Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2019

March 1, 2019


Dua Saleh: Nūr (EP) (Against Giants)/b> In which Saleh, a Twin Cities-based nonbinary Sudanese refugee with a sociology degree, hooks up with Psymun, a Twin Cities-based noise-ambient beatmaker with Future and Young Thug credits. Over five spooky, sexy, abstract, rapped-sung tracks, they prove either that they were made for each other or that the EP format was made for them, matching weirdness for weirdness for 21 minutes without ever getting too cute or abandoning what groove they have at their disposal. As arty types go, they're not only smart but gritty. Fess up--wouldn't you be impressed if Future made something fetching of a stanza that went "You still taste like Beverly Hills/Oh, how cavalier/I just learned the weather could kill/Allegedly"? A MINUS

Dreezy: Big Dreez (Interscope) With CupcakKe triple-X-ing street-rap bravado on one side of her and Noname soft-slamming grace notes and sex rhymes on the other, Chicago's major-label female hip-hopper had more to prove than she figured in 2016, when her debut album's failure to crack the top 100 seemed a mere bump in the road. Not that she's topped the competition. But her only misstep here is a new Jeremih collab where--inevitably in a world where good sex is so often a stroke of luck--their concerted attempt to top the relaxed "Body" with the overreaching "Ecstasy" comes off forced and stiff. Romantic duets with Jacquees and Derez De'Shon aim lower and hit higher, however, and in general she sidles into money and fame brags with a reassuring ease that coexists nicely with her pitch-corrected raps and croons. So not only is she still in the game, she's upped her own. B PLUS

Bali Baby: Resurrection (Twin) An out lesbian whose vibe is so playful it's almost girl-group and whose trademark sound is a juicy, squealed "mwah," Bali Baby calls women bitches and regularly threatens to steal the hot ones from her male musical rivals. Sometimes I think she's a riot, other times not--bragging that your "lyric's spreading, like it's some cancer" is as inept as similes get. Thus I much preferred the earlier, quirkier Baylor Swift, with its wacky fuck-you title and affecting vulnerable side. But in the end, she's so irrepressible I can't say no. B PLUS

March 8, 2019

Link: Malibu Ken / Serengeti / MC Frontalot

Malibu Ken: Malibu Ken (Rhymesayers) With experimental rocker Tobacco generating electronic accompaniment-not-beats because it's the rapping that grooves, 42-year-old Aesop Rock generates an album as literal and likable as his Kimya Dawson and Homeboy Sandman collabs. Where usually his gargantuan vocabulary congeals into imagery so dark it's impossible to see through, here he's often literal, even funny if you catch his drift. Start with "Tuesday," which details his disgusting homemaking protocols; "Acid King," which recalls a satanic murder from his Suffolk County childhood; the unsparing depression revery "1 + 1 = 13"; and "Churro," the tale of two bald eagles who nested so magically in Pittsburgh they got their own video feed--until they swooped down and devoured somebody's cat. A MINUS

Serengeti: Dennis 6e (People) The biracial Chicago rapper born David Cohn is so prolific I can't claim to have kept up--multiple plays of 2016's Doctor My Own Patience and 2018's To the Max didn't nail down his shifting persona hard enough to keep me plugging. But though Kenny Dennis, the rapping telephone repairman who is Cohn's best-known creation, has gone through many phases of a biography I wouldn't dare summarize, he's such a mensch he always feels earthbound. On this supposed farewell to Kenny--"You can't do Jason Part 23. They stopped Jason at, like, nine," Geti has claimed--continuity is simulated and reinforced by the textured electronics of Minneapolis rap-rocker Andrew Broder, a/k/a Fog. Disconsolate and alone in Orlando as memories of his lost Jueles "come back like winter clothes," aging white guy Kenny contends with bad knees and a dislocated shoulder, name-checks Steely Dan and Judge Mathis, disses drug dependency and 40-minute smoke breaks, rips a letter to shreds, and consigns unnamed rappers to landfill. After warning that he will jam you up if you bite his style, he closes by rhyming "sorry," "Atari," "calamari," and "Maori." A MINUS

