Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2018

November 2, 2018

Link: Rich Krueger / Paul Simon / The Chandler Travis Three-O

Rich Krueger: NOWThen (Rockink) On his second self-financed album of 2018, an ambitious project Dr. Krueger reports was "as expensive as owning and operating a large yacht"--trifold CD case, 20-page booklet, cameos from 11 studios nationwide--the singing neonatologist juxtaposes selections from his '85-'98 (Then) and '07-'18 (NOW) songbooks, between which he wrote nothing except an array of scientific papers we'll assume share with his songs both spectacular intelligence and irrepressible verbiage. Three of the NOW songs are superb--"Kenny's (It's Almost Christmas in This Bar)," the good-time opener every smart guy needs; "O What a Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful Day," the lowdown from the obstetrics theater; and the jaw-dropping "Don," about a contrarian youth, why Leopold loved Loeb, and the untrustworthiness of all entertainment. But that leaves out the guy with the underwater mortgage and a Wal-Mart tent and whether Robert Johnson understood a word Charley Patton said, both NOW, and also the love song that survived the marriage and the love song about the waitress hung up on Leon Trotsky, Graham Greene, and Rick Derringer, both Then. That last one does get a little Byzantine. Nonetheless, here be a literary songwriter of the first rank whose pipes benefited from his long break and who's reeled in enough fine musicians to execute his ambitious arrangements. Vanity projects seldom come prouder. A MINUS [Later: A]

Paul Simon: In the Blue Light (Legacy) To mark his retirement from songwriting and spice up his farewell tour, the 76-year-old generates a new album from old material--not great hits, just songs he feels he got wrong somehow. Oddly, while six of the 10 selections are singletons going back to 1973, the other four are from 2000's You're the One, where I remain unconverted to "Love" and "The Teacher" and am glad to have "Darling Lorraine" and "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" on an album I might play again. Never a knockout singer, Simon has arrived at a creaky boyishness that serves him well on arrangements that cant both jazz and chamber while barely hinting at his many shades of folk-rock, including what he's always been too smart to call "world." For me the prizes are "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" from 1973 and "René and Georgette Magritte After the War" from 1990, small masterpieces I'd never recognized as such. But his 21st-century prizes remain 2010's So Beautiful or So What and 2016's Stranger to Stranger. Hear those first. A MINUS


The Chandler Travis Three-O: Backward Crooked From the Sunset (Iddy Biddy) As impersonated by Fred Boak, "Cape Cod's Singing Valet," Travis is best on the smart women, attainable or not, male old-timers so often learn to appreciate too late ("Settle for Less," "All the Little Things") *

Rich Krueger: Overpass (CDBaby) For completists only, an EP comprising early arrangements of four since-finalized songs, one focused by the simpler music, and a 1991 workshop lark about a folk festival ("In Between Kingfish," "Kerrville, O My Kerrville") *

November 9, 2018

Link: Pistol Annies / Becky Warren / Mandy Barnett / Robbie Fulks/Linda Gail Lewis

Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel (RCA) Did Miranda Lambert/Ashley Monroe/Angaleena Presley, as the composer credits on 13 of these 14 songs put it, come up with the "Jesus is the bread of life / Without him we're toast" opener or lift it from some rakish evangelist I'm too provincial to know about? I wouldn't rule the evangelist out, because while the writing is every bit as sharp as on their near-perfect 2011 debut, these bad-girl and mad-wife nuggets take sin seriously. "Stop Drop and Roll One" and "Got My Name Changed Back" retain the threesome's signature devil-may-care. But there's a deep sadness in "When I Was His Wife"s been-there-don't-do-that, "Leavers Lullabye"'s love-ain't-enough, "Best Years of My Life"'s "hankering for intellectual emptiness," and the blood, sweat, and bitterness of "5 Acres of Turnips." "Cheyenne" envies a gal who can take love or leave it, "Milkman" wishes Mama had cheated, and "Commissary" is so glad the abuser folks fronted for got beaten to a pulp in jail. Even the steadfastly unharmonious path to enduring matrimony laid out by the closing "This Too Shall Pass" suggests the wisdom of maturity. Why am I not surprised the woman who did herself a favor by shitcanning Blake Shelton didn't pitch in on it? A

