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: October, 2021

Songwriters from Austin, Chattanooga, and Nashville. Rappers from London by way of Nigeria and Belgium by way of the Congo. Also: a worldly sophisticate, a genuine adult, and a Wolf who howls.

Thomas Anderson: Ladies and Germs (Out There) Not for nothing does this perpetually undefeated Austin singer-songwriter's BMI handle remain Angry Young Grad Student Music. On this 13-track item with a pandemic title no one will ever top, his mild voice and deft multitracking delivers his best set of songs since his 1990 debut "Alright It Was Frank--And He's Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck" and certainly his most varied subject-wise. Cinderella's stardom gets boring pretty quick. Hitler's sister takes his will to court. An oil worker stares down the tornado that's tearing him apart. A hapless meth dealer's head-case honey ODs on acid and disappears down an old zinc mine. A girl of the apocalypse sips some water and dies. And the news from Pompeii continues dire. A MINUS

Baloji: 137 Avenue Kaniama (Bella Union '18) Belgian-Congolese rapper exploits lite, quasi-traditional soukous guitar and vocals so letter-perfect they verge on beatwise easy listening until they're bogged down by an overbearing finale ("Glossine [Zombie]," "Bipolaire--Les Noirs") **

Nathan Bell: Red, White and American Blues (It Couldn't Happen Here) (Need to Know) This Chattanooga-based 61-year-old former AT&T middle exec and son of Iowa's first poet laureate was as unknown to me as his dad until this instant keeper came in the mail. A bunch of albums boiled down to a 46-song Spotify playlist that includes such convincers as the Rust Belt "Stamping Metal," the Fenway "Ballad of Bill 'Spaceman' Lee," and the gay marriage hymn "Really Truly" will hold your attention. But from an "Angola Prison" sung by a sufferer who'll leave that hell on his back to "Folding Money"'s "Jesus don't like your folding money or the way you use his name," this album is better still. Between a talky drawl less than pretty and more than articulate, an acoustic guitar worthy of an ace rhythm section, and the likes of Patty Griffin and Regina McCrary sweetening here and there, the music has so much bite that calling it Americana would be a flat-out lie. One of Griffin's features is narrated by a .44 Magnum. Lightnin' Hopkins never plays a note "without the money in his hand." A whole gruesome bunch of "poor," "sorry," "crazy," "dumb," "busy," "lazy," "angry," and "useless" "motherfuckers" are "high on meth and Jesus" and "running on the razor like it didn't have an edge." Inspirational Verse: "We are taking our lives one day at a time/With bullets and useless poetry/Soon we will be burning together in red, white, and blue/Burn, baby, burn." A

The Contraptionists: Working Man's Dread (thecontraptionists.com) Musicians as itinerant laborers who economize by handling the drumming chores themselves ("Working Man's Dread," "Dream Song") **

Dave: Psychodrama (Neighbourhood '19) London-based Nigerian rapper David Orobosa Omoregie has quite a history. When he was an infant his clergyman father was marooned in Africa in a snarl of immigration snafu, religio-political sectarianism, and marital dysfunction. One brother was sentenced to life in a gang murder and another has done time for bank fraud. Dave himself, however, is a piano-playing paragon who took law and philosophy classes while studying sound design in college and won a Mercury Prize for this debut studio album. Its beats orchestrally and/or electronically embellished piano riffs, its lyrics intelligible, thoughtful, calm, sometimes even gentle, it's framed as a course of psychotherapy spanning 2018, when Dave turned 20. He has plenty of perspective: "You see our gold chains and our flashy cars/I see a lack of self-worth and I see battle scars" is an observation both wise and cocky for a debut album, and though he's a rapper first, cameos from knife-wielding London rapper J Hus, Afro-fusion luminary Burna Boy, and Nashville up-and-comer Ruelle suggest the breadth of his self-conception. Exactly how compelling he can be musically remains an open question. But the climactic tragedy "Lesley" definitely points him in the right direction. A MINUS

Dave: We're All Alone in This Together (Dave/Neighbourhood) Since music per se isn't what this prize-winning artist is selling or his wide-ranging admirers are buying, let me insist that Dave's quietly grand, steadily melodic keyboard parts and calm, assured percussion figures are crucial in holding his long strings of off-rhymes together: torcher-corner-baller-aura-pauper-daughter-slaughter-borer-flora-stalk us-order-insurer-water-orca, whew. He collaborates all over the map, ranging from big-talking South London rappers who stoke his unfortunate appetite for luxury timepieces to, for instance, James Blake, Jorja Smith, and Dutch singer-songwriter Anouk, and I could go on. But he's also candid about the crippling anxieties that can ensue when your brothers are criminals and your mother nearly died giving you life. And surprised though he is to be shagging Tories and falling in love with an Albanian, cultural breadth is just part of his mission. Of course he's down with his African and West Indian brethren. But he's almost as appalled by how fucked post-Brexit Britannia's Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrants are. A MINUS

