because otherwise this is just a quality mixtape. However much you enjoy the bombed recipe for disaster "2 Cups Stuffed" or the stoned geography lesson "Nigeria," it's a road to no place special with a lot of signposts on it. B PLUS

Migos: Young Rich Niggas (free mixtape '13) If you go to all the trouble of cooking crack, you might as well get your chortle on about it ("Hanna Montana," "Versace," "Bakersman") ***

Young Thug: I Came From Nothing (free mixtape '11) Cheerful zurped-up trap-rap deepens up if you listen up ("Rip," "Achieve") **

Future: Honest (Epic '14) Born pop-rap journeyman benefits mightily from genius help ("Benz Friends [Whatchutola]," "I Won") **

Young Thug: I Came From Nothing 2 (free mixtape '11) Youngblood makes so many funny noises he can't convince me he's a "Neiman Marcus shopper"--which is a good thing ("#Twitter Song," "I Know") *

Young Thug, Birdman, Rich Homie Quan: Birdman Presents Rich Gang: The Tour (free mixtape '14) New-gen big-tymers pledge thug love as they target that golden terlet in the charts ("730," "Milk Marie") *

Gucci Mane Featuring Young Thug: Purple Album: People Usually Ridicule the Powerful Lead by Example (1017 mixtape '14) Gucci's example patched in from jail, meaning more Thug and better music than the billing suggests ("Riding Around," "Hurt Nobody") *

October 17, 2014

Link: Jason Derulo / Chromeo / Pharrell / Cherub / will.i.am / Prince

Jason Derulo: Talk Dirty (Warner Bros.) If I promise I won't quote myself again for a year will you let me remind you that Derulo's specialty is "pragmatically carnal sex so mind-blowing that three times he proposes matrimony behind it"? I can't resist, because beyond how he was a songwriter before he was a songsinger, that's all I came in knowing about Derulo except the Ian Nieman "club mix" of "Ridin' Solo" I put on my singles list in 2010. (Whaddaya mean, who's he? That Ian Nieman.) The median number of songwriters on these 11 tracks is five, and almost every one of the 11 keeps the addictive promise of "Ridin' Solo." Balkan Beat Box funks up the booty-owning ingenue whose opening bid is a sweet "Jason! Hee-hee-hee!" Snoop confides to the next booty proprietor, "Damn, baby, you got a bright future behind you." Timbaland induces his assigned booty to pop like bubblegum. And the tush twerks on for 38 minutes. But it's Derulo whose ebullience convinces me that he's dealing confidence not arrogance, pleasure not power. And it's Derulo whose "I swear that I will mean it" seals the soaring "Marry Me," a proposal at least as sincere as Al Green's once was and probably more so. A

Chromeo: White Women (Atlantic/Big Beat) As postmodern lover boys go, David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel--let's get those sexy surnames in the lead!--are humorous and humane, and their songwriting has never been more worthy of Dave 1's Ph.D. in French lit. Never been catchier, either. The first four tracks don't quit--delectate "Over Your Shoulder"'s A-cup sex object, or the "Sexy Socialite" they wish was a socialist. A sadder and staider Solange, whose light-footed walk-on gave their third-album slump a bump, passes her spangled baton to special guest star Ezra Koenig, whose two-minute cameo promises a boutique sideline in DeBarge covers. True enough--it's only synthy dance-pop with guitar embellishments, by Canadians yet. But what's also true is that the last four tracks don't quit either. A MINUS

Pharrell Williams: Girl (Columbia) When your classic hit DLs over six million domestic and its worthy follow-up barely clears 35 thousand, you're right to figure there's a differential, but believe me, it's less than 17,500 percent ("Happy," "Marilyn Monroe") ***

Jason Derulo: Future History (Warner Bros.) Definitely not as dumb as he pretends to think he is ("Breathing," "It Girl") ***

Cherub: Year of the Caprese (Columbia) "Nashville's own risqué, electro-pop duo" squeeze everything they learned clubbing their way hornily to music business degrees into less than 50 minutes ("Disco Shit," "Strip to This," "Doses & Mimosas") **

will.i.am: #Willpower (Interscope) "What do you see in the future?" "I see . . . partyin'" ("Hello," "Geekin'") **

Prince: Art Official Age (Warner Bros./NPG) Our greatest composer-performer of romantic nu-funk erotica wakes up 40 years later wishing he was Janelle Monae ("Breakfast Can Wait," "Funknroll") *

October 24, 2014

Link: Baseball Project / Hamell on Trial / Richmond Fontaine / Delines / Stick Against Stone / Ry Cooder / Modern Baseball

The Baseball Project: 3rd (Yep Roc) Threepeats are hard, and some of these songs are soft. In addition to the flabby "Extra Inning of Love," which I bet is soft two ways, these tend to be about the good guys--Dale Murphy, Bernie Williams, even Babe Ruth, whose personal failings are swallowed up, as the lyric argues, by the size of his myth. Unfortunately, even Henry Aaron's career-long battle with racism doesn't make as good a story here as Lenny Dykstra's hustles or Alex Rodriguez's conceit or Dock Ellis's headhunting or Larry Yount's failure, and when Scott McCaughey croons it only makes things softer. But the songs about fandom--"Stats" and "The Baseball Card Song," the devotional "Box Scores" and encyclopedic "They Played Baseball"--suit a band of also-rans old enough to treasure their own fans' rooting interest. And note that none of the five is an Oakland A's devotee. I'm not either, but Billy Beane was right, and not exactly for the first time, to make their celebration of his franchise the team song. Real fans knew what a great story that team was long before they made a movie out of it. A MINUS

