Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2017

March 3, 2017

Link: Nnamdi Ogbonnaya / Syd / NxWorries / John Legend

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya: DROOL (Father/Daughter/Sooper) Normally I snort at new rappers claiming "you could never write shit like this." But for starters, Ogbonnaya's not really a rapper. He's a Chicago multi-instrumental quadruple-threat functioning as an alt-r&ber replaces tune with mood as he croon-talks around his wavery beats in a voice that evokes an antique space-organ synth. And I do admire, as he puts it, his writing. Challenging to follow even though they're seldom slurred or speeded up, his lyrics evoke without defining a humorous humanism that takes the immaturity off his subcultural jousting and erotic ups and downs--and thus firms up the stuff that preoccupies most newbies who think you could never write shit like this. Try the adoring "Cindy OsO," the erotic "let gO Of my egO," the overarching "drOOl/drink that." (All strange capitalizations in original. Pray he gets over it.) A MINUS

Syd: Fin (Epic) These days almost all r&b goes for voice-plus-sound rather than voice-plus-song, with the sound ranging from precision track-and-hook to idiosyncratic atmospherics. What distinguishes Odd Future fixture, Internet instigator, and matter-of-fact lesbian Sydney Bennett is that she powers her solo venture with one of the smallest voices in popular music--not tiny, just soft and slender. No fan of power tonsils, I've always been drawn to her brave sighs and whispers, and love how easily her voice carries this music unaugmented by her former guitar and drum kit. I also like how she celebrates an economic success I hope is as permanent as she thinks--"middle to upper class," you don't hear that much. But since love is more important than money, I warm most to these tracks when they turn to eros, and admit that the most winning, "Dollar Bills," is also the only one to avail itself of some male timbre. Very deep. Very resonant. A MINUS


NxWorries: Anderson .Paak & Knxwledge: Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw) Love man projects minimum modicum of empathy with his salable burr yet somehow sounds cuddly even so ("Another Time," "Lyk Dis," "Fkku") ***

John Legend: Darkness and Light (Columbia) "My history has brought me to this place/This power and the color of my face"--not an easy brag to bring off modestly, and the more I listen the more I appreciate the trick ("I Know Better," "Darkness and Light," "Marching Into the Dark") **

March 10, 2017

Link: Sunny Sweeney / Becky Warren / Whitney Rose

Sunny Sweeney: Trophy (Thirty Tigers) Last time bad girl was her play, and she was funny, feisty, and sexy about it. This time it's more bad girl's progress, bad girl gets older, in there. She begins by getting smashed at a bar and daring the guy she goes home with to come up with a better bad idea. But soon she's off those pills, and then it transpires that the "Bottle by My Bed" she craves comes with milk and a rubber nipple. Proceed to "Grow Old With Me"--next line: "I'll keep you young forever"--and a title tune in which a proud trophy wife skewers his ex with the perfect putdown: "I'm his trophy for putting up with you." Why am I not surprised that these last three, the finest songs on an album filled with good ones, are Lori McKenna cowrites? "Grow Old With Me" to "Trophy" bears the mark of someone who's looked at marriage from many sides now. And "Bottle by My Bed" is an infertility song--a rare thing, as I happen to know--brought to fruition by a mother of five. A MINUS

Becky Warren: War Surplus (self-released) Warren is a singer-songwriter who put her music on hold in 2006, when her new husband came back from Iraq with PTSD. The marriage didn't survive, but they gave it a hard try, and years later Warren's solo debut, a muscular, bro-country sounding concept album where she sings five "June" songs and seven "Scott" songs, is born of that effort. June's a dive bar sweetheart whose love for her man is ironwood strong, Scott a casual patriot looking to escape the day-to-day who comes home with a mouth that explodes whenever he pulls the pin. Scott's memories of the girl who loved him best are painful. But they have nothing on the Iraq memories of "Stay Calm, Get Low," borrowed from memoirist Colby Buzzell, who liked Warren's adaptation so much he wrote liner notes. A MINUS

Whitney Rose: South Texas Suite (Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers) Rose isn't the first country singer from the Canadian Maritimes, although neither Hank Snow nor Anne Murray was blessed with or limited by such a crystalline soprano. But a debut that favored the folk-angelic also showed a fondness for verities like the "Hearts Made of Stone" piano triplets that open it, and now come five simple songs where verities prevail. "Three Minute Love Affair" turns a single roadhouse dance into the lovely fleeting thing it can be, and soon "Analog" is exemplifying the corny notion that tunes this fetching shouldn't have to coexist with newfangled annoyances like robocalls, GMOs, and the pitch correction Rose plainly doesn't need. And that the other three are plainer doesn't mean they're dull--although somebody must have beaten her to "Looking Back on Luckenbach"'s built-in pun, I doubt anybody's done it nicer. A MINUS

