Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Leyla McCalla

  • A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey [Jazz Village, 2016] *
  • Capitalist Blues [PIAS America, 2019] A-
  • Breaking the Thermometer [Anti-, 2022] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey [Jazz Village, 2016]
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") *

Capitalist Blues [PIAS America, 2019]
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-

Breaking the Thermometer [Anti-, 2022]
In which the cellist turned Carolina Chocolate Drop sings and plays songs and other music from a theater piece about her parents' native Haiti whose full title is Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever. Since the arrangements tend leisurely and the lyrics Creole, the manifold musical pleasures on this collection epitomize a chamber folk I'd figure wasn't verbal enough to suit a word guy like me. But McCalla has become such a striking singer that I found myself captivated from the first verse. Not that her chops are spectacular here--that would spoil the effect. Murmuring and lilting without missing or bending a note, she's lovely instead, all gentle precision and outgoing care. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this impression goes against the songs' ideological grain. But that's how they sound. A-