Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: October 2015

October 2, 2015

Link: Future Is the Proof We Need That Money Doesn't Buy Happiness: Future / Migos / T.I. / Drake / Young Thug

Future: Monster (free mixtape) Released shortly after Honest failed to catapult Atlanta's solidest trap-pop hope into a Jingle Baller and longer after babymama Ciara started saving it for a Christian quarterback, this mixtape doesn't bother with radio-friendly. Far from it. Before it sinks slowly into the generic, it justifies openers claiming "Radical" and "Monster" with a five-track sequence that begins with the club hit "Fuck Up Some Commas," ends with the outrageously catchy "2 Pac," scoops up a fine Lil Wayne 16 along the way, and never tops "Throw Away," a truer love song for Ciara than any hook machine he'd hoped would cross over: "I came home last night to a menage/Got my dick sucked I was thinking about you/I was fucking on a slut and I was thinking about you/When you're fucking another nigga I hope you're thinking about me." Actually painful. Strong like pop so seldom is. Vulnerable like pop so seldom is too. B PLUS

Future: DS2 (Deluxe Edition) (Epic) A hypnotic, slow-motion trap-life tone poem that turns on two tells: "I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops" to set the mood and "Best thing I ever did was fall out of love" to rationalize it. Not that the departed Ciara is first cause of Future's beat-steeped lassitude. First cause is he's a junkie, addicted to the liquid scag crack magnates and FruityLoops prodigies mix with carbonated beverages so as to forget their demons--and believe that Future mentions "hell" and "the devil" more than your average syrup sipper. Does his life ever not sound like fun. I'm sure he fucks a lot, as in the echoing Metro Boomin' showpiece "Groupies" or the semiconscious "The Stripper and Percocet Joint." But does he come? Opiates, after all, are notoriously anorgasmic, and while he does once resort to the term "make love," the porn tracks are long on domination and athletic ability and the exception is "Rich Sex," about the special frisson of coitus with your chains on. In another inconsistency--he is large, he fucks up commas--one song does insist, "I'm just enjoying my life." And no doubt many of his poor fans believe him. But I don't. If only our deluded nation took hip-hop seriously, this miserable minor masterpiece would be all the proof we needed that money can't buy happiness. A MINUS

Migos: Yung Rich Nation (300 Entertainment/Quality Control/Atlantic) "You know, it feel good when you're recognized," they're not ashamed to conclude, and although at first I was irritated by how pragmatically they reclaim what they're not ashamed to call "Gangsta Rap," now I find them generically opportunistic and endearingly jolly--which I may rescind as their heads swell, but later for that. Very hooky, kind of funny, barely brutal at all. "Yung rich niggas never did a pushup" is a brag that's hard to hate. B PLUS


T.I.: Da Nic' (Grand Hustle) Just to prove he's lost neither knack nor professional standing, an enjoyable EP no one expected or, I admit, needed ("Broadcast Live," "Ain't Gonna See It Comin'") ***

Drake & Future: What a Time to Be Alive (Cash Money/Epic) Talented frequent collaborators though they remain, beyond the sure shot it's hard to tell what they're bringing out in each other ("Big Rings," "30 for 30 Freestyle") **

Young Thug: The Barter 6 (300 Entertainment/Atlantic) Running one of his inscrutable jokes on the major label ("Can't Tell," "Halftime") **

Migos: Rich Nigga Timeline (free mixtape) Hoping their base forgives them for acting so soft, gangstas redux stick their catchiest number at the end of this overlength 18-tracker ("Struggle," "Bachelor") *

Future: 56 Nights (free mixtape) Sprung from his Dubai lockup, DJ Esco enlists 808 Mafia to arouse Fewtch from one of his many insensate stupors ("Trap Niggas," "March Madness") *

October 9, 2015

Link: A Trip Down Country Road: The Bottle Rockets / Jason Isbell / Wussy / Daniel Romano / Ashley Monroe / Kacey Musgraves

The Bottle Rockets: South Broadway Athletic Club (Bloodshot) Alt-country vet Brian Henneman is one of those guys who likes writing songs too much to quit. Weary evocations of the persistence of Monday and airbag duty at the Chrysler plant convince you music isn't his day job whether it is or not. Similarly, the long-haul passion of "Big Lotsa Love" makes you hope the perfect breakup lamentation "Something Good" is just poetry he couldn't resist whether it is or not: "World turns/Rome burns/Can't you hear that fiddle sound/Time flies/Elvis dies/It's all over but the shoutin' now." If you notice the material weakening toward the end, give him a break. He's beat. A MINUS

Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free (Southeastern) Although his alt-Americana base may find him less "authentic" now, it's a musical positive that getting sober has finally cheered Isbell up. The resigned confidence of his singing signifies mental health. His contained Alabama drawl and guitar-bass-drums aesthetic mark his people as Southern whites of modest prospects subject to the "powder keg ready to blow" that is God's will. Talk of The Bell Jar and "character sets" mark him as a participant-observer while reminding bicoastalists how many Southern whites of modest prospects live in a larger world than bicoastalists imagine. A MINUS


