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: March, 2021

Rhyme sprees from a revolutionary, a poet with laundry to do, and a compulsive veteran. Plus staccato guitar outbursts, an Arkansas bard, a South African doyenne, and losers get a glow up

Hayes Carll: Alone Together Sessions (Dualtone) There's a redundancy problem with the acoustic but far from solo best-of that the plague's home concert boom elicited from this consistently smart and likable Arkansas bard--an "Oh yeah, that one" effect. He's good, and though it may not add much to the more fully produced versions that had already imprinted half these songs on my recall, it nails almost every one. Highlights include the anti-Donald title song of his 2019 Times Like These, the sole keeper from his down 2016 Lovers and Leavers, and duets with an irascible Ray Wylie Hubbard on the erotic "Drunken Poet's Dream" and his wife Allison Moorer on a sexy rendition of Lefty Frizzell's "That's the Way Love Goes." A MINUS

R.A.P. Ferreira: Purple Moonlight Pages (Ruby Yacht) Bad on me for missing Roy Allen Philip when he was rapping as Milo pre-Trump and promise I'll address that omission sometime, as only befits a sui generis Omar Khayyam fan whose return to the lists begins "Fence-building nihilists, good evening/This is the late-sleeping utopian speaking" and whose young son stares with "them wide ol' eyes" as "I scoop socks calmly from under chairs" in a rap with the striking title "Laundry." Son of Chicago South Siders who spent his childhood in Maine and his adolescence with his dad in none other than Kenosha, Wisconsin, then returned to the precincts where his social worker mom maintains a blog called Black Girl in Maine, Roy's not a great rhymer-as-rhymer. Nor is he especially hooky or at all danceable as he free-forms over a striking, changeable jazz-inflected rhythm section curated by Serengeti pal Kenny Segal. As a "king poetical dingbat" and "prince of the corduroy coons," he observes: "Professional rappers often only heard post-mortem/Perhaps try trade school, electrician training seems prescient" (which I should mention will soon assonate with "hesitant"). His motto "No starvin' artists/Just artists starvin' to know," a member in good standing of "The United Defenders of International Good Will," he does his best to enjoy the occasional "vegan white cheddar please panini croissant" as he follows advice he once came across on a bathroom wall: "to be the eyes, the ears, and the consciousness of the creator of the universe." A

R.A.P. Ferreira: Bob's Son: R.A.P. Ferreira in the Garden Level Cafe of the Scallops Hotel (Ruby Yacht) Once he has it out with Alexa in a 1:46 opener w/ piano and rhythm section that always tickles me, Ferreira is free to launch a musical poetry jam anchored by shout-outs to African-American Beat forefathers Leroi Jones d/b/a Amiri Baraka ("We are the old men of the rap age"), Ted Joans ("Always take the glasses off for the photographers so I won't look like the rest of 'em"), and cough bombing Bob Kaufman (whose "Abomunist Manifesto" Ferreira converts into a finale). Gregory Corso drops by to say "If you wanna be a poet you can't be/You gotta know you're a poet/And then you've got no fucking choice." And looming over it all there's "Diogenes on the Auction Block": "I stepped up to that auction block, cleared my throat, I was like 'Dig [cough/chuckle], I'm the type of slave you buy if, uh, you, uh, need a new master.'" A MINUS

R.A.P. Ferreira: The Truly Ancient and Original Lefthanded Styles of the Hoodwinkers and Penny Pinchers (Ruby Yacht) "peace to Daniel Dumile, peace to Dâm Funk, shout-out Ariel Pink one time, [garbled] Stevie Wonder, anyone who keeps making music past they prime, ha-ha, me too" ("Animatronics," "Big Business") **

The Hold Steady: Open Door Policy (Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers) Craig Finn made his name as a musical storyteller with plots that always seemed to involve the drug life. Early on he specialized in alt-rock kids, but as he aged--and he was already past 30 when his band went public--his characters did too, with fewer escape hatches built into their compromised bacchanals. Barely getting by by now, many of his subjects--especially those chronicled under the Hold Steady brand, with the solo albums somewhat rangier--have been around the block so many times the sidewalk feels like a treadmill. So it's notable that on this album there are fewer outright losers. The title track reports from a party hosted by a minor billionaire; one narrator brags that he sells software to "hospitals and local government"; Magdalena's thing with the singer in L.A. fell apart but she still has it in her to head back to Scranton and clean up at her girlfriend's place. I find this so refreshing I wish everybody involved good luck. B PLUS