MC Frontalot: Net Split (Level Up) Singsongy white joke-rapper and his funk-lite beats never quite live up to the redolent subtitle The Fathomless Heartbreak of Online Itself--not even, tragically, on "Never Read the Comments" ("Internet Sucks," "IWF") **

Serengeti: Jueles - Butterflies (Audio Recon/Deacon) For Kenny Dennis obsessives starting with himself, David Cohn reveals that Jueles had some success as a '90s pop singer and is proud to discover that "manatees" rhymes and then some with "humanities" ("Places, Places," "Odouls") *

Serengeti: Music From the Graphic Novel Kenny Vs the Dark Web (Burnco) Just when Geti swore he's run out of Kenny Dennis, he serves up these bootlegs from the innards of his virtual subconscious ("Bennies," "Nutrition") *

March 15, 2019

Link: Todd Snider / Leyla McCalls / Our Native Daughters

Todd Snider: Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (Aimless) Ten songs, one dedication, and one explanation recorded totally acoustic and almost totally solo, which as the excellent booklet explains doesn't mean tossed off--you'd never know from its offhand feel how practiced this material is. That's one reason it's so replayable without benefit of notable groove or tune. The other, of course, is that the words are good. Having opened with "a song about a song you're working on" ("I mean, it's gone, man. Come on, let it go."), he jam-packs a whole lot of material into "Talking Reality Television Blues," following Milton Berle ("we all had a new escape from the world") with Michael Jackson ("reality killed that video star") with He Who Shall Not Be Namechecked ("Reality killed by a reality star"). "Serving my country under General Malaise," Snider also becomes the first singer-songwriter ever to rhyme "national anthem" with "national tantrum." All in a goofy drawl he didn't learn growing up in Oregon, because he's a Southerner by choice and no goof at all--just another "working fucking schmuck out here standing around waiting to get shot in yet ay-nother tragic addition to an already sorry state of affairs." A

Leyla McCalla: Capitalist Blues (PIAS America) As with fellow Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, McCalla has tended mannered--like the trained cellist she is, so committed to her skill set she has little feel for more naturalistic conventions. But here, shoring up the overt politics I came in cheering for, she's not only more relaxed vocally but gets true band feel out of shifting personnel anchored by drummer Chris Davis and bassist-guitarist Jimmy Horn. Sure she ranges around--"Lavi Vye Neg" miniaturizes Coupé Cloué's compas groove, "Oh My Love" is a zydeco. But there's a wholeness to this music that suits an ideological purpose saturated with but not overpowered by economic oppression. Crucially, these songs make a point not just of privation proper but of worry and insecurity--including "Aleppo," which begins "Bombs are falling/In the name of peace" and then describes the everyday wretchedness of the lives still braving the ruins. A MINUS

Our Native Daughters: Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways) Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Amethyst Kiah, and Allison Russell put into practice and thus bring alive a black feminist musical tradition they just invented ("Black Myself," "Polly Ann's Hammer") **

Leyla McCalla: A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey (Jazz Village) A dozen moderately beautiful, sufficiently lively songs going on artsongs, at least seven of Haitian origin and no more than five in English, a ratio less enlightening than she intends ("Vietnam," "Let It Fall") *

March 22, 2019

Link: Ariana Grande / Amber Mark / Diana Gordon / Robyn

Ariana Grande: Sweetener (Republic) Since my secondhand teenpop fandom dried up well before my daughter's enthusiasms dwindled down to One Direction, I ignored Grande until a mixed phalanx of market analysts and poptimist diehards declared this 2018 album pure pop for track-and-hook people. This consensus motivated me to replicate saturation airplay my way--shelling out for the CD and sticking it in the changer until I was ready to cry uncle. A similar ploy got me nowhere with One Direction, their albums so bland I quickly forgot they existed. But Grande is pleasant in such a physically uncommon and technically astute way. Her pure, precise soprano is warm without burr or melisma, its mellow sweetness never saccharine or showy as it strolls through a front-loaded garden of sonic delights where Nicki Minaj outgrowls Missy Elliott and Pharrell Williams's inventions are more subtle yet also more thrilling than Max Martin's. And as she shares self-healing advisories like "No Tears Left to Cry," "Get Well Soon," and especially "Breathin" with all the fans who lived through her terrorized 2017 Manchester concert, you never doubt that the details of the healing are sharpened by own earned traumas. A MINUS

