Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: July 2016

July 1, 2016

Link: Tall Tales and Big Country: Brandy Clark / Carrie Underwood / Sam Hunt / Tim McGraw

Brandy Clark: Big Day in a Small Town (Warner Bros) As with fellow Class of '13 likely-to-succeeds Ashley Monroe and Kacey Musgraves, Clark's follow-up makes nicer with Nashville than would seem advisable. But where the younger women toned down their themes, Clark bigged up her production, abandoning the folkie decorum of showcase circuit. The opening "Soap Opera" sets the tone: a slightly overstated, unfailingly precise dramatization of Everyperson's appetite for self-dramatization. Soon I was loving the way "Girl Next Door" (she ain't) juxtaposed with "Homecoming Queen" (she was). The way "Broke" rhymed "joke," "folks," "Coke," "croak," "yolks," and "smokes" (although not "toke"). And at the very end, the way "Since You've Gone to Heaven" sentimentalizes her father the better to bemoan the decay of the small town she's never too pious to make fun of. A MINUS

Carrie Underwood: Storyteller (Arista) Really actress, not storyteller, although she does have a writing credit on the most impressive thing here--the cross-regional, cross-gender, class-conscious "Smoke Break," in which neither the mother of four working three jobs nor the farm family's first college man can do without the occasional drag or drink, sincere Christians though they be. And whoever wrote them, there are more good tales here than on her double-disc best-of. She still oversings sometimes, as idols will. But finally she's relaxed enough to let the songs narrate for themselves--be they torch-carrying and fuck-you songs, bad girl and justifiable homicide songs, or tonight's-the-night and happily-ever-after songs. A MINUS


Eric Church: Mr. Misunderstood (EMI Nashville) He should never try to belt a lyric out of the park again ("Kill a Word," "Mr. Misunderstood") ***

Carrie Underwood: Greatest Hits: Decade #1 (Arista Nashville) Big enough to command great songs, even to put her hand to a feminist few, but not big enough to trust her indoor voice ("Mama's Song," "Two Black Cadillacs," "Remind Me") **

Sam Hunt: Montevallo (MCA Nashville) Popmeister from a small town hooks women for a living, defies cops for show ("Take Your Time," "Cop Car") *

Tim McGraw: Sundown Heaven Town (Big Machine) Overbearing when he rocks, quite the charmer when he doesn't ("Meanwhile Back at Mama's," "Diamond Rings and Old Barstools") *

July 8, 2016

Link: Car Seat Headrest, The Julie Ruin, and Drugs: Car Seat Headrest / The Julie Ruin / Tame Impala / Big Thief

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Matador) The tell on Teens of Style, wherein wundertwentysomething Will Toledo rerecorded 11 of his hundredsomething Bandcamp songs for physical purchase, revises his 2012 "Times to Die" to include the line "Got to believe that Lombardi loves me"--Lombardi being not Vince but Matador prexy Chris, who financed and marketed Teens of Style, unleashing the rock dreams that freed Toledo up to buckle down and make a great album like the major artist he always wanted to be. True, existential depression is Toledo's sole subject, without much in the way of romantic travail to universalize it. But on Teens of Denial, Toledo renders that indie-rock ur-theme, um, relatable--grand, rousing, philosophical, ecological, funny, riffy, confused, out front, and of course tuneful. Where once his leads blurred into generalized multitracking, here you can make out his congested, drolly personable, Jonathan Richman-channeling voice. And while to shape his associative structures would betray unseemly firmness of purpose, he milks incantatory repetition like he minored in soukous, extending seven songs past five minutes and three past 7:48: "Drugs are better with friends are better with drugs are better . . . .," say, or the three 12-second "I give up"s that climax the 11:46 "Ballad of the Costa Concordia." As Lombardi surely knows, these are feints. It's too late to give up now. Kid doesn't even like drugs. A

The Julie Ruin: Hit Reset (Hardly Art) After years of illness, 47-year-old Kathleen Hanna still has the same girlish voice she did with Bikini Kill at 21, small and cute. But unlike Astrud Gilberto, say, she's tended to weaponize it. Le Tigre had a sisterly ebullience sometimes, and on her 2013 Julie Ruin comeback she sounded so glad to be alive everything else was secondary. But here she's grrrlish once again, proudly indulging her inner brat as she and her crack electropunk band launch putdown after empowering putdown at a fearsome dad, a pickup creep, a bullshitting promoter, a pushy fan, a pushier friend, a troll, and assorted conversationalists. Since the most painful and effective of these seems to implore a lifemate "Let Me Go," it's a relief when the enigmatic finale wonders quietly what made her think she could fly and then thanks the unspecified person who gave her the courage to try. A MINUS


Tame Impala: Currents (Interscope) Swathed in electronics and simulated tenor, possibly the most soothing "alt-rock" record ever--so soothing one can barely feel the heartbreak 'tis said to expiate ("New Person, Same Old Mistakes," "Yes I'm Changing") **

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Style (Matador) The songfulness is there, the wit and sometimes the heart, but not the specificity ("Something Soon," "Los Borrachos [I Don't Have Any Hope Left, but the Weather Is Nice]") **

