Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as exclusive content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Consumer Guide: September, 2019

A compilation that treats mellow and humorous as a righteous path, plus songs from Texas, China, Brooklyn, Belgium, and a rock critic who earns her living as a literacy consultant

Charlotte Adigéry: Zandozi (Deewee) Playful turns concept on Belgium-based, English-language, French-Caribbean electrodancepop EP, so airy and beaty as it darts back and forth across the permeable borders of use value ("High Lights," "Paténipat") ***

Hayes Carll: What It Is (Dualtone) Three years past the hooklessly downhearted Lovers and Leavers, the 43-year-old Texan songslinger grows up just like he hoped he would. "Beautiful Thing," "I Will Stay," and "None'ya" meld rapture, perseverance, and a sense of humor into a credible semblance of connubial progress, "Times Like These" and "Wild Pointy Finger" address the bifurcated politics any conscious Texan had better set his or her mind to, and "Fragile Men" mocks sexism with the casual authority of a rip-roaring Texan male who respects "Jesus and Elvis" whether he believes in them or not. Carll's music per se still doesn't rise above solid as often as it might. Soulwise, however, he's higher than he's ever been. B PLUS

The Daisy Age (Ace) A gimme waiting to happen, which with Spotify-etc. playlists having killed the commercial compilation wasn't a gimme at all, this Bob Stanley-compiled romp is irresistible from its De La Soul Is Dead opener to the three nonhits that bring it to a soft landing. The only Native Tongues also-rans missing from the CD are Fu-Schnickens, whose "What's Up Doc" does show up on the vinyl version and whose "Sum Dum Munkey" might easily have grabbed the baton from "Mistadobalina" and "Doowutchyalike" on its way to a world speed record--only to land in the pillow of giggles that floats KMD's "Peachfuzz." If you're old enough, recall the naive early-'90s moment when young rappers from Nassau County and so forth were so brave they considered mellow and humorous a righteous path as well as a commercial ploy. If you're still dreading 30, listen and marvel that times were ever so good. A PLUS

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope) American studies paper on the late '60s fused with soft-core porn whose erotic charge is the deeper part of the synthesis ("Hope is a dangerous thing to for a woman like me to have--but I have it," "Love Song") ***

Lost in China (Riverboat) I always resist "world music"'s exotica tendency, but on this unannotated compilation of folk revivalists from a nation of 1.4 billion, which I've seldom regretted playing some dozen times as I tried to figure out exactly how good it is, I'm happy enough to be in it for the sound effects as I compute that it's somewhere between pretty good and pretty darn good. My favorite track by far is South City Second Brother's comic "Good Girl," but don't expect more of the same--heartfelt midtempo chants and laments predominate. And beguilingly exotic they are. B PLUS

Madonna: Madame X (Interscope) However much reviewers-come-lately mock the ones about forswearing dope and feeling the oppressed, these are well-intended ideas executed with the appropriate brio and calm, respectively. The nadirs are a "far left"/"far right" hedge and an over-cautious bid for divine mercy, both sequestered off on the "deluxe" version as a boon to the dollarwise consumer. Depending on your age, she's either your colorful Aunt Madge or a long-lost pal you ran into at a screening of Little Woods. For all of this century she's been a pro too old to conjure up the kind of sure shots that made The Immaculate Collection so no-fail yet too proud to sign off on two-tier albums like, for instance, 1986's True Blue, which begins with two songs far sharper than anything here but is back-ended by three out of five duller than any of the 13 brand-new non-deluxes. If you think Aunt Madge has become a bore, that's your petty right. If you remain fond of her, pour yourself a nice glass of chablis and listen. A MINUS

