Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2017

September 1, 2017

Link: Swet Shop Boys / Wiley / Dizzee Rascal / Chronixx

Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere (Customs) Rat-a-tat-tatting his rhymes grime style, Riz MC--better known as Oxford-educated, Anglo-Pakistani big deal actor Rizwan Ahmed--might better captivate American ears with his bookish smarts and common touch if his gritty high baritone was more resonant and his flow more fluent. Instead equal partner Heems is the de facto lead. But a timely partnership it is. The focused Indian-born Pakistani Ahmed is the foil the disoriented Pakistan-born Hindu Suri has needed since Das Racist split--so unlike stoner-for-life Kool A.D., yet providing not just an aptly skewed racial focus but the ideological ballast Heems needs as he delivers such serious jokes as "Oh no, we're in trouble / TSA always wanna burst my bubble/Always get a random check when I rock the stubble" and "My shoes off at the mandir/My shoes off at the airport, airport, airport, airport / My shoes off at the masjid/My shoes off at the airport, airport, airport, airport." A mandir is a Hindu temple. A masjir is a Muslim mosque. Airports you know about. A MINUS

Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La (Customs) Starting with the consciously rowdy joking around on his 16 of the album- and we hope show-opening "Anthem," this EP's slapstick vibe loosens up meaning and matures Riz's rapping. The clincher is how ebulliently he not just celebrates "Thas My Girl"'s title sex object but pronounces her--"gul," "gyal," etc. Heems's showoff number is "Birding," which names and rhymes 42 species from brown pelican to dowitcher, topping the most recent bird song by that other East Asian rapper. M.I.A., your move. C'mon, girl. A MINUS


Wiley: Godfather (self-released) Grime godfather's first DIY album is his best ever even though he seems incapable of rhyming about a life beyond music, if he has one ("Laptop," "Back With a Banger") ***

Dizzee Rascal: Raskit (Dirtee Stank/Island) Don't care whether his beats are grime or trap, don't care whether his politics are organic or calculated ("Sick a Dis," "Everything Must Go") **

Wiley: 100% Publishing (Big Dada) Finally an album about a rapper's midcareer anxiety that outlines his business plan ("100% Publishing," "One Hit Wonder") **

Chronixx: Chronology (Virgin) As fetching an amalgam of reggae crooning and reggae toasting as you could hope to hear, only don't wait for the message numbers because there aren't any ("Legend," "Smile, Jamaica") **

September 8, 2017

Link: Fat Tony / L'Orange / Stik Figa

Fat Tony: MacGregor Park (First One Up) For a half hour that feels effortless, a respected alt-rapper who chooses his spots rolls out eight songs whose affability evokes Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day." Since realism is Fat Tony's religion, there are hassles galore, but the cops let him off with a warning, his phone woes resolve, and hey, there's "Legal Weed" in only "a few states," but with "a few more on the way," plus you can carry an ounce in your pants. The title finale spends six minutes celebrating his favorite hang, which is at its sweetest on a Sunday that rhymes with "fun day" even if there was that knucklehead who stepped to him and it came to blows--but not, notice, gunplay. MacGregor Park anchors Tony's Third Ward hang in Houston, and from NYC I get the impression it could pass for a safe space. On Monday, August 28, as Harvey battered Fat Tony's hometown, the University of Houston cross-country team took practice there. Afterward, many of them switched gears to go rip up carpet and lift furniture out of water's way. A MINUS

L'Orange & Jeremiah Jae: The Night Took Us in Like Family (Mello Music) Reminding us that gangsters are an old story in the entertainment business, impressionistic beatmaster samples multiple subnoir flicks with occasional Bogart for a touch of class. The verbal content is murmured by an L.A.-based Flying Lotus subaltern constantly off kilter and on point: "Kept the spirit like K-Fed/Now I'm aiming with the crossbow off with his head/Running jewels with the Pro-Keds/We wanna run from the man for the street cred." So yes, there's a message, laugh lines too. Homeboy Sandman gets a 16. But the pull is musical, particularly the way L'Orange's rhythms shift texturally as well as temporally--every minute, new effects daub and stipple the groove. Although lighter in tone and bottom, it had me going back to Ghost Dog. Hip-hop soundtracking doesn't get more evocative than that. A MINUS


Stik Figa: Central Standard Time (Mello Music Group) "I'm nothing like 'Pac, I'm probably more like Posdnuos"--true that, but the prosey, not very Posdnuos "probably" suggests why Stik's Midwestern rhymes are better served by these commonsensical beats than by L'Orange's eloquent attentions ("James Lemonade," "Down Payment"); **

L'Orange & Stik Figa: The City Under the City (Mello Music Group) Atmospheric North Carolina beatmaster embellishes sincere Topeka rapper, Firesign Theater chips in ("Before Midnight," "Dopamine"); **