Big Thief: Masterpiece (Saddle Creek) Fragile, noisy images of a love perpetually out of reach ("Masterpiece," "Paul") *

July 15, 2016

Link: Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, Clams Casino, and Growing Up: Vic Mensa / Joey Purp / DJ Shadow / Clams Casino

Vic Mensa: There's Alot Going On (self-released) The Spotify hit on this seven-track placeholder for Mensa's Roc Nation debut is, what a surprise, its sole sex track: I'll tie you up, you bring Kiki along, etc. But give him credit for ignoring the crack trade--his drug songs are cautionary tales about Adderall addiction and dropping acid in the studio. Credit too for the shape and spark he found rejoining producer and homeboy Papi Beatz. And all respect to "16 Shots," a Black Lives Matter anthem from a Chicagoan still outraged at the murder of Laquan McDonald so many police murders ago. The biracial son of a Ghanaian economics professor, Mensa isn't as smart as he thinks he is--"Everybody tryna be American idols/My X factor is I'm the only one with the voice" is supposed to be clever? But he's made something of his advantages, confessing and accusing in street language that doesn't downplay his literacy, articulating so conversationally you'd think he was just talking to ya. And he's definitely smart enough to know that the most riveting words here are spoken without rhyme or rhythm by McDonald's lawyer, Jeffrey Nuslund--69 seconds impassively, objectively describing every brutal detail of a videotaped attack that took so much less time than that. A MINUS

Joey Purp: iiiDrops (self-released) From Chicago and topped on this overdue mixtape only by the inevitable cameo from the unbeatable Chance the Rapper, Purp achieves the tricky street-versus-conscious balancing act bobbled by J. Cole and Vince Staples alike. Raw sequence indicates what we'd figure--that this is an ex-dealer if that. Basically he just rhymes as a striver from a place where avenues of advancement are few, dropping a mean verse about a nine-to-five he had once along the way. He craves brands and chases pussy; he worries about his daughter and his grandma and his brother dying in prison; he disses hood fatalism and black-on-black crime; he keeps growing without making a big deal of it. So why shouldn't my favorite jam-as-jam here have "her on the camera going down in the photobooth"? He almost makes it seem like fun. A MINUS


Vic Mensa: Innanetape (self-released) Pronounced as in "internet," not "inane," a word I guarantee was known to this more verbal than musical MC back when he was making his bones on a premature mixtape ("Yap Yap," "Tweakin") ***

DJ Shadow: The Mountain Will Fall (Mass Appeal) His best since The Private Press is a sound effects record by comparison, heavy on first-rate texture, rumble, and of course beats ("Nobody Speak," "The Mountain Will Fall," "Mambo") ***

Clams Casino: 32 Levels (Columbia) Major label backs beatmaker-soundscaper's demo reel! ("Be Somebody" featuring A$AP Rocky and Lil B," "All Nite" featuring Vince Staples) **

July 22, 2016

Link: Alt-Country for Punks: Leland Sundries / Walter Salas-Humara / Blake Mills / The Kropotkins / Corb Lund / The Two-Gentleman Band / The Rough Guide to Americana / The Yawpers

Leland Sundries: Music for Outcasts (L'Echiquier) No matter where they practice, they're like a garage-band version of the Band--not as deep in the pocket plus there seems to be lint in there, with presiding genius Nick Loss-Eaton never quite squeezing the requisite range or force out of his anxious moan, tune-impaired croon, and cracker-barrel croak. But Loss-Eaton doesn't get to preside just because he writes the songs. He gets to preside because he knows how to deliver them regardless. Here be off-kilter local-color Americana by a Brooklynite who's toured the USA quite a bit, and not just so he can play Slim's in Raleigh or the South Wedge Mission in Rochester. I'm not convinced it was actually Wallace, Idaho where that gal punched a psychic. But I am convinced it's a big country. I do believe the Queens wedding guest who cuts in during the "Clothes Line Saga" rip "Freckle Blues" to complain: "All you ever want to do is go to decrepit towns in the South." And I feel the "Stripper From Bensonhurst" after she takes the subway home: "She sips a beer and watches The Today Show / This is not how New York was supposed to go." A MINUS

Walter Salas-Humara: Explodes and Disappears (Sonic Pyramid) The prime mover of the alt-country Silos, who peaked in 1988 but were still recording in 2011, Salas-Humara is a devout traditionalist whose hero is a retired tugboat that once sent more adventurous craft "Into the light of day / And they will travel far, far away." Tugboat-like, his material chugs so steadily that I bet few under 35 will cotton to it, and he never tops a six-minute opener that chronicles the enduring love of a banker and a short-order cook. But just about every song does its work, which most of the time is documenting lives that keep on going. B PLUS


Blake Mills: Heigh Ho (Verve) Millennial guitar master enlists graybeard backup legends to deploy songs that often prove a shade-and-a-half too atmospheric even so ("Don't Tell Our Friends About Me," "Seven") ***

