Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2014

November 7, 2014

Link: Coathangers / Chumped / Parkay Quarts / Parquet Courts / Cloud Nothings / Half Japanese / Typefighter / Wire / Oblivians / Sunwolf / Swearin'

Jinx Lennon: Know Your Station Gouger Nation!!! (Septic Tiger '06) Punk poet has never been much of a job description. But on the four albums I've heard, Lennon always makes something of it, and on this 2006 entry he makes everything of it. Recorded when the Celtic Tiger had gotten so mangy anybody who could stand Lennon at all knew he'd seen what was coming, he's full of gleeful scorn whether advising fellow male-pattern baldness sufferers to live with their fate or going off about home invasions again. For 20 tracks he rants on, sometimes tunefully and always unstoppably. He gets everything you'd hope from titles like "New Land of Syringes" and "Nigerians (Stop Giving Out About)." The matched hymns "You Must Forgive the Cnts" and "You Are No Scumbag" showcase his spiritual side, and "S.U.F.Y. Hospitals" borrows a hook from "Looking for the Perfect Beat." All he wants is to keep us out of the circle of shit and help make a better world for Ireland's bruised bananas. A

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard: Here Be Monsters (In De Goot) Once it hits home, the opening "Summer Stars" could be the gravest song of his life, a threnody for an earth ruined by the ecological/economic catastrophe most of us foresee in our grimmer moments--a vision no less vivid or plausible for its reliance on metaphor. The metaphors that follow are easier to duck and in the case of the amelodic "Mars" ignore. But starting midway in with "Drone Operator," the lyrics become more pointed, one political indictment after another, with Langford's precisely articulated, barely contained rage his version of what they call soul. Sing it, brother. A MINUS

Jinx Lennon: Trauma Themes Idiot Times (Septic Tiger '09) Worried about bumming out fans you'd think were used to his moods by 2009, Lennon has old helpmeet Paula Flynn echo him sweetly on most of these songs and leaves room for a horn section a lot mellower than he is. But he also makes sure his punky-rootsy band drives the trauma themes on, and although they get winded after an opening sprint, his arsenal of vocables doesn't quit. On the merry "Folk Music for the Midlands," the energy sustains even when Lennon and Flynn are bidding each other a resigned and lyrical farewell. "I must keep it awkward and real," Lennon insists on the long track of more or less that title that precedes an even longer finale. And that goes as well when he's advising you to stick a knife in a burglar's eye. A MINUS

Mike Doughty: Stellar Motel (Snack Bar/Megaforce) Doughty has never been tuneless. But he's better at lyrics than melody and better at declaiming than singing, which is one reason he foundered after he broke with the polyrhythmic Soul Coughing. It also explains why his old songs held up when he devised an alternatively polyrhythmic hipster hip-hop that he elaborated further for these new ones, breaking decisively with the trad band sound he settled for solo--backup more percussive and electronic, guests more rappers than singers. For the middle third of a 16-track album that lasts just 50 minutes, the lyrics have trouble filling in their title concepts. But everywhere he sounds at home. He's acerbic of course--he hasn't gone soft. But he's always credible, often thoughtful, and sometimes even spiritual. B PLUS

Jinx Lennon: National Cancer Strategy (Septic Tiger '10) More songs about pathology and revenge ("Fight Diabetes," "If You Change Your Accent for the City People," "Pink Scrunched Up Thing") ***

Jinx Lennon: Live at the Spirit Store (Septic Tiger '00) Early on, Dundalk raver fuses "raw"--nay, "cotton field"--songs with standup bits ("So Frightened," "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," "Heavy Music for the Hard Working Man") **

Mike Doughty: Circles Super Bon Bon (Snack Bar/Megaforce) Soul Coughing songs of special use to people who abominate the other members of Soul Coughing as much as its reason for being now does ("Super Bon Bon," "Sleepless") *

November 14, 2014

Link: Jerry Lee Lewis / Brandy Clark / Jenny Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis: The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings (Ace) He's always preferred to call himself a stylist, not a rocker, and these impromptu late-'70s recordings with Sam's son cohere into a lost concept album that proves him right. After transforming Leroy Brown into a Memphis motherhumper who stomps all over Jim Croce's stupid cartoon and wears the tatters around his neck like a victory garland, he rewrites a Moon Mullican blues, matches a 50s Chuck Berry medley with a 50s Teresa Brewer-Hugo Winterhalter medley, covers a humble Fanny Crosby hymn and a schlocky Mickey Gilley hit, posits a humble country hit of his own, and--after anointing America's first fulltime professional songwriter "one of the greats of all time" along with Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Al Jolson theirself--goes out on the greatest weeper Stephen Foster ever wept. His piano pumping irrepressibly, Jerry Lee defines his musical identity in the middle of the night with nobody listening: a stylist who can't stop rocking. A

Brandy Clark: 12 Stories (Slate Creek) Clark writes better than any other un-bro--better than Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley. Every winning tune opens up or clicks shut with a few unexpected words--"There's so many shades of gray but this is black and white," "This'd be a real good time to hold my hand," "Crazy women are made by crazy men," "Thanks for the Mary Jane." And there's an added attraction--near as I can tell from NYC, the feminism is a notch more ideological than the un-bro norm without ever going over the Nashville line. Nevertheless, there's a neatness to the execution that I suspect compromises her credibility and have no doubt compromises her gut attraction. I recommend her album to anyone who's intrigued. I know I'll enjoy it again myself. But I can't tell you exactly when that will be. A MINUS

Jenny Lewis: The Voyager (Warner Bros.) After a five-year absence if you don't count the time she threw herself away on Johnathan Rice--which if we are to take these songs autobiographically (as of course we are not) is kind of a syndrome with her--Lewis's formal command remains a wonder. If terse, well-turned, literal, indelible songcraft is so easy, why can't Aimee Mann or Gillian Welch or for that matter a more attractive character like Elizabeth Morris bring it off right down to the B sides? Every melody stands alone; every arrangement tops it off; every vocal nails it; every lyric parses with just enough mystery and mordant self-regard to make you crave some backstory. But her bad romances are so nonstop that their cumulative effect wears thin. You begin to suspect that her characters never achieve the consummations they think they wish because it isn't love they're looking for--it's perfection, or control. A MINUS

November 21, 2014

Link: Coathangers / Chumped / Parkay Quarts / Parquet Courts / Cloud Nothings / Half Japanese / Typefighter / Wire / Oblivians / Sunwolf / Swearin'

The Coathangers: Suck My Shirt (Suicide Squeeze) Their keyboard player threw it in seven years after they started learning their instruments, and who can blame her? In rock and roll, the chasm between a lark and a career is wider than ever. So the other three women plighted a troth with their catchiest, toughest, angriest, most sexual batch of songs yet--a few times they're even sweet, which I always sensed they had in them because they always preferred passion to cool. Unlike some promising bands I could name but won't (who might TPC be? SSG? CYHSY at a stretch?), they don't think punk is the gateway to prog. Johnny Ramone and Kathleen Hanna, we thank you. NOW and NARAL too. A MINUS

Chumped: Teenage Retirement (Anchorless) I don't just admit that I prefer the kind of lo-fi pop-punk where I not only understand the words they're singing but understand what those words mean. I brag about it to people I hardly know. Speedy Ortiz? Solid, dissonant sound justifying jerrybuilt, obscure poesy. Anika Pyle's outfit is thinner sonically for sure. But they certainly make noise and they certainly rock, and Pyle's keen, intense, legible little soprano is a positive attraction. You can hear her feeling scared and getting mad and caring about her friends. I like that a lot. A MINUS

Parkay Quarts: Tally All the Things That You Broke (What's Your Rupture?) Maybe some classify our finest current punk band as garage because they're the first punk band anyone can recall that's also significantly a groove band--in the "Whippin' Post" rather than "Super Bad" sense, natch. Tuneful-toothache opener aside, the standouts on this unnecessarily unheralded EP are certainly the five-minute "The More It Works," where I'm just going to assume "it" refers to his penis, and the seven-and-a-half-minute "He's Seeing Paths," where they bring out the cowbell like the damn Chambers Brothers as they follow a bicycle rider around the five boroughs. (Well, maybe the Fall.) A MINUS

Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (What's Your Rupture?) Or maybe they are a garage band--one with dreams. Certainly Andrew Savage has succeeded at composing songs with distinct hooks at differing lengths and tempos and constructing an album that reveals more goodies the more you play it. I've stopped wondering about the real-world coordinates of the mamacita whose offer of refuge suffuses the unforgettable seven-minute slow one that gets special play on the back cover, and the title cut is just too fast to be about a cat. But two different songs dis two different women without making Savage sound like a dick. And "Black and White" gets the frenzied compulsion to run out of your skin just right. (Not tight enough for the Buzzcocks.) A MINUS

Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else (Carpark) Further adventures in the aesthetic of the tantrum ("I'm Not Part of Me," "Now Hear In") ***

Half Japanese: Overjoyed (Joyful Noise) Exulting "As Good Can Be" over the chords of "I Wanna Be Your Dog," which given how loyally he follows his wife around may not be such a bad match ("In Its Pull," "Our Love") ***

Typefighter: The End of Everything (Huge Witch) Know how to do that roiling-bashing-chiming thing, topped off by an especially gritty-declamatory-delighted singer ("I Like the Way You Are," "Happy") ***

Wire: Change Becomes Us (Pinkflag) No grail for any but the staunchest believers, but give them credit for not losing interest ("Love Bends," "Doubles & Trebles") ***

Oblivians: Desperation (In the Red) Uncommonly uncompromising garage barrage, its admonitory peak an obscure modern soul song ("Call the Police," "Fire Detector") **

Sunwolf: Angel Eyes (El Rey) For six songs, DC trio reiterate the garage-protopunk verities anew ("Push It," "Angel Eyes") **

Swearin': Surfing Strange (Salinas) Sweet sad gal and dreamy nerdy guy let their tuneful murk do the talking--well, drawling ("Dust in the Gold Sack," "Watered Down") *

November 28, 2014

Link: Angaleena Presley / Laura Cantrell / Lucinda Williams / Jenny Scheinman / Lee Ann Womack / Nikki Lane / Rosanne Cash / Sunny Sweeney / Brad Paisley

Angaleena Presley: American Middle Class (Slate Creek)
This moderately astonishing bunch of songs begins with a long series of homely oxymorons and a fable about not going to hell--both a bit overworked I think, both probably up front to deflect the hard news not quite specified by the title except insofar as it uses the C-word at all. Because as one track after another then bangs home, the middle class this coal miner's daughter knows from life is up against it. From the line at the grocery store to the life of last night's party taking the long way home in her high heels, nobody's quite getting by. "Dry County Blues" is about meth, "Pain Pills" about opioids, "Drunk" about that guitar player who made her an all too honest woman after she got "Knocked Up." Shit-shooting Pistol Annie Presley is grim and acerbic and kind all at once. And she sings pretty as you please. A

Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here (Thrift Shop)
Now in her mid forties, Nashville-born, New York-based Columbia grad Cantrell has always been one of those intensely likable, not necessarily female Nashville helpmeets whose own music is a quantum too mild to break out of their circle. But on her first album of new songs since she stepped back to have a kid, two cowrites with the darker and sharper Amy Allison are intensely flavorful: the pan-feminist "All the Girls Are Complicated" and the pining-for-my-guy "Can't Wait." Great melodies too from Jennifer O'Connor on the songwriter-centric "Beg or Borrow Days" and Franklin Bruno on the dislocated "No Way There From Here" and, hey, Laura Cantrell acting alone on the calmly bereft "Letter She Sent." That's a lot. Welcome outside the circle, ma'am. A MINUS

Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)
You'll never guess--a double album that would be punchier as a single! It doesn't help that the 20 tracks average over five minutes apiece, so that the philosophical grist of "Temporary Nature (of Any Precious Thing)," for instance, leaches what value its no-love-without-loss wheeze has as the song refuses to end. My strategy, which I've made a reality in my iTunes folder, is to finish off the top five of disc one with--somewhat less sure-shottedly--the bottom four of disc two. The political to the personal. Nine-minute cover to wander out on. Title: Down to the Bone. B PLUS

Jenny Scheinman: The Littlest Prisoner (Sony Masterworks)
Fiddler/violinist to the stars straight-talks lissomely about love and loss ("The Littlest Prisoner," "Sacrifice") ***

Lee Ann Womack: The Way I'm Livin' (Sugar Hill)
Takes sin almost as seriously as Jerry Lee Lewis, only she's nicer about it ("The Way I'm Livin'," "Sleeping With the Devil") **

Nikki Lane: All or Nothin' (New West)
Loves sex and is joined at the hip to her man, which unfortunately for her aren't the same thing ("Right Time," "Man Up") **

Rosanne Cash: The River and the Thread (Blue Note)
Melodies strong, vocals intent, arrangements deft, lyrics worked, impact minimal despite it all ("World of Strange Design," "50,000 Watts") *

Sunny Sweeney: Concrete (Republic Nashville '11)
Bad old girl makes good ("Amy," "Drink Myself Single") *

Brad Paisley: Moonshine in the Trunk (Arista Nashville)
Not-so-stealth Democrat respectfully requests that Nashville let him back in the frat ("Shattered Glass," "High Life") *

Medium/Cuepoint, November 2014

October 2014 December 2014