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Co-Starring (Big Machine) It takes cojones to be a ballbuster at 73, heart to be a good-hearted one, and well-tended amiability to get your friends to play along ("Drink Till I See Double," "Mississippi John Hurt") **

Lithics: Tower of Age (Trouble in Mind) Jumpy and catchy, playful whether they like it or not, this Portland foursome's third and best album is as far from 2018's Mating Surfaces as Mating Surfaces is from 2016's Borrowed Floors. The template holds: staccato guitar patterns or outbursts as opposed to lines over drum and bass considerably less "danceable" than that of their U.K. counterparts Shopping, who double their trouble by trying to say something about . . . consumerism??? No passes at meaningful verbiage here: from "Hello hello are you there" kicking things off to whatever if anything Aubrey Horner grunts over the last third of "Half Dormancy," the scant lyrics are not funny ha ha but funny tongue-in-cheek, which may very well be how they're enunciated. A MINUS

Little Ann: Detroit's Secret Soul (Kent) Born 1945, surname Bridgeforth, raised north of Detroit, her late-'60s tracks do slot "soul," but soul cut with unmannered girl-group simplicity ("What Should I Do," "Lost a Lover [Need a Friend]," "Deep Shadows [Multi Mix]") **

Irene Mawela: The Best of the SABC Years (Umsakazo) Now 81, Mawela has long been a doyenne of South African pop: a songwriter as well as a singer married to a Gallo Records exec and always representing for her Venda-language minority. In this century she's been treated to some relatively elaborate sessions: juiced occasionally with pan-African touches, 2007's quite findable Thlokomela Sera is worth hearing. But these spare, well-chosen '80s recordings for South African state radio have considerably more come-hither charm. In her late forties by then, Mawela nonetheless projected youthful calm over backing tracks that shared her nonchalant confidence and unhurried forward motion. It sounds almost as if apartheid ain't a thing, which pretty soon it won't be. B PLUS

Harvey McLaughlin: Rascality (Saustex) Gruff, intemperate rock-not-folk troubadour has a bone to pick with you, him, and the other guy ("Ping's Chinese Restaurant," "Outhouse Crescent Moon," "Proudfoot") ***

Gurf Morlix: Kiss of the Diamondback (Rootball) The love life not sex life of a gnarled not gnarly 69-year-old who knows the difference ("If You Were Perfect," "I'd Stop the Rain," "We Just Talked") *

Paris: Safe Space Invader (Guerrilla Funk) UC Davis economics B.A. turned gruffly revolutionary Bay Area rapper turned successful stockbroker Oscar Davis Jr. remains so outraged by racism that he continues to advocate violence; "Say fuck that demonstratin'/Let's mob and run up on 'em/No time for contemplatin'/Payback with chrome and dome 'em" is just one of many examples. Especially given who owns the guns in these Second Amendment-perverting days, I have plenty of doubts about this strategy, which he lays out fiercely enough to convince me he might mean it literally. But as rhetoric and expression it's won me over. This man is very smart and incorporates many relevant texts: Farrakhan and Yellowman I can ID, but where'd he find that '20s-sounding "Coonin', coonin'" or the Jamaican "World in trouble" intro to "Walk Like a Panther," which tosses a trenchant trap rap putdown into the bargain? So while initially what I treasured here was the brutal Trump dis "Baby Man Hands," now I prefer the stage-muttered one that includes "It ain't no black people left in Oakland/It ain't no black people left in San Francisco/And we all know that none of this is accidental" and goes on from there. Very, very smart. Always was. A MINUS

Django Reinhardt: Djangology (Bluebird) For years the only Django CD I played was the intense, disorderly purple-and-green Koch one from the mid-'30s I bought my wife one Christmas, still findable cheap used and still recommended. But recently I've preferred this somewhat mellower and much more coherent big-label retrospective from 1949, four years before the seminal Gypsy guitarist died at 43. Spiked by his reunion with the sprightly, swinging, indomitable violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who lived to 91 himself, the sessions were skillfully recorded in Italy with the pair's prewar Hot Club of Paris repertoire in mind. The comfortable surety here sacrifices neither swing nor speed despite a rhythm section that doesn't add much. A little Tchaikovsky? A pop chanson called "Où es-tu mon amour?" that would later be covered by Django fan Willie Nelson? As long as the tempo picks up fast enough, only a clod would say no. A

And It Don't Stop, Mar. 10, 2021

Feb. 10, 2021 Apr. 7, 2021