Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2018

June 1, 2018

Link: Janelle MonŠe / Perfume Genius / Lana Del Rey / Taylor Swift / Sam Smith / Miguel / Pink / Kesha

Janelle MonŠe: Dirty Computer (Atlantic) A self-made black woman whose intellectual ambition anchors woke-while-the-world-slept politics and whose moves and style enrapture a majority-female international fanbase, MonŠe has long been everything you'd want in a musical savior except a compelling musician. Her mentor Prince was so smitten that on his final album he tried to turn into her. But MonŠe's voice has always been too thin and her songwriting too intellectual--until now, when she makes a pass at turning into Prince and gets close. Tracks five-six-seven--"Screwed" with its "You fucked the world up now / We'll fuck it all back down" brag, the raspy-rapped autobio "Django Jane," and the folds-of-your-vagina-to-folds-of-your-brain "Pynk"--are a "1999" for 2018 with lyrics that don't stop don't stop, the apex of an album that's designed to have one. Finally MonŠe drops the "android" mask, for me a relief, and comes out as a woman-loving woman, for me no surprise insofar as I'd thought about it at all. But she calls herself "pansexual" as opposed to "gay" or "bi" because she wants it all. Too often prosex albums are shallow. While remaining intellectual, this one is more personal than the android dared. A MINUS

Perfume Genius: No Shape (Matador) Title notwithstanding, the most revealing of the many things Mike Hadreas has said about his fourth album concerns the melodies he took it upon himself to fashion first: "I made sure they had a chorus and a bridge--all the things I have never done before because they felt like work." A gay man avowedly uncomfortable in his own body, with the Crohn's disease, erotic asphyxiation fixation, and abated addictions to prove it, Hadreas insisted listeners come to him on 2014's strong-willed Too Bright. But here his music meets the rest of us more than halfway. By all means enjoy how the first three tracks all start with a tease before breaking out the rockets' red glare. I prefer "Just Like Love," where a preteen comes out in front of the social media mirror, to "Slip Away," with its risk-drunk "If you never see 'em coming / You'll never have to hide." But in both cases the music testifies that for hypersensitives like Hadreas boldness is always an achievement worth melodizing about. It bids for solidarity and deserves it. A MINUS

Lana Del Rey: Lust for Life (Interscope/Polydor) Languid self-expressions of considerable theoretical interest, just like the Lana Del Rey character's sexual proclivities used to be ("When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing," "13 Beaches") ***

Taylor Swift: Reputation (Big Machine) It isn't that she completely sounds like a pop star, it's that she completely identifies as one ("This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things," "Call It What You Want") ***

Sam Smith: The Thrill of It All (Deluxe Edition) (Capitol) Where on his debut bonus cuts diluted an intense album, on his star turn they salvage a laxer one ("Scars," "HIM") **

Miguel: War & Leisure (RCA) More leisurely than the title might make you hope, believe, or fear ("City of Angels," "Sky Walker") **

Pink: Beautiful Trauma (RCA) After a last fling with Eminem, she does prove, eventually, that schlock can't bring her down ("Revenge," "Better Life") *

Kesha: Rainbow (RCA) More convincing playing the self-determined sexpot than the goofy nice girl ("Woman," "Let 'Em Talk") *

June 8, 2018

Link: Parquet Courts / No Age / The Coathangers / Idles / Bully

Parquet Courts: Wide Awaaaaake! (Rough Trade) Thank producer Danger Mouse for the heat, clarity, and structural detail that intensify an album where nine tracks add keyboard to the kind of punky g-g-b-d tunes these Texans rode into New York on only five years ago. Their aural gestalt will never be on a Stones-Ramones level, but those are the comparisons--in an appalling year when too many g-g-b-d types have chosen to gaze inward, I doubt we'll hear a greater album. Not only is it sinewy and flexible--that's a funk groove propelling a title song that celebrates the woke meme it also looks askance at--but the lyrics are sharper than ever. As usual, A. Savage is the political philosopher, Austin Brown the "Get love when you find it / It's the only thing we have to fight with" guy. So where Savage valorizes the square term "collective" in two different songs, the Brown who lost a sister in a car crash insists that the nearness of death changes everything else you think you know. Prescriptive or expressive, visceral or oppositional, neither guy ever quits. A

