Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2018

April 6, 2018

Link: Superorganism / Alvvays / Cigarettes After Sex / Willow Smith / U.S. Girls

Superorganism: Superorganism (Domino) This ad hoc octet poured into East London from New Zealand, South Korea, and the U.S.A. to make infectious quasipop from a found array of be-here-now life strategies. The treated tunes help, as do the additional treatments that fuck them up. But they'll sink or swim with Japanese-born state-of-Mainer Orono Noguchi, who commands or serves a childlike soprano of adultlike size that projects hopeful sincerity and worldly art smarts simultaneously. Too young to be post-ironic and too self-aware to actually be naive, she's a find and probably knows it. So root for her with your fingers crossed. If "everybody wants to be famous" turns out to be a job description rather than a lament for the world she's stuck with, she could go solo before she knows it--and disappear like a wisp on the wind. A MINUS

Alvvays: Antisocialites (Polyvinyl) From what I gather--she's not forward about it and has no obligation to be--when I refer to the Molly Rankin of this album I mean the Molly Rankin character. The biographical Molly Rankin seems committed to an ongoing romantic relationship with guitarist Alec O'Hanley. The character is more rootless or footloose, hence easier for young indie-rockers to relate to--easier to write songs for, too. Where her debut topped a bunch of cannot-love songs with the upbeat "Archie, Marry Me," here Archie is gone, and despite a few independent-female-on-the-town moments, the lyrical evidence doesn't bespeak an emotional life fit to support an album. But the musical evidence does. It's an optimistic alt-pop she calls "plimsoll," a retro flourish no one else with comparable brains and backbone risked in 2017 (though I alvvays thought it was "plimsoul"). For 10 tracks running, Rankin and O'Hanley's little band ring the bell every time, and while the hooks and harmonic tricks are nothing new, they have more brio than most. So Molly the bandleader and Molly the character have a key virtue in common: they know what they want and know how to get it. A MINUS

Cigarettes After Sex: Cigarettes After Sex (Partisan) Torch shoegaze from a guy who thought Lana Del Rey was the shit until somebody told him about Julie London ("K.," "Sweet") **

Willow Smith: The 1st (MSFTS Music/Roc Nation) With more chops, heart, and brains than most 17-year-olds who think they're indie, she remains very 17, which is nice ("Boy," "A Reason") *

U.S. Girls: In a Poem Unlimited (4AD) If she's so smart, why isn't there one about Trump the racist dickwad to balance off the one about Obama the warmongering "coward"? (working theory: because that would be corny) ("Rage of Plastics," "Pearly Gates") *

April 13, 2018

Link: Tracey Thorn / Jinx Lennon / Derek Senn / Brad San Martin

Tracey Thorn: Record (Merge) Calm, deliberate, undemonstrative, Thorn is a singer some find magical and others prosaic. I've always tended other, but when a 55-year-old wife and mother claims she's recorded "nine feminist bangers," I pay attention. And these definitely work up some fairy dust. The beats evoke without mimicking the subtle electro-dance of Thorn and her beatmaking husband Ben Watt's 20th-century band, Everything but the Girl, and in her undemonstrative way, she sequences the catchiest tracks last: "Face," about checking out your ex at Mark Zuckerberg's place, and "Dance," which namechecks "Good Times," "Shame," "Golden Years," and "Let the Music Play." In four other songs, decent but fundamentally clueless guys mess with various women's lives, while two others evoke a motherhood you assume is autobiographical. In "Babies," "Get the fuck to bed now" is closely followed by "Baby love you even more." In "Go," which takes place quite a few years later, she knows the kid has to leave--that's the reason she put in all that work. A MINUS

Jinx Lennon: Grow a Pair!!! (Septic Tiger) Although he dedicates these 18 tracks to his wife and little girl and sings them more than he recites them, this tenacious hospital porter and chronicler of the so-called Irish Free State hasn't softened up any unless you count rooting for a gal who takes a bread knife to the turkey-neck bully who's kicking her out. He's still hectoring layabouts, chronicling toilers, and mocking nouvies, although these days he's also skewering the bogus trappings of Irish patriotism and the porousness of the Ulster border. Also, his specialty in the working class makes Trump a snap. Why aren't more Americans writing mean, obvious songs like "Silver Spoon"? 'Cause they know shit about the working class and care less is what I figure. A MINUS

Derek Senn: Avuncular (self-released) He'll never be a melodist if he isn't now, but he is a lyricist--a wordsmith who loves several uncles, hates "pro-life" death-trippers, and can afford both his wife's thing for home improvement porn and the right sidemen ("Uncle Mike," "Tongue and Groove," "South Dakota Lady") ***

Brad San Martin: Shoot Tomorrow/Learn Tonight (Jigsaw) Fellow record nerds rejoice--first singer-songwriter ever to devote verse-and-chorus to The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD ("Cook and Morton," "Song About 'Soul Finger'") *

April 20, 2018

Link: Tyler Childers / Ashley McBryde / Chris Janson / Tim McGraw & Faith Hill / Thomas Rhett