The Kropotkins: Portents of Love (Mulatta) What could be bad about an Americana ensemble named after a Russian anarchist that reprises Gershwin and Mickey & Sylvia and turns "This Land Is Your Land" into a dirge? ("The Stars of Country Music Greet the Spring," "No Good Lover") ***

Corb Lund: Things That Can't Be Undone (New West) Alt-country lifer as murderer, Iraq vet, rancher, and fucker up of the love of his life ("Sadr City," "S Lazy H") **

The Two Man Gentlemen Band: Two at a Time (Bean-Town) One 1961 Gibson ETG-150, one stand-up bass, a dozen barbed and/or light-hearted ditties ("Prescription Drugs," "Two Star Motel," "Tikka Masala") **

The Rough Guide to Americana (World Music Network) Low on treacle and mawk, give it that, but still not the songbag of the new folkiedom the "genre"'s claque believe is upon us (James McMurtry, "Copper Canteen"; Jim White, "Rambler") **

Blake Mills: Break Mirrors (I) On his 2010 bandleading debut, too much band and not enough leader ("It'll All Work Out," "History of My Life") *

The Yawpers: American Man (Bloodshot) Work up their share of Whitmanesque reach without sussing that yowling ain't yawping ("Doing It Right," "American Man") *

July 29, 2016

Link: A Lori McKenna Special: Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna: The Bird & the Rifle (CN/Thirty Tigers '16) McKenna fell off my radar after Warners's excellent, Tim McGraw-produced Unglamorous in 2007, and I promise it won't happen again. She's a 47-year-old mother of five from Stoughton Mass who's currently paying the bills with Little Big Town's 2015 CMA honoree "Girl Crush" and McGraw's 2016 country smash "Humble & Kind"--parental advice that sounds humbler and kinder (and wiser) (even catchier) the way McKenna understates it on her tenth album and second with serious distribution, where it's one of seven straight winners that precede three not-bad-at-alls. Even the winners could use more beat or beef--sonically I prefer the rockish Unglamorous to Dave Cobb's Chris Stapleton-certified good taste here. But production is secondary with this gal. She's a winning singer, forthright and accomplished and idiomatic, implying a slight drawl instead of faking a big one. And her writing is major verging on great. Although she's been married to the same man since she was 19, the unions she evokes so concretely and succinctly are too different to all be her own. Anyway, my very favorite chorus is advice for a single girl: "Deep down you know that you're worth more than this/Or the cost of that dinner last night/He'd be driving you home if he was worth half a shit/And his daddy had raised him up right." Whew. Only then: "But let me remind you there's real love out there down the road." A MINUS

Lori McKenna: Lorraine (lorimckenna.com '11) McKenna's corniest album, and her strongest. Those who don't take conjugal love seriously may find it saccharine or some cornball shit like that. But there's plenty of salt in it, and the strictly literal words stay on topic--in "The Luxury of Knowing," which he has and she doesn't; "You Get a Love Song," in which a premature nuptial yields artistic dividends; "Lorraine," her mother's name and also her own; "Sweet Disposition," which her mother had and she's working on; "That's How You Know," a post-breakup song so painfully rendered it could be a post-death song as well. My favorite is the finale, which is about heaven--literally. St. Peter and Jesus get cameos. Jesus turns out to be taller than you figured. A MINUS

Lori McKenna: Massachusetts (Liz Rose Music '13) The statistics are pretty stark. Six songs (1-5-6-7-9-12) fairly astonishing and six (2-3-4-8-10-11) more country-generic; the same six bare and direct and guitar-colored, the others hook-cushioned and keyboard-reliant; the same six--this is the tell--credited solely to McKenna, the others all co-written. Not that the co-writes don't do Nashville's assembly-line tradition fairly proud. But comparatively they're gooey and mechanical--it's a downer when the thought-through details of "Smaller and Smaller" resolve into generalized nostalgia, when the quiet sanity of "Shouting" builds to a rousing chorus. And not only does the material no one else touched have more bite, it tracks: where 1-5 are brutal breakup songs, 7-9-12 make more of long love than Nashville generally has the brains for. So it's "You ain't worth the spit in my mouth/When I scream out your name" and "Make every word sting/Make every word bleed/Until I'm not gonna want to love you anymore" to "Every time you walk away from me you come running back/How romantic is that?" and "You whispered something in my ear last night/Some years ago you wouldn't have thought to." And then there's a happy ending: "Grown Up Now." It's about her oldest kid. B PLUS


Lori McKenna: Bittertown (Signature Sounds '04) Barely 30, she's still occasionally entranced by the magic of metaphor, and already speaking so plainly sometimes you can hardly believe it's art at all ("If You Ask," "Monday Afternoon") ***

Lori McKenna: Numbered Doors (Liz Rose Music '14) By this artist's standards, a stumble--Brandy Clark just did the cowritten best song on it better ("Three Kids No Husband," "Stranger in His Kiss," "God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone") **

Lori McKenna: Heart Shaped Bullet Hole (self-released '12) EP proof that she too can write generic country songs--perfectly fine generic country songs ("This and the Next Life," "Sometimes He Does") *

Noisey, July 2016


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