Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as exclusive content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Consumer Guide: February, 2020

Detroit skills, Las Vegas horror, Canadian dread, New South resistance, Berlin sunshine, Nashville suffragette, Nashville feminists, munchkins giggling, Blue Lu frolicking & a rapper enjoying a cuppa

Blue Lu Barker: 1946-1949 (Classics) This 24-track selection complements and then some the Remastered Collection download I reviewed on a different "label" in 2018. Near as I can tell, owning both will make you a Blue Lu Barker completist. These 24 post-WWII tracks are more polished than the 21 on Remastered Collection (a/k/a 1938-1939)--check the relaxed New Orleans polyphony that frolics through "There Was a L'il Mouse." By sexist blues mama standards, the thirtysomething Barker sounds girlish and slight--no shout, no grit, no phlegm. But her sass and eroticism are baked in. Whether "Layin' in Jail" because she shot the cheater she'd just bought a $100 suit or insisting you "Loan Me Your Husband" because he "looks so kind," she sticks up for herself. And almost never does she stick herself with a generic song. A MINUS

Drive-By Truckers: The Unraveling (ATO) "Don't give up the fight and never stop chasing the dream. Vote and Resist," advises "raised liberal in Alabama" Patterson Hood, who doesn't always find it easy to keep his own head up. So after two nonstop winners in the Obama years of 2014 and 2016 comes this somewhat more halting album, which follows three elusive personal tracks by Hood and his old pal Mike Cooley with six of the kind of protest songs elite aesthetes are too tasteful and chickenshit to try for. "Thoughts and Prayers," "Babies in Cages," and "21st Century USA" announce their topics up front, so bitter and detailed they make you mad there aren't more out there. In "Heroin Again" that "again" references not an old buddy's relapse but a young OD's regression into the corniest and deadliest of the killer opiates. Cooley's "Grievance Merchants" roots white supremacism in the insecurities of incel crybabies and unloved old men. And the stately nine-minute Hood closer "Awaiting Resurrection" is part dirge, part hymn, part confession, part manifesto. A MINUS

The Ebony Hillbillies: 5 Miles From Town (AW Music) Black New Yorkers claim Southern string-band old-timey for the 21st century ("Another Man Done Gone [Hands Up Don't Shoot]," "Oh What a Time!," "Wang Dang Doodle") **

Eminem: Music to Be Murdered By (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope/Goliath) Boring is in the mind of the beholder, and the old-timer's third meaty full-length in two years is nothing like de trop no matter how many jaded journos claim otherwise. It's animated by his compulsion to show off a skill-set-not-genius unmatched in hip-hop, a distinction he specifies on the closing "I Will," which follows a sorry run of battle rhymes with the undeserving Joe Budden and the like by calling the enemy "doubters who question my skill." So I'm touched by his felt need to cram 179 crystalline words, 22 of three syllables or more, into precisely 30 seconds of the Juice-WRLD-aided "Godzilla." Other cameos go to Black Thought, White Gold, Young M.A, Alfred Hitchcock, and a wasted Anderson .Paak, and for old time's sake a newly woke Royce Da 5'9" is all over the record. I recommend the one where young Marshall tries to kill his stepfather. And while some may dismiss "Darkness" as merely morbid, I say the morphological ambiguity of an alcohol-addled Em slowly transmuting into the Las Vegas shooter is as deep as any other gun-control analysis this side of an assault-weapons ban I hope and pray I'll see in my lifetime. A MINUS

Griselda: W.W.C.D. (Shady) Whenever Westside Gunn catapults over gruff crewmates Benny the Butcher and Conway the Machine, it's like Buffalo is what happened to the bricklaying Staten Island of Wu days--until the label boss's cameo conjures higher-flying myths ("Bang [Remix]," "Chef Dreds") *

The Highwomen: The Highwomen (Elektra) This righteous attempt to stick feminism in Nashville's face is so much thicker and less rousing than it oughta be. Except for the Amanda Shires kissoff "Don't Call Me," its peak moments are two sharp-witted domestic-life songs, the benignly manipulative "Redesigning Women" and the hung over "My Name Can't Be Mama." And it's cool and a half that sharpest tool in the shed Shires wrote a "gay country song" with her husband that Brandi Carlile signed off on. But Carlile and Hozier fan Maren Morris imbue the project with serious tempos and default soul that weigh it down again and again. What a drag. B PLUS

Bob Mould: Sunshine Rock (Merge) Thirty years post-Hüsker Dü, 25 post-Sugar, the now Berlin-based Mould finally intensifies the power-trio format he helmed with an unstinting hand while delivering the tunes late Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart could never put across without him. Four of the most winning are called "Sunshine Rock," "Sunny Love Song," "Camp Sunshine," and "Western Sunset," so maybe some life-change has made him a happy fella in a political morass he references without targeting. Never does he fully generate the surging de facto optimism of either of his old bands, and I'll blame the morass, thank you. But this is the first time the solo Mould has come close to what he was once capable of, and that he's managed it this late should encourage us all. A MINUS

The New Pornographers: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights (Concord) Although Carl Newman's ability to roll out the memorable pop-rock songs few bands bother to fail at anymore is something like genius, his reluctance to make them signify is something like neurosis. The fond Brill Bruisers and the outrageous Whiteout Conditions stand tall in his band's catalogue because they address this shortfall. But the main mood to be parsed from this marginally less catchy collection is a sociopolitical dread less acute in Canada because democracy is still less embattled there: "the culture of fear," "the crime in the family," "the surprise knock," "the language of quick goodbyes." The anthemic "Colossus of Rhodes" inspired me to ascertain that said wonder was the tallest structure in the ancient world until an earthquake brought it down just 54 years after it was completed. Which I'll take to mean us Yanks should be grateful our constitution lasted 231. B PLUS

100 gecs, Dylan Brady & Laura Les: 1000 gecs (Dog Show) I lack both the expertise and the intrinsic interest to judge how well this file-sharing ex-St. Louis duo hitch up "the overwhelmingly scattered trends of 2010s digital music culture," as Pitchfork's wan 7.4 put it. But my mind-body continuum informs me that a good half of these 10 songs in 23 minutes activate my funnybone. Are there really digital music obsessives so stuck up that they don't think the world is a better place when an electronic munchkin squeaks the praises of their baby's ringtone? Who aren't cheered when a different munchkin purloins Little Nas X's "horse"-"Porsche" rhyme? Kids, please. A MINUS

Old Man Saxon: The Peacock Honey (Old Man Saxon) Somebody's four-year-olds help playful Colorado-to-L.A. rapper sell whatever it is he has to say about dentistry, polyester, walking a block in his socks, etc. ("Uh Oh," "On Me") ***

Kalie Shorr: Open Book (Kalie Shorr) A Nashville Song Suffragette from Portland and I mean Maine, Shorr is yet another smart young woman who might once have been a sharp-tongued folkie but knows Nashville is where that way of music still has a life worth living. This Pistol Annies tryout isn't "Americana," though I hope she's too market-wise to admit it. Nor is it the strophic significance-mongering now on the rise from Jessica Pratt's deliberate quietude to Cate Le Bon's arch gentility to Aldous Harding's retiring obscurantism. Shorr avoids playing her smallish voice cute except maybe when buttering up that blue-eyed honey in L.A. who she'll never forget the way she forgot his name. From "Everybody needs an escape and mine was leaving" to "I've been taking advice from my vices," she's a woman with more killer lines than are good for her. But she's so set on self-knowledge that she attaches them to a broken home on the poor side of town, a sister who ODs, and her "weird relationship" with her dad. She's never more indelible than when she's all "F U Forever." But she sings her last words as an "Angry Butterfly": "And when I clawed my way out/I was changed, I was changed." A

Kalie Shorr: Slingshot (Kalie Shorr stream) Five exercises in the oft-true truism that "Girls want boys that don't want them back," with a namecheck for John Mayer, who back in 2017 she still had her eye on musically ("Fight Like a Girl," "Nothin New") **

Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain (Method) Discographically, a puzzle. Impressed enough by this 24-year-old Anglo-Bajan's rapper's down-and-dirty local color to buy the 11-track UK CD, I soon learned there was a six-track second disc I could locate only via Spotify. It begins with the pick hit "Drug Deale": "Crack dealer, phone passed around like Ambika/Shotgun shells turn your face pizza/Never shot guns just a drug dealer, hah?/Just a drug dealer, got one song it say drug dealer/Nothing to say but drug dealer." Turn that song inside out and it's why I enjoy as well as admire this guy screechy flow and all. While proud enough of his accomplishments, he's also candid not boastful about a mean not brutal past he's glad to be done with. Having described many street scenes of financially strapped everyday life, Slowthai is proud to stretch out on his sofa with a cup of tea. Not only that, he loves his mother in convincing detail. As he puts it: "Real men cry and thugs go home." A MINUS

And It Don't Stop, Feb. 12, 2020

Jan. 8, 2020 Mar. 11, 2020