Amber Mark: Conexao EP (Virgin EMI) Uber-bohemian r&b crooner gets down to structure on four legible songs-not-tracks that outline a love affair whose tether has been fraying for far too long: eros in bloom, then sex isn't everything, then I love you anyway, then prove you're worth the work. Only "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" feels less than fully heartfelt--which makes me suspect that "All the Work" is likely to set one more clueless romeo back on his heels. A MINUS

Diana Gordon: Pure (self-released) Five proofs of a Beyoncé cowriter's hard-won, unembittered self-reliance--too modest to be "inspirational," and stronger for it ("Wolverine," "Too Young") ***

Ariana Grande: Thank U, Next (Republic) Maturing from multitracked studio trickeration to straight love songs--love songs an old grouch might complain are all too superstar-specific. ("Thank U, Next," "Ghostin") ***

Robyn: Honey (Konichiwa/Interscope) How I wish she was the pop sparkplug, club buddy, big sister, and strong lover of the glorious old Body Talk trilogy, but either she doesn't have the hooks anymore or she thinks she's beyond them. ("Missingu," "Between the Lines") ***

March 29, 2019

Link: Pedro the Lion / Jason Ringenberg / Eric Church / Gurf Morlix / Bottle Rockets

Pedro the Lion: Phoenix (Polyvinyl) Whether praising Christ or excavating angst, David Bazan has always been a natural-born depressive--his Christmas album does "Jingle Bells" as a dirge. But on his first Pedro the Lion record since 2004, recollections of his Arizona boyhood are marked by a forgiveness that testifies to his spiritual development: the air-conditioned model home the family toured on special Sunday afternoons, his parents sharing the piano bench for evening service, skateboard savings squandered on candy and soda pop, the shy fifth-grade classmate he slighted so he'd fit in himself. And if the sexual taboos built into his church training are worth resenting to this day, "Black Canyon," where some poor sufferer kills himself by jumping in front of an 18-wheeler on the freeway, is for the saved and the unsaved alike, its hero a female firefighter brave enough to face her own worst memories as she shares the suicide's last moments. A MINUS

Jason Ringenberg: Stand Tall (Courageous Chicken) It happens. In the '80s Ringenberg came up fronting the country-punk Jason and the Scorchers, who soon ran out of attitude as punks will. But he kept at it, riding the Scorchers for whatever they were worth while clocking kiddie-music dollars as Farmer Jason and recording the occasional solo album--check out "Rebel Flag in Germany" and "Tuskegee Pride" on 2004's disgruntled Empire Builders. His articulated nasal yelp flattens out too easy, but the writing carries this album up if not quite over. Punk being the white man's blues, the sure shot is "Thank God for the Ramones." But how many Ramones tributes propel us toward not one but two sequoias tributes? How many John the Baptist tributes set up a tribute to how ineluctably God's rejects maintain their faith despite it all? B PLUS

Eric Church: Desperate Man (EMI Nashville) Subtler than Keith Urban, manlier than Brad Paisley, Church continues to sculpt his own postmacho niche somewhere to the left of the rip-roaring guyville of rockin' Nashville bros ("Hippie Radio," "Snake") **

Gurf Morlix: Impossible Blue (Rootball) Guitar sharp as ever, voice rougher than ever, he tops 4:30 on seven tracks out of nine because his dolor overfloweth, as why the hell shouldn't it? ("Spinnin' Planet Blues," "I Saw You") *

Bottle Rockets: Bit Logic (Bloodshot) "Whatever I can do to keep my chin up is a damn good thing." ("Human Perfection," "Doomsday Letter") *

Noisey, March 2019

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