Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2016

November 4, 2016

Link: Reinvention, Response, and 'Redemption Song': Regina Spektor / Macy Gray / The Wainwright Sisters / Tanya Tagaq / Jamila Woods / Neneh Cherry

Regina Spektor: Remember Us to Life (Deluxe Edition) (Sire) Let's speculate that marriage, motherhood, and turning 35--a big one that can sandbag you--are all on her melodically fertile mind. Let's assume it's been pretty sobering. Without being a sad sack, she was always serious. But her softer fans may be daunted by the steely class fable "The Trapper and the Furrier" and the fatalistic faux trifle "Sellers of Flowers," by quietly unrelenting five-minute bonus cuts in which an aged solitary celebrates New Year's and old friends compare their polar yet equally confining life paths--maybe even by her fond report that both her baby boy and his dad are better at dreaming than she is. So to help her dream more darkly, she enlists classically inclined producer Leo Abrahams, whose second piano is meant to ensure that "Obsolete" sticks around a while. A MINUS

Macy Gray: Stripped (Chesky) Gray was past 30 before she generated songs and persona suitable to a burred purr so striking she wasn't always so sure she liked it herself, evoking without equalling both Billie Holiday's timbre and Sarah Vaughan's size. The reason she got to take that voice pop is that plenty of us loved it. But some of us also thought she was forcing her portentous writing and wicked ways, and soon the pop market she was too mature for had had enough. Only then a funny thing happened--having given up on glory, she started making better records, none finer than this efficiently recorded jazz quartet showcase. Guitarist Russell Malone and trumpeter Wallace Roney earn their minutes, but mostly they make room for Macy as she eases into a few of her own standards and tops them with the new "First Time." And although she wasn't the only one born to sing "Redemption Song"--sometimes I think we all were--she does it humble and she does it proud. A MINUS


The Wainwright Sisters: Songs in the Dark (PIAS America) With Lucy an equal and Martha fitting in for once, both sing more winningly than ever before on record, and the covers they choose are choice ("Lullaby," "Runs in the Family") ***

Tanya Tagaq: Animism (Six Shooter) Inuit woman channels deep-nurtured throat-singing into sometimes startling, sometimes disturbing, sometimes merely arty avant-shamanism ("Caribou," "Umingmak") ***

Jamila Woods: HEAVN (Closed Sessions) Articulate enough on race, startlingly eloquent on solitude and self-love ("Holy," "Way Up") **

Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) Long-ago hipster-funk ingenue reclaims her avant-garde roots ("Out of the Black," "Spit Three Times") *

November 11, 2016

Link: Songs of Experience: Elza Soares / Peter Stampfel / Barbara Dane / Lonnie Holley / Willie Nelson

Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo) (Mais Um Discos) With the 79-year-old "samba icon" who fronts this remarkable album absent from my recall memory and my reference library, I found her Rough Guide hip-hop track and then a trove of older songs on Spotify. Capacious and curvaceous by samba standards, her voice did roughen with age, and that half-sung rap bespeaks a willingness to try anything. But nothing I've heard portends the dips, flights, and abrasions of this exciting album--it's like Tom Zé gone full avant. Conceived and written by alt-samba insurgents into catchy dissonances, classical instruments, and industrial sonics, it's a chance for them to reinvent their roots and for her to feel more alive--even more alive, that is. Carrying the tune when it's worth the weight, growling and gargling at will, scatting here and ratta-tat-tatting there, she's all gusto shouting a faster-faster "Pra fuder! Pra fuder! Pra fuder!" ("To fuck! To fuck! To fuck!") and all scorn calling the abuse hotline and then threatening to tell his mommy too. But that's only when you're reading the booklet I strongly advise, because as with Tom Zé, only his verbal content is even sharper and slyer, the music is where you'll come in and why you'll stick around. Soares's weathered raw power gains dimension from her young sponsors' irrepressible experiments and unapologetic beats. The collaboration makes complete sense. And there's nothing like it. A

Peter Stampfel and the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm: Holiday for Strings (Don Giovanni) Not to be confused with the former Holy Modal Rounder's 2014 album--same label, same cover artist, but by the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron and in my reluctant judgment most of the way to an aimless mess. This one, itself accounted "pretty messy" by its irrepressible auteur, has new songs, with the timely "New Johnny Got His Gun" written 40 years ago. After 78 years in the general vicinity of earth, Stampfel's intense cartoon keen is finally getting raggedy around the edges. But having waited all this time to record "I Can't Stop Loving You," he brings it on home, and where the Squadron's new banjo tunes wandered, the Swarm's woozy rendition of the 1962 lodestar "Tel-Star" is on point--and no less pretty or pointed than the freshly minted "Lily," named after the daughter who's not in his band. Not until she picks up a fiddle, mandolin, or banjo, anyway. How about kazoo? A MINUS


Barbara Dane With Tammy Hall: Throw It Away . . . (Dreadnaught) 88-year-old auteur of the 1973 LP I Hate the Capitalist System sings dirty blues by L. Cohen and M. Minnie, enlists M. Allison in her battle with neuron loss, and sneaks in a 52-year-old anti-nuclear power song ("I'm Sellin' My Porkchops," "Slow," "My Brain") ***

Lonnie Holley: Keeping a Record of It (Dust-to-Digital) 76-year-old Birmingham/Atlanta environmental junk sculptor improvises tuneless songs about a pain-wracked cosmos you'll want to get to the bottom of ("Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants," "From the Other Side of the Pulpit") ***

