Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: January 2017

January 6, 2017

Link: Sheer Mag and SleighBells: Sheer Mag / Sleigh Bells

Sheer Mag: III 7" (Wilsuns RC/Katorga Works) This not-actually-punky Philly rock quintet keeps upping the ante in four-song increments, here divided two political and two love. Tina Halladay's shriek doesn't clarify every consonant, I know. But if they didn't want you to know why she's hanging around so intense they wouldn't put the lyrics on their Bandcamp page. Above all they understand that the two poles actually aren't--"So hold fast to the ones you love/Before they're ripped away," on the political "Night Isn't Bright," signifies more acutely in this ripped-apart time than it did when it surfaced in March. Their punkiest move is to seize the intro to Television's "Venus." Not actually a punk band, remember. Also not a band that ever understood love as well as this one already does. A MINUS

Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (Mom + Pop) Although in fact album three is where tiny-voiced Alexis Krauss achieves aesthetic parity with humongous-noised Derek Miller and where megasynths do duty for guitars that always eschewed articulation anyway, I get the general tendency to assume this 2013 entry was more of the loud-minimalist arty-nihilist same. That's the kind of thing that happens when you eschew articulation. But listen just a little closer and admit that actual nihilist it ain't. "Young legends die and so will" admittedly cuts it close. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should," however, most decidedly does not. And note that the title "To Hell With You" shortens a line with a different feel: "I'll go to hell with you." Which even in this much more hellish time we can hope proves unnecessary. A MINUS

Sleigh Bells: Jessica Rabbit (Torn Clean) On their own label, with Eminem/Fiona Apple adjutant Mike Elizondo overseeing half the album, they shift focus to Alexis Krauss's teenpop roots--"I Can't Stand You Anymore" has the killer chorus, "I Can Only Stare" the balladic gravitas, and both are Elizondo tracks. This is a healthy development with plenty of upside, but it works better in principle than in practice. Krauss may never master pop's heartfelt commitment to putative sincerity, and the one with the killer chorus is also one of the two where Elizondo claims composition as well as production credits. The sincerest is "Baptism by Fire" toward the end, where Krauss's "I want to listen to your heart" adds a welcome sweetness to the band's raging rhetorical parameters. Elizondo has a writing credit on that one too. B PLUS

January 13, 2017

Link: Run the Jewels / T.I. / Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman / Fantastic Negrito / Death Grips / YG

Run the Jewels: RTJ3 (self-released) "Fear's been law for so long that rage feels like therapy," raps lost angry man El-P as if it just occurred to him. In fact, of course, rage has been the heart of his art since Company Flow, and rage is what his NYC-Atlanta duo was selling to the testosterone-stoked alt-rap subculture when it launched in 2013. True, they were funny about it, and Killer Mike added some give to the hard beats by sounding preacherly even when advocating atheism. And now, three albums into what was supposed to be a one-off, public acclaim, economic security, and the historial moment have transformed them--they're funnier, hookier, and kinder as well as brainier and more political. From Mike's opening "I hope, I hope, I hope with the highest of hopes" to El-P's culminating "You talk clean and bomb hospitals/I speak with the foulest mouth possible," they transform the Bernie love that turned Mike into an election-year player into a call for resistance. In a time when street rebellions are one inevitable response to DT's inevitable atrocities, we need somebody quoting MLK loud and clear: "A riot is the language of the unheard." So if Mike wants to waves his supposed "banana dick" in the process, all we can say is yes, we have no objections. A MINUS

T.I.: Us or Else: Letter to the System (Grand Hustle/Roc Nation) In an odd move commercially but a fortuitous one culturally, the well-fixed ex-felon absorbs all six tracks of the political EP he dropped in September into a doubly unexpected 15-track album. The new songs are no stronger than the old ones and never top the Killer Mike throwdown "40 Acres"; they make room for the regrettable hook "You know why you broke you niggaz is lazy" and the provocative refrain "Pain just a weakness when it leavin' the body." Yet the bubble-funk of the opener eases its iconoclasm down, the tongue-in-cheek patriotism of "That's my story and I'm stickin' to it" adds cred to the title track's Black Lives Matter, and the don't-trap-like-I-did admonitions gain cred by association. Between its timing, its heft, and its complexity, the whole is more than equal to the sum of its parts. A MINUS

Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice Two: Still Buggin' (Rhymesayers/Stones Throw download) "I hated myself before it was cool," claims Aesop; "I'm looking for a mystery bigger than me to remedy," sez Homeboy, which is why I prefer him ("Oatmeal Cookies," "Mud") ***

Fantastic Negrito: The Last Days of Oakland (Blackball Universe) Unflinchingly specific and analytic protest blues-rock counts on musical torque it doesn't get from a soggy hummed groan that's half misprised field holler and half godless gospel rip ("Working Poor," "Rant Rushmore") ***

Death Grips: Bottomless Pit (Harvest/Third Worlds) Enough to make me wonder whether hip-hop's rawest sonic warriors are getting more death metal, but not enough to a-b the albums and find out ("Giving Bad People Good Ideas," "Eh") **

YG: Still Brazy (Def Jam) Not only does he no longer just [insert verb here] the pussy all the time--unlike DT, he knows when he's being recorded about it ("Fuck DT," "Blacks & Browns") *

January 20, 2017

Link: African Rumba / Noura Mint Seymali / Awa Poulu / Aly Keita / Brian Chilala & Ngona Zasu / Youssou Ndour / Fofoulah

African Rumba (Putumayo) Every so often the safest and most pan-touristic of the shifting cadre of "world" labels digs into its pockets and pulls out something gorgeous that goes down as easy as its target market supposedly insists. This one documents a pan-African phenomenon, as over a span of stylistically evolving decades, the rumba clave into which Cuban musicians converted Congolese rhythms proved ripe for reconversion from Dakar in the northwest to Luando seven thousand miles thataway. While slightly favoring Zairean variants, Putumayo smooshes all this action into ten tracks that mix godfathers with revivaliasts with expats with pretenders with senior citizens glad for a payday. Yet somehow there's not a tuneout in the bunch, and I'm amazed that I've pursued these musics for so long without ever registering Senegalese legend Pape Fall's "Boul Topato" or running across Togo queen Afia Mala. Too sweet on the whole, you think? Then go suck a lemon. A

Noura Mint Seymali: Arbina (Glitterbeat) Seymali's wonder-of-nature, awesome-as-in-forbidding voice doesn't oblige ordinary Bombino or Khaira Arby fans to like it any more than ordinary boxing fans need appreciate the finer points of mixed martial arts. So it's good that her second album moderates that deep, accomplished sandblast a little--so subtly that no non-Mauritanian will notice without direct comparison and so skillfully that folkies manque still hoping she's Oumou Sangare will keep listening to her praise of a God they don't believe in. Ultimately, they may even notice that in addition to commanding a hell of a voice, she leads a band that rocks harder than, for instance, Bombino's. A MINUS

Awa Poulo: Poulo Warali (Awesome Tapes From Africa) From rural southwestern Mali, Poulo is a Peulh a/k/a Fulani, a mere 20 or 25 million of whom are dispersed across an arid yet mostly sub-Saharan third of the continent. Peulhs have their own culture, which neighboring peoples feel in sharper detail than I can. So for me Poulo's eight songs in 35 minutes captivate as West African with a twist, softening those circular grooves with singing more dulcet than, say, genteel Rokia Traoré's, never mind alarm-bell Noura Mint Seymali's. Although the grooves ride the Peulh variant of the strummed and plucked ngoni lute, they come into their own when a one-stringed violin the Peulhs call a soku echoes the vocal line. The press release indicates that Poulo's lyrics praise traders, blacksmiths, a marabout, and of course her patrons. But what tourists like us grok is the endearing, hypnotic fact of the praise itself. B PLUS

Aly Keita/Jan Gallega Bronnimann/Lucas Niggli: Kalo-Yele (Intakt) Swiss-Camerounian bass clarinet and trap drums join Ivoirian balafon master in jazz trio that in a narrower world might settle for a vibraphone instead ("Kalo-Yele," "Makuku," "Adjamé Street") ***

Brian Chilala & Ngoma Zasu: Vangaza! (SWM) Cheerful Afropop absolutely, Zimbabwean-Congolese get it, pan-Zambian if you say so, rebel lyricist over my head ("Jombo," "Mailesi") ***

Youssou Ndour: Africa Rekk (Sony Music) Former tourism and culture minister pitch-corrects, synthesizes, Anglophones, and otherwise makes nice on an album whose strongest track--about his Sufi sect, the notes say--led the much stronger Senegaal Rekk EP he released locally six months before ("Serin Fallu," "Gorée," "Money Money") **

