Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2015

November 6, 2015

Link: You Shoould Always Listen to More Jazz: Last Exit / Aram Bajakian / Big Lazy / The Esoteric Circle

Last Exit: Iron Path (ESP-Disk) Sole studio album from latter-day free jazz ensemble comprising hyperactive New York mastermind Bill Laswell on bass, German freedom honker Peter Brötzmann on sax, harmolodic beatmaster Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, and stronger-than-Blood Sonny Sharrock blowing tunes up on guitar. Having folded all three of their live caterwauls into one hedged pick in 1987, I missed the real album a year later, but 27 years after that it still rocks. Studio provenance is the ticket. There's a shape and specific gravity to these 10 sub-five-minute tracks that I attribute to Laswell, who's always specialized in getting legible music out of the avant fringe, and a life force I attribute to Jackson even more than Sharrock--solid as the music is, he never stops bubbling under. When non-jazzer Chuck Eddy included all four Last Exit albums in his Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe, this was his favorite, e.g.: "Sick steers in a farm field moo amid a tornado, then Sonny Sharrock's guitar starts yanking the sound back in, restating a warped melody from one of his own records. Ronald Shannon Jackson's traps bulldoze the mess, Peter Brötzmann's sax heads up a battle-charge. A chariot driver cracks his whip, shouts 'Hyah! Hyah!' . . . " But while the label is hyping this fierce reissue by claiming kinship with drone-metal doomsters like Earth and Blut aus Nord, I don't hear it. The drums are just too uppity. A MINUS

Aram Bajakian: There Were Flowers Also in Hell (Sanasar) Marc Ribot/John Zorn type who's toured with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall rocks and cries more than he experiments on 11 distinct guitar-bass-drums instrumentals. "Texas Cannonball" is for Freddie King, "Orbisonian" headlong not balladic, "Lou Tone" mostly drone. "The Kids Don't Want to Sleep" shreds where "Japanese Love Ballad" has a koto feel. "Requiem for 5 Pointz" and "Medicaid Lullaby" are both kinda pretty, while "Labor on 57th" reminds me of "A Fistful of Dollars." Every track singular, every track strong. A MINUS

Big Lazy: Don't Cross Myrtle (Tasankee) Now guitarist Steve Ulrich's band solely, with Tamir Muskat's drums missed, so it's to the leader's credit that he's kept the atmospherics spooky and compelling ("Unswerving," "Human Sacrifice") ***

Last Exit: Head First Into the Flames (DMG/ARC) Free jazz made up on the spot, and although their guitarist died in 1994 and their drummer in 2013, I bet they have more brutalist live stuff in the can ("So Small, So Weak, This Bloody Sweat of Loving," "No One Knows Anything") **

The Esoteric Circle: George Russell Presents the Esoteric Circle (Flying Dutchman) Circa 1971, Miles-associated inventor of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization helps Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal get bizzy with it post-free style ("Traneflight," "Karin's Mode") *

November 13, 2015

Link: Middle Eastern Rap to Jewish Southern Folk: Khat Thaleth / Mark Rubin / Sleaford Mods / Neil Young / Algiers / Sleaford Mods

Khat Thaleth: Third Line: Initiative For The Elevation of Public Awareness (Strongline Sound) I was gripped by the music on this daunting Arabic rap compilation even when I had no idea exactly what they were protesting about, and 37 downloaded pages of political imagery and invective sealed the deal. The beats simply loop Middle Eastern tunelets over trap figures and scratches that aren't quite funky. But having long ago acclimated to Arabic scales and grooves, I find the hooks unusual and varied, the percussion muscular and beatwise, and the rapping novel and musical--Arabic gutturals are perfect for protest hip-hop. And translated though the lyrics are, they establish that we're not just imagining all that unleashed intensity and righteous rage. From Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, a few of the rappers are also journalists or literary men, but more seem street and/or activist and not a one is remotely Islamist. In fact, many don't even bother to mention the Israeli interlopers stuck in their craw or the Yankee dollars fattening the old autocrats and new opportunists they despise--those issues are assumed. Starter tracks: Touffar's unforgiving "Min Al Awal (From the Beginning)," El Far31's unruly "Harra (The Street)," El Rass's strategic "Foosh (Float)," and--harrowing--LaTlateh's nightmarish "Boov." A MINUS

