Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2019

May 3, 2019

Link: Bruce Springsteen / Robert Forster / Chris Butler / Peter Stampfel

Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen on Broadway (Columbia) Always averse to shelling out major bucks for a Broadway show, me and my gal were happy to catch this one on Netflix--in two sittings, true, but when I streamed the audio version a month or two later I found myself listening with minimal zone-out for two-and-a-half hours straight. So I bought the budget-priced double CD, and though it was a while before I felt like sticking disc one in the changer, just a few minutes passed before I added disc two and listened through yet again. Never big on extended spoken-word material or solo-acoustic remakes of exalted songbooks, I'm impressed. The Springsteen this most recalls isn't like any earlier album but the 2016 autobiography he called Born to Run for better reasons than you might imagine. Like that fast-reading 508-pager, its aim is to simultaneously depict and demythologize the Jersey shore and poke major holes in an authenticity it reconceives at a truer level of complexity--on his first cross-country car trip, the guy who would soon write "Racing in the Street" had to learn to drive from scratch when the guy who was supposed to ride shotgun disappeared in Tennessee. Like the book, this ends where it begins--at the huge old copper beech tree that anchored his childhood, except that since he last visited the county has cut it to the street. Springsteen being Springsteen, he swears "some essential piece of it was still there"--and being Springsteen, convinces you that that's his truth even if it isn't your kind of thing. A

Robert Forster: Inferno (Tapete) After listening so faithfully I've even gotten behind a perversely mild opener based on one of Yeats's Crazy Jane poems, I've earned the right to make two observations. One is that every one of these nine calm tracks has its attractions--"Inferno" bemoaning a Brisbane summer so brutal it could signal the end of the world, "No Fame" honoring an artist who'll never enjoy the renown he deserves yet keeps imparting form to his stories anyway, "I'm Gonna Tell It" for some reason exploring a very similar theme. The other is that a year from now, with another brutal antipodal summer behind the planet we hope, you're more likely to choose Forster's The Evangelist or the Go-Betweens' Oceans Apart when craving a taste of this particular artist who's not as famous as he deserves to be. B PLUS


Chris Butler: Got It Together! (Future Fossil) Seventy this month, the Tin Huey catalyst, Waitresses mastermind, and dB's bassist establishes his right to begin "Never Been Old Before" with an excitable "If you say you're bored then you're not paying attention." ("Songs for Guys," "Summer Money") **

Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans: The Ordovician Era! (Don Giovanni) "Featuring Shelley Hirsch," a free-improvising singer who puts the stamp of the semi-official avant-garde on some of Stampfel's woolliest notions. ("Here We Come," "Marshmallows," "Queen of Romania") **

May 10, 2019

Link: The Coathangers / Priests / Camp Cope / Ex Hex

The Coathangers: The Devil You Know (Suicide Squeeze) Improbably matured into punk careerism, this initially amateur, always all-female quartet-turned-trio has slowed down by an estimated half a tad. But not counting the anthemic "F the NRA" (right, they don't actually say "F"), the lyrics--to the disinherited "5 Farms," the disconnected "Bimbo,"' the homophilic "Hey Buddy," the junkiephobic "Stranger Danger," the lithium-enabled "Lithium"--don't clear up until you consult a cheat sheet. This doesn't matter much for three reasons: because they have the gift of catchy, because we always feel they're on our side, and because splitting the vocal leads between stentorian baritone drummer Stephanie Luke and squeaky soprano guitarist Julia Kugel-Montoya imparts a dynamic range and novelty value matched by no other punk band, grrrl or otherwise. A MINUS

Priests: The Seduction of Kansas (Sister Polygon) Proving that history does evolve no matter how stuck it feels, this always professional, always female-identified quartet-turned-trio has evolved or perhaps just morphed from punk into what we can still only call postpunk. This development suits a band who've always sounded like they took music lessons in high school and read too much theory in college a band who've never aimed for rousing or catchy much less simple. Bracing, usually; enjoyable, they're trying; angry, that's bedrock. What enrages them isn't just the unprecedented political morass now depressing if not immobilizing their target audience. It's bigger than that--objectification in all its guises, the futility of good intentions, the half measures passed off as progress, men who think they know what's best for them, men who think they know what's best for the world. Their music truly rocks, which is one thing they're going for and good for them. It's more absorbing than on their minimalist debut, too--thicker. But it does tend to fold in on itself--to lead nowhere. A MINUS