No Age: Snares Like a Haircut (Drag City) Ever since they were the de facto house band at LA's Smell, these two art-punks have subsisted totally within the insular club/museum/gallery/festival circuit. So five years after the somewhat abstract An Object, this grand return to the ugly-gorgeous is true to itself as if the larger society was no more vexing than it ever was. Ditching Sub Pop for indier-than-that Drag City, they do what they've always done only better: abrade and uplift simultaneously. Drummer-vocalist Dean Spunt is an equal partner--"Send me / Where should I go?" he repeats and repeats on the first true singalong in a catalogue more songful than you'd figure. But guitar cenobite Randy Randall owns the record. Unfurling more harmonic effects than I bet he can name, he envelops every catchy tunelet and nasty noise in overtones that'll tear you up as in make you cry and tear you up as in blow your mind. Attributing political significance or hope to this act of aesthetic commitment would misrepresent its intent. It means only to help its people thrive in whatever world proves their lot. A [Later: A MINUS]

The Coathangers: Live (Suicide Squeeze) As ever, it's easier to be a great live band than to make a great live album, but fans will love how rough this is--I do ("Watch Your Back," "Hurricane," "Squeeki Tiki") **

Idles: Brutalism (Balley) Hard-loud-big Bristol guypunks give no quarter in their war against the aural politesse of the class system ("My Mother," "Faith in the City") *

Bully: Losing (Sub Pop) Clean grunge dynamics times messy romantic complexities equals marginally compelling restatements of stuff many evolving punks before her have come to terms with ("Blame," "Not the Way") *

June 15, 2018

Link: Jon Hassell / Jon Hopkins / Jlin

Jon Hassell: Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume 1) (Ndeya) Always warm not chill, Hassell's quiet, environmental "fourth world" music has staying power that enlarges with time--listening back, I hear more complexity and groove in 2005's patched-together Maarifa Street than I did at the time. But ever since his fateful 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, atmospheric gestalt rather than flesh-and-blood pulse has been his calling. Like Miles Davis in his lost-and-found '70s, Hassell has long raised keyboards to parity with a trumpet that never aspires to the clarity and speed of masters from Armstrong to Marsalis. At 81, he's explored that parity for half his life, seldom more calmingly than on this self-release. Ever the avant-gardist, he insists that his latest music has a synesthetic relationship to the paintings of his dear friend Mati Klarwein. But we don't have to go there. If you're merely seeking something to soothe and engage simultaneously, this will perform that anxiety-easing, life-enhancing, aesthetically self-sufficient trick even better than usual. A MINUS

Jon Hopkins: Immunity (Domino) Trailing such dubiously prestigious credits as Coldplay, King Creosote, and the later Brian Eno, U.K. keyboardist Hopkins established his solo name back in 2013 with this album, the kind of conceptual electronica only techno aesthetes expect anyone to dance to. And for most of us, it will function just as nicely now as it did then--as rhythmic mood music that strolls back and forth across the line between the mildly bracing and the casually kind. Notice, for instance, how the sizzly midtempo zips and thwocks of the unhurried 10-minute "Collider" gain volume and texture before they resolve into the brief, string-fed piano etude "Abandon Window." This is the Eno we weren't smart enough to dream of back when all options were open. A MINUS

Jlin: Black Origami (Planet Mu) Rhythm music as mind music rather than groove music as spirit music--the sound of hundreds of lively ideas lining up to grab your attention without once smoothing them down into a rhythmic or melodic through-line ("Kyanite," "1%") ***

Jon Hopkins: Singularity (Domino) Five years later, the same techno and classical strategies and sonorities less cunningly, therapeutically, and for that matter singularly deployed ("Emerald Rush," "Everything Connected") **

June 22, 2018

Link: Wynton Marsalis / Moby Grape / Outlaws & Armadillos

Wynton Marsalis Septet: United We Swing: Best of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Galas (Blue Engine) The trumpeter-bureaucrat didn't just tamp down his jazz chauvinism as such pop titans as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and roots flamekeepers as the Blind Boys of Alabama and Tedeschi-Trucks paid their respects at these 2003-2007 fund-raisers. He put his smarts, chops, and combo at the full service of artistes from Jimmy Buffett to Audra Macdonald. There's not much guitar and, you guessed it, no rapping whatsoever. But just about every song is enlarged. Dylan negotiates the horns that elaborate "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" like the born hipster he is. Lyle Lovett is a hipster too. Macdonald was made for "Creole Love Call" as she was for little else. Ray Charles is alive, which was all it ever took. James Taylor and John Mayer put their all into self-penned songs about what dicks they are. "Are You Gonna Go My Way" is transformed into nine-tenths of the freedom song Lenny Kravitz dreamt it could be. Derek Trucks's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" solo very nearly obliterates that feat. And to top off his show of shows, Marsalis sings a song of his own--sans Auto-Tune, you bet. A MINUS

