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: May, 2020

One man's plague songs for use, many women's plague songs for catharsis, a plague victim's jokes to live by, plus kind words and strange sounds to keep us sane

American Tunes: Songs by Paul Simon (Ace) Although most hold up against the originals, transforming them is what oughta happen, as is shit canning turkeys like Rumer and Dorris Henderson (the Persuasions, "Love Me Like a Rock"; Rosemary Clooney, "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover"; Patti Smith, "The Boy in the Bubble"; Willie Nelson, "Graceland") **

Fiona Apple: Fetch the Bolt Cutters (Epic) Since The Idler Wheel was also the most acclaimed album of its spring only to be surpassed later in 2012 by Frank Ocean and Lamar Kendrick, I was skeptical about all the 10.0 hoohah until immersion changed my mind. Overwhelming Apple's usual pianistics with riptides of the avant percussion drummer-producer Charley Drayton brought to The Idler Wheel but is now all Fiona and the software she's crushing on, the music grows on you before you realize it because it's not hooky in a hummy kind of way. Instead it's beaty, clattering like nothing I can recall and hence hard to recall itself--you have to refer back to the record. There the bite and elan of her latest love-don't-last songs will win over anyone down with both "Kick me under the table all you want/I won't shut up, I won't shut up" and the sisterly warmth that softens bite and clatter both: "Shemekia"'s fist bump to a junior high ally, "Ladies" making common cause with fellow exes, "For Her" deploying the abuse stories of a Hollywood intern she feels for. "You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in"? Some "metaphor," wouldn't you say? A

Emperor X: Nineteen Live Recordings (Bandcamp) Reissued seven-year-old 19-song miscellany with liner notes that deserve a Grammy, so go read 'em and see if they don't make you want to buy the music ("Laminate Factory," "Compressor Repair," "Island-Long Dirt Dealership") **

The Heliocentrics: Infinity of Now (Madlib Invazion) Led by black Britons Malcolm Catto on drums and Jake Ferguson on bass, this intermittent pan-world band/project has bent its jazzy-beaty electro-atmospherics toward scholarly Ethiopian legend Mulatu Astatke and eightysomething U.S. Persian music polymath Lloyd Miller/Kurosh Ali Khan. Here the flavoring agent is the younger Barbora Patkova, whose dreamy soprano signifies no more specifically in English than in Czech than in vocalese yet somehow makes the whole schmear cohere. Some morning when you wake up in your own bed not knowing where you are or why it matters anymore, these wanderings might just help you feel at home. B PLUS

Holding Things Together: The Merle Haggard Songbook (Ace) He was such a writer that there are few forgettables on this tribute album, including Roy Rogers getting "Okie From Muskogee" so wrong it becomes a piece of history and Barrence Whitfield staking his claim to the doomed interracial love of "Irma Jackson"--followed, shrewdly, by Bettye Swann's less racially specific but equally apropos "Just Because You Can't Be Mine." And for me the last seven tracks are climactic, starting with the Everly Brothers' disconcertingly sweet, meticulously pained "Sing Me Back Home," Elvin Bishop's jovially lachrymose "I Can't Keep Myself in Line," Country Joe McDonald's righteously sarcastic "Rainbow Stew," and George Thorogood's unapologetically horny "Living With the Shades Pulled Down." But best of all is a title song that's one of several I didn't recall at all. The vocalist? Merle Haggard, naturally. A MINUS

Sam Hunt: Southside (MCA Nashville) "Body like a back road/Could drive it with my eyes closed/I know every curve like the back of my hand/Doin' 15 in a 30/I ain't in no hurry/Ima take it slow just as fast as I can"? Even if you think this chorus is too overt, somehow, don't be so dense as to deny how casually it cherishes the American vernacular that imbues great pop songwriting from Irving Berlin to Jay-Z in a Nashville dialect that recalls John Prine--"15 in a 30" my favorite touch, "drive it with my eyes closed" the runner-up, and both were number one on country radio for seven months. This way with words should have stood out more as of Hunt's superb 2014 "Take Your Time," but back then he was so set on bigging up his material with studio-enhanced drums that they often got lost. Dialed back, thankfully, those drums are still with him, but the words prevail from the bereft contrition of "2016" to a heartbroken "Drinkin' Too Much" sent to heaven by a "How Great Thou Art" chorus pecked note-by-note on piano by his beloved regained. My personal favorite is "Sinning With You" even though or because I was pushing 30 before I got to sin with another ex-Christian myself. A MINUS