March 17, 2017

Link: The Goon Sax / Thurst / Frontier Ruckus / Let's Eat Grandma / Stef Chura / Priests / Lithics / Vagabon

The Goon Sax: Up for Anything (Chapter Music) My brilliant wife heard Go-Betweens in this high school band well before I learned that Robert Forster's son Louis was a cofounder or that they were "driven" by a female drummer or even that they were Australian. Nah, I told her, though I liked them fine--too crude. And indeed, they're cruder than even the earliest Go-Betweens, who were a university band after all, and somewhat static at their worst. Usually, however, they're charming at least. When Louis fantasizes about a "Boyfriend" or James Harrison hates the "Telephone," it just accentuates the specifically adolescent angst they pin down so much more candidly and affectingly than any other high school band that comes to mind. "If you don't want to hold my sweaty hands / I completely understand"? Pretty mature, in its way. A MINUS

Thurst: Cut to the Chafe (self-released) For the how-many-hundredth time, it's the punk miracle, here performed by late-twentysomething singer-guitarist Kory Seal with help from older sister Jessie Seal on drums and backup vocals plus a bassist friend. The tempos are brisk but seldom speedy as the tunes mine the nursery-rhyme and playground-chant riches of punk drone and whine, with Kory laying in guitar hooks whenever he intuits we might be getting bored. His core attitude is earned alienation, his "I'm always just gonna be me" neither boast or self-laceration. By living "Paycheck to Paycheck" he earns the right to dis the "Struggling Artist" whose parents pay the rent. But he backs it up by branding "fuck the government" "an excuse," by admitting he should "interact with people," and by wondering where the "Lonely Webcam Girl"'s parents are. B PLUS


Frontier Ruckus: Enter the Kingdom (Sitcom Universe) Somebody marry this winsome sad sack, whose increasingly plausible rhymes now include open-ibuprofen, gauche-precocious-neurosis, salad on the tennis court-valid passport, speckled melanin-freckled up your skin, and the very sexy errands-gerunds ("Visit Me," "27 Dollars") ***

Let's Eat Grandma: I, Gemini (PIAS America) Anyone who thinks these two self-consciously childish British teengirls are a mess is a tightass, and anyone who thinks they're geniuses is a doodyhead ("Eat Shiitake Mushrooms," "Rapunzel) ***

Stef Chura: Messes (Urinal Cake) Wobbly indie rocker staggers beckoningly but keeps on going, so don't even think about thinking she hopes you'll hold her up ("Human Being," "On and Off for You") **

Priests: Nothing Feels Natural (Sister Polygon) Musicianly postgraduate postpunk steals one of its few credible melodies from X-Ray Spex and proves hookiest when ranting ("No Big Bang," "Suck") **

Lithics: Borrowed Floors (Water Wing) Portlandia Delta 5 fans are coy about who's on guitar, probably because they're afraid he's the star, and yes I'll bet money it's a he ("Labor," "Seven People") *

Vagabon: Infinite Worlds (Father/Daughter) Demographically enticing indie-rocker emotes credible strum'n'drum but should fool around more with the electronics thing ("Mal Ó L'aise," "Minneapolis") *

March 24, 2017

Link: The Magnetic Fields / Craig Finn / Sleater-Kinney

The Magnetic Fields: 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch) You know the drill. Five 10-song CDs that'd fit onto two, and thereby cost less than 40 bucks, with each year of Merritt's life allotted one song and each decade one CD as neatly as 69 Love Songs's three 23-song discs add up to that magic number. But this edition of the Magnetic Fields is barely a band--with occasional aid from Thomas Bartlett, Daniel Handler, and scattered others, Merritt plays over 100 instruments all told and assigns every lead vocal to his own depressive bass. Aptly autobiographical though 'tis, this is a negative, especially on disc two, which also honors John Foxx of Ultravox, who Merritt loved as a teenager and admires today--musically, there are numerous dead spots. Over the medium haul, however, every song is a grower, not merely because Merritt is quite a lyricist but because he's documenting an exceptional life that includes a childhood in a panoply of hippie communes and a young adulthood in a hodgepodge of bohemian penury. And some songs you'll connect with right away. Among my candidates: three-year-old loving a cat who hates him, five-year-old internalizing a Grace Slick rant, 13-year-old upgrading a duo called 1 1/2 into a trio who make the Shaggs sound like Yes, college man failing ethics, college grad loving Ethan Frome, twentysomething enjoying a live-in four-way, thirtysomething XXX-ing his ex, and fortysomething reaccessing a permanently impermanent NYC. But especially, 50-year-old kissing off the most horrendous of his stepfathers and 50-year-old emoting what kinda sounds like a love song. A MINUS