Tyler Childers: Purgatory (Hickman Holler) This intense, narrow, flawlessly crafted retro-nuevo honky-tonk album gains decisive poetry from both Childers's lean, resonant East Kentucky drawl and his failure to shake his fundamentalist upbringing--purgatory, in case you didn't get the message, is a Romanist notion. "Do you reckon He lets free will boys / Mope around in purgatory?" he asks the Catholic girl he hopes to hedge his bets with, and damned if she doesn't slow him down some. "Darlin' to me but that's missus to you," he boasts. "Still on the road 'cause I ain't good for nothing / But writing the songs that I sing," he contextualizes. A MINUS

Ashley McBryde: Girl Going Nowhere (Atlantic) The hot country news in tough country womanhood has enough attitude to stick it to every algebra teacher and Church of Christ deacon who ever looked down on her. But her multitude of good lines yields only two great songs: "Livin' Next to Leroy," the first of what I hope will be many meth-and-opioid dark-siders genre-wide, where her cable-stealing role model ODs while she tokes up at her high school graduation to impress him, followed by "A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega," the grittiest and most utopian of her four I said four road anthems. Like the socko endings she's both blessed and cursed with the voice for, her attraction to this self-replicating subgenre makes me hope that the success she's earned leaves her free to do more with her rosy future than big it up. B PLUS

Chris Janson: Everybody (Warner Music Nashville) Before capping his exploits with the best hookup song ever written, Missouri pro claims farmer, redneck, dad, and bartender as he reaches out to the entire country-radio demographic ("Drunk Girl," "I'm Your Farmer") **

Tim McGraw & Faith Hill: The Rest of Our Life (Arista) They never overstate the conjugal concept, but vocal overkill is one temptation this power couple just can't resist ("Love Me to Lie," "The Bed We Made") **

Thomas Rhett: Life Changes (Valory Music) AOR country gets a life ("Life Changes," "Sixteen") *

April 27, 2018

Link: Willie Nelson / John Prine / William Bell / Elvin Bishop / Pops Staples / Derek Smalls

Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing (Legacy) As Nelson made room for his 85th birthday, he also beefed up his wee catalogue by adding 11 new tunes written with whippersnapping seventysomething Buddy Cannon. Their organizing concept is wisdom as opposed to age brags proper like "I don't want to be the last man standing / But wait a minute maybe I do." Sometimes the wisdom is rakish: "I gave you a ring then you gave me the finger," "He might not know me 'cause I'm low class / But tell him I'm the one with his head up his ass," "Bad breath is better than no breath at all." Sometimes it's paradoxical: "We were getting along just fine / Just me and me," "So many people, it sure is lonely." Sometimes it's just deep: "It's not something you get over / It's just something you get through." Always it sounds like it started with an idea that popped out of his mouth or sidled in from his subconscious, and who knows, maybe the weed helped--with an eye on retirement income, he's now marketing his own brand, Willie's Reserve. Over impeccably relaxed session work, that wisdom is delivered with a clarity and resonance that would inspire substance abusers half his age to quit drinking if they had his brains or soul. A

John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy) The 71(?)-year-old's second album of new originals since 1995 is bare-faced skimpy--10 songs lasting a shade over half an hour where 2005's pretty darn good Fair and Square almost filled a CD. Barely produced, too--quiet g-b-d touched by occasional piano riffs or organ colors, with a few numbers just strummed-and-sung in a voice I never thought I'd say was going because it was already gone when it got here. It daydreams some in the middle, too. Yet it's a keeper to be grateful for, and grateful he is. "Eternity is approaching fast," he notes in the "old folks home" singalong "Crazy Bone," and he's not always so jaunty about it. But in the end, he gets to heaven, where he forgives his enemies, re-enters show business, reconnects with every single aunt, and smokes "a cigarette that's nine miles long." A MINUS

William Bell: This Is Where I Live (Stax) Vocally, "Born Under a Bad Sign"'s cowriter is barely diminished as he pushes 80, and with help from John Leventhal his new songs are solid, but he was never a star because that voice was never a show stopper, which may explain its longevity ("More Rooms," "People Want to Go Home") ***

Elvin Bishop: Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio (Alligator) At 75, reformed National Merit Scholar and University of Chicago physics major keeps on rolling like it ain't no thing ("Keep On Rollin'," "100 Years of Blues," "That's What I'm Talkin' About") ***

Pops Staples: Don't Lose This (dBpm) Recorded a decade before he died in 2000 and now shored up with modest bass and drums by Jeff Tweedy and his boy, the patriarch's vocals and guitar recall very late John Hurt ("Somebody Was Watching," "Gotta Serve Somebody") **

Derek Smalls: Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing) (Twanky/BMG) The aging Smalls lacks the chops to put his jokes across, leaving Steve Vai and Joe Satriani with funnier lines ("Gummin the Gash," "When Men Did Rock") *

Noisey, April 2018

March 2018 May 2018