Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2019

February 1, 2019

Link: Saba / The Coup / Czarface / G Herbo / 1800 Seconds

Saba: Care for Me (Saba Pivot) Like Noname, Donnie Trumpet, and pathfinder Chance the Rapper, Saba makes humanist hip-hop like few outside Chance's Chicago orbit--Homeboy Sandman, Atmosphere, and fellow Chicagoans Serengeti and Open Mike Eagle come to mind, not many others. I don't mean color-blind or race-neutral--no humanist with a brain would make that race-negative mistake. I just mean what these days is called, well, relatable. Every song on this official debut is rooted in Saba's hood and brushed if not haunted by his murdered cousin and partner John Walt--"Jesus died for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat." But it's also haunted by the sexual stress most male rappers are too fake to admit, by the career anxieties of someone who gave up an Ivy League scholarship to pursue music like his absent father. And it's warmed by an unassuming, conversational flow fitted to beats that favor naturalistic keyboards and percussion. A gorgeous and affecting record. A MINUS

The Coup: Sorry to Bother You: The Soundtrack (Interscope) Six of the nine tracks on an album that breakthrough director Boots Riley couldn't resist tacking onto his debut flick are boosted by guest stars, including undeniables Tune-Yards, Killer Mike, and E-40, although the two Janelle Mones seem a mite thin for his baked-in Oakland funk. And all three Boots-alones are in his ideologically revolutionary tradition, which now goes back a quarter century. "We Need an Eruption"? "Level It Up"? He means those things, as he always has, although of course he's also glad "level" rhymes with "Neville"--Aaron, to be specific. A MINUS


Czarface: Czarface Meets Metal Face (Silver Age) MF Doom adds not quite decisive comedy/insanity/gravitas to Deck/7L/Esoteric's not quite supergroup ("Badness of Madness," "MF Czar," "Captain Brunch") ***

G Herbo: Humble Beast (Machine) Chicago, street, basic, reporter, sounds older than he is ("Malcolm," "Red Snow") ***

Saba: The Bucket List Project (Saba Pivot) A mixtape that does its honest best to focus his subset's goals in a world way more mixed up than the mixtape is ("World in My Hands," "Most") **

1800 Seconds: Curated by Pusha T (Mass Appeal) "Curated" my ass--just 10 young rappers who flatter the boss by imitating him, proving that terse is no more surefire a concept than anything else (Cartel Count Up, "Make It Count"; Nita Jonez, "Rockin Heels") *

February 8, 2019

Link: Alex Chilton / Big Star

Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None) A cranky and eclectic guy of limited stick-to-itiveness, the teen Box Top and ironic Big Star's signature format as a solo artist was the EP. His great album post-Big Star, mostly recorded after he left his native Memphis for New Orleans in 1982, is the 19-track 1991 Rhino compilation 19 Years, dominated by but hardly limited to obsessive, off-kilter, achingly fragile sex/love songs with titles like "Kanga Roo," "Bangkok," and "Holocaust." Yet 28 years later Bar/None's alt-pop major domo Glenn Morrow has assembled a terrific 15-track comp that duplicates only five of Rhino's, none of which you'll mind hearing twice--in particular the supernally sardonic 1986 AIDS song "No Sex" and the supernally tender 1987 love/sex song "A Thing for You." Morrow highlights the pop polymath who loved Carla Thomas's "B-A-B-Y," Skeeter Davis's "Let Me Get Close to You," and Ronny & the Daytonas' "GTO." But he's also proud to preserve for CD posterity the lifelong radical's "Guantanamerika" ("Breathing in the mist of the crop duster/Gazing at the stars that have lost their luster") and "Underclass" ("I oughta go to work but I'm not gonna do it"). A MINUS

Alex Chilton: Ocean Club '77 (Norton) Chilton's 1977 NYC residency fell apart before the year was over, but it began on a high--the young punk/alt godfather gigging amongst us, nowhere more mythically than at his February 21-22 engagement at Mickey Ruskin's short-lived, way-downtown successor to Max's Kansas City. I attended the first of these shows, and it was incandescent--jammed, noisy, charged with ambient adrenaline. Even a quality recording like this one can't capture such an up, but you can definitely hear a more raucous, confident, and engaged Chilton than was his quirky norm. The 16-song set leads with the brand new "All of the Time," includes five loud Big Star covers plus a rough-hewn reading of the Box Tops smash "The Letter," introduces Chilton's great nonhit "My Rival," and covers the Ventures, the Beach Boys, the Seeds, and Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Cult history is being made. Of course we were psyched. A MINUS

Big Star: Live on WLIR (Omnivore) With Chilton dead of a heart attack in 2010, what's more striking than it was in 1992, when Rykodisc first released this 1974 studio concert, is that this Chilton is still so young--barely 23. With Chris Bell long gone from the band they created, an uncommon freshness and directness comes front and center on this particular night. Highlight: a poignant, four-song, solo-acoustic interlude that celebrates his conscientious objector brother in "Ballad of El Goodo," looks back at his even younger self in "Thirteen," directs "I'm in Love With a Girl" to "the finest girl in the world," and then does an abrupt right turn into Loudon Wainright's desolately lonesome, predatorily horny "Motel Blues." B PLUS


Alex Chilton: Songs From Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None) With jazz piano sunk deep in his raising, Chilton was a Chet Baker fan by age seven, but he never did pop standards truer than by his guitar-strumming self on 1992's long-lost Clichs--certainly not with jazz-lite combos dominated by a David Bowie saxman ("My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Let's Get Lost") *