Camp Cope: How to Socialise and Make Friends (Run for Cover) However righteous Georgia Maq's cultural politics or profound her personal grief, she leads the rare "punk" band whose power strum is designed to plod implacably, a musical trope that dulls everything they do ("I've Got You," "The Opener") **

Ex Hex: It's Real (Merge) Mary Timony slows her loud heavy down and makes it mean not be by reinstalling detachment as her emotional lodestar ("Cosmic Cave," "Radiate") *

May 17, 2019

Link: Quelle Chris / Epic Beard Men

Quelle Chris: Guns (Mello Music) The Detroit indie-rapper has always stuck in comradely cameos and comic bits in a Mafia accent. So of course there are diversions on this album. Yet it feels like it's all about G-U-N-S guns even when it isn't, as in "Mind Ya Bidness," which packs nothing but blunts, and the lead "Spray and Pray," which undercuts its "We load up, lift, and shoot" refrain with a "turn in they AKs for 401Ks" dissent. Ostensibly it's multiracial, too--where the action in both those tracks is located in black America, "Sunday Mass" names Nikolas C., Devin K., Stephen P., Omar M., Syed F., and Aaron A. before getting to Dylann R., and isn't it a mitzvah that most of us have already deprived these monsters of the infamy they craved by forgetting the surnames Quelle doggedly pronounces? But his toughest rhyme offers a concise racial analysis: "Monkeys who gang bang chained to the streets/Honkies with gang brain armed to the teeth." And to assure us that good things are possible even in a crisis, he joins wife Jean Grae for one of hip-hop's realest love songs before saying sayonora. A MINUS

Epic Beard Men: This Was Supposed to Be Fun (Strange Famous) On their second why-the-fuck-not, hirsutely sub-elderly Rhode Island alt-rap careerists-without-a-cause Sage Francis, 42, and B. Dolan, 38, do their bit for class consciousness by rhyming about their work life. All their stories are grotty. But "Circle the Wagons," with its stashed body, jailhouse locale, and litany of "What did you do?"s, is its only gangsta moment. And transgressively raw though these beardos are, they're also comedians: try "Shin Splints," about racing to make a flight, or "Pistol Dave," about a dirtbag who couldn't even hack the low-level job they had the heart to give him? And then there's "Hedges," where an ex-GI moves in next to a schlubby liberal and they're both paranoid because why shouldn't they be? A MINUS


Quelle Chris: Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often (Mello Music) Persona-morphing free for-all is sharpest when it's about himself--not counting his wife-to-be's best-in-show, that is. ("The Prestige," "Fascinating Grass") **

Epic Beard Men: Season 1 (Strange Famous) So much more interesting when they scorn the rich and let their scene's hustlers pursue their pathetic scams and dreams away from the spotlight. ("Shotgun Golf," "War on Christmas [2017]") *

May 24, 2019

Link: Bassekou Kouyate / Youssou N'Dour

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba: Miri (Out Here) On Jama Ko and Ba Power, the master picker and tinkerer of Mali's ngoni lute proved that he could rock out with any desert Hendrix. But with that established he feels free to leave the amplifiers in Bamako, return to his home village, and record his most purely listenable album. Miri's lyrics seek love and honor tradition as usual. But "miri" means dream, a dream that on a title track fraught with political anxiety is lovely and arresting--pensive, nostalgic, designed to allay disquiet as thoughtful music can. The warmth of his wife Amy Sacko's vocals makes such weathered guests as Habib Koite and Afel Bocoum sound like they're trying too hard. Only on the final track does she power up. It's about Bassekou's mother. A MINUS

Youssou Ndour: History (Na´ve/Believe) Between 1999 and 2010, Nonesuch backed four superb N'Dour studio albums and a worthy live recap, but then his discography got hard to track: seven albums/EPs by my count, the three Senegal-mainlys markedly superior to the Euro-American crossover bids. As sheer output, this speaks well of a mbalax tycoon and sometime pol who'll turn 60 in October. But the international product isn't up to Nonesuch standards--too eager to please for such a titan. This one, on the French indie that just backed Salif Keita's first album in nine years, is shrewder. It's a ballad album--there are tama drums, sure, but none of the hectic clatter that's riled up long-legged male Senegalese dancers everywhere I've seen N'Dour except Carnegie Hall. N'Dour's voice is barely diminished, a slight burr detectable here and there. But he has the grace to share leads on four of 10 tracks: two sampled from long-gone, rough-voiced Afro-crossover pioneer Babatunde Olatungi, another by Swedish-Nigerian youngblood Mohombi, and best in show Swedish-Gambian Seinabo Sey's transformation of N'Dour's historical "Birima" into a contemporary pride song of her own. Nor is that the only N'Dour standard reimagined here. The man has world tour to crush. He's got his head up and he's not screwing around. A MINUS

