Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: July 2017

July 7, 2017

Link: Amber Coffman / Lorde / Bleachers / John Mayer / Dirty Projectors

Amber Coffman: City of No Reply (Columbia) According to the official timeline, Coffman and Dirty Projectors major domo David Longstreth split as a couple in 2012, reconnected somehow in 2014, and recorded her solo debut together in 2016. Only then, album nearly done, their friendship/relationship ended and Longstreth kicked her out of the band, apparently for the first time. Having found said band's disquieting harmonies and shifting arrangements arch and self-involved even when I liked them anyway, I say no big deal. Coffman does not. But it's Coffman who gets the better of this meeting of the minds, fight to the death, or whatever it was. Compared to the labored rhetoric of "Two Doves" and "Stillness Is the Move," the pomo lieder Longstreth ceded her in the Dirty Projectors, the one-dimensionality of "All to Myself"'s "I want to be swallowed up in an ocean of love" or "Miss You"'s "Gonna take you on a night ride" are formal coups in reverse. Longstreth takes a co-write on every song and acidulates the arrangements to excellent effect, but these moves are pop compromises by the standards of the guy who beat Coffman to the release date with a band album anchored by the immemorial avant-brag "What I want from art is truth/What you want is fame." By my standards, they're what aesthetes like him are for--the way his dissonances set off the weathered-porcelain grain of Coffman's lovely voice verges on the exquisite. Thus he's essential to the album's truth, which is that hipster love can be as ardent as anybody else's. A MINUS

Lorde: Melodrama (Lava/Republic) Having achieved world renown as a 16-year-old innocent with a throaty voice, a head on her shoulders, and the nerve to dissent from a style of upward mobility invented by black people a pole away, she returns four years later as what else--a pop property with a sex life. Thus her chief musical collaborator is Taylor/Sia/Carly Rae helpmeet Jack Antonoff rather than New Zealand svengali Joel Little, and it's Antonoff plus the extra grain in her voice that make the difference here. For me, the most meaningful line is "Put my hands under your T-shirt," because it suggests someone who's thought about how this sex thing works. Deep, no. Real, in theory. Sex life, presumably. Pop property, absolutely. B PLUS

Bleachers: Gone Now (RCA) Smart, loud, vocally nondescript pop savant patches together a song cycle wiser about ordinary relationships than you'd figure ("Don't Take the Money," "Let's Get Married") ***

John Mayer: The Search for Everything (Columbia) If you wonder why women fall for a guy with his romantic history, listen to his songs with an open mind ("Never on the Day You Leave," "Love on the Weekend") **

Dirty Projectors: Dirty Projectors (Domino) His ex's breakaway isn't the breakup album--his is, replete with pained, painful songs whose truth he owns for better or worse ("Up in Hudson," "Winner Take Nothing") *

July 14, 2017

Link: Jay-Z / Vince Staples / Lil Wayne / Young Thug

Jay-Z: 4:44 (Roc Nation/UMG) At its frequent peaks, this unusual album nails the understated mastery it's going for--the calm candor of a titan with plenty to own up to hence plenty to teach. He's so discreet you may not notice that he can still outrhyme the small fry--"fuck with me"-"cutlery"-"butlers be"-"hustlers be," say, all parsing as "The Story of OJ." But clever's not his program. From the subtle beats No I.D. builds from Sean Carter's all-time playlist, he means to pretend he's just talking to us, nowhere more than in the painfully detailed "4:44" a.k.a. "I Apologize" a.k.a. "I suck at love." But just as "4:44" resorts for no discernible reason to an "I cut off my nose to spite my face," "The Story of OJ" is marred by a pun on "Dumbo" that's funny twice max and very nearly wrecked by the deplorable "You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?" The answer, in case you were wondering: "credit." Which is an OK principle--Jay-Z isn't the only rap elder advising youngbloods to buy property instead of Lambos. But there are plenty of similar lapses on an album where "Legacy" celebrates his money, some of it secured by other people's artworks, rather than his art. He's teaching black capitalism, not weighing every word much less manning up and learning to love. Compared to white capitalism, I'll take it. But unlike learning to love, it has plenty of downside. A MINUS

Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory (Def Jam) On an album that's two-thirds as amazing as is reported, nine-tenths of the amazement is musical. Not just the stripped-down electro powerbeats whose supple muscularity is less 2-step than is reported, but Staples's exacting articulation--he's on every beat smooth and toned, never e-nun-ci-a-ting but without a word lost. Which brings us to, you know, the rhymes. Sure he says what he wants to say with clarity and economy; sure he takes on police racism rampant. But what he wants to say is pretty much the usual except insofar as he doesn't murder anyone while preferring money to women. True, on the last two tracks he contemplates suicide in his first-class seat and muses about the mother of his very unborn children. But you know how it is--they always sneak some soft stuff in at the end. So maybe next time. And maybe not. A MINUS

Lil Wayne: In Tune We Trust (self-released) On Carter 5 teaser-we-hope, boss's freestyle tops posse's showpiece 16s ("Magnolia (Freestyle)," "Fireworks") *