February 15, 2019

Link: Harriet Tubman / Thiago Nassif / Qais Essar / RAM / Nordub

Harriet Tubman: The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside) Inexhaustible bassist Melvin Gibbs, the fulcrum of this long active, not much recorded trio, has been a jazz-rock rock since Sonny Sharrock schooled him and vice versa in the '80s. But this album is defined by guitarist Brandon Ross, who's not quite Sharrock but has every right to cite Jack Johnson/John McLaughlin-period Miles Davis as its model--more than he would, in fact, with the group's 2017 Araminta, which featured trumpet legend Wadada Leo Smith. The many highlights are all different--diddleybeat opener "Farther Unknown," rhythm-shifting "The Green Book Blues," dubwise-plus "Five Points," painfully distorted reading of "Redemption Song." Less galvanic than McLaughlin, Ross is richer and fuller to compensate, as on "3000 Worlds," which builds from the barely audible clatter of not actually random percussion to a stately and even leisurely guitar homily that's not so much driven as adorned by bass and drums laying down contrapuntal patterns of their own. A MINUS

Thiago Nassif: Trs (Foom) Guitarist-vocalist Nassif having acted as Arto Lindsay's Rio-based co-producer on 2017's Cuidado Madame, Lindsay returns the favor, producing throughout and skronking here and there. Nassif seems less a knotty type than Lindsay, yet it's his record that packs the kind of acerbic, off-kilter Tom Z-Elza Soares buzz that delivers samba and its children from suave. The quietly disquieting opener "Desordem" spends four minutes breaking open without ever coming apart. "Bulgado"'s minute of staticky blips bursts into declarative funk. A piano arrives to sweeten and sour the 2:43 "Algodoes." And several times I swear I could hear somebody interjecting a well-miked manual typewriter. A MINUS


Qais Essar: The Ghost You Love Most (self-released) Afghan-born rabab virtuoso enlists varied cast to prove yet again that the nominally Muslim world feels peace-out music more deeply than the nominally Christian one ("The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life," "The Ghost You Love Most") ***

The Hot 8 Brass Band: On the Spot (Tru Thoughts) Long-running New Orleans unit that's survived not one, not two, but three handgun deaths acts up all the way live behind Bernie Pete's sousaphone funk ("On the Spot," "St. James Infirmary") ***

RAM: August 1791 (Willibelle) No way do the synths dilute the groove or presence of Haiti's most celebrated contemporary-traditional band, but the bland lyric summaries dull its point ("Badji Fere," "St Claire [Gad Sa Nou W]") **

Nordub: Sly & Robbie Meet Nils Petter Molvaer Feat Elvind Aarset and Vladislav Delay (OKeh) Too much groove, not enough disruption ("Dream Drifter," "Strange Bright Crowd") **

February 22, 2019

Link: Carsie Blanton / The paranoid Style / The Rails / Kate Vargas / Caroline Rose / The Regrettes

Carsie Blanton: Buck Up (Carsie Blanton) The unfashionably chirpy, unabashedly horny Blanton has been making albums since 2005. This one, which credits some 400 "executive producers," is easily the best--she's never been so catchy or sexy, and along with unabashed politics catchy and sexy are her flash points. The sure shot "Jacket" strikes a balance--"I like your shirt, I like your jacket/I like to think about you when I whack it" meets "We tried to have a chat, but it was too scary/You're just a Democrat, I'm a revolutionary"; the both-sides-now "Harbor" turns "Love was made for making" into "Hearts were made for breaking." "That Boy" is all lust, "American Kid" all history lesson. And then there's depression: "Bed" can't be a sex song until she stands on her own two feet nor "Battle" a politics song until she makes it through the night. So on the finale her hound dog puts first things first: "Buck up baby, cmon sic 'em/Make 'em laugh if you can't lick 'em." Which sums up her philosophy if anything does. A

The Paranoid Style: Rock & Roll Just Can't Recall + 3 (Bar/None) Beefed up to eight songs to mark its embrace by a venerable label of indie luminaries from They Might Be Giants to Ezra Furman, this digital-only reissue of a superb self-released 2015 EP is designed to make fresh converts as first responders download the three new ones. As Elizabeth Nelson fans come to realize, how deep the songs are is a trickier call than her command of political rhetoric makes you think--lines like "Are we not men/Are we mere clients" and titles like "Slush Fund City" never quite launch the intellectual content her hard groove and enunciated multisyllables gesture toward. She's a songwriter, folks--let others waste their smarts on letters to the editor with op-ed dreams. Especially since Nelson has just nabbed the rock critic slot at a political blog with the excellent rock and roll moniker Lawyers, Guns and Money. The anti-'60s cracks that animate her enthusiasm for Dylan's Slow Train Coming are enough to make one hope that before too long she gets to sound off about Bernie Sanders. A


The Rails: There Are Other People in This World (Thirty Tigers) Kami Thompson joins Pernices-Pogues guitarist-vocalist James Walbourne to showcase Richard-and-Lindaish originals ("Other People," "Dark Times," "Australia") ***

Kate Vargas: For the Wolfish and Wandering (Kate Vargas) Her "Americana singer-songwriter" slot barely hints at her yipping growl, quirky phrasing, erotic substratum, or metaphorical range, but it may suggest why it never adds up to enough ("Roll Around," "7 Inches") ***

Caroline Rose: Loner (New West) Be glad she values catchy, be glad she goes deeper too, be sorry she's catchiest at her shallowest ("Bikini," "Money," "Jeannie Becomes a Mom") **

The Regrettes: Feel Your Feelings Fool! (Warner Bros.) Provisionally punky LA teens rock practical feminist support to their less evolved sisters ("Head in the Clouds," "Seashore") **

Noisey, February 2019


January 2019 March 2019