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: June, 2021

Seeing the light with Loretta Lynn, driving with Olivia Rodrigo, mourning cats with Dry Cleaning, and wrapping your troubles in Lou Reed's dreams. Plus: sounds from Ghana, Japan, Norway, and Chicago

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: 11th Street, Sekondi (Agogo, 2019) Singer-saxophonist Ambolley is a 1947-born Ghanaian whose 2019 album, said to be his 31st, I streamed on a tip and dug on the spot. What I noticed right away was not simply one more infectious African rhythm variant but the extra pleasure of hearing someone singing or rapping or commenting or interjecting atop/amid that variant in a language I could actually understand--to be specific, English rather than French. What my wife noticed was the variant itself, which she swore she recalled from an old Sunny Adé record she'd inscribed in her memory book. What you'll notice, I believe, is both. Special kudos to a guitarist billed simply as Dominic and Ambolley's trademark "Hey-up-pah!" A MINUS

Chai: Wink (Sub Pop) Initially the Ramones fan in me wished this was more like Punk. But prodded by the women in my life, I softened, first because there's more punk here than meets the ears and then because in music more textural than tuneful the textures themselves can turn catchy before you know it. And then there are lyrics split between Japanese so cute and onomatopoiec they're ear candy and English so cute and smart they're mind food. "I'm in the mood for love/I'm in the mood for love you." "We need five minutes of love/Please eat before I cool down." "I know you said pink is too young/But I know you like this beat so much." "No one knows that we are smart!" But someday they will! Am I right, ladies? A MINUS

J. Cole: The Off-Season (Dreamville/Roc Nation) "Money ain't everything, I never say that" (but my name and skills are such that I can afford to come pretty close) ("Pride Is the Devil," "Let Go My Hand") ***

Dry Cleaning: Sweet Princess EP (It's OK, 2019) Call them the Gang of Four of everyday life, not as thrilling or virtuosic but still arrestingly angular up against spoken Florence Shaw lyrics that sound like found prose poems, sometimes because that's precisely what they are--store signs and headlines catalogued for a rainy day, street harangues, Meghan Markle stories you can't shake, missing your grandmother, missing your dead cat even more. A

Dry Cleaning: Boundary Road Snacks and Drinks (It's OK, 2019) On their second six-song EP in just three months of 2019 it sounds as if they may sometimes resort to semi-rejects or experiments gone slightly awry ("Dog Proposal," "Sit Down Meal") ***

Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (4AD) Gang of Four remains more a precedent here than Wire or the Fall (or Mannequin Pussy). But while the clean lines and d'void of funk propulsion are conscious aesthetic choices, those choices are rooted not just in the musicians' tastes but their abilities. And at a higher level the same goes for Florence Shaw's simultaneously plainspoken and poetic lyrics, so that sometimes they merge the quotidian and the surreal and sometimes they just smoosh them up to no notable aesthetic effect. Me, I'm not always a fan of her cool, preferring "Would you choose a dentist with a messy back garden like that?" to "An exhausting walk in the horrible countryside" as I do. But I'm fine with her rhyming vaguely related buzzwords in "Scratchcard Lanyard" or documenting the tiny one-sided cellphone convo "Call Ronny/What've you been up to?/Cool./Yeah." The closer is the relatively epic and also climactic "Every Day Carry," which A-lists not such useful items as flashlights, notebooks, and lethal weapons but such objects, behaviors, and raw abstractions as onions, orchids, diodes, existential crises, chocolate chip cookies, and best friends forever. It goes on for seven finalizing minutes. A MINUS

Girl in Red: If I Could Make It Go Quiet (World in Red/AWAL) A well-honed miniature: aided by producer Matias Telléz and uncredited g-b-k-d, 22-year-old singer and songwriter Marie Ulven outlines the perfectly normal, infinitely applicable downs and ups of the love out of reach that befalls almost anyone committed to the itinerant life modest rock renown imposes. In one song she sucks up sexual solace on the phone; in the next she provides sexual solace of her own in person; on every track she's mindful and decent no matter how miserable. Only the one that goes "You stupid bitch can't you see/The perfect one for you is me" is a true grabber. But others come close enough that I believe she's gonna make it, and so I hope will you. A MINUS

Loretta Lynn: Still Woman Enough (Legacy) The coal miner's daughter turned Fist City better half redoes some of her classics on an all-new album released to honor her 89th birthday: "Honky Tonk Girl," "I Wanna Be Free," Shel Silverstein's protofeminist stroke "One's on the Way." But near as I can tell she'd never before recorded, for instance, Hank Williams's "I Saw the Light" or the 95-year-old "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight." Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood, and Margo Price do help, and in a deft bob-and-weave she transforms "Coal Miner's Daughter" itself into a recitation. So all in all the genius who pronounces "wash" with an R in the middle delivers a far smarter and more efficient tribute to her own eternal flair than Jack White's much-bruited Van Lear Rose did when she was a mere 72, long before first a stroke and then a broken hip failed to stop her. A MINUS

Vic Mensa: I Tape (Roc Nation) This episodic tale of how a conscious rapper rose above post-hot oblivion mounts a surprisingly persuasive argument for the utility of religious belief, not least because the religion is Islam. Useful context is provided by the reminiscences of his Ghanaian father and extra texture by the Securus prepaid collect-call utility of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Doubters are advised to begin midway through: "Fr33dom"-"Moosa"-"Shelter." A MINUS

Mdou Moctar: Afrique Victime (Matador) In his U.S. debut, fluent if not quite thrilling Tuareg guitarist puts his ample chops on a well-justified display that, for non-Tamashek speakers, meshes barely if at all with its politically understandable but musically baffling title ("Chismiten," "Layla") ***

Olivia Rodrigo: Sour (Geffen) This manifestly competent 18-year-old actress has a two-boyfriend romantic history dating back to 2018 that pop aesthetes who avoid the Disney channel can just Google--both, unsurprisingly, with actors a year or two older than she is. Also unsurprisingly, she's gorgeous. But that's never stopped women from worrying that their bodies aren't "perfect," which along with other inevitable insecurities was enough to fuel an exquisite teen-breakup concept album produced by 38-year-old helper bunny Daniel Nigro. Again and again dainty melodies meet big drums and are only stronger for it as every simple word comes clear. She doesn't drink yet but knows how he likes his coffee and let's bet her own; she says "fuck" and "bullshit," the latter to modify "eternal love." Though he did the driving let's also bet he gave her some of the lessons that flowered into her first megahit even if she still can't really, in everybody's favorite trope, parallel park. But when he transfers his attentions to "someone more exciting," it's Olivia's jokes he's telling, Olivia's Billy Joel he's playing. And for a transcendent finale she leaves her own pain behind and sends her very best to an abused boy she knew when they were small and a middle school friend with parents who "hated who she loved." A

Spillage Village: Bears Like This Too Much (Spillage Village, 2016) Not trap, not conscious, this Atlanta rap "collective" or maybe bunch joke around over infectious loops as the KKK dons blue and they wonder where their next 90-cent cheeseburger is coming from ("Voodoo," "Rounds," "Outside") ***

Wau Wau Collectif: Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds) Meticulously interactive long-distance Senegalese-Swedish collaboration doesn't quite make up in charm what it lacks in pizzazz ("Riddim Rek Ya Niouy Mom," "Yaral Sa Doom") **

What Goes On: The Songs of Lou Reed (Ace) As punk loyalist Kris Needs's fact-filled notes fail to note, the subtitle on this well-compiled collection of cover versions flirts with a misnomer, because all but six of these 20 Reed songs are also Velvets song--and those six include a Pickwick demo, a pre-Velvets Reed-Cale song, and Nico