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: September, 2020

A rapper gone love man asks what's going on. A philosopher-musicologist and a Leicester thirtysomething poke at the class system. Plus songs about goons, gaslighters, random violence and childhood.

Black Thought: Streams of Thought Vol. 1 (Human Re Sources) Even though the Roots frontman's first 2018 EP was clearly a signal that the hiatus following his band's 2014 . . . And Then You Shoot Your Cousin was turning permanent, I somehow still believed that was Questlove on drums when it was actually 9th Wonder soul samples impossible to identify without a scorecard. And there's plenty more stuffed into these five tracks, 17 minutes that make room for guest slots by sturdy point guard Rapsody on the widely informed "Dostoyevsky" and loquacious jeremiah Styles P on the far-reaching "Making a Murderer." It's never more exciting than on a retrospective lead track situated "Back when Burning Man was blacks in Birmingham." But it never bogs down. A MINUS

Black Thought & Salaam Remi: Streams of Thought Vol. 2 (Human Re Sources/Passyunk Productions) I always thought Questlove was the brains of the outfit, and conceptually he was. But no longer hemmed in by album concepts or fusion-band masquerade, here's where Tariq Trotter is freed to turn out kick-ass rap mixtapes and show off how much reading he does. From the "Try stoppin' this, I'm on top of the metropolis" of the Prince/Petty-mourning "Fentanyl" to alter ego Reek Ruffin crooning atop a love rap that swears "A lifetime, finally I'm understanding you," he shows John Legend how conscious a romantic lead's conscience can be. New solo contract with Republic or not, he may be too old to play the heartthrob at 48. But it's never the wrong time for a love man to ask the world what's going on. A

The Chicks: Gaslighter (Columbia) As with the awkward name change itself (how about Ditsy Chicks? Triscuit Chips?), there's a pro forma feel to these group-credited, Natalie Maines-dominated songs--the Antonoff effect, call it. And though this has to be the first country album ever to mention the capitol of Finland--Helsinki, which hosted that Trump-Putin summit in 2017--it's nonetheless awkward that a country trio who made their name and ruined their reputation by dissing the Iraq war should hook their first album in eight years to the tribulations of divorce smack in the middle of the most fraught political moment of their lifetimes. But old oppressions don't leave you alone just because new ones are breathing down your collective neck. So any listener who chooses to pay attention is free to conclude that Maines has never written with more righteous anger and sisterly concern--more humanity. There are many highlights after the grabber of a title song. "My Best Friend's Weddings" for justifying its title even better than "Tights on My Boat" does, "Sleep at Night" for expanding on "My husband's girlfriend's husband just called me up/How messed up is that?" "Julianna Calm Down" for arguing that compassion is stronger than rage, as in this fraught political moment we so hope it is. A MINUS

Nat King Cole Trio: Jumpin' at Capitol (Rhino) The timbre and phrasing of Cole's dozens upon dozens of '50s hits radiated a calm that was kind, sly, intimate, classy, unassuming, confident, and not boring. Quickly he figured out how to translate the warm cool that made him both the hippest and the biggest of the '40s cocktail pianists into a quiet, assured crooning style whose racial component amalgamated church-bred respectability with jazz-scene hip. In the wake of World War II, he gave America two utterly dissimilar masterpieces--1946's "The Christmas Song," which lit the home fires then and stoked them for decades afterward, and 1948's "Nature Boy," which augured countercultural weirdness that was still decades down the road. But while both are available along with much quality pop--"Unforgettable," "Send for Me," "Walking My Baby Back Home," "Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup"--on the findable 2001 double The Nat King Cole Story, the good stuff doesn't cancel excrescences like the Stan Kenton blare bomb "Orange Colored Sky" or the reflexively sexist "Ballerina." So if you're feeling skint maybe just download the two '40s masterstrokes and add this best-of from his jazzy youth. "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" belonged to him first. "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "Sweet Lorraine," and "Embraceable You" might as well have. A MINUS

The 81's: 2 Things and 118 Others (self-released) Young Nashville alt-rock grunts recall tolerably fucked over lives in adept, moderately conscious words and tune ("Mind Bender," "Four Way Stop") ***

The Human Hearts: Day of the Tiles (self-released) It's somehow been eight years since philosopher-musicologist, pianist-guitarist, and sometime Mountain Goat Franklin Bruno released his band debut Another, and too many as well since I saw them debut new songs about money--songs I doubt are on a six-song EP that begins "Dialectics/Doesn't break bricks" because I couldn't possibly have forgotten "Is it wrong to write rhymes when my rhymes right no wrongs?" or "The system isn't broken/It works the way it's made/They know that you can't change it/As long as they can keep you/Feeling sad and afraid." Delivered in an articulate baritone that hits the notes without disrespecting its conversational lifestyle, both songs match anything new I've heard all year that isn't by Run the Jewels or Lil Baby, with the other four merely strong, catchy, and smart. As a public service I've Googled "Granges-sur-Salvan" (site of a 1994 mass murder/suicide) and "Day of the Tiles" soi-mÍme (the June 7, 1788, riot some consider the true beginning of the French Revolution). So don't say I didn't warn you. A

