Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: October 2016

October 7, 2016

Link: Treasured Transcendence: Youssou N'Dour / 75 Dollar Bill / Vieux Kanté / Bombino

Youssou N'Dour: Senegaal Rekk (Prince Arts) Alerted to this May EP in August when a friend in Prague sent me a YouTube link, I playlisted it on Spotify briefly before it vanished, learned that it can be purchased from Apple in Europe but not here, declined free downloads from websites poised to pass my passwords to Carter Page, and finally snagged something I could burn when a magician I know Dropboxed me. The label is a mystery, the title sometimes spelled "Senegal" and/or "Rek," and though I've read that an "international" iteration called Africa Rekk is expected late November, who knows what exactly it'll be. So try YouTube and be vigilant. As someone who's adored him for all of this century, what I hear in these songs I don't understand a word of is more specifically Senegalese than his Nonesuch catalogue and more tightly conceived than 2012's live Mballax Dafay Wax--a tensile spirituality sorely missed from American music in a year whose horrific downside is regularly sidestepped or ignored. The arrangements enact a tempered, unrelenting responsiveness in which lives lived under lifelong pressure aspire to a transcendence that's actively treasured. A voice that has begun to weather rises to moments of startling sweetness and lyricism. The Senegal-raised Akon has a strong cameo that's the dullest thing on the record. A

75 Dollar Bill: Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock (Thin Wrist) This four-track, 39-minute cassette-gone-to-heaven by young NYC experimental guitarist-multithreat Che Chen and veteran NYC weird-band drummer-percussionist Rick Brown is a strange one, and it means to be, but to someone of my peculiar interests it connected quick. The main axes are Chen's two guitars, tuned so that they generate 24 tones per octave instead of the usual 12, and a wooden box Brown found on the street and bangs for all it's worth. Although Chen denies that his brief intensive with Mauritanian master guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly is decisive, the thing definitely sounds somehow African even if the echoes seemed less distinct when I cued up the untethered vocals and suppler grooves of Group Inerane and Group Doueh. This purely instrumental avant-rock is more solemn, deliberate, set on its strangeness. But the way the tempo picks up two minutes into the 12.27 "Beni Said" is friendly enough for me, especially followed by the diddleybeat Brown lays under the de facto raveup "Cummins Falls" and the saxes and side percussion that thicken the 15-minute closer. Quite an up in its severe way--which is an interesting up. A MINUS

Vieux Kanté: The Young Man's Harp (Sterns) By the time he died unexpectedly in 2005, this blind 31-year-old from rural Mali had gained more physical facility and technical smarts on his modified 12-string kamele ngoni, a hunter's harp, than Bassekou Kouyate on his enlarged djele ngoni, a griot's lute. His music was less crowd-pleasing and propulsive, and he didn't have a wife to sing lead or young male relatives he could hand showpieces. But he did get to cut this one never-released album, and with the gritty baritone of Kabadjan Diakite augmenting his clear, nasal tenor on three of seven tracks, it's quite the showcase. Definitely dig the spare opening instrumental "Sans Commentaire." And if you're afraid his virtuosity is over your head, pay attention to the minute that begins around 1:25 of the climactic "Kono," where Diakite's vocal is decorative throughout. A MINUS


75 Dollar Bill: Wooden Bag (Other Music) Identifying more avant, but cutting a funkier path on the longer ones ("Cuttin' Out," "Hollis") ***

Bombino: Azel (Nonesuch) The best thing about his Tuareggae is that sometimes you can't tell reggae is what it is ("Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar [A Great Desert I Saw]," "Akhar Zaman [This Moment]") **

October 14, 2016

Link: Flyover Drawl: American Honey / Travis Scott / Dreezy / T.I.

