Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: January 2019

January 4, 2019

Link: Mitski / Soccer Mommy / Adrianne Lenker / Nice as Fuck

Mitski: Be the Cowboy (Dead Oceans) Fourteen structurally cunning, melodically engaging, verbally coherent songs that for a compact 33 minutes address romantic angst from a disquieting angle. When women dig into their love lives men usually come out the bad guys, as they should, because men mistreat and undervalue the women they're with much more than vice versa. But the few times the singer tries to reconnect with an unattainable ex she blames the disconnect on herself because she made the approach, and more often she's the unattainable one and wishes she wasn't. The lead "Geyser" hints that the culprit is the music she's hung up on instead, and in "Remember My Name" that becomes explicit: "I gave too much of my heart tonight/Can you come to where I'm staying and make some extra love/That I can save till tomorrow's show?" But her loneliness is so ingrained that it's just as likely she got stuck on music because human love felt beyond her to begin with. That's why she's so disquieting, and so original. But by definition it doesn't make her more lovable. A MINUS

Soccer Mommy: Clean (Fat Possum) Sophie Allison's melancholy drags less and charms more than teen-alt's indie-strummed norm, and not only that--it's fortified by tastier guitar parts. So if they hit the palate at a strange angle, figure that's as it should be--love can feel pretty bittersweet when your boyfriend's ex is prettier than you. Or is she, actually? It's so hard to figure out that a few times Allison aspires to a detachment and even cruelty she seems too good a person to be stuck with, much less stuck with faking--a life skill she feels compelled to master because she hasn't learned that the cool kids are as insecure as she is only better at hiding it, from themselves as well as everybody else. So be very glad the finale reports: "I found God on Sunday/Morning, layin' next to you/My arms stretched out like Jesus/White sheets nail me down to the bed." Good sex won't solve everything. But it's a terrific way to top off your debut album. A MINUS


Adrianne Lenker: Abysskiss (Saddle Creek) Replete with quietude and beatitude, audacity and fragility, clarity and opacity, this remarkable yet dispensable album by Big Thief's reason for being has a firmer grip on her place in the cosmos than on which way to turn at the next intersection ("Terminal Paradise," "Womb") *

Nice as Fuck: Nice as Fuck (Loves Way) Rilo Kiley great Jenny Lewis and two lesser grrrl-groupers try playfully to croon-chant their way into the alt-rock heart ("Guns," "Runaway") *

January 11, 2019

Link: The Delines / Kacey Musgraves / Marianne Faithfull / Brandi Carlile

The Delines: The Imperial (Decor/El Cortez) As is clearer in the novels he's said are more "easygoing" than his music--particularly Lean On Pete, the movie version of which earned raves last year--Willy Vlautin's songs aren't dark because he thinks dark is cool or mistakes his own depressive tendencies for existential truth. Instead, the forlorn, mumbly affect of his signature band, Richmond Fontaine, is attributable more to his vocal limitations than to his philosophy of life. That's why he recruited Amy Boone to front the Delines. In both bands Vlautin finds pathos and dignity in sub-working class stragglers who drink too much and fall out of love when the money's gone. But Boone sings so thoughtful and caring that you feel the strength as well as the pain of the wronged women whose stories Vlautin has her tell--the escapee from Felony Flats and the lover fixing to buy her guy a new coat from Arlene's as well as Holly the Hustle stuck with a handicapper twice her age and Polly giving it one more try a day after Eddie busted her in the face. Deepest of all is the lead "Cheer Up Charley," which doesn't mean Charley should go get stoned. It means that if he uses up all his vacation days he'll lose that "job on the docks" he'll never beat, and then what? "There ain't no end to going down / There ain't no end / So cheer up Charley." A MINUS

Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour (MCA Nashville) Product of Nashville though it may be, this is a pop record straight up, marked throughout by song-doctoring overseers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who score cowrites on most tracks, play keyboards, drums, and such on every one, and go all but unnamed in its raft of raves. I mean "pop" as an observation, not a criticism. Tashian's modest piano parts complement Musgraves's delicate soprano and positive mood more subtly than any pedal steel could; the sound-setting "Slow Burn," about taking all night, and the LSD-fueled "Mother," about "bursting with empathy" as you miss her and miss her some more, are triumphs of the pop imagination by any measure. So in the rock era's biggest yet quietest year of the woman to date, this team has figured out how to make quiet sell. If its quiet never breaks on through to the other side, that's not only deliberate but one reason so many are raving and buying. But it's also why I'm not altogether sold myself. B PLUS


Marianne Faithfull: Negative Capability (Panta Rei/BMG) Still plumbing love's impossibilities as death nears and the Nazis come nearer than that ("They Come at Night," "In My Own Particular Way") ***

Brandi Carlile: By the Way, I Forgive You (ATO) The reasonable belief that the schlock belter in her is also the Christian lesbian who holds that "all souls are born kind" doesn't oblige anyone to convert to either ("The Mother," "Fulton County Jane Doe") **

January 25, 2019

Link: The Ex / Idles / Marie Davidson / Public Service Broadcasting

The Ex: 27 Passports (Ex) Compared at various junctures to both the Crass and Einstürzende Neubauten, these vintage-1979 quasi-anarchist Dutch Anglophones have released dozens of albums I've never heard, so to compensate I power-streamed their 2009 30 compilation and concluded that while industrial and "world" sonics do both emerge, the band's enduring fondness for the strummed drone evokes nothing as much as the Fall without Mark E. Smith--that is, a Fall who aren't the Fall at all. I also concluded that Arnold de Boer's leads on his first true album rail and nag more irksomely than the raggedier ones of 30-year-man G.W. Sok used to, and that I prefer this unrelenting hour of protest music to any I could assemble from their best-of. Launched by flag-wavers where cities that modernize together drown together and the rod demolishes every human body part except the heart, they proceed through a car crash that isn't the car's fault, a hard drive sunk in the sea, words without referents, time out of mind, change pursuing its own logic, the feces of the rich, and four billion tulip bulbs. Am I claiming these songs make more sense taken together? To the extent that anything does, yes. A MINUS

Idles: Joy as an Act of Resistance (Partisan) Cognitive dissonance meets blunt force trauma via five guys who don't need Donald Trump to rail against fascism--not with Brexit, Eton, and bankers at a funeral for inspiration. What's dissonant is that you wouldn't figure from all this baritone bellow and jackboot four-four how much political rage they direct at sexism--the first three songs attack what "Samaritans" later brands "the mask of masculinity." It's like Joe Talbot's vocals are the male equivalent in reverse of Snail Mail or Lucy Dacus embracing sad femininity in gender solidarity. Though Talbot insists the Idles aren't a punk band, his unrelenting politics do remind one that he lacks both Joe Strummer's stealth tenderness and John Lydon's wormwood sarcasm. But a warmth suffuses "Danny Nedelko," about a Ukrainian pal who stands as Zanzibar-born Freddy Mercury's immigrant brother, and "June," all tender love for his stillborn daughter. And what kind of rage freak would be so tickled to cover Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me"? A MINUS


Marie Davidson: Working Class Woman (Ninja Tune) Post/anti-EDM electronica contextualizes honed feminist spoken-word ("Work It," "The Tunnel") *

Public Service Broadcasting: Every Valley (PIAS America) Spoken-word documentary with stirring musical accompaniment honors the life and death of the Welsh coal industry ("Mother of the Village," "They Gave Me a Lamp") *

Noisey, January 2019


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