Two Niles: To Sing a Melody: The Violins and Synths of Sudan (Ostinato) Not for everybody--in fact, not for me at first. Cheesy synths, honeyed strings, vocals that wailed or ululated more than shouted or crooned--it was all too much. But gradually I came to hear what the extensive notes on this handsomely packaged, moderately priced double-CD gave me a grip on: a fleeting '70s golden era that uplifted a Khartoum postcolonial elite under the thumb of Nasserite music lover Gafaar Muhammad Nimeiry. This was relatively genteel stuff, its steady rhythms devoid of Ali Hassan Kuban Nubian drive. But Zaidan Ibrahim's "Ma Hammak Azabna" is pretty bouncy, Hanan Bulu Bulu's "Alamy Wa Shagiya" pretty girl-group, and people's hero Mohammed Wardi the soul of compassionate yearning and resolve. Problem was, Nimeiry was a politician first like all strongmen, the arty ones included, and as Islamism took root in northern Africa he turned due right. His Sharia-based September Laws of 1983 banned songs about women in a nation where incinerating heaps of cassettes became street entertainment, and in 1989 a military coup sent even Wardi into exile, where a year later he found himself offering a few hours of pleasure to 250,000 asylum-seeking refugees in Ethiopia. B PLUS


May 31, 2019

Link: Lee "Scratch" Perry / Tanya Tagaq / Sneaks

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound) Riddled with reissues, collaborations, bootlegs, remixes, and of course dubs, the Upsetter's catalogue is beyond comprehension. Post 2011, when he turned 75, Wikipedia lists 13 albums while omitting more titles than I'm mad enough to compare-and-contrast from Spotify's offerings; upsetter.net credits 30 undated albums to "Lee Perry" and 12 more to "Lee Perry &"; etc. But if you care about the greatest of the dubmasters, this project, overseen for the 84-year-old by great white dubmaster Adrian Sherwood, is an album that holds together. Is there a single track as head-turning as, to name a few personal faves, "I Am a Psychiatrist," "Messy Appartment," or "Poop Song"? Definitely the "Autobiography of the Upsetter" finale, possibly the "Cricket on the Moon" opener, but in the end it doesn't matter, because all nine tracks achieve both solidity and differentiation--sound good without sounding too much like any of the others. Take a wild guess and thank Sherwood, whose 1983 African Head Charge release Drastic Season has won my ears and heart as I've done my due diligence. I'll never know where this album stands or sprawls in Perry's oeuvre, But I do know that it will now replace 2004's Panic in Babylon as my go-to Upsetter. A MINUS

Tanya Tagaq: Toothsayer (Six Shooter) On a widely streamable not-(yet?)-for-sale EP commissioned to add aural buzz to the British National Maritime Museum's "Polar Worlds" exhibit, the throat-singing Inuk avant-gardist assumes all vocal and compositional responsibilities. No hip-hop, no Nirvana covers, not even any male-sounding shamanistic croaks--the closest analogy is Fluxus-period Yoko Ono with the disruptive techniques referencing content more concrete, organic, and political than shock for education's sake or existential despair. We can hear this because we know how urgently Tagaq cares about both global warming and indigenous peoples. For half an hour she emits dozens of nonverbal sounds well beyond croons and screams--squeaks, belches, agonized gutturals, many more. This is music that mourns the end of the world. She wants it to disturb us, and it should. A MINUS

Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis (Merge) Former Shitstain Eva Moolchan's 2016 album was one-woman minimalist rock of real but limited charm. Here she goes electro-experimental and expands the music exponentially, so that it coheres sonically even though every track is different--here charming and there disruptive, here droney and there catchy (or maybe both, like the dubwise 1:39 "Addis"). The atmospheric "Beliefs" repeats the mantra "Remove your beliefs and start again" seven times in 2:42 as if shaken to the core by whoever inspired the 56-second mantra "Holy Cow I Never Saw a Girl Like Her." Half an hour of musical whimsy that never waits long enough to get old. A MINUS


Noisey, May 2019


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