Becky Warren: Undesirable (self-released) On 2016's War Surplus, Warren wrote and then sang both the husband and the wife songs on an autobiographical concept album about a marriage wrecked by Iraq PTSD. Here the psychological calisthenics aren't so tricky. She does sing "Carmen" as a longtime loser who's found a Neil Diamond fan who'll inspire him to make ends meet so he can move her into the house painted blue she deserves, and the chin-up narrator of the undeplorable West Virginia opener could be a coal miner. But mostly Warren just works her own changes on the fed-up love-getting-by songs that are a well-earned staple for so many Nashville feminists. It's a theme and mood she seems to have become quite familiar with. A MINUS

Mandy Barnett: Strange Conversation (Dame Productions/Thirty Tigers) I doubt Barnett conceives this strange little album as a rebuke to the reverent high musicianship of the Patsy Cline interpretations she made her bread and butter long before 2011's Sweet Dreams. High musicianship with a gourmet flourish is what she does. But there's a savor in hearing it applied to this potpourri of humble deep-pop obscurities--late Connie Francis, later Sonny and Cher, lost girl-group and guy-group keepers by Mable John and the Tams--garnished with newer art-pop obscurities. For me the clincher is "The Fool," a top-10 one-shot for 21-year-old Sanford Clark that I thought I hadn't heard since 1956 until I found out there are karaoke versions. A MINUS


Robbie Fulks/Linda Gail Lewis: Wild! Wild! Wild! (Bloodshot) The acerbic Fulks tailors his material to the "sunny, high-humored attitude" of Jerry Lee's little sister, who was way more fun acerbic herself on 1991's alt-rock International Affair, not to mention 1969's consanguineous Together ("Round Too Long," "Till Death," "Memphis Never Falls From Style") ***

November 16, 2018

Link: Homeboy Sandman & Edan / Open Mike Eagle / Atmosphere / 2Mex / Red Pill

Homeboy Sandman & Edan: Humble Pi (Stones Throw) His beatmaking proudly utilitarian, his quick tetrameters and plosive rat-a-tat-tat too abrupt to fully earn the glorious old metaphor flow, the heroically consistent Homeboy has never been quite musical enough. Hence this partnership with the seldom heard undergrounder Edan, whose electronics heighten and sometimes carry the vocals Homeboy dominates. On the lead "Grim Seasons," Edan's sound effects dramatize Homeboy's rundown of a year's weather from winter's black ice to autumn's fallen. On the closer he extends human evolution similar support. And his looped, massaged fanfare carries "The Gut" front to back. But best by far is the Homeboy-dominated "#Neverusetheinternetagain," which deserves to go viral for running down every waste of brain power virality has wrought. A MINUS

Open Mike Eagle: What Happens When I Try to Relax (Auto Reverse) On six tracks overseen by five producers, the deepest music is built into the sayings of a guy conversant in the same ballplayers, wrestlers, videogames, and alt-rock you are. "When I get nervous I say something relatable." "I hate when I'm late because I try to be punctual." "Everything ain't great but I can do worse/Cause I can go to the dentist when my tooth hurt." "Everybody I know got a stomachache." "My lady ask am I good, I said hell naw." "The economy killed the rhyme star." "Sign an autograph and sell it to your own self." "And I'm so political, hella political." "A generation's been cursed, what that trauma do?" "How it both sides? We ain't both dyin." "Tryna reach black kids in a room full of whites." A MINUS


Atmosphere: Mi Vida Local (Rhymesayers) World's staunchest purveyor of the hip-hop of everyday life, extended instrumental intros included ("Trim," "Mijo") **

2Mex: Lospital (Water the Plants) Lovelorn rapper promises her everything and ack-acks her with hopes for humanity and shreds of common sense ("Unfashionable," "Lospital"); *

Red Pill: Instinctive Drowning (Mello Music) Chronic alcoholism as radical insecurity, outspokenly antiracist yet most educational at its most unideological ("Four Part Cure," "Stars") *