Willie Nelson: For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price (Legacy) 83-year-old Country Icon Who (Supposedly) Had No Voice honors his stentorian elder loud and clear ("Heartaches by the Number," "Invitation to the Blues") *

November 18, 2016

Link: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win: Tanya Tagaq / Pussy Riot / Mekons / Raury / PJ Harvey

Tanya Tagaq: Retribution (Six Shooter) I don't normally have much use for apocalyptic shamanism, but with the normal denied anyone with a working understanding of the democratic promise, the most "accessible" release by this throat-singing Inuk performance artist is hitting the spot. Weird, disturbing, relentless, it arrays a Nirvana cover and a Shad rap and big drums and synthesizers squawking like gulls and men grunting like bears and more gutturals than a death metal album around the 41-year-old Tagaq breathing, murmuring, gasping, squealing, yelping, shrieking, chanting, incanting, reciting, lecturing, and, oh yeah, singing. It seemed historically suitable even before November 9, and since then I've been playing it loud. Inspirational Terrifying Ecology Lesson: "Once all the ice is melted, the once-covered ice area will heat up 81 times faster. There will be no stopping it. A new steady-state high-heat-tolerant life may, hopefully, rapidly evolve, but human civilization as we know it will no longer exist. Gaia likes it cold." A MINUS

Pussy Riot: xxx (Nice Life) Three radically different songs by the band/concept's de facto spokeswoman, former and probably future Russian political prisoner Nadya Tolokno. "Make America Great Again" opts for positive messaging in re Vladimir Putin's Greatest Shithead: "Let other people in/Listen to your women/Stop killing black children" over a Yank pal's catchy strum. Producer Dave Sitek goes full earworm on the pro-sex feminism of "Straight Outta Vagina," whose "Don't play stupid don't play dumb/Vagina's where you're really from" has been tagged for cis-sexism by a Pitchfork reviewer who failed to address the related grievances of the Caesarian section community. And then there's the avant-hypnotic Russian-language "Organs," which translates, for example: "Female orgasm faces obstacles/My strap-ons are being replaced with uniforms and icons." All three come with YouTube videos, two gruesome and at least one not altogether implausible if you grant that female political prisoners are in for accelerating levels of sexual abuse. Maybe not brandings, OK. But you know normal's over when I start recommending YouTube videos. A MINUS


Mekons: Existentialism (Bloodshot) Live-to-a-single-mike barroom renditions of barely finished new songs buttressed by audience chorales open up a new frontier in for-fans-only at just the wrong time ("The Cell," "Bucket") ***

Raury: All We Need (Love Renaissance/Columbia) Brave, openhearted Trap City irregular has a message for Myron Ebell, a name you'd best get to know: "Lord save our burning planet!" ("Friends," "Revolution") **

PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island) Politics according to Polly, meaning keen observation, analytic detachment, and paradoxically forgiving melodies scarred again and again by baked-in pessimism and misanthropy ("The Ministry of Social Affairs," "The Wheel") *

November 25, 2016

Link: We the People: A Tribe Called Quest, Alicia Keys, Common, De La Soul

A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic) As it was envisioned, this through-conceived meld of rhythm and voice, harmony and hook, ideas and feelings, life and death would have dawned upon us 11/9 as a collegial reminder in the spirit of its title: OK ma'am, the wolf has skulked away from the door, now let the people shape their destiny. Track one moans "The heat the heat the heat the heat" to signify climate change not law enforcement before it states its cross-racial political purposes with a forthright "It's time to go left and not right." And fundamentally, that was the idea. Of course the hour that ensues isn't uniformly ideological--this is music, their first in decades and their last ever, and music's impulses and necessities are their heart. But not their brain. With everybody home and Busta Rhymes moved into the guest room, the drama is all in reuniting seeker Q-Tip, whose long apprenticeship as a fusion musician finally yields some beats, and family man Phife Dog, who left this mortal plane in March but rhymes all the way to the final track. The album represents both their bond and the conscious black humanism they felt sure the nation was ready for: struggle yoked with work ethic, "forward movement" with "instinctual soul," "answer for cancer" with "learning is free," and damn right race-blind law enforcement. Hillary is a "woman with the wisdom who is leading the way," "The Donald"--Phife rhyming here, no later than March--all "Bloodclot you doing/Bullshit you spewing/As if the country ain't already ruined." The election didn't turn out like they figured. We know. But the music remains, urging us to love each other as much as we can as we achieve a happiness it's our duty to reaccess if we're to battle as all we can be. Its statement of principle didn't get the victory it foresaw. But it remains a triumph. A PLUS

Alicia Keys: Here (RCA) One reason this is her best album since she was a kid is that it extends her nice upbringing into a sphere that's simultaneously raw and political. But a bigger reason is that Swizz Beats defines the funk her adventures in gospel grit demand, evoking Memphis thump while remaining so hip-hop that the samples stay in Nas-Wu-Tribe territory. Lyrically, it sometimes stumbles--cosmetics mess with a girl's identity, we get it. But the beats lend bite and gravity to homilies about mother earth and mother love that bear all the repeating they can stand. A MINUS


Common: Black America Again (Def Jam) Wish so much this all-star showcase was much more than a lecture--so much ("The Day Women Took Over," "Letter to the Free," "Pyramids") **

De La Soul: And the Anonymous Nobody (A.O.I.) Whittling down 300 hours of live funk whilst enlisting Snoop Dogg, Jill Scott, David Byrne, Damon Albarn, and many more, pushing-50 trio set their scattershot sights on the moving targets of musicality and relevance ("Pain," "Memory of . . . [Us]") **

Noisey, November 2016


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