Fofoulah: Fofoulah (Glitterbeat) European Afrogroovers benefit mightily from actual West African input ("Reality Rek," "Hook Up (Nango Dereh)") *

January 27, 2017

Link: The Highwaymen / Dave Van Ronk / The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues / Neil Young / Chartbusters USA / Roll Columbia

The Highwaymen: The Very Best of the Highwaymen (Columbia/Legacy) Nelson, Jennings, Cash, & Kristofferson joined their voices in American song during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years, and listening back, the greatest of these was Nelson--the man could sing (and still can). As a group, NJCK are better passing lines around than joining their voices grandly in song--"Desperados Waiting for a Train" gets buried alive, "Born and Raised in Black and White" lost in the crowd. But they top Arlo's wistful "City of New Orleans" as well as Bob Seger's mawkish "Against the Wind," equal George's slapstick "The King Is Gone," and forever define Robert Earl Keen's highwayman saga "The Road Goes on Forever." Also, believe it or not, they have politics: "Welfare Line" describes white people, "American Remains" shovels a foreclosure on top of a drought, and a crucial cameo from Johnny Rodriguez extracts every ounce of outrage from the Woody Guthrie classic properly entitled as it is here: "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." A MINUS

Dave Van Ronk: Down in Washington Square (Smithsonian Folkways) Born in 1936, Van Ronk was the paterfamilias of the Macdougal Street folk scene from approximately 1958, shortly before its inception and well after his career began, until 2002, long after its demise and too damn early for his. He was an agitator and a port in a storm, a wag and a songbag, a virtuoso without portfolio who played Scott Joplin on guitar and banjo in a Dixieland band--almost everything but much of a singer. So while this three-CD set is the nearest we'll get to a comprehensive overview, it may be too gruffly hewn to convert you, and there's a sense in which I'm equally taken with the outtakes and rarities CD The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which Elijah Wald compiled while editing Van Ronk's text, leavings, and interviews into the terrific autobiography of the same name. Nevertheless, it established Van Ronk as a hero whose conception of American song was almost as all-embracing as Willie Nelson's. And one more thing. The label in parentheses up there? Smithsonian Folkways? That label is owned by a federal government a loud minority has delivered into the budget-slashing hands of yahoos bent on extirpating any trace of the demon leftism from Our Nation's Capital. It may not be long for this world, and it deserves both our support and our preemptive collectoritis. So check out, oh, "Haul on the Bowline," "House of the Rising Sun," and "Garden State Stomp" and discover a gravel-voiced post-Trotskyite who never stooped to protest music because he was just too damn smart. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues (World Music Network) Be aware of a superior if barely findable alternative: the expertly annotated 1993 Columbia/Legacy double-CD White Country Blues (1926-1938): A Lighter Shade of Blue, which splits 50 tracks among 31 artists who include nine of the 25 here, four with repeats that deserve it. But this is a viable substitute, less for its songs (especially with two standouts also on 2015's more useful Rough Guide to Blues Songsters) than for the fancy picking where most of these fellas claim bragging rights--rags and jigs, a "bluegrass twist" and even a "fandango." Also check talking blues pioneer's Chris Bouchillon's light-blue comedy routine "Born in Hard Luck," which took me half a dozen plays to start wearing out the way skits do. And don' forget Walter Smith's "The Cat's Got the Measles and the Dog's Got the Whooping Cough" because it's a losing battle--the thing implanted itself in my head for a week. B PLUS

Neil Young: Peace Trail (Reprise) Anything but "predictable," these political ditties rank among the strangest songs of his career, as in "Hope that was confusing, looking like a bright light/Blinding you forever with its power" ("My Pledge," "Glass Accident") ***

Chartbusters USA: Special Country Edition (Ace) Nashville crossover in the 60s is the concept--major country hits that creased the pop charts and exemplify how corny, hopeful, humanistic, and relatively unpolarized that time was (Tommy Cash, "Six White Horses"; Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A."; Roger Miller, "Chug-a-Lug") ***

Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie's 26 Northwest Songs (Smithsonian Folkways) No no no fellas--throwing a bone to every folkie lifer within driving distance is not how you spruce up his catalogue (Cahalen Morrison, "Lumber Is King"; Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters, "Eleckatricity and All") *

Noisey, January 2017

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