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: August, 2020

Voices as instruments, Miamians from the trenches, sex & romance from London & LA, and a utopian wish from Stoughton, Mass. Plus: pastoral mysticism, ebullient escapism, and old-school caterwauling.

Arbor Labor Union: New Petal Instants (Arrowhawk) Call yourself a Labor Union and get my attention--Judas Labor Union, Butthole Labor Union, Peter Bjorn & Labor Union, Labor Union Iver, Labor Union Bridgers I'll give you a shot. That's why I kept digging for hooks in the unhurried rock mesh of this Georgia guitar band's earlier albums. So when I found one instantly in the riff that anchors the opening "Lasso," naturally I made it my business to get my mind around words that have left me impressed if not converted by what proves a variant of pastoral mysticism: "Pay back your debt when death lends you a token/Or the promise you made to live is broken," "Very new petal instant becomes a cosmos." I'll be an urbanist till I die, but that doesn't mean I'll turn down the occasional walk in the woods. Committed to the primacy of life alive, these are the kind of allies every city boy can use. B PLUS

Birds of Prey (Emblem/Atlantic) Flop tuff-girl flick generates grab bag of independent womanhood toons (Halsey, "Experiment on Me"; Doja Cat, "Boss B**ch") **

The Boswell Sisters: Shout, Sister, Shout! (Retrospective) Three New Orleans sisters led by polio-stricken Connie, the Boswells only recorded until 1936, but they were so prolific and original that except for Billie and their fan Ella they were not just the premier jazz singers of the decade, rewriting melodies at will, but pop stars with a dozen top 10 singles. The Boswells didn't just imitate instruments when the fancy struck them, they sang as though they were instruments, outswinging both the '30s competition and such heirs as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. They're well-represented on the reissue market--if you can't land this 52-track double-CD, there's suitable competition out there. But since they were prolific enough to rack up some less than thrilling also-rans, make sure whatever you buy permits you to burn the right best-of. This one, say: "Heebie Jeebies," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "The Darktown Strutters Ball," "Shout Sister Shout," "It's the Girl," "When I Take My Sugar to Tea," "Dinah," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "I Found a Million Dollar Baby," "You Oughta Be in Pictures," "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," the statement of principle "Was That the Human Thing to Do?" and last but definitely not least, a first called, believe it, "Rock and Roll." A

Car Seat Headrest: Making a Door Less Open (Matador) Grown-up teen DIY genius much more confused by how far he's come than he was by how far he had to go ("Deadlines," "Weightlifers," "Famous") *

John Chibadura: The Best of John Chibadura (Zimbabwe Music Corporation) Born in 1957 and orphaned in 1962, this sprightly guitarist and engaging vocalist grew up hard, as what black man didn't in "Southern Rhodesia"? Totally unschooled, he minded sheep, manned a tractor, then finally moved up to full-fledged lorry driver and urban adventures crowned by music. By the mid '80s, with Mugabe's Zimbabwean revolution not yet devolved into total autocracy, he and his Tembo Brothers band ruled sungura, a Zimbabwean variant of flighty, Tanzania-based East African rumba. Ebulliently escapist as African dance music so often needs to be, sungura filled the niche between Thomas Mapfumo's reggaefied, political chimurenga and the lighter and more accomplished Afropop of the Bhundu Boys, who enjoyed half a decade of international renown before sinking into fates no one would envy. Chibadura himself died in 1999 of the Disease That Cannot Be Named. But for his own decade-plus of stardom, he generated the minor magic showcased here. When I was encouraged to play music straight off my phone's speaker instead of through earphones for the two days I spent in a Little Rock hospital room, it proved the special favorite of every nurse I asked. A MINUS

City Girls: City on Lock (Quality Control/Motown) What a relief to hear credible hoes rather than dubious cracklords brag about their cash on hand, to hear designer brands coveted as adornments rather than status symbols, to hear "bitch" claimed by women rather than wielded by men. Yung Miami and JT aren't as musical as Cardi B or maybe even Doja Cat, whose verse on the undeniable "Pussy Talk" begins "Pussy talented, it do cartwheels" to go with Yung and JT's "Boy, this pussy talk English, Spanish, and French" and "Ugh boy this pussy bilingual/Antisocial, this pussy don't mingle/Don't go broke or this pussy's going single/Ho ho ho pussy turn inna Kris Kringle." The light, articulated rhymes of these Miamians "from the trenches not the palm trees" will convince any cash-flush male chauvinist pig that "Birkin Gucci Chanel" will get the right juices flowing. And because they're obviously good at doing math in their heads they'll convince you that "half these niggas ain't shit in bed." A MINUS