Wussy: Public Domain, Volume 1 (Shake It) Their roots alt-country, their sonics arena-drone, they subject five pieces of Americana history to the treatment for Record Store Day ("Poor Ellen Smith," "Lavender Blue") ***

Daniel Romano: If I've Only One Time Askin' (New West) A normalization move even if the title song romances a prostitute, and I miss the oddball ("Learning to Do Without Me," "Two Word Joe") **

Ashley Monroe: The Blade (Warner Bros.) Maturing either at last or all too quickly, she devises many well-worked midtempo metaphors exploring love's pain ("The Blade," "Dixie") **

Kacey Musgraves: Pageant Material (Mercury) Nice girl makes nicer--uh-oh ("Family Is Family," "Late to the Party") *

October 16, 2015

Link: Canada, Croatia, and the Misery of Sufjan Stevens: John Kruth / Amy LaVere and Will Sexton / Old Man Luedecke / Kinky Friedman / Guy Davis / Sufjan Stevens

John Kruth: Splitsville (Smiling Fez) A prize-winning Townes Van Zandt, Roy Orbison, and Roland Kirk biographer renowned in new-folk circles as the mandolin-motorvating founder of free-conceived NYC world-music troupe TriBeCaStan, Kruth got interested in Croatia because that's his artist wife's heritage. Recorded with on-site Croatian and overdubbed US musicians of casually impeccable chops, these melodically bent, structurally straightforward, verbally concrete songs were inspired by multiple visits to the bustling old Croatian beach city of Split. Delivered in Kruth's raspy, plaintive mandolinist's voice, they're a writer's songs whether praising women or lamenting politics--simple and pointed with just a few duds. And the four instrumentals are intro, interlude, and farewell enough. A MINUS

John Kruth: The Drunken Wind of Life: The Poem/Songs of Tin Ujevic (Smiling Fez) On Kruth's second Croatia album, mostly American musicians render the tunes Kruth wrote for English translations of the poems of a wandering modernist bard who died blacklisted by Tito 60 years ago. It's more haunting than Splitsville, with Kruth's deliberate, nuanced, murmured, pitch-challenged, and once merely spoken vocals deepening its affect. The brief plucked folk-dance intro and Ujevic-inspired Kruth original "Girl From Korcula" brighten things up. But a six-minute "Daily Lament" that earns its title seems the peak--until it's topped by the five-minute closer "Blood Brotherhood of Persons of the Universe," which also earns its title. A MINUS

Amy LaVere and Will Sexton: Hallelujah I'm a Dreamer (Archer) She's a cryptically homespun singer-songwriter with a 10-year-old's voice and a good witch's soul; he's a guitarist to vie with his brother Charlie with grown kids and a stroke behind him. She spent years playing acoustic bass for rockabilly pilgrims at Sun Studios; he was shoehorned into her tiny road band until they figured out how good they were together. Now married and on perpetual tour, they recorded these many remakes and few new ones to analog tape in a Memphis studio that could be their living room, and there's terrific synergy to it. You poor souls have probably never heard Delaney & Bonnie's Motel Shot. In fact, maybe they haven't either. Y'all seek it out now. A MINUS

Old Man Luedecke: Domestic Eccentric (True North) This well-regarded Canadian folkie can't be the first to turn the yodeler's "yo-de-lay-ee" into the lover's "you're the lady." But I bet no one else has based a song cycle on the joke: the history of a marriage in which the pair build the house he celebrates with the preliminary climax of "Now We Got a Kitchen." Sad to say, the less auspicious climax that ends the record proceeds from "Seems like you never wanted me around" to "Happy ever after's not the easy part." But that doesn't mean they're finished any more than "We're saving up for date night so we can have our fight" meant they were in trouble when the monkeys were little. So I tell myself, anyway. B PLUS


Kinky Friedman: The Loneliest Man I Ever Met (Avenue A) Sings as bad as ever on this covers album from nowhere, aging well anyway ("My Shit's Fucked Up," "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square") ***

Guy Davis: Kokomo Kidd (M.C.) Ossie and Ruby's Seeger-schooled kid sounds freshest on new originals, a feat for any 63-year-old ("Kokomo Kidd," "Wish I Hadn't Stayed Away So Long") **

Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty) How best expiate a conflicted grief--sardonic musing? Depressive rage? Ironic japes? Cautionary tales? Misery so brutal you burrow through to the other side? Surely something with more tensile strength than musical flower arrangements, doncha think? ("Death With Dignity," "Carrie and Lowell") *

Guy Davis: Juba Dance Featuring Fabrizio Poggi (M.C.) Well-mannered modern bluesman partners with Italian harmonica virtuoso and reveals that he learned "Prodigal Son" from Josh White, not the Stones (but not Robert Wilkins either) ("Love Looks Good on You," "Lost Again") *

October 23, 2015

Link: Just Rhythm Music, on Its Own Unrelenting Terms: Mbongwana Star / Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba

Mbongwana Star: From Kinshasa (World Circuit) The most original and syncretic new band yet to reach us from 21st-century Africa--unless I just mean album, as French-Irish drummer-bassist-producer Liam Farrell layers on a kitchen sink of distortions every bit as organic as the Congotronics that add novelty/authenticity to the focus track "Malukayi." There's none of soukous's hard-won elegance here--the flowing grooves, the masterful voices, the horns. Instead the choppy rhythms recall Staff Benda Bilili, whose Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambala provide tenor and baritone, with Ngamabla the odds-on creator of two killer change-of-pace ballads whatever the conspicuously absent copyright notices say. This is African music as an object of Euro-American commerce with no false aura of postcolonial purity. I hope I get the chance to see it take human form. A MINUS

Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba: Ba Power (Glitterbeat) The Sahara boom in hard-rocking bands more supersonic than the non-African competition is due primarily to the spread of desert guitar--Dan Auerbach, meet Bombino Moctar. But none has rocked harder or livelier than Bassekou Kouyate's family business, where the part of the guitar is played by one, two, many modified lutes called ngonis. Even harder and livelier than 2013's breakout Jama Ko, this lacks the righteous fervor that fueled that explicitly anti-Islamist defense of a Mali "where Islam and tolerance exist," as the new "Abe Sumaya" puts it. Its fervor is formal. Four tracks add trap drums to the hand-held percussion, Jon Hassell haunts another with trumpet and keyboards, and auxiliary white musicians pitch in without butting in. There are also full translated lyrics, which as happens with Afropop isn't always a plus. I'm glad Kouyate's lead singer and wife Amy Sacko gets one called "Musow Fanga (Power of Woman)." But especially given how powerfully she makes herself felt whenever she opens her mouth, I'm not so glad it equates that power with motherhood. A MINUS

Tal National: Kaani (Fat Cat) Seeking an adjective for this remarkable yet narrow international debut from the biggest band in Niger, I arrived at "terrific." Terrific in the honorific sense--real good album. But also terrific in the lost sense of deeply scary. Eight tracks lasting a mere 50 minutes (live, the story goes, they play five hours a night every night) and featuring a mere six musicians (live, apparently, substitutes switch off): two guitars, trap and tama drums, accommodating bass, and a singer whose day job is judge (but how long are his days?). And for 50 minutes the barrage never stops--"Sarkin Fada" mellows slightly, but in general two guitars are louder than one, the drummers bash and clash, the tempos speed on, and the judge declaims with the voice of authority. Because there's so little give in it, this isn't really groove music except in the sense that EDM is groove music--Syrian dabke, for instance, is sensuous and jolly by comparison. It's just rhythm music, on its own unrelenting terms. A MINUS

Tal National: Zoy Zoy (Fat Cat) More happens here than on the debut: Tuareg moves and Malian ululations and Congotronic clatter and highlife memories, forgiving tempo shifts and a drum solo struggling to be free. The many-faceted title "tune" shows off moving parts you'll never keep up with as it stampedes past, and the grooves vary noticeably track to track--which isn't to suggest that the energy ever slackens. In short, a band capable of striking fear in the hearts of anti-immigrationists all over their cryogenic cradles of Western civilization. A MINUS

October 30, 2015

Link: Love, Doubt, and Death in New York City: Laurie Anderson / Jeffrey Lewis & Les Bolts

Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog (Nonesuch) The soundtrack to a film I missed is also Anderson's simplest and finest album, accruing power and complexity as you relisten and relisten again: 75 minutes of sparsely but gorgeously and aptly orchestrated tales about a) her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle and b) the experience of death. There are few detours--even her old fascination with the surveillance state packs conceptual weight. Often she's wry, but never is she satiric; occasionally she varies spoken word with singsong, but never is her voice distorted. She's just telling us stories about life and death and what comes in the middle when you do them right, which is love. There's a lot of Buddhism, a lot of mom, a whole lot of Lolabelle, and no Lou Reed at all beyond a few casual "we"s. Only he's there in all this love and death talk--you can feel him. And then suddenly the finale is all Lou, singing a rough, wise, abstruse song about the meaning of love that first appeared on his last great album, Ecstasy--a song that was dubious there yet is perfect here. One side of the CD insert is portraits of Lolabelle. But on the other side there's a note: "dedicated to the magnificent spirit/of my husband, Lou Reed/1942-2013." I know I should see the movie. But I bet it'd be an anticlimax. A PLUS

Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts: Manhattan (Rough Trade) The title tune of Lewis's catchiest and finest album lasts eight subtly varied, steadfastly strophic minutes, its only bridge the Williamsburg, which Lewis and his girlfriend cross on foot as he tells her it's over before putting her on the subway back to Brooklyn. Pushing 40 now, this second-generation bohemian knows his turf from "Scowling Crackhead Ian," where the kid who held a knife to his throat in junior high is still befouling St. Marks Place, to "The Pigeon," which stuffs some 30 choice Yiddishisms--"schnorrer," "verkakte," "furshlugginer," oy gevalt--into a Poe-parodying Delancey Street anti-gentrification kvetch. As promised only a hell of a lot slower, he spends nearly five minutes collecting his thoughts in "It Only Takes a Moment." But he gets where he's going just about every time. A

Noisey, October 2015


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