L'Orange & Kool Keith: Time? Astonishing! (Mello Music Group) "My lyrics seem to amaze us--all five of us," cracks the crackpot, who at least cans the porn in this multi-collab whose producer is solely reponsible for the instrumental intro it never tops ("Time? Astonishing!" "Dr. Bipolar," "Upwards. To Space!"); **

L'Orange & Mr. Lif: The Life and Death of Scenery (Mello Music Group) Dystopia soundscaped, meaning technology's terrible beauty lovingly tended and paradoxically embraced ("Strange Technology," "Five Lies About the World Outside") *

September 15, 2017

Link: Rolling Blackouts C.F. / Fred Thomas / Walter Martin

Rolling Blackouts C.F.: Talk Tight (Sub Pop) Released mid-2017 U.S. but early-2016 Australia, this sounds more New Zealand--Chills-Clean-Bats, bright young white guys whose trebly guitars purl and mesh, although Go-Betweens recitative enters as well. If you like the effect--and why not, it's beautiful--you'll gravitate to it on sound alone. But what I'm loving at least as much is lyrics that suit the bright white male culture the sound implies. Seven tracks lasting half an hour include four courtship songs that dig so deep and sweet into that adventure that the titles alone evoke their smarts and heart: "Tender Is the Neck," "Heard You're Moving," "Write Back." The fourth title, "Wide Eyes," is less evocative, so here's the whole couplet: "Been drivin' cross the country [a big deal in Australia] / Just to see those wide eyes." Then there's "Career," which is not a love song and may even be a tragedy--or a dark comedy. A

Fred Thomas: Changer (Polyvinyl) 'Tis a story oft told that this part-time indie-rocker switched gears into confessional stream-of-consciousness with 2015's All Are Saved and indie-rockers liked it so much that he quit his job, got married, moved to Canada, took up music full-time, and generated a follow-up. What few bards detail is that these two pieces of confessional stream-of-consciousness are radically different, not structurally or philosophically but in general come-hither. All Are Saved is pure sad sack, so bummed only convinced depressives will have the gumption to take in its stealth tunes and smart details--his father's flannel shirts smelling of cigarattes and rain, the "overworked doctor smoking in the doorway of the clinic." Changer was cut by a guy on the upswing his bio suggests. The melodies are right there; there's a bite in his strum and a lilt in his snark as he calls out assholes for what they are: "Olympia street punks--the worst!" I recommend that he henceforth resist the temptation to excavate the past, his college days especially, and instead mine his present. Montreal--what's it like? How did kicking nicotine work out for you? A MINUS

Rolling Blackouts C.F.: The French Press (Sub Pop) "And I've been disconnected," ends the first stanza of the title opener, where the press of that title purveys news in France and makes coffee in Australia and by the end the link between the speakers in those nations disconnects electronically as well as emotionally. So figure these guys are bright enough to know their newest batch of intense, speedy songs doesn't connect the way the first one did--and also aesthetes enough to think that's valid if not brilliant. Valid I'll definitely give them. B PLUS


Walter Martin: Arts & Leisure (Ile Flottante) Sung offhandedly and observed at, yes, leisure, the pleasurable escape of going to museums and looking at art--Calder, Copley, Michelangelo ("Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous," "Calder's Circus") ***

Walter Martin: My Kinda Music (Ile Flottante) Homemade-sounding ditties about what sounds like middle-class family life ("Family Tree," "Marco Polo") **

Fred Thomas: All Are Saved (Polyvinyl) You can hear him coming out of his funk better if you let the words come to you rather than hanging on every one ("Bed Bugs," "Every Song Sung to a Dog") *

September 22, 2017

Link: Gogol Bordello / Umphrey's McGee / Hard Working Americans

Gogol Bordello: Seekers and Finders (Cooking Vinyl) "That love crusade it never started / Only friends fought and lovers parted," Eugene Hutz snarls or sobs amid the sardonic war-cry opener "Did It All." Since before 9/11, this insatiable seeker has been accessing his "higher self" via a rock he translated into grand, Slavic, violin-sawing immigrant punk. But at 45 he never forgets what he found out early--that all transcendence is temporary because only mortal humans can transcend. He gets weary and admits it; he's messed up big time and admits that too; the songs come slower now. But he still feels the "immigrant stamina" of his chosen "familia the undividable." And he still won't truck with nostalgia. "Remember times when the colors were brighter / And streets were filled with easy rhyme / It is still that way / If you ask about it / Kid who's flying five stairs at one time." A MINUS