Moby Grape: Live (Sundazed) Was there a more galvanic live band in Haight-era San Francisco than this biz-fabricated quintet of Seattle and LA interlopers, who coalesced to record a dynamite debut they spent the rest of their lives trying to wrest from their manager? Maybe not. The Detroit primitivism of Big Brother's James Gurley rode the jazz-schooled beat of David Getz, and for quite a while there the Dead's Bill Kreutzmann was just a kid. But the chops of these doomed young pros, every one of whom could sing and write terse, catchy, well-structured songs, were powered by one of the scene's few true rock drummers, Don Stevenson. So as five voices trade leads on 19 selections from five 1966-69 gigs (including their forgotten opening slot at a Monterey Pop Festival they should have been smack in the middle of), their controlled distortion and power melodies obliterate the wet noodling and wispy lyricism of the "ballroom" ex-folkies who considered them phonies. Here be a B.B. cover, long and short versions of the ecstatic "Omaha," and a freakout that proves how much they wanted to fit in. And everywhere there's Stevenson, reminding them to keep it loud as they keep it moving. Quicksilver Messenger Service was never like this. A MINUS

Outlaws & Armadillos: Country's Roaring '70s (Legacy) Although this Country Music Hall of Fame-certified double-CD never admits it, it means to link the de facto folkies Nashville songwriters with hippie tendencies inevitably became with Waylon and Willie--also Kris Kristofferson, who achieved their dream, and Emmylou Harris, they wished. But the tracklist just isn't sure-shot. I've never fallen for Townes Van Zandt or Steve Young like I'm supposed to, so why don't "Rex's Blues" and "No Place to Fall" convince me to try again? And while you may have missed deadpan Tom T. Hall and early-blooming Joe Ely, "Joe, Don't Let Your Music Kill You" and "I Had My Hopes Up High" won't send you hightailing to Spotify like you should. On the other hand, I am now convinced that Kinky Friedman's "Sold American" shoulda been a hit and Michael Murphey's "Cosmic Cowboy" deserves its legend, and give thanks for Bobby Bare's "Marie Laveau," Lou Ann Barton's "You Can Have My Husband," Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues," Commander Cody's "Too Much Fun," and Johnny Paycheck's "11 Months and 29 Days," none of which had previously set up residence in my recall memory. Also, this is as good a place as any to discover Terry Allen and the Flatlanders, whose debut albums I think I'll go play right now. B PLUS

June 29, 2018

Link: Diali Cissokho / Imarhan / Molly Tigre / Sidi Tourť

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba: Routes (Twelve Eight) With North Carolina-based bassist-ethnomusicologist Jonathan Henderson by his side, Cissokho laid down kora and vocal leads in his Senegalese hometown before the two flew back the U.S. to add parts from Stateside folk, jazz, and classical musicians, some of them members of Cissokho's North Carolina band and others not. In short, the kind of well-intentioned cultural crossover that normally turns to mush or treacle. But this moderately miraculous album remains both chewy and savory. From the string quartet that complicates the traditional opener "Alla L'a Ke" to the sabar drums and female backups that fill out the equally traditional follow-up "Badima" to the horn and string sections that bulk up the climactic "Naamusoo" and the bird tweets, indigenous flutes, and sabars again that introduce "Night in M'Bour"'s grand finale, a genuinely and often beautifully syncretic evocation of a double identity it would be hard to match and impossible to duplicate. A MINUS

Imarhan: Temet (City Slang) True enough, all Tuareg guitar bands sound pretty much the same. But as someone who's never been properly awed by Tinariwen's marginal differentiations, I can tell you one thing about these Algerians: they're faster. Or maybe two: people actually dance to them. With nary a nod at the virtuosities of desert guitar gods like Bombino, their second international release rocks without hesitation or apology. So if you're one of the mutants who's moved by this groove, go for it. May it enhance your pleasure that one translation begins "All pleasure ends in death," and that their Tuareg solidarity only goes so far: "I see people destroying their own town / An ignominy they still manage to boast about." Dance to that, zealots. A MINUS

Molly Tigre: Molly Tigre (Very Special) Brooklyn jazz and rock saxophones, bass, and percussion unite an extended family of Ethiopian and Malian scales and sonorities--especially Ethiopian ("Hello Bolly," "Ethiofreaks") ***

Sidi Tourť: Toubalero (Thrill Jockey) A lively, accomplished, pointedly fresh-faced electrification of this particular Tourť's upful approach to Malian guitar that comes together without ever rising above ("HandaraÔzo," "Hendjero Moulaye") ***

Noisey, June 2018

May 2018 July 2018