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: April, 2023

Honed and loud pronouncements from a 67 year old, indelible copyrights from a 77 year old, some 58-year-old saxophone wisdom, and uniquely individualistic hip-hop from two born-in-the-'80s rappers.

Gina Birch: I Play My Bass Loud (Third Man) As with The Raincoats, a beloved album released lo these 43 years ago, my initial response here was something like "Dig your spirit lady but isn't this a little crude?" But much faster than with The Raincoats--two-and-a-half plays in, say--I was completely hooked on the solo debut of this 67-year-old dyed blonde who now counts painting her principal art. This is partly because it isn't really crude--chief bandmate Michael Rendall of the Orb knows his way around a keyboard and sometime Killing Joke bassist Youth has also produced Crowded House, Bananarama, Beth Orton, the Verve, and Erasure. But it's also because Birch has generated a new bunch of songs, which like the production and even her Raincoats features may sound casual but in fact are honed. Between the declarative "I Play My Bass Loud" opener and the loopy "Let's Go Crazy" closer she whispers "I'm a bubbling cauldron of rage," caps "Big Mouth" with an apologetic "Now we're all upset," makes clear that "Pussy Riot" is more than just a band, calmly asks a know-nothing noseybones "Why the hell shouldn't I be a feminist?" and is never more indignant than when she explains why "I Will Never Wear Stilettos" while plugging Doc Martens, brothel creepers, Polish waitressing shoes, and anything that's red and laces up. A

Bktherula: LVL5 P! (Warner) Third album etiquette dictates that when you choose to murmur 10 "songs" in just 25 minutes it's not cool to let on how much you want to get ahead as you do so ("Pssyonft," "We Made It") **

R.A.P. Ferreira: 5 to the Eye With Stars (Ruby Yacht) "Rapping gets people killed," State of Mainer notes while copping Hegel's word for ethical order, reporting that his son's laugh sounds like a symphony, and challenging any billionaire with the guts to a game of horseshoes ("Sittlichkeit," "Fighting Back") ***

The Hold Steady: The Price of Progress (Thirty Tigers/Positive Jams) Most of these songs are at the very least interesting, testimony to how deftly Craig Finn changes up his narrative gift. As he's gotten older, not only have his strugglers and stragglers gotten older too, but they've remained discernibly different from each other as their numbers increase. On this album the drug life is no longer front and center, and the musical life is not so much detailed as referenced in passing. A few fleeting protagonists seem to be mercenaries in unspecified conflicts or rootless hustlers ready to break the law in pursuits more evoked than described. Love, which Finn has always made room for, is vestigial if that, and if any of these over-30s has kids they're keeping it from their parole officers. But there's more to him than the downside--now and then a Mr. or Ms. Big gets a cameo. And a passing reference to the unreliability of municipal bonds hints tantalizingly at middle-class vistas I wish he'd detail someday. B PLUS

JPEGMafia & Danny Brown: Scaring the Hoes (AWAL) Both 1989-born Jamaican-Brooklynite-Alabaman Air Force vet Barrington Hendricks (JPEG) and 1981-born Detroit drug-dealing prison vet Daniel Sewell (Brown) are alt-rappers by temperament, and they balance each other off well enough. Hendricks is the one with easily discernible politics, but I find his beats more arresting than his rapping itself or the well-enunciated verbiage it delivers. Though Brown first won my heart with 2011's pussy-eating "I Will," he obviously has brains as well as gusto to spare. But for me it's his sound that puts this partnership across--I can't think of anything quite like the high-pitched squawk that defines their sonics if anything does. Yet at the same time there's a drawl to it that seems quintessentially hip-hop as it achieves musicality with its amelodic dips and swirls, uniquely individualistic and definitively genre-driven at the same time. A

Gurf Morlix: Caveman (Rootball) On sheer output alone--Morlix has self-produced 13 albums of original songs since he split with Lucinda Williams prior to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road--the Austin songwriter-guitarist-vocalist-producer is a wonder. But till now he never came close to equalling his 2011 tribute to Austin legend Blaze Foley, with six consecutive 2013-2022s Honorable Mentions hampered by both the gruffness of his sprechgesang and the hitch in his groove. This one maintains throughout, dipping briefly in the middle but soon picking up where it left off and then finishing strong. "Hodgepodge" rhymes with both garage and espionage, the idyllic lookback "1959" ignores Frankie Avalon et al as only a guy born in 1951 could, and "Make Me Your Monkey" volunteers as well to be her "tool" before it even masters the chords to "I'm a Believer." A MINUS

Gurf Morlix: I Challenge the Beast (Rootball) As a one-man band who handles drums as well as guitars and keyboards on record, Morlix has not so much juiced up as muscled up his beat and become a wiser singer as his voice aged ("Miss Nellie's Place," "World on Fire," "I Wanna Come Home") ***