Umphrey's McGee: Zonkey (Nothing Too Fancy) Prog-leaning jam band as opposed to blues-leaning jam band rolls out an arena-rock mashup album on which the worst track is a closer dominated by one of its own songs and nothing tops an opener where Beck's "Loser" sweeps Radiohead and Phil Collins before it. But it wouldn't be such a hoot without their prog chops. Whether they're performing Michael Jackson-Fleetwood Mac-the Weeknd after the manner of Earth, Wind & Fire, cramming Byrne, Marley, Zappa, and Chicago into a composite, yoking full-Lemmy Motörhead to Ween, or ramming the Beastie Boys up Ted Nugent's musclehead ass, they show a range as both lovers and players of music that you gotta respect and would be a tight-ass yourself not to enjoy. A MINUS

Hard Working Americans: We're All in This Together (Melvin/Thirty Tigers) Especially after I read the enlightening if microscopic 3000-word essay concealed in the CD case, this live album finally convinced me that Todd Snider was worthy of his own rock dream--a dream the essay claims or reports took this form after the fearless leader was roused from one of his many scary stupors to discover that he was no longer Blind Lemon Pledge. Launched by Bo Diddley and finished off by Chuck Berry with Elvis shining "Burn Out Shoes" in between, he leads a jam band worthy of a song called "Ascending Into Madness" and then ascends from madness himself. The middle third drags, especially when his drawl deteriorates into an incomprehensibility no guitar ace can right. But even there he gets points for remaining the only rocker of any stripe to call out the LIBOR rate by name. Addressing "my fellow hippies," he observes: "This night might be the night of our entire lives. Why not? Why not? Why not tonight?" And though it's obviously possible he says that every show, it's to his credit that he seems too unhinged to be so calculating. Far more than any jam band record I've gotten through, this is the rock dream the hippies invented before they burned out. Snider has come way too close to burning out himself. But so far he hasn't. A MINUS

September 29, 2017

Link: The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa / Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet / Fanga/Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa / Kondi Band / Simo Lagnawi / The Rough Guide to African Blues

The Rough Guide to the Music of West Africa (World Music Network) Musicologically, this is a potpourri dressed up as a hodgepodge--hook-deprived modern Saharans, specialty artists with their own Riverboat albums, Afropop sure shots from the barely West African Nigeria and Cameroun of decades ago, a 2006 novelty hit by schoolgirl sisters from Sally Nyolo's village, palm wine preservationist Koo Nimo showing off his unobtrusive guitar on a little something called "You Will Be Overtaken by Events." At first it seems nice but marginal--Victor Uwaifo's "Ekassa 28" sticks out like the instant classic it was in 1973. But as sequenced by Rough Guide major domo Phil Stanton, it keeps evolving, seldom high-energy but always in infectious motion as one likable tune segues into another. The other instant hit is the novelty, the Bidjoï Sisters' impossibly light and amateurish "Chantal." But as you keep listening, you notice how the aged Koo Nimo's homemade aura sets it up. Everywhere flavors blend. A

Trio da Kali & Kronos Quartet: Ladilikan (World Circuit) Brought together by Malian music promoter turned ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran, the Trio da Kali is a fabricated supergroup designed to preserve a format that dates to the 13th century. The Kronos Quartet is a standard violin-violin-viola-cello unit that has specialized in cross-genre collaboration since the '70s. So this is neither authenticitéor a new fad. But as a skeptic regarding such well-meaning endeavors, I guarantee that it's gorgeous, by which I do not mean merely pretty. For me its deepest attraction is timbral--the way the full quartet's evolved harmonies and pizzicato comping flex against Lassana Diabaté's deep-tinkling balafon and flesh out the funky thrum of Mamadou Kouyaté's bass ngoni. But all this texture needs the melodic anchor provided by lithe power contralto Hawa Diabate, daughter of the renowned Kassé Diabate in a culture where music is a vocation passed generation to generation. The mood isn't ceremonial, but it doesn't party either. Grave and secular down to its two Mahalia Jackson covers, it honors, celebrates, and enjoys music as a calling. A MINUS


Fanga/Maâlem Abdallah Guinéa: Fangnawa Experience (Strut) Expatriate Afrobeat meets devotional Gnawa in la belle France, climaxing with a concert-climaxing tour de force worthy of the Allman Brothers themselves ("Wouarri," "Kelen") ***

Kondi Band: Salone (Strut) Sorie Kondi, blind Sierra Leonean master of the thumb piano Sierra Leoneans call a kondi, transformed into a dance band by Sierra Leonean-American DJ Chief Boima ("You Wan Married?" "Without Money, No Family") ***

Simo Lagnawi: The Gnawa Berber (Riverboat) London-based Moroccan's main ax is the three-stringed gimbri of Jajouka fame, but it's the percussion he overdubs that will move you and the occasional extra voice that will come in handy ("Solami," "Dounia") **

The Rough Guide to African Blues (World Music Network) Pan-African not Sahel, the second edition is no more bluesy than the first, but a nice cross-section of African guitar that's jumpiest when it's bluesiest (and when an Englishman is playing!) (West African Blues Project, "Lalumbe"; Tamikrest, "Tamiditin") **

Noisey, September 2017


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