The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD) I was pleased and surprised to enjoy the 23-minute YouTube-available Mike Mills film of the same name, a kind, imagistic birth-to-death biography of a white middle-class working mother that's intertwined somehow with the making of the band's eighth album. But the film has only one explicit connection to the album that occasionally pokes through its surface: it's about a woman. Hence women often make themselves heard, and their voices transform how the music sounds, feels, and signifies. Matt Berninger's love/relationship songs have often had some tenderness to them, and he's gotten more relaxed about it over the years. But here almost every track is open to substantive female input on a musical whole that feels consistently interactive and empathetic and also not so glum--even when you can't pin down exact meanings, it makes love sound possible. Inconveniently, the almost entirely female "So Far So Fast" is the one track that goes nowhere, and for 6:37 at that. Then again, "Not in Kansas," the 6:45 autobiography-with-(female)-Greek chorus just before it, evokes the bicoastal diaspora with a regret so sharp and indelible it feels tragic--and is. A MINUS

The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None) Elizabeth Nelson is a fine rock critic (Lawyers, Guns and Money, Oxford American, terse jabs and judgments on Twitter) leading an able rock group, and fuck me if these aren't both side jobs insofar as they pay anything at all--she makes her living as a literacy consultant for an educational nonprofit. So as a bandleader she's earned . . . not royalties, get real, but the right to write one that adds a parenthetical "(Economy)" to the dreamy Neil Young title "Expecting to Fly." Beyond "Turpitude," as the opener is called, every unmistakably enunciated word here is known to most Americans, which doesn't mean many of them will get the jokes--my favorite: "I learned to smoke from the Contract With America/I learned to smoke from Pulp Fiction/I learned to smoke from Mojo Nixon." Squeezing 11 songs into half an hour, her voice relaxes enough to make them a pleasure. I don't get all the jokes either--as a dual citizen, Nelson understands more about Irish history and politics than I ever will. But I do know a lot about Alan Greenspan and They Might Be Giants, whose songs establish that Nelson knows more. Every catchy number is marked by linguistic specifics, and the title tune is a rock-biz masterpiece. Subject: 11 dead at a Who concert in Cincinnati, 1979. A

Pink: Hurts 2B Human (RCA) At 39, she's evolved into a fully accredited second-tier pop diva whose overstated travails and occasional joys connect to more ordinary women's more ordinary lives ("My Attic," "Happy") **

75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real (Glitterbeat/Tak:til) On 2016, 2017, and 2018 sessions in three studios in Brooklyn and one in Knoxville, guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown's avant-rock duo-plus improve on 2016's fine little Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern. The handsome CD packaging establishes that digital whiz Brown's main ax remains "plywood crate," that "quarter-tone guitar" is the most prominent of Chen's seven instruments, and that no one else appears on even half the nine tracks, though electric bassist Sue Garner and contrabassist Andrew Lafkas come close. Vocals: zero, not a wheeze or a grunt. Tunes: compelling because they're so strange and microtonal. Mood: meditative and excitable in tandem and sometimes simultaneously, immersive when loud yet never fully trancelike. It's been said by me and others that there's a lot of northwest Africa in this music even though Chen's schooling there was brief, so I'll point out that three titles reference a Mauritanian wedding-dance genre. The liveliest is the four-minute "WZN4." If you're curious you might start there. A MINUS

Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars (Columbia) "America used to be better" is a political message of some potential use, but how many of his faithful will blame it on the rich and how many on the young? ("Tucson Train," "Moonlight Motel") *

Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic) It's not just that Swift knows even more about having lovers, the concept here, than she does about being a star, the concept of Reputation. It's that for female pop fans with their own lives, not just unfortunates ensnared by the vicarious vagaries of celebrity culture, lover is a more relatable concept than star. A romantic history as footloose as Swift's comes easier to a gal with unlimited access to desirable men. But even so there are millions of women who manage serial relationships, and this one's for them. Swift has earned the right to assemble "a love letter to love itself" more ways than anyone can count, including a romance with a British actor I wouldn't know from Joe Jonas that is now well into its record-breaking third year. I wish the tunecraft here retained the lightness of the mean yet hopeful "I Forgot That You Existed," an opener that seems to promise a keyb-based pure pop of Motownish allure that does not in fact ensue. I also wish I hadn't learned that the romantic pied-a-terre of "Cornelia Street" is actually a mansion with a pool. But Swift's formidable skill set has seldom served more likable or admirable ends. A MINUS

And It Don't Stop, Sept. 18, 2019

June 2019 Oct. 9, 2019