Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: December 2015

December 4, 2015

Link: Cybergrunge and Future Electronics: Oneohtrix Point Never / Arca / The Knife

Oneohtrix Point Never: Garden of Delete (Warp) With R Plus Seven's Hammond B-3 vibe out of his system, Daniel Lopatin assembles something resembling an emotionally complex reflection on suffering humanity. Purportedly a concept album about a hypergrunge band called Kaoss Edge--no, there is no such thing as "hypergrunge" (so far), but that doesn't stop Kaoss Edge from having a website--it's as coherent as Lopatin wants it to be. Read along with the hyperautotune lyrics of "Sticky Drama" and hear an alt-teen pencil-dick love song transmute into an alt-contrarian death-metal horrorshow; read along with the cute-sounding electro-munchkin lyrics of "Animals" and learn they're about cages and worse. But the music is more playful and frankly interesting than these dark themes suggest--and also more multifacted, virtuosic, and urban than Lopatin's excellent stealth-pastoral Replica. I credit this healthy paradox to the guy's irrepressible sonic imagination. His mind may believe the earth is one big disaster area. But even so he remains a clever, funny dude who enjoys his musique concrete collages too much to set his sights on distant galaxies. A MINUS

Arca: Mutant (Mute) Initially, I spun this album to get rid of it--to insure that, as with most unmarked CDs in jewelcases lacking title and slug line, it was safe to stick it where the laser don't shine. Only after I realized how impressed I was by these grooveless, tuneless electronic instrumentals did I make out on the back cover the birthname of my old NYU student Alejandro Ghersi--who as Arca has since become a Yeezus collaborator and Fader cover boy as well as co-producing a Björk album I'll leave to her fanbase. In other words, I really liked this music before I knew I knew its creator. Those who claim it has a structure as opposed to a sequence are probably imagining things. But the tunelessness of the music doesn't always mean it's amelodic and the groovelessness rarely means it stands still. My faves often tie in alien elements--"Umbilical" with its Mbuti chant, "Sinner" with its virtual bellows breathing in and out, "Faggot" with its bells-and-choirboy undergirding and stuttering aggro finale. But tune in anytime during this 20-track hour and chances are you'll hear something you've never heard before--and want to hear it again, to make sure you were right the first time. A MINUS

Arca: Stretch 2 (UNO NYC) So what's going on in these nine, to quote the experts, "misshapen," "warped, hellish," "floridly mutant" "hymns to God knows what"? I direct you to "Laughing at Scary Voices," a consideration of Swedish electro-mutants the Knife in the February, 2011 Perfect Sound Forever by none other than Alejandro Ghersi. To wit: "David Lynch and Charles Burns and the Knife approach haunting images, absurdity, unappealing humans, and loneliness in all of their work." However: "The Knife's lyrics resist parsing in the same way that Lynch's Mulholland Drive timeline resists parsing and Burns's Black Hole resists being taken seriously." So therefore: "The only thing we can do with certainty is laugh at the dark world they've created and, in the process, laugh at our own undeniably fucked up society." You go on from there. B PLUS


The Knife: Shaken-Up Versions (Brille/Mute) They're only remixes, generally of songs fans already love, but they do shake quite a bit of action ("Got 2 Let U," "Pass This On") ***

Arca: Stretch 1 (UNO NYC) Making up his own language more mischievously than doomsayers have ears to discern ("Ass Swung Low," "Dignity") ***

Arca: Xen (Mute) Striking and unpresumptuous, albeit residually quasisymphonic, but I do get happier every time he interjects half a hook ("Lonely Thugg," "Xen") **

December 11, 2015

Link: String Band Folk Still Moves: Have Moicy 2 / Asylum Street Spankers / The Ragpicker String Band