Sam Hunt: Between the Pines: An Acoustic Mixtape (Mercury Nashville) Recorded and shopped 2013, major-released 2015, casual backup-band demos often more fun than than the Montevallo versions, plus nine otherwise unavailables ("Cop Car," "I Met a Girl," "Vandalize") ***

Jinx Lennon: Border Schizo Fffolk Songs for the Fuc**d (Septic Tiger) Thirty-four chants/songs in 54 minutes add up too fragmented for even this championship ranter to make whole ("Spare a Thought for Your Mother," "Live North Louth," "Football Football," "The Last Days of Cheap Food" ***

Les Amazones d'Afrique: Amazones Power (RealWorld) Unimpressed at first by music lacking both the exuberant Afrogroove woman power of Les Amazones de Guinée and the ideological feminism of this project's debut, I came around when I learned to hear it as Liam Farrell's boldest Afro-Euro fusion yet. Absolutely it's feminist rather than simply woman-powered, as the incisive and abundant notes make manifest--the daring and together Mamani Keita is all over it without dominating her many female coworkers. But from the squeaky-door sound that sneaks under the together-we-must-stand opener to the squelchy keyb intro to a title closer that passes lead vocals from queen to queen, Mbongwana Star mastermind Farrell marks this music with 21st-century sounds, some but by no means all borrowed from or inspired by the bassy Congotronics effects he puts to such daring and various use. By no means ignore the CD's generous documentation. But by all means try to hear it as music merely. A MINUS

Chad Matheny: United Earth League of Quarantine Aerobics (Dreams of Field) The individual who usually masquerades as a band called Emperor X reverts to the name he was born with because this is no time to pretend you're a group of people. "Stay Where You Are," "Quedate Quieto," and "Bleib Wo Du Bist" explain why in three different languages on an EP filled out with presumably self-overdubbed songs that earn the titles "1.5 Meter Blockade," "Hey, Where Did You Put My Stimulus Check," and "The Ballad of HPAE Local 5058." In the latter solidarity if not literal togetherness gets its due--HPAE stands for New Jersey-Pennsylvania's Heath Professionals and Allied Employees. A MINUS

William Elliott Whitmore: Kilonova (Bloodshot) Painstakingly rough-hewn singer-songwriter treats himseelf to gems by sharper pens, from Harlan Howard to Bill Withers to Stephin Merritt to Don Van Vliet ("Fear of Trains," "Five Feet High and Rising") *

Lucinda Williams: Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20) Leave it to an unabashed egoist to voice the anti-Trump wrath timider songslingers don't have the gall for, and to save the direct hit "Man Without a Soul" for track three so as to ramp it up with the defiant "You Can't Rule Me" and the bitter "Bad News Blues": "Liars and lunatics/Fools and thieves/And clowns and hypocrites" whose "Gluttony and greed/And that ain't the worst of it" are everywhere--in her car and in the bar and at the damn laundromat. Then it's on to our unnamed president, about whom she's not the first to observe that "All the money in the world/Will never fill that hole," just the first to attach a tune to it, and with other points to add at that. Some of the bleakness that ensues is personal: memory-stoked nightmares if not nightmare memories, songs in a second person I hope isn't camouflage. But then there's an updated "John the Revelator" where God is "spinning the world like a top": "Liars are venerated/Losers congratulated/Cheaters celebrated/Thieves compensated/Vultures satiated/Murderers exonerated/Guilty vindicated/Innocent incarcerated." Her voice and her guitar attack have thickened. But that just adds to the outraged gravity of an album that I wish had more competition. A

Hal Willner: Whoops, I'm an Indian (Pussyfoot) Named after a Three Stooges short to which it establishes no additional discernible connection, this 1999 "dance" record was Willner's sole attempt to create his own musique refabriqué from bits and pieces of all the other people's music he spent his life raiding. Over discernibly if inconsistently disco-ready beats he layers, among many other things, Yiddische comedy, tribal drums, weeping violins, soprano vocalese, military chorale, looped horn fanfares, Hawaiian lei music, Jack Webb's hard-boiled diet advice, an all-purpose laugh track, and a 78-rpm "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" played back at 33. It does wear down toward the end. But if you can imagine finding such a hodgepodge "listenable," you probably will. I sure do. A MINUS

And It Don't Stop, May 11, 2020

Apr. 8, 2020 June 10, 2020