The Magnetic Fields: Quickies (Nonesuch) 28 songs in 48 minutes, too few as clever as you'd hope, several rather nice, more than that stupider than this very smart man believes ("I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again," "My Stupid Boyrfriend," "Come, Life, Shaker Life!" "The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee") **

No Age: Goons Be Gone (Drag City) Recorded "summer 2019," the minimalist-minus CD package notes. So time passed before whatever goons the title targets decided how they felt about masks, during which this spare, steadfast duo put the finishing touches on the latest edition of their grateful grate--long textural leads to brassy static to tolling guitar noise to looped feedback over organ tweets and more, all deployed cleverly enough to suit me. Avant-punk dissatisfieds may wonder how long the pair expect to stay on this bus. I admire the way they always come down on the right side of the divide between commitment and repeating yourself. A MINUS

No Joy: Motherhood (Joyful Noise) The lyrics say she's worried about the whole motherhood concept, which happens as 40 nears, but this being shoegaze the lyrics disappear beneath the music, which for shoegaze is pretty exultant ("Kidder," "Happy Bleeding") **

Billy Nomates: Billy Nomates (Invada) "In a world of yes men I'll be a no woman," brags this Leicester thirtysomething, who defeated depression by deciding that if Sleaford Mods could bitch about the class system for a living so could she. In fact, I say she's better at it. Her voice high and clear without a hint of gentility, she's wittier, hookier, meaner, kinder, sassier--unbowed in spite of it all. Delivered over spare production from her label owner, Portishead genie Geoff Barrow, her tales of the shit life sound so lived I'm bettng they are: "Supermarket Sweep" and its "cleanup in aisle seven," "FTP" and its floor she can't afford to sleep on, the "Fat White Man" propositioning the hottie at the filling station, the Covid-or-not excuse-a-thon "Call in Sick." Inspirational Verse: "If I could only quit my job and join the hippy elite." A

Oddisee: Odd Cure (Outer Note) Quintessential quarantine alt-rap product, its enduring aesthetic relevance its catchup phone calls rather than its musical rhymes ("The Cure," "Call Baba," "Call Ma," "Call Homie") **

Jenny Reynolds: Any Kind of Angel (Pretty Okay Music) Around long enough to know how many ways love can hurt, with the brains to distinguish among them and the heart to not to give up ("Dance for Me," "The Way We Say Goodbye," "I'm So Lonesome") ***

Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps: Demo '84 (Don Giovanni) Released vinyl-only in 1986 by the folkie standard bearers at Rounder and a quarter century later on a briefly available Rounder CD, Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps features four songs not on this abortive demo including the lost working-class speed threnody "Screaming Industrial Breakdown" and three Stampfel didn't write that are stuck on the back end for a reason. Although the personnel doesn't change much from record to record, you can understand why Rounder wanted to rerecord--the production here booms and echoes in a most unfolklike manner, particularly on a nonconformist anthem called "Impossible Groove" that could have begun its life with a Chic tribute band. But before too long I realized I preferred it, mostly because Stampfel's voice, which in his forties remained a more puissant thing than the scrawny cartoon hillbilly of the '60s Holy Modal Rounders and as his seventies turned eighties finally began weakening scratchily, has welcome muscle in this iteration. If he recorded this session in hopes of "going commercial," as we used to say, his ambition had benefits, and the many ace songs are now otherwise available only at vintage vinyl prices. "Surfer Angel" may just be a joke whose time was overdue, but "Random Violence" is all too timely. And although Stampfel thought it fitting to rerecord "Lonely Junkie" after Steve Weber came back into his life, "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)" has become a period piece all too soon. A

Taylor Swift: Folklore (Republic) Since her actually existing life doesn't interest me, the news that these songs break her autobiographical mold signifies for me only insofar as I wish the two I find touching as well as admirable were the reminiscences they pretend to be: the childhood memory "Seven," which I bet is, and the teen memory "Betty," which I assume isn't. As someone who's loved kids since he wasn't one himself, I'm pleased that these two tunes are at least not adult, hence not about Swift the professional wonder--the one who made National headman Aaron Dessner rich for life just for helping her do what she's been doing forever: manufacturing yet another bunch of melodically fetching, lyrically deft pop songs that are fine as far as they go. The only one I can't stand anymore is the striking "The Last Great American Dynasty," which reminds me all too much of Taylor Swift the showbiz plutocrat. B PLUS

And It Don't Stop, Sept. 9, 2020

Aug. 12, 2020 Oct. 14, 2020