Young Thug: Beautiful Thugger Girls (Atlantic) Singsong porn from a purple people eater who's seldom as funny as he used to be and sometimes funnier than he wants to be ("Family Don't Matter," "Take Care") *

July 21, 2017

Link: Blondie / The Mountain Goats / Peter Perrett

Blondie: Pollinator (BMG) Not much clever pan-referentiality in the most consistent material this 43-year-old band has assembled since No Exit, half a career ago in 1998. But for a 72-year-old glamourpuss to excavate multiple affairs in one post-ironic, pro-erotic song after another--only two Stein-Harry, although there's also a Hynes-Harry and their newish 4?-year-old keyb guy chips in a couple--is a lyrical coup in itself. Any youngish person who doesn't buy her "Take me back home again/I wanna make love again," not to mention 53-year-old Johnny Marr's "Human beings are stupid things when we're young," has much to learn about the aging process in this ever-changing world we hope we all age in. Yes, she's had "work done," and one way or another, so to speak, this may extend to her vocals. But neither her voice nor the rest of her body is any less hers than it ever was. A MINUS

The Mountain Goats: Goths (Merge) Propelled though they are by rock-sturdy Jon Wurster, the arrangements evoke a keyboard-based, explicitly guitarless cocktail jazz of modest drive and less bite. John Darnielle sings with a dulcet lucidity that's almost angelic, the melodies chime in, and although I assume I'm missing some references, the lyrics do well enough by goth music and lifestyle from a "We Do It Different on the West Coast" perspective. Nonetheless, a lounge-style concept album about goth is not unlike a bro-country concept album about chamber music. That its two great songs--"Abandoned Flesh" and "Andrew Eldritch Is Back in Leeds," to be precise--reach out not to rudderless fans but aging musicians suggest that Darnielle is ready to move on to the next obsession. B PLUS

Peter Perrett: How the West Was Won (Domino) Rousing himself from a six-minute opener as shapeless as another nodder's stupor, the original Only One delivers a revealing collection of new songs in the adenoidal singsong he trademarked in his twenties and miraculously retains at 65. Blaming his inept life on society's cruelty to bison and laboratory rats (the lucky ones, he believes, get to starve themselves to death on crack), he swears an eternal love it's not at all clear he can follow through on. His biography, however, suggests otherwise--he's long been married to a designer as COPD-damaged as he is. Not a pretty picture. But a catchy and educational one. B PLUS

July 28, 2017

Link: The Perceptionists / Oddisee / Murs / Brother Ali / Public Enemy

The Perceptionists: Resolution (Mello Music) On their 2005 debut, quick, clear, literate, Boston-based, Bajan-American rappers Mr. Lif and Akrobatik sounded more musical trading timbres as a duo than holding forth on their worthy solo albums--little guy Lif clipped and cool and pitched deeper, Akrobatik the good-natured jock. A dozen years later, as 42-year-olds who've each survived a brush with non-gangsta death--Akrobatik from an aortic aneurysm, Mr. Lif in a tour bus gone over a cliff--they lead their belated follow-up with three tracks that drop more political science than any TrumpTime hip-hop to date: Big Pharma and body armor, tax laws and proportional representation, racial solidarity and cross-racial solidarity, "treason" in a "world out of control." Given that Lif was criticizing Obama's monetary policies in 2009, this is no surprise. But it's certainly satisfying. Not everything that follows is so right on. But in a kind of compensation, "When Push Comes to Shove" radiates more love than "4:44." A MINUS

Oddisee: The Iceberg (Mello Music) This 32-year-old Somali-Afro-American from the D.C. suburbs articulates his wordly-wise raps over quicksilver jazz-funk beats that might as well be live and often are. Of course he's political, as in "I'm from black America, this is just another year" or "You around here acting like we equal but we greater." But what I love is his philosophical and psychological interests: conditioning as destiny, biology as destiny, how human beings acquire and apply knowledge, mental illness as a by-product of oppression, the special perils of the African-American middle class, the special burdens of the artist whose immigrant parents dreamed he would have a recognizable career. There's a love song so twisty I hope he came out on the other side. And there's also a song where he figures out "I just want to be happy/free/left alone/me." So I hope and half believe he did. "No trophy on the mantle but I got a mantle," he brags. Attaboy. A MINUS

Murs: Captain California (Strange Music, Inc.) His Romeo and Juliet thing is called "Shakespears on the Low," but I keep thinking Stendhal--The Red and the Blue, as fucked up and tribal as ever ("GBKW [God Bless Kanye West]," "One Uh Those Days," "1000 Suns") ***

Brother Ali: All the Beauty in This Whole Life (Rhymesayers Entertainment) Stories to tell, arguments to make, and money to take home to the family, which is all an old-school alt-rapper can ask ("Uncle Usi Taught Me," "Before They Called Me White") **

Public Enemy: Nothing Is Quick in the Desert (self-released) Giving it away isn't phoning it in, but I wish their sharpest line had a song attached and find that Ice-T's scornful 16 cuts deeper than all of Chuck's gruff outrage ("If You Can't Join Em Beat Em," "SPEak!") **

Noisey, July 2017

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