Mark Rubin Jew of Oklahoma: Southern Discomfort (self-released) A full-time folkie and part-time violin salesman who plays half a dozen instruments and gigs with more bands than that, Rubin sings and sometimes jokes about the kind of marginality he knows too well. "No More for You" and "Key Chain Blues" sum up the new poverty in new ways. Klezmer sex tips join a jolly Gil Scott-Heron singalong and a "Murder of Leo Frank" that specifies Fiddlin' John Carson's role in that anti-Semitic lynching. "Why Am I Trying to Kill Myself?" and "Seriously aka Too Much Weed" take Mark Rubin himself to task. Opener and closer go out and have a good time anyway. A MINUS

Sleaford Mods: Chubbed Up + (Ipecac) Hating the class system and making it sound like hating everything ("Pubic Hair Ltd," "Jobseeker") ***

Neil Young + Promise of the Real: The Monsanto Years (Reprise) Anyone who claims the ideas are boring has his ass in the sand--"Too big to fail" duh, "Too rich to jail" good save--but musically Neil's ass is dragging too ("People Want to Hear About Love," "Big Box") **

Algiers: Algiers (Matador) Industrial-strength gospel grunge good enough for and better than the politics of rage ("But She Was Not Flying," "And When You Fall") **

Sleaford Mods: Key Markets (Harbinger) The message being that only those ready to give up the transient pleasure of a good tune are ready to confront the meaninglessness of their neoliberal-capitalist lives ("Giddy on the Ciggies," "Face to Faces") *

November 20, 2015

Link: Craig Finn's Best Bunch of Songs This Decade: Jinx Lennon / Craig Finn / Public Image Ltd.

Jinx Lennon: 30 Beacons of Light for a Land Full of Spite, Thugs, Drug Slugs, and Energy Vampires (Septic Tiger) Goody, a new Jinx album, said I to myself when the Dylan-chord rap-raver from Dundalk, County Louth, handed me one of these at a house party that was the only Gotham stop on a very brief US tour. And it is--copyright 2015. Problem is, the booklet says "Songs written Jinx Lennon copyright 2002." In other words, more Celtic Tiger jeremiads in which Lennon mocks a prosperity that's leaving everyone he knows behind. Maybe he wasn't yet economist enough to understand how its banking and real estate scams would soon blow up in the nation's face. But he was scold enough to see how fucked up things were anyway. Highlights among these 30 stabs at enlightenment in 60 minutes include: the health-conscious "Don't Lose a Stone for Xmas," the jerry-built "Houses Everywhere," the disquieting "Balaclava Boys," the lulling "You Shouldn't Try to Fuck Someones Head Up," "Next Slow Song You Hear May Leave You Pregnant" with its flavored condom, "550 Euros" with its princess pram. But that's just a sampling--most of them have a point. I await the house party number about the fireman versus the samurai sword. A MINUS

Craig Finn: Faith in the Future (Partisan) The band life has long since seemed all too consuming for the Hold Steady frontman. So for me, the clearest keepers on his best bunch of songs this decade feature non-scenesters like the rootless salvation-seeker of "Maggie I've Been Searching for Our Son" and the 9/11 beer-drinkers on "Newmyers's Roof," or engage an ex-lover like "Sarah, Calling From a Hotel" or a lost one like "Christine." I mean, "Some nights it just seems like the same old thing" is all too perfect a way to begin one called "Going to the Show." And "Trapper Avenue" tells me he should probably lay off the low life too. A MINUS

Public Image Ltd.: What the World Needs Now (PiL Official) There was always Peter Hammill guff behind the punk guff, and as long as Rotten-Lydon is excoriating busted toilets or corporate capital it's amusing enough--but not, please Jesus, when he's roaming the "Big Blue Sky" for eight minutes ("Corporate," "Double Trouble") *

November 27, 2015

Link: Tinariwen, Terakaft and Sidi Touré: Tinariwen / Lost in Mali / Sidi Touré / Terakaft / Samba Touré / Boubacar Traoré / Lobi Traoré