American Honey (UME download) I elected to purchase this DL-only soundtrack in tribute to a rambling, music-drenched rollercoaster of a two-and-a-half-hour film that transfixed me and made my stomach flip simultaneously. But if you prefer, Spotify's stream lacks only Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who adds nothing to a musical gestalt that conjures magic from the cross-genre sequencing that gums up so many soundtracks. Here the Southern hip-hop of half the tracks, which gets the semiprofessional young cast moving countless times with Oaklandite E-40's "Choices" the theme song, absorbs the country and mostly female indie-rock stuff. Sam Hunt's smash "Take Your Time" and Steve Earle's ancient "Copperhead Road" are highlights, and just as Mazzy Star are gauzy and the Raveonettes are buzzy, Hunt is comfy rapping and Earle has never allowed consonants to impede his flow. So call flyover drawl the sonic concept. Many of the artists were unknown to me--Quigley? MadeinTYO? Lĺpsly? Og Maco? Carnage? Raury? Razzy Bailey? Carnage again? But their personal bests share a lazy, hedonistic ease designed to make the most of limited options. One charm of a film that traverses Middle American landscapes bicoastalists never lay eyes on is that the misfit kids it follows around peddle not drugs but magazines, doing only incidental damage as they lie and steal. Another is that they dance goofily whenever they get the chance. Not to Mazzy Star, of course. Although hell, why not? A

Travis Scott: Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (Epic) Where American Honey is lascivious, the second album by this Houston rapper whose Lamborghini I've never understood is jutht plain thilly. Celebrating the women he fucks on the drugs and alcohol the real-life Travis supposedly eschews, the rapper-organizer taps a raft of people who owe him something, and if they're somewhat less august than DJ Khaled's band of toadies, they get more done as they establish Auto-Tune as the human side of screwed-and-chopped. Universal pitch correction makes it harder to tell one rapper from another even as big names Kendrick Lamar and Young Thug nail focus tracks. So let's hear it for 21 Savage and Kid Cudi too. B PLUS


Dreezy: No Hard Feelings (Interscope) If this Chicago rapper-turning-singer was half as irresistible as I wish she was, there'd be more than one thing on her loosely plotted tale of trading Jamal in for Sean that's half as great as its great greatest hit ("Body," "Afford My Love") ***

T.I.: Us or Else (T.I./Roc Nation) Intelligent black man goes straight conscious while wisely ceding the EP's most intelligent rhyme to Killer Mike ("40 Acres," "Black Man") ***

October 21, 2016

Link: Self-Esteem as Bollix: Jinx Lennon / Sleaford Mods / Kate Tempest / L.A. Salami

Jinx Lennon: Past Pupil Stay Sane (Septic Tiger) Born in 1964 sez Google though he seems younger, rocker-rapper Lennon has been musically active since around 2000, with a Wikipedia stub, a sketchy website, and six plus two albums to show for it. Though live he sometimes favors acoustic guitar, on this hour-long collection he yells, recites, talks, chants, murmurs, and/or sings 23 songs over not just guitar but drum-sounding "beats," bass, electronics, female softening, and quite often trumpet. Lennon's Dundalk hometown is up near the troubled border in his nation's northeast corner, but that's in the past--today's Ireland is embattled enough to keep him busy. Subjects include "Cough Medicine," "70,000 New Jobs," "Don't Let the Phone Calls Annoy You," a "Chinaman in Dundalk Town," and a "Heart Attack in Spain" ("Waiter / Get the defibulator / What do you mean you don't know where it is sir?"). In "Learn How to Talk to Women," he advises, "Listen to them, be interested." And in "Fireman Meets Samurai Sword" firemen advise, "Let's get out of here alive at the end of each day"--because, like the rapper-rocker sez to the recovering crack addict, "Every Day Above Ground Is a Good Day." A MINUS

Jinx Lennon: Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift the Grief Magnets (Septic Tiger) There's a musical consistency to this band record, cut with two Liverpudlians from Clinic just across the Irish Sea, that's missing from its companion release. Sung, talked, or sung-talked, Lennon's enunciated vocals turn his brogue, if that's what it even is, into lingua franca, and electronic though the band is, its music is rock, not techno or electropop. Lennon is the rare ranter in whom rage coexists with empathy and alienation with a well-observed life. Examples include "Piranhas of Xmas," in which layaway gifts turn into nightmares, and an equally sad one in the voice of a "10 O'Clock T Break Bollix": "Making smart remarks about people passing by cos I haven't got self-esteem." A MINUS