Willie Nelson: I Don't Know a Thing About Love (Legacy) On what is said to be his 164th album including collaborations, compilations, and lives (this is the 63rd I've reviewed, 16 of them A's), the force of nature and walking cannabis commercial who'll turn 90 before April is over partakes of Michigan farmboy Harlan Howard's extraordinary book, which ended up containing some 4000 songs. Among Nelson's choices are the Ray Charles show-stopper "Busted," the Gram Parsons weeper "Streets of Baltimore," a famous Poe poem Howard set to music, and a title song that bespeaks both a nose for the hook and false modesty on the part of both principals. The worst thing I can say about this utterly obvious, utterly surefire album is that it doesn't begin to convince me that Nelson won't yet make a better one, which isn't even to mention posthumous treasures I bet they'll eventually unearth from some mislaid can or other. A MINUS

100 Gecs: Snake Eyes (Dog Show/Atlantic) Sonically, these three songs in six minutes split the foreshortened difference between the disconnected DIY digitalis of their 10-track, 23-minute 2019 debut and their more candidly rocklike major-label 27-minute follow-up four years later. Sonically the difference either way is bottom, which beefs up the laughs so effectively you wonder why they asked Skrillex to carry the middle on his brawny shoulders. Looks good on their resume, I guess. B PLUS

100 Gecs: 10,000 Gecs (Dog Show/Atlantic) M-f duo prove four years after that they're more than outrageously familiar sonics and stealth-playful mood with two songs that break new barriers in rock thematology. True, Dinah Washington's "Long John Blues" breached the dentistry barrier long ago, explicitly too, but not explicitly like "I Got My Tooth Removed." And "Frog on the Floor" is nothing less than both literal and totally unprecedented--no dumb France jokes, please. A

Oranj Symphonette: Oranj Symphonette Plays Mancini (Gramavision) Legendary '50s string schlock/schmaltz transmogrified into swinging orchestral theme music by the late Ralph Carney and pals, a good-humored consummatiom to be wished for anyone who remembers the originals, as you may well ("The Pink Panther Theme," "Moon River") **

Rust Dust: Twere but It Were So Simple (Omad) Spacey, folkish singer-guitarist muses associatively, airily, even liltingly on the meaning of life--if life (or meaning) is what this stuff is ("Helter Fukov Awakens," "Still Is Still Moving to Me") **

Wayne Shorter: Juju (Blue Note) When tenor saxophonist Shorter died at 89 early in March, the sense of cultural loss was too pervasive for me not to explore him a little even though I'd never fully connected to his music, not even when I double-checked the two most striking of his multitudinous credits--his decisive contribution to Weather Report, who still sound like Joe Zawinul's band to me, and his defining role in three late-'60s Miles albums that are just not my cup of horchata. Right, among other things the Miles albums helped crystallize Steely Dan, but for me they're still epitomized by Nefertiti, which I returned to several times to no avail after Shorter passed. Why did I stick at my research? Above all one of the greatest musician interviews I've ever read, Shorter sitting around talking with Greg Tate and Craig Street in 1985, a selection that comes in second only to Amiri Baraka's opener in Tate's invaluable Flyboy 2 collection and can be found online simply by Googling "people mess with Christianity, Christianity doesn't mess with people." As Tate says, Shorter is like "a hybrid of precocious teen and wizened sage," and for seven pages said sage doesn't quit working verbal miracles. So I examined the CD shelves where I'd held on to a few of his albums as a leader and learned that the personnel on this 1965 release was McCoy Tyner-Reggie Workman-Elvin Jones where the less shapely Footprints Live! featured his road quartet. So Juju is what I'll continue to bear down on until I land me a few more. Shorter sweeps through the title opener, with Tyner and Jones locked in enough not to pretend he's 'Trane even when Jones rumbles volcanically. "House of Jade" leaves a faint, welcome, apt trace of "Greensleeves" trailing behind, Tyner does the rumbling as "Mahjong" keeps things simple, "Yes or No" says yes to bebop, "Twelve More Bars to Go" is the closer it's designed as, and neither bonus cut is a waste cut. Right, Shorter isn't as distinctive as Bird or even Cannonball Adderley. But this is who he is and wants to be. There's a catholicity about his playing that meshes revealingly with the man who did that interview. A MINUS

A Way to Make a Living: The Dolly Parton Songbook (Ace) From the title provided by shrewd opener "Nine to Five"--one of just two Parton vocals on this 24-track tribute to a national treasure who could live opulently off the publishing royalties she declines to hoard--to an inspired closing sequence passed from Hank Williams Jr. to Nana Mouskouri to RuPaul to Tina Turner, Ace compiler Tony Rounce has dug out keepers by Maria Muldaur, Rhiannon Giddens, Sally Timms, and believe it or not the Incredible String Band. Even the White Stripes' overwrought "Jolene" has the virtue of highlighting the distressing fact that Patti Smith has never released her incendiary version. I find Bettye Lavette and Percy Sledge's soul somewhat sludgy and a few B-list country covers flat, but it's the rare tribute album that doesn't dip now and then, and it's also the rare tribute album that introduces us hoi polloi to previously unnoticeds as striking as "I Lived So Fast and Hard," "Nickels and Dimes," and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow." Not only that, either--in the end it's more revealing than Dolly's most recent best-of, 2022's shrewdly entitled Diamonds & Rhinestones, which I purchased out of sheer, unbridled respect. A MINUS

And It Don't Stop, April 12, 2023

March 8, 2023 May 10, 2023