Have Moicy 2: The Hoodoo Bash (Red Newt) Neither the elusive Michael Hurley (b. 1941) nor the departed Jeffrey Frederick (b. 1950) found it possible to join the irrepressible Peter Stampfel (b. 1938) on his 40-years-after bid to reprise if not match the accidental masterpiece Have Moicy! Gamely if haltingly, reprise it he and his new gang do, but match it they of course can't--that's how masterpieces are. Instead they put its grace and luck into relief as they make hay of their own gravelly melodicism and unsynchronized stick-to-it-iveness. How young the originals were! (Jeffrey Lewis, kingpin of Have Moicy 2's kid contingent, is three years older than Stampfel was in 1975.) How casually apolitical, too! (Hippie was over and the oil crisis permanent, but no one foresaw the ruin yet to be wreaked by Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Al Qaeda, and the Black-Scholes formula.) By comparison, the vocals here tend creaky--Stampfel can no longer break wine glasses with his yodel, Baby Gramps's Aged-P wheeze comes all too naturally, Robin Remaily is the grumpy old man he was born to be, and even Lewis could stand to gargle. And where the originals griped about dirty dishes, cunnilingus interruptus, and the occasional ear on the floor, these guys find themselves historically compelled to explicitly protest a vile lung disease, the theory of intelligent design, butts left cold, and again and again the class system that keeps old freaks down--so down that their idea of a joke is feasting on roadkill and rhyming "Victrola" with "Ebola." Which are good jokes, actually. Because believe it, folks--with the slacker utopia of the original gone but not forgotten, there are millions of worse things to settle for than this. In fact, there are millions on Spotify alone. A MINUS

Asylum Street Spankers: The Last Laugh (Yellow Dog) This farewell album from an alt-folk aggregation that never got out of Austin begins so casually and changes up so abruptly it risks disorienting old fans while putting off new ones. Eventually, however, it jazzed me and touched me throughout. It's not just that they dazzle on multiple acoustic instruments while joking around as usual. It's the way Christina Marrs oversings a song worthy of her many passions on the questing "Ludicrous Heart." The way third wheel Nevada Newman just figures "Fuck Work." And especially the way Charlie King tops an acidly secular "Don't You Hear Jerusalem Moan" ("The Catholic preacher makes a lot of noise / He's down in the rectory altering the boys") with the unabashed sentiment of "Savor Every Day": "I had this real good friend of mine / He told me, Charlie, I may not be here for a long time / But I am here for a good time / I sure miss that friend of mine." A MINUS

The Ragpicker String Band: The Ragpicker String Band (Yellow Dog) With a touching faith in physical recordings and respect for my advanced years, folk labels send me more string band CDs than you know exist, most cheerful-to-doleful at best. This Memphis trio is quite a bit more. Equable vocalist-guitarist Mary Flower, fingerpicking multi-threat Martin Grosswendt, and mandolin-wielding star of the show Rich DelGrosso announce themselves with DelGrosso's incorrigible cover of another old folkie you never heard of's "Google Blues," about the dangers of picking up women at bars where they can vet you on wi-fi. DelGrosso's fickle-vixen "Motel Towel" and scag-bagging "Street Doctor Blues" also have a modern feel, but his mandolin transports even this material to a realm not much less lyrical than Flower's unflappable rendition of Lil Johnson's 90-year-old "Minor Blues" or Grosswendt's deft revivals of two quite distinct Sleepy John Estes numbers. Also deft: the cover of Thelonious's "Blue Monk" and the theft of Dylan's "Bucket of Rain." A MINUS

December 18, 2015

Link: Long Beach Lingers: Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman / Vince Staples / Lady Leshurr / A Rocky / Big Grams

Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice (Rhymesayers/Stones Throw) This five-track freebie reveals itself back-to-front. While the lead "Vertigo" never quite straightens up and flies right, you'll be grabbed by the closing "Get a Dog"'s hypnotic Charles Hamilton electrovamp even before Homeboy's irresistible "Yo, if you're scared get a dog, yo. Get a strong--like a, like a Rottweiler or a, a boxer dog, not a, a Pomeranian dog." And while both the anti-wack jokes of the peppy "Katz" and the freak sociology of the echoing "Environmental Studies" run deep, the prize is the penultimate "So Strange Here," as soulful a reflection on the disorientations of B-list tour-or-get-a-day-job as you can think of offhand. Each rapper has his own memories and gripes. But each goes out the same: "I know it sounds strange but strange beats normal." A MINUS

Vince Staples: Hell Can Wait (Def Jam) Thematically, there's not much new on this LA mixtape fixture's major-label debut. Nor is he much of an image-slinger. But he's so hard-hitting, so direct, so concise, and before too long so hooky too. Yeah, he does bleed Crip blue (or is that clue, it's so bonfusing). But the compact lucidity with which this EP details the ups and downs of the drug trade and warns women off his money feels less like advocacy, celebration, or autobiography than street reporting. And his best lines rise up when Ferguson moves him to something resembling political speech: "They expect respect and nonviolence/I refuse the right to be silent." A MINUS