Hamell on Trial: The Happiest Man in the World (New West) Aside from the protest song itself, not a dud in 13, although the rock-and-rolling solo-acoustic leadoff "Artist in America"--"I fought the law and the law won, and my mailbox read Mr. Pitiful. Fulfilling the prophecy of the bad moon on the rise, I had lost my race with the devil, I was moaning at midnight, I was Mr. Dyingly Sad . . ."--does tend to blow the rest away. So listen up. The album rocks frantically even though there are drums on only two tracks. It includes five songs about the lowlifes he knows so intimately, including the title manifesto and the feminist "Jennifer's Strippin' Again." "Gods at Odds" is feminist, too--matrideistic, even. "Mom's Hot" features his son Detroit and lusts after women or a woman missing a total of one leg and one breast. A MINUS

Richmond Fontaine: Winnemucca (El Cortez '02) I know "saddest album ever made" isn't much of a sell line, especially from a judge who may never fully penetrate the rest of the forlorn catalogue of Willy Vlautin's signature band. But I guarantee that this one's so well put together it'll lure you to play it over and over. Pretty impressive how tentative hopes like "At least for a while we are out of state/Out of that state" and "And if it's somewhere, somewhere near/Well at least it's not here" are dragged down by vocals that fend off depression line by line, how the instrumental "Patty's Retreat" disintegrates into a chaos guaranteed to drive Americana sentimentalists back into their history-at-a-distance. And "Five Degrees Below Zero," when Ray Thaves stops the bus in the middle of the desert night and walks in the opposite direction from the Vegas lights without even a coat on, is a suicide you can get with. A MINUS

The Delines: Colfax (El Cortez) Always aiming sweet and never straying saccharine, natural-born Willy Vlautin heroine Amy Boone sings her continuing pain and occasional solace ("Calling In," "Colfax Avenue," "Wichita Ain't So Far Away") ***

Stick Against Stone: Live: The Oregon Bootleg Tapes (Media Groove) As if by magic, at a farmer's market in Eugene in 1985, Pittsburgh-spawned "cult collective" have a fine old time marshalling their horny punk polyrhythms and brave female singer in support of Leonard Peltier and an autonomous Central America ("Products Throughout the Store," "Leonard") **

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos: Live in San Francisco (Nonesuch/Perro Verde) He's become a far more ingratiating entertainer since the first time he recorded a live Gary U.S. Bonds cover--also a far more Latino one, in this case Mexican ("El Corrido de Jesse James," "Wooly Bully") **

Modern Baseball: You're Gonna Miss It All (Run for Cover) Tuneful nice-nerd romantic-anxiety rock, which is to say, why sabermetricians don't get laid ("Fine, Great," "Going to Bed Now") **

October 31, 2014

Link: Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band / Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga / Leonard Cohen

Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Take Me to the Land of Hell (Chimera Music) Recorded in the six months preceding Ono's 80th birthday and released seven months after it, this is a quantum livelier and more assured than Between My Head and the Sky, Ono's 2009 album with her and Sean's revival of her and John's band/concept. In fact, it outstrips 1981's Season of Glass and 1995's Rising, surely her two standouts from a pop perspective. In other words, this justly renowned avant-pop figurehead not only made a good album as she looked 80 in the face, she made her best album, separated from her previous peak by 18 years, which was separated in turn from its previous peak by 14 years. That's what I call a life. Crucially, failed frontman Sean mirrors the boss's artistic appetite and force of personality by overseeing a studio-rock that's as eclectic as it is unified. There are clubby beats and avant-noise and straight rock guitar; there's a song that starts with little bells and a song that anchors his mom's ululations to bassy avant-funk. Of course she preaches peace and bemoans her desolation and tells us to dream. But my two faves are both quite funny for an artist some stupidly pigeonhole as pretentious: "Bad Dancer" and "Leaving Tim." Both are about what they say they're about, and delighted as I am that a Fluxus grad who's been known to flirt with EDM should giggle about breaking a leg, I'm even more delighted to hear an old woman break off snippily and light-heartedly from her latest boyfriend. A MINUS

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek to Cheek (Streamline/Columbia/Interscope) I'm agnostic at best as regards the urban legend of Bennett's ageless cool. It's too classy on his end and too voguish on that of his eager young admirers. But this guy isn't just 80--he's 88, old enough to awaken in a 72-year-old like myself something approaching the dreams of immortality he instills his thirtysomething partisans. Granted, it's his twentysomething partner who provides the elan vital here. Gaga grabs these standards as Linda Ronstadt never did and Annie Lennox should be tried for trying--rock-'em sock-'em uptempo, not quite overripe on ballads, and having a ball both ways. In a true collaboration--both solo turns fall flat--it's her enthusiasm, her vulgarity, and the liberties she takes with the tunes that make the concept sing. That said, however, Bennett always sounds like he has some left in the tank. It's inspirational, I admit. B PLUS

Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems (Columbia) Exercise lubricated his voice for a while, but it's dried out again. And when you're croaking the way Cohen is croaking--pun actively regretted, Cohen if anyone has earned the right to call his impending death by however dignified a name he deems appropriate--it takes more than a corps of angels and a Quebecquois Madonna collaborator to turn your verse into song. I admire and when I concentrate enjoy most of these tracks, in particular the spiritually advanced "You Got Me Singing," the fondly remembered "My Oh My," and the consciously complicit "Almost Like the Blues." But the only one I love is "Slow," which is not about how considerately he makes love if that's what he's making these days. It's about how unhurriedly he approaches the death that impends for us all. B PLUS

Medium/Cuepoint, October 2014


September 2014 November 2014