Sleaford Mods: T.C.R. (Rough Trade) The unrelenting futility of life in five unrelentingly tuneless tunes ("Britain Thirst," "I Can Tell") ***

Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos (Lex) There are just seven insomniacs awake at 4:18 AM on one South London block, so Tempest rhymes their suffering over music that backs more than it powers, leaving us free to wonder--how are the sleepers doing, anyway? ("We Die," "Breaks") **

L.A. Salami: Dancing With Bad Grammar: The Director's Cut (Pias America) Genteelly verbose Anglo-Nigerian singer-strophewriter hangs looser and longer--and a few times meaner, which turns him into a motherfucker ("Loosley on My Mind," "Day to Day [For Six Days a Week]") *

October 28, 2016

Link: A Taste of the Highlife: Pat Thomas, Urgent Jumping!, Zomba Prison Project

Pat Thomas: Coming Home (Strut) This minor highlife legend doesn't sport as colorful a name as his sweeter bandmate Jewel Ackah or his grittier rival A.B. Crentsil--an enterprising subgenius, that's all. So after Ghana's economy went blooey in the early '80s, he relocated to Germany and spent quality time in Canada too, which left him with a two-CD cherry-pick documenting a syncretic shouter-crooner-moaner who does what pop pros do--cultivate collaborators, find tunes, and turn the beat around. Riding the rhythmic and presentational developments, tendencies, and fads of a stylistic catchall that's signified many things over many decades, he put his name on a whole bunch of terrific highlife singles, most of them in English. If one at the beginning and one at the end are credited to Broadway Dance Band and Super Sounds Namba, respectively, that's because band politics are a piece of the pop pro puzzle too. A MINUS

Urgent Jumping!: East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics (Sterns) Twenty-five years ago, Trevor Herman compiled Guitar Paradise of East Africa, 11 dance tracks from Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that joined up to form the most glorious of all his Earthworks Afrocomps--which because he bollocksed the licensing is long out of print. Compiled by DJ-impresario John Armstrong, this double-CD of 27 Nairobi dance tracks looks like it could be a replacement, but we should be so lucky. Herman's selections tend '80s with none earlier than 1978, Armstrong's '70s with none later than 1982. Herman sticks to soukous variants that average a minute longer than Armstrong's eclectic selections. And Herman is a record man with commercial instincts, where Armstrong is a preservationist too deep inside the music to execute the hard choices that hone great best-ofs to the quick. Hence these enjoyable and often striking finds are seldom joyous or scintillating. Tellingly, Armstrong cheats a little on the only one I'd call paradisaical, which is also the longest and latest: L'Orch. Moja One's "Dunia Ni Duara Pts 1 & 2." "Sides A and B of the original 45," he reports, "have here been deftly interwoven into a 10-minute blast more suited to modern ears." Yum. B PLUS

Pat Thomas and Kwabishu Area Band: Pat Thomas and Kwabishu Area Band (Strut) Including an unredundant remake of a tune that merited two versions on his best-of as well as two other '80s hits he left off it, which was slick, this 2015 recording was cut in Accra, mixed in Berlin, and features Afrobeat trapmaster Tony Allen here and there. On "Oye Hasem" especially, second banana Ebo Taylor's horn arrangements get wearing, and Thomas definitely needs those chestnuts to tone up his tune stock. But for a new Afropop album with a subgenius frontman who has to be 60 by now, a stroke. B PLUS


Zomba Prison Project: "I Will Not Stop Singing" (Six Degrees) Where the first album of prison recordings from dirt-poor Malawi showcased solo singing whose poignancy was diminished by non-English lyrics, here there's considerable band music by inmates you just know are planning for or dreaming of the outside, and will you ever root for them (Vincent Saulos, "I Am Done With Evil"; Thomas Ganisani, "Everything Has an Owner") ***

Noisey, October 2016


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