Craig Finn: We All Want the Same Things (Partisan) Finn's Americans are beyond politics. Barflies and hopheads, petty criminals unlikely to kill or maim, working stiffs with a hustle on the side, fuckups milking disability checks and insurance settlements, the musical lifers who bleed into all these categories--none of them are kids anymore, and of course, neither is Finn. My personal interest in this demographic has never been all that personal and continues to wane--I wish a few of his antiheroes had kids. But he sure can sing a sad story if you call that singing. And there's no denying the wah-wah hook of the opener, the musicality of the spoken-word "God in Chicago," the unrequited love at first sight of "It Hits When It Hits," or the secret love of "Rescue Blues." B PLUS

Sleater-Kinney: Live in Paris (Sub Pop) Proof that their now superceded farewell, 2007's The Woods, was actually a turning point: great punk band to great rock band. Half the tracks on a placeholder they've long since earned are from The Woods and 2015's No Cities to Love. Tempos are identical, arrangements unchanged; there's not a gift cover or a new song. But live and new, the old punk material does more than hold up--it changes, not exactly for the better but for the firmer. If Carrie is our Joey Ramone, Corin is our Mick Jagger. And you gotta love how Janet dominates the mix. She was always the genius musician here. B PLUS

March 31, 2017

Link: Mariem Hassan / Orchestra Baobab / Tinariwen / Tamikrest

Mariem Hassan: La Voz Indˇmita (Nubenegra) "(Del Sßhara Occidental)," a subtitle explains, but the Western Sahara wasn't big enough to contain Mariem Hassan. Dead of bone cancer in 2015 in a Sahrawi refugee camp, she was postcolonial Africa's most striking female singer. Before, during, and after a European career of over a decade, her powersaw voice was intense at any volume, with none of the sensual comfort of the equally stirring Oumou Sangare, whose forested Wassoulou was so much more forgiving than Hassan's desert. Yet because this onetime nurse had the spiritual wherewithal to resettle in Barcelona, she got to make music with fellow Sahrawis and many others. Her sixth and final album is a DVD soundtrack, recorded solely in her last five years but digging back stylistically. Guests range from the Sahara ululators who haunt "Najter Alaila Anadal Lihuela" to New York avant-bassist Shanir Blumenkranz contrapuntalizing the desert blues "Latlal," from Yemeni-Israeli Ravid Kahalani to Sierra Leonean-Nigerian Seydu. I haven't figured out who's in the jazz combo that backs "Illah Engulek Di Elkalma," but I love the way her easy mesh with the idiom segues abruptly into one where the sub-Saharan Seydu softens her dry wail only to be overtaken in turn by a searing Sahrawi haul. The "Al Widaa" finale was recorded five months before she passed on in her haim, a word than means both family and tent. If 82-year-old Leonard Cohen made his death album, then 58-year-old Mariem Hassan made hers--and it's less sere. A MINUS

Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit Records) Specialist in All Styles and Made in Dakar, the 2001 and 2008 albums that reunited this world-class band, climaxed a career that began with a 15-year run in 1970, went into abeyance rather than "modernize," and then surged back. But because guitarist-arranger Barthelemy Attisso would rather be a lawyer in Togo than a star in Senegal, this long-delayed sequel was a challenge. Attisso's young Beninois replacement is deft enough without approaching his calm mastery or getting as much room, overshadowed as he is by a well-integrated kora add-on who, while hardly the usual mystagogue, sometimes renders the ambience perilously world-musicky even so. But though singer Ndiouga Dieng is indeed gone, Balla Sidibe and Rudy Gomis remain frontmen to reckon with as their voices roughen, and where Baobab's other 21st-century albums reconstituted their greatest hits, here they generate new titles worthy of their legend. For orientation, start in the middle with "Woulinewa" and the only remake, the Dieng-identified "Sey," which a cameo from Baobab alum Thione Seck takes home. Then start again from the beginning. A MINUS

Mariem Hassan & Vadiya Mint El Hanevi: Baila Sahara Baila (Nubenegra) Right, Spanish speakers, it's a Saharan dance album where Hassan's indomitable voice is augmented by percussionist-dancer Hanevi's chirpier one. Tempos vary perceptibly, rhythms decisively, yet although the results are galvanic, they'll wear down anyone who hasn't internalized those rhythms. So although Lamgaifri Brahim is the guitar virtuoso here, I find myself equally drawn to the downtempo Nayim Alal instrumental "Bleida." A one-of-a-kind document most pleasurably consumed in controlled portions. B PLUS


Tinariwen: Elwan (Anti-) Yet finer marginal differentiations on the theme of holy Azawad, this time rendered more "accessible" by, well, Kurt Vile and Mark Lanegan (of, you remember, Screaming Trees) ("Nizzagh Ijbal," "AssÓwat") **

Tamikrest: Kidal (Glitterbeat) Their groove has evolved into a given, which does happen in Azawad ("Wainan Adobat," "Ehad Wad Nadorhan") **

Noisey, March 2017


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