November 23, 2018

Link: L7 / Joan Jett / The Beths / Lala Lala

L7: Fast and Frightening (Easy Action) "Femininity is sensitivity with a light, delicate touch. But femininity is also intensity when it comes from four fine hard-rocking ladies--L7." So intones a menacing Donita Sparks to kick off the 1992 Radio Brisbane performance that precedes a 1990 Detroit show on disc two, both of which show off this feminist song band's equal commitment to feedback-drenched aggro. Basically a lotta noise with tunes buried in it, I've come to dig their ballroom blitz as much as disc one's winning array of stray live and tribute-record covers: not just the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" but Willie Nelson's "Three Days," not just the Dead Kennedys' "Let's Lynch the Landlord" but Ray Barretto's "El Watusi." This 2016 double-CD was released to whip up word-of-mouth for a comeback expected to generate a new album that has yet to materialize beyond a single that doesn't live up to the title "Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago." Get it while you can if you can. A MINUS

Joan Jett: Bad Reputation (Blackheart) Somehow this soundtrack to the new biodoc of the same name manages not to impinge too drastically on such previous best-ofs as 1993's Flashback, 1999's Fit to Be Tied, 2010's Greatest Hits, or the inferior 2013 comp she also called Bad Reputation. In fact, it's the most impressive of the bunch, mostly because it enlists outside help she's manifestly earned. Sure I miss "Light of Day" and "Fake Friends" and would respectfully suggest she exhume the XXX version of "Fetish." But what rock and roller can get too much of "I Love Rock N Roll," "Rebel Rebel," or "Bad Reputation" itself? Of the new "Fresh Start" earning its lead position, the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" a crucial quantum louder than the Blackhearts', a "Crimson and Clover" born to be obliterated by its Stooges B side? Or, especially, of the three inspired guest add-ons: Bikini Kill's generation-bridging "Rebel Girl," Rea's defiant anthem-in-waiting "Feminazi," and--perfect--a remake of Jett's cover of the Replacements' "Androgynous" that puts Miley Cyrus in the same studio as Laura Jane Grace? A MINUS


The Beths: Future Me Hates Me (Carpark) No matter how hooky your g-g-b-d pop, no matter how unchauvinistic your female-with-male-support setup, it gives the wrong impression to call your best song "You Wouldn't Like Me" ("You Wouldn't Like Me," "Happy Unhappy") ***

Lala Lala: The Lamb (Hardly Art) Resisting sexist abuse, dream-pop style ("Destroyer," "I Get Cut") *

November 30, 2018

Link: Sons of Kemet / Doctor Nativo / Celestial Blues

Sons of Kemet: Your Queen Is a Reptile (Impulse!) Where Elizabeth slithers, British-Barbadian tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings's queens stand tall: Ada Eastman, Mamie Phipps Clark, Harriet Tubman, Anna Julia Cooper, Angela Davis, Nanny of the Maroons, Yaa Asantewaa, Albertine Sisulu, and Doreen Lawrence--one track apiece, look 'em up. This show of matrifocal bravado sharpens and embellishes Sons of Kemet's unique and arresting sonics: West Indian Coltrane/Rollins over two drummers, tuba for bass, and occasional intoned vocals. Purposefully yet also playfully, the implicit politics channel the sweep of the band's third and most finished album. My favorite sequence calms Angela Davis's speedy clatter with a playground melody that implies Nanny of the Maroons had more time for child care than her military record suggests, after which Yaa Asantewaa's track begins calm and builds like her Ashanti revolution. Or so we are left free to imagine. A MINUS

Doctor Nativo: Guatemaya (Stonetree) His Cuban-born father killed circa 1990 in Guatemala's long and in crucial respects ongoing civil war, Guatemalan vocalist-guitarist Nativo defines his robust cumbia-reggae fusion as Mayan music, Africanized with the Garifuna styles of nearby Belize and bent on "social justice for his nation's indigenous majority." Moodwise it recalls upful French-Basque internationalist Manu Chao. But it's less yielding, with a groove that stomps. Although my tiny store of Spanish didn't suss out any language more specific than "Babylon," the translations on his website pit doctors against dictators, equate bureaucrats with politicians with cops, and call Bolivian comrades "B-boys." Yes his music is upful. But it's also ready to fight. A MINUS


Celestial Blues (BGP) Both "soulful" and "free," early-'70s jazz youngbloods equate liberation with transcendence--or anyway, that was the idea (Azar Lawrence, "Warriors of Peace"; Roy Brooks, "The Free Slave") ***

Sons of Kemet: Burn (Naim '13) A debut that flaunts their sound, suggests their parameters, and establishes their bona fides ("The Godfather," "Rivers of Babylon") **

Noisey, November 2018


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