Vince Staples: Summertime '06 (Def Jam) Staples's argument is, first, that the thug life was forced on him, not merely because he grew up on the wrong side of Long Beach but because his parents were gangbangers, and second, that white America is invested in the thug life, via not just the systemic racism that keeps African-Americans down but the systemic sensationalism of white hip-hop fans scarfing up gangsta horrorshow. As a white hip-hop fan who's resisted every thug coup d'art since the Wu-Tang Clan (who were major, I was wrong, but I hate guns and I hate sexism and I'd rather be wrong than tag along), I believe the sensationalism is more ironic than causal except perhaps insofar as gangsta swagger impresses boys in the hood who might otherwise settle for the crap jobs staying in school is good for. But give Staples credit--he doesn't swagger. He's always hard, often impassive, occasionally callous, but never brutal or mean, and nothing in his rhymes, flow, or beats boasts or romanticizes. What good that'll do who knows. But he's not part of any problem I can see. As thug coups d'art go, this takes Rick Ross to court, renders Freddie Gibbs more unnecessary than he already is, and is hella cooler than Iceberg Slim. B PLUS


Lady Leshurr: Mona Leshurr (Gutter Strut) Beats high-functional, articulation pure soprano, rhymes dancehall boom-bap once removed, best of many giggles her delight in the word "schmuck" ("Yippy Yay," "Freak," "Boom Bam") ***

A$AP Rocky: At.Long.Last.A$AP (Polo Grounds/RCA) '60s-besotted entertainer pays a '60s-begotten entertainer formerly long ago as Rod the Mod for his most entertaining track ("Everyday," "Max B") **

Big Grams: Big Grams (Epic) Big Boi, Run the Jewels, Skrillex, and, oh yeah, omnipresent electropop duo Phantogam do their bit for why can't we all get along ("Lights On," "Drum Machine") **

Homeboy Sandman: White Sands (Stones Throw) The lesser verse of Angel Del Villar II, best at its happiest and grimmest ("Fat Belly," "Echoes") *

December 25, 2015

Link: Grimes Embodies Hyperfeminist Individualism for a Post-Rock Mindset: Grimes / Sophie / Janelle Monae / Björk

Grimes: Art Angels (4AD) Generally the soprano signifies purity, which has never been my idea of virtue, not to mention fun. And given how hard it is to achieve, there can be a vanity to it as well--or in earlier Claire Boucher, a self-regarding freakishness. But on this pop-yet-not breakthrough, that pretension is blown away by generous tunes, changeable grooves, and dedicated intensity of purpose. This singer-composer-producer is neither cute nor ethereal, and although the consistency of her register is an affectation by definition, she'll convince anyone who isn't a grouch that she's just being herself, not merely female but, fuck you, feminine--the fairie she likes to claim crossed with a charming three-year-old getting what she wants. Which includes adrenaline highs and mitigated perversity and California love and pornography in phonetic Chinese. She embodies hyperfeminist individualism for a post-rock mindset that likes a good beat fine. A

Sophie: Product (Numbers) It's hard to hear this 26-minute, eight-song, album-shaped deliverable as sex music even though its deluxe edition offers a pricey dildo-plus-buttplug item difficult for guys to share so it must be for ppl with two nearby holes--that is, despite the male auteur's trans gestures, an anatomically conventional woman or two. Not only are the detextured girly voices too cartoony to be sexual, the many clever electronic noises--"Bipp"'s bips, "Lemonade"'s fizz, "Hard"'s panoply, the descending hook of the transitional "Just Like We Never Said Goodbye"--just aren't tactile enough. Except on the merely electronic "MSMSMSM," however, they are funny, beaty, imaginative, and so consumer-friendly they could pass for kind. This is not the future of music. But as a diversionary substitute, it's aces. A MINUS


Janelle Monae: The Electric Lady (Bad Boy/Wondaland) Vocally and compositionally, greatly enhanced by the cameos of the many luminaries who admire her ambition and range ("Givin Em What They Want," "Dance Apocalyptic") ***

Björk: Vulnicura (One Little Indian) I always thought she was too lifelike for him anyway ("Stonemilker," "Atom Dance") *

Grimes: Visions (4AD) As an album, too, well, ethereal, but as an overture . . . ("Oblivion," "Be a Body") *

Noisey, December 2015


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