Mickey Guyton: Remember Her Name (Capitol) Although Guyton co-wrote all 16 of these well-turned songs--among them three rollovers from her 2020 Bridges EP, the Grammy-certified "Black Like Me" of course included--only the unequivocally race-proud "Love My Hair" comes with fewer than two song doctors, most notably former Taylor Swift aide-de-camp Nathan Chapman. So credit Capitol with sharing Guyton's decade-long dream of converting her small-town Texas roots into the big-time Nashville sales that so far aren't materializing. But that doesn't mean I can hear just exactly what's supposed to be country about these tracks, which if anything go heavy on the schlocky as opposed to jazz-lite side of the "adult contemporary" pseudogenre where she had some success pre-"Black Like Me." What I can hear, however, is a nice surprise: material that is genuinely adult and genuinely contemporary, including a cover of Beyonce's "If I Were a Boy" you could almost think she wrote herself. This grown woman makes music out of therapy jargon she knows too well. She trusts herself to keep singing the sparkly "Rosť" after her therapist gets her to quit drinking. She smells smoke on her husband and makes sure it doesn't turn fire. She wants his good, his bad, and his ugly. And soon enough they're spending the evening dancing in the living room. A MINUS

Lil Nas X: Montero (Columbia) Fluke country-rap meisterhitman croons songful enough gay pop bildungsalbum for a biz that has yet to generate enough of them ("Tales of Dominica," "Sun Goes Down," "Scoop") ***

Sho Madjozi: Limpopo Champions League (Flourish and Multiply '18) Although she signed with U.S. Epic in 2020, this 29-year-old biracial and multilingual Tsonga speaker from northern South Africa released her prize-winning debut album almost three years ago. Culturally, she's a worldly sophisticate--both parents worked for NGOs and she nabbed a Holyoke scholarship after growing up in Tanzania. But as a musician she's made the syncretic most of her nation of origin. As an Afropop fan I fret about being less than knocked out by so many current Euro-African fusions, but well before I was aware of her bio I knew this was a sureshot exception. While invoking the shoulder-rolling upper-body twists of a Durban dance called gqom, Madjozi's music generates the exhilarating release that highlife and rumba and mbalax and mbaqanga and so many other musics I couldn't begin to dance to myself stick in oppression's face. Pray Epic understands what a miracle it's got in its clutches. Pray Madjozi does too. A MINUS

Man on Man: Man on Man (Polyvinyl) Fifty-eight-year-old Imperial Teen Roddy Bottum makes the pandemic and orgasmic most of the year he spent stuck in his Brooklyn apartment with boyfriend Joey Holman ("Two at a Time," "It's So Fun [To Be Gay"]) **

John R. Miller: Depreciated (Rounder) Though this Nashville 35-year-old bats at least .500 on his melodically sweet-talking Americana debut, he does make you wonder what the connection might be between a beguiling opener in which his return home has him worrying about running into his ex and the fact that his two sharpest songs are about vehicles. Neither of which, as "Motor's Fried" goes so far as to convert into metaphor, runs that good. B PLUS

Homeboy Sandman: Anjelitu (Mello Music Group) Skills ace as ever plus Aesop Rock augments their lice trilogy, but his distaste for beef seems inconsistent with his love for "cow's" milk and any 36-year-old who's never washed a dish should grow up already ("Go Hard," "Lice Team, Baby") **

Kalie Shorr: I Got Here by Accident (Kalie Shorr) Do not get into a catfight with this woman, a dogfight either. With a mouth like that she'd tear you to shreds. "He wasn't over me when you were under him." "I heard you got a girl . . . pregnant." "I hate the way I love the way this feels." "Seven half brothers and sisters/With our glasses all half filled." "I don't have a fast car/But I'll fuckin' find one/If you need to get away." That's a snippet apiece from the five songs here, not one of which I've given away. She's a state-of-Mainer who not only namechecks Woodstock and references Nirvana but took both to the Nashville where she's seeking a fortune I hope she can handle. A

Howlin' Wolf: His Best (Chess) Having caught Don McGlynn's wide-ranging, performance-chocked 2003 documentary The Howlin' Wolf Story on Prime, I wondered which of the Wolf CD comps I play I'd Consumer Guided and was chagrined to find not just that the answer was none but that only 1971's The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions was anywhere near the top of his Amazon offerings. Fortunately, Discogs told a different story: this and the slightly slacker but no way "folk" The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues are easy to snag used there, and snagging both wouldn't be a bad idea. Not for nothing did Sam Phillips, who recorded Wolf two years before he got to Elvis, always speak of the man born Chester Burnett in 1910 as a wonder of nature at least equal to Presley himself. The rough power of an almost feral voice devoid of the grandeur to which such huge voices generally aspire remains unequalled and almost unparalleled, and not only that he could write: 10 of the 20 classics here--most of them pre-1960, before Willie Dixon stepped in--are his creations: "Moanin' at Midnight," "Smokestack Lightnin'," "Evil," "Killing Floor," more. As McGlynn's film makes clear, the feral thing wasn't so much an act as a fact of nature that Wolf had the brains to stylize. He was also a fine guitarist who knew Hubert Sumlin was even better. To say he was often imitated as opposed to emulated would be an exaggeration. He was inimitable, a wonder of nature who made the most of it. A PLUS

And It Don't Stop, October 13, 2021


September 8, 2021 November 10, 2021