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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: October, 2020

Citizens -- of the South, of Africa, of Jamaica, of California, of Strong Island -- telling the world how much their lives matter

Cornershop: England Is a Garden (Ample Play) Tjinder Singh fends off Brexit with his trademark hyperintelligent indirection, a tactic that doesn't work as well as it used to ("Everywhere That Wog Army Roam," "The Cash Money") **

Dramarama: Color TV (Pasadena) Pop savant John Easdale long ago relocated from New Jersey to California with the same two guitarists he'd known since he was a kid, and there picked up a new rhythm section that's been with him ever since. So after 35 years, Dramarama remain a true band no matter how often they play out. But synergy isn't the main reason their first album in 15 years is the finest of an impressively consistent career. Because he kept writing songs, Easdale had a lot of new material to choose from as the band gradually recorded the pieces of an album he conceived as the kind of short story collection that coheres into a whole. In an apolitical opener, the "our" in "no cure for our disease" means everybody, and that all too politically relevant mood gathers gradated tone and bitter detail as the collection proceeds. Easdale's casually unslurred vocals have gotten breathier as he hits his sixties, and his lyrics also soften slightly on their way to three devotional love songs: from "I'll never tell you how to talk" and "I'll still be there when you get old" to "We ate bugs and stayed off drugs and played canasta in the dark" and "You're the only one and we're still having fun" to "There's everybody else and then there's you, you, you." Sadly, however, the album ends with Elliott Smith's bereft "Half Right." As was Smith's depressive way, it allows us to interpret at will. But it bodes poorly for "you, you, you." A

Hanging Tree Guitars (Music Maker Relief Foundation) A dozen solo or near-solo blues, gospel, and blues/gospel recordings dating back as far as 1991 not counting the Glorifying Vine Sisters' 1977 "Get Ready," most featuring guitars crafted by North Carolina luthier Freeman Vines that include some from black walnut that had its literal roots in a lynching tree. Not only do all of these distinct Southern Black performers sound like they've long since internalized the sounds they make with their stalwart voices and dexterous hands, but from "Slavery Time Blues" to "Amazing Grace" almost all sing of injustice as if it's been on their minds their entire lives. Harsh or crooning, solo or unison, the music is occasionally embellished with modest piano or driven by drums, but voices and guitars prevail. Try the explicit opener "Slavery Time Blues" or the gospel-sweet lost-love "Clock on the Wall," a slow and keening "John Henry" or a fare-thee-well "Amazing Grace" so rough-hewn you'll play it again to make sure that was the song you just heard. And if you're like me you'll also want to read the eloquent as well as beautiful book that complements this perfectly timed project. All these citizens are set on telling the world how much their lives matter. A PLUS [originally A]

Island Records Presents Rock Steady: 40 Soulful Classics (Island) One changeless groove fits all for 40 songs in less than two hours by 32 subsoulful artists who include Joe Higgs and Justin Hinds as well as many not in your collection (Alfred Brown, "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer"; Hopeton Lewis, "Rock Steady"; Phyllis Dillon, "A Thing of the Past") ***

Skip James: The Complete Early Recordings of Skip James (Yazoo) Never mind Charley Patton, John Hurt, Robert Johnson himself--I long ago concluded that this eccentric misanthrope from the south end of the Delta is the Mississippi bluesman aging blues boys feel deepest, especially on these tracks. Recorded in 1931 in Paramount Records' notoriously lo-fi Wisconsin digs, these 18 legendary tracks include five on a piano equipped with a board over its pedals for extra oomph as well as the James theme song "Devil Got My Woman" and Cream's debut-album highlight "I'm So Glad." Almost 30 when he cut this music, James sounds rougher and more beaten up here than on the two 1966 albums he did for Vanguard, where despite his congenital ill temper and the cancer that was creeping up on him he seems proud to display the vocal and instrumental chops of a guitar-wielding folkie legend who can also play him some piano. But I agree with his cult--the early recordings are more primal and compelling. That said, though, the abrupt, percussive, harmonically disorienting piano does remind me a little of the then 13-year-old Monk. Wonder whether they ever heard each other--might have. A

Rich Krueger: The Troth Sessions (RockinK) Twentieth-century material done solo acoustic, and fairly deft acoustic too, but not so's you won't wonder whether his tunes aren't better off when poked in the ass by a band ("The Ballad of Mary O'Connor," "Heaven") **

Dua Lipa: Future Nostalgia (Warner) Olivia Newton-John tribute as dance smash as what-me-despair placebo, that deserves props for adding two keepers to that canon ("Good in Bed," "Future Nostalgia") ***