Tinariwen: Live in Paris (Anti-) Less than a year ago at the Bouffes du Nord, an elegantly refurbished old venue barely two miles from the bohemian Bataclan, the world's most renowned Malian musicians put on a show for a mixed audience of Christians, Muslims, and rank unbelievers. All were there to immerse in what an ISIS mission statement brands the "perversion" of live music, in this case by Tuaregs whose woman-friendly variant of Islam was embodied by special guest Lalla Badi, the 75-year-old queen of tindé, a drum played exclusively by women who are also entrusted with a trove of ceremonial lyics. Although some Tuaregs have banded with the Saharan Islamists of northern Mali in pursuit of Tuareg statehood and their next meal, many more love music, and as we know better now than we could have then, on this particular night these particular Tuareg musicians were a freedom force without borders. Having always found Tinariwen's groundbreaking popularization of Saharan guitar a touch solemn, I'm glad the live remakes are rougher--so spirited alongside Badi's raw, regal cameos. All these human beings had a shared life to celebrate that night. Now, so do we--the devout and the impious alike. A MINUS

Lost in Mali (Riverboat) This showcase of 13 previously uncollected Malian artists risks recording them fresh rather than compiling unknown gems. Yet the duds are rare, and in my count include an opener whose sweetness you may well take to. Although several tracks from Ali Farka Toure's desert hometown of Niafunke make the cut, Tuaregs and Saharan guitar are missed--the winner I imagined was a camel-drivers' shout turned out to be a hunters' call-and-response from the Wassoulou woods in Mali's deep south. Just goes to show that Mali is a big place. There's even a reggae with some jam--from cosmopolitan Bamako, naturally. Reggae signifies because, like the Jamaica of the 70s, this impoverished nation has learned to exploit its musical riches as export and tourist attraction. The puritan murderers who invaded Bamako's Radisson November 20 thought that was disgusting. A MINUS

Sidi Touré: Alafia (Thrill Jockey) It's long seemed odd that this substellar Songhai guitarist-singer landed on Bettina Richards's post-rock Thrill Jockey, where the bread-and-butter has been the communion-wafer-and-dream-whip of cool-jazz post-rock and chillout techno. But Richards has always made it her business to sign exactly what she likes, and why shouldn't she like the likable Sidi, who when finally vouchsafed a production budget came up with a Malian groove album more filling than the Sea and Cake, yet with a lightness I bet Richards groks. Recording in the teeth of 2012's Islamist surge, Touré eschews the bold anguish of that moment's Bassekou Kouyaté and Khaira Arby albums. The only way you can tell "Waayey" is pissed is that Thrill Jockey politely translates the title for us: "The Butcher." B PLUS

Terakaft: Alone (Ténéré) (Out Here) Terakaft are a livelier Tinariwen spinoff/breakaway featuring grooveful guitarist Diara and two spry nephews. Like all Tuareg musicians, they were exiled by the Islamist takeover of northern Mali, when, as several cryptic translations suggest, so many friends became enemies. Which may explain why this album doesn't manage quite the lift of 2011's Aratan N Azawad even with production input from Afropop good guy Justin Adams. Under the circumstances, lift's a lot to ask. But it is what they broke away for. B PLUS

Samba Touré: Gandadiko (Glitterbeat) Ali Farka Touré grad so cosmopolitan he admits that "Su Wililé"'s beat isn't African--it belongs to Bo Diddley, who figured it out in Chicago ("I Kana Korto," "Wo Yendé Alakar") ***

Boubacar Traoré: Mbalimaou (Lusafrica) A Malian "blues" guitar record where producer Ballaké Sissoko's kora fits right in--deeply calming, slightly new age ("Mbalimaou," "Sina Moussou Djougou") ***

Lobi Traoré: Bamako Nights--Live at Bar Bozo 1995 (Glitterbeat) For a brief historical moment, working-class Bamako had its own guitar hero ("Banani," "Sigui Nyongon Son Fo") **

Samba Touré: Albala (Glitterbeat) The slower the adaptable Timbuktu singer-guitarist takes it, the more hypnotic he gets ("Idjé Lalo," "Ajo Djamba") **

Noisey, November 2015

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