Deap Vally & the Flaming Lips: Deap Lips (Cooking Vinyl) In which Deap Vally ups its rock cred via the Lips or the Lips up their grrrl cred via Deap Vally, with whether that's a win-lose or a lose-win depending on where you started out ("Home Thru Hell," "Pusher Man") **

Dream Wife: So When You Gonna . . . (Lucky Number) Fronted by Iceland-born, California-raised, art school-finished Rakel Mjöli, this London-based all-female pop-punk trio picked their name before they'd ever played together and have a ways to go before matrimony per se is likely to be within their ken. Sex and romance, however, Mjöli has a bead on from the male-bonding pissoff "Sports!"--"Time is money/Never apologize/These are the rules"--to a finale called "After the Rain" where she both craves and rejects a tenderness that can only be provisional in a line of work that keeps her on the move. She knows sex and romance are easier to come by for a minor rock star, and is up for one or both from "Validation" to "U Do U" to "So When You Gonna . . ." But the crux here is called "Validation" because she knows that's the tough one without having figured out how to get it or why exactly she needs it so. A MINUS

Emily Duff: Born on the Ground (Mr. Mudshow Music) Queens native with CBGB, Gary Lucas, and Muscle Shoals roots enlists long-haul Del-Lord Eric Ambel to connect all that up into a perky album comprising what she swears are nine breakup songs ("We Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Something Sexy" *

Haim: Women in Music Pt. III (Columbia) As the title specifies, these three thirtyish sisters are musos by heritage and choice. Unlike most sibling acts, they focus less on their collective image than on how their individual instruments assert themselves and meld together. So their songwriting comes lyrics-second, with even hooks not such a big deal. On their third album, Rostam Batmanglij helps them beat this limitation: each of the 16 terse tracks has its own way of standing out. From booty calls to dreams so much sweeter than what anyone wakes up to in this cruel time, the lyrics evoke the pains and complexities of the single life each of these seamless siblings is obliged to face alone after all. A MINUS

Kehlani: It Was Good Until It Wasn't (Atlantic) Unlike Megan Thee Stallion, L.A.'s around-the-scene girl is a crooner not a rapper who conceives sex almost exclusively as pleasure rather than power, and as eros too--that is, love, which can hurt plenty emotionally but in physical form generally feels good. I love how often clothes provide ready access or fall to the floor or leave the song wetter than when it began. But in addition I can't think of another album that more vividly respects and evokes not just the physical sensations of sexual love, which is rare enough, but the emotions those sensations entail and intensify in a woman who'd "rather argue than me sleep alone." A MINUS

Lori McKenna: The Balladeer (CN/Thirty Tigers) Without benefit of a single song as complex as "Humble and Kind" or "The Bird and the Rifle," Stoughton Mass.'s poet of Nashville's veriest verities--namely, family and the steady passage of time--assembles the most consistently top-notch album of her late-blooming career. Only the unassumingly twisty "This Town Is a Woman" and the bigamously two-timing "Two Birds" mine the modest metaphorical complexity of past stunners like "Girl Crush" and "The Bird and the Rifle." But just by returning to familiar themes like her mother's death and marriage's set-tos, she convinces you that the corny title of "When You're My Age" deserves the utopian wish it sets up: "I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now." A

X: Alphabetland (Fat Possum) With Exene a conspiracy theorist, John Doe anonymous, Billy Zoom a "conservative," and D.J. Bonebrake a drummer, who would have guessed that a band that made its last good album in 1983 would add a mature classic to those doomed remnants of a tumultuous marriage on an L.A. punk scene more minimalist and extreme than they were. Yet here it is, one rueful to agonized lookback at their own mortality after another. My favorite of many excellent lyrics begins: "The divine that defines us/The evil that divides us/There's a heaven and a hell/And then there's oh well." But the verbiage wouldn't mean as much if John and Exene weren't caterwauling as wild and gifted as ever--and if Zoom and Bonebrake weren't so committed and undiminished. A MINUS

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

July 8, 2020 Sept. 9, 2020