Ashley McBryde: Never Will (Warner Music Nashville) Wish she'd pared down the production here: Nashville rock at its bigged-up schlockiest, with McBryde belting to match. But the songwriting is so sharp it gives her the right to belt: lyrically not one of the 11 tracks is merely passable, and McBryde has writer's credit on all but two. Of those I naturally prefer "Shut Up Sheila" and its "Why don't you and Jesus take a walk down the hallway?" to the ecologically regrettable if musically unforgettable "Styrofoam." But every compact tale engages: mayor's daughter knocked up on bootleg wine, Biblical rationale for offing your daddy's girlfriend, the neatly dubbed "One Night Standards," missing your daughter while "living the dream" on Jack-and-Coke and a sleeping pill, and there are more. A MINUS

Dawn Oberg: 2020 Revision (self-released) Three songs lasting not quite nine minutes, the first two powered up slightly from the evolving cabaret-rock of 2017's three-song Nothing Rhymes With Orange and also a touch more passionately sung, which given the stakes can be moving. The extraordinary "Care" explains empathy with uncommon metaphysical bravado to professed Christians who throw refugees "in an icebox/And his children in a cage." "It's 12:01" catalogues police killings in liberal San Francisco, where Oberg has a day job with the EPA. "Mitch McConnell" is slighter, though that "Hitler on crack" crack is a keeper. Prolific she's not, a keeper she is. Vote for her with by downloading now. A MINUS

On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford (LoHi) A quadruple-Grammy-winning songwriter for 1968's "Gentle on My Mind" who corraled three less august Grammys thereafter, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? one after he died of cancer in 2001, Hartford is fondly remembered and deserves to be--the income generated by his greatest hit guaranteed a newgrass fiddle and banjo maestro the financial security to excel at a bunch of things he loved, mentoring included. So in the same plague-ridden year that finished off the 10th Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, two tribute albums surfaced as scheduled anyway, and while The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project is too specialized for me, this songwriting showcase proves quite the grab bag. Unfamiliar titles by artists I'd never cottoned to--"The Category Stomp" and "Back in the Goodle Days" and "Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana" and "Waugh Paugh" and the irresistible "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie," Yonder Mountain String Band and Band of Heathens and Leftover Salmon--rang my chimes so loud it was a while before I noticed the Todd Snider track. Best in show: a John Carter Cash-Jamie Hartford collab that torpedoes the seductive fantasy of finding happiness in the city. A MINUS

Public Enemy: What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? (Def Jam) Loud though they've kept it, many don't realize that they've never stopped making good albums, so between this, their first Def Jam title of the century, and 2012's self-released Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp is a closer call than you might think. The historical moment trashed in "State of the Union (STFU)" plus a host of committed cameos--George Clinton, Beastie Boys, Rapsody, Ice-T, Black Thought, Cypress Hill, it don't stop--is what seals the deal for the new one. But "State of the Union" isn't the album title because Chuck has bigger things on his mind as he always does: the dependence of everybody's world economy on an information system susceptible to attack from actors who could prove as dangerous as Donald Trump himself. Probably won't happen, you say? I agree while wondering how much wishful thinking slants my analysis. And second Chuck's one concrete piece of advice: read a book. My brutha! A MINUS

The Rough Guide to African Blues (World Music Network) Pan-African not Sahel, the second edition is no more bluesy than the first, but still a nice cross-section of African guitar that's jumpiest when it's bluesiest (and when an Englishman is playing!) (West African Blues Project, "Lalumbe"; Tamikrest, "Tamiditin") **

Ebo Taylor: Palaver (Precision) Now in his eighties, guitarist Taylor was one of Ghanaian highlife's conceptual dynamos in the early Colonel Jerry Rawlings years. On this five-track, half-hour album from half a lifetime ago, he generates the kind of elation Kwame Nkrumah's independence was supposed to bestow permanently on their nation in 1957. Yet all three of the English lyrics also subtly address the contradictions of Rawlings's one-man rule, which there was no point pretending weren't there--"Palaver" about empty talk, "Make You No Mind" about hustling for money, "Help Africa" a plea perpetually denied. American songwriters! Study these songs and do likewise for our own needy nation! If all you can do is the least you can do, at least you will have tried. B PLUS

Toots and the Maytals: True Love (V2) Opening with glorious versions of two titles not in my recall memory--Willie Nelson's 1993 "Still Is Still Moving to Me," where the composer takes the song away from his host midway through, and Toots's own 1976 "True Love Is Hard to Find," where Bonnie Raitt gives up the caring he needs--this 2004 duet album then becomes a somewhat more generic greatest-hits remake. But with Hibbert's slightly less muscular timbre as roughly soulful as ever, that's more than fine--hearing how vital the 61-year-old remains here just makes his Covid death at 78 feel more vivid, tragic, and unnecessary. Although occasionally there are transformations--Jamaican newblood Shaggy verifying "Bam Bam," funkmaster Bootsy Collins and hip-hop band the Roots adding funk rhythms not riddims to "Funky Kingston," even 44-year-old Fun Boy Three grad Terry Hall claiming "Never Grow Old"--these are remakes, right. But they constitute as fine an album as he ever made. Never grow old indeed. A

And It Don't Stop, Oct. 14, 2020

Sept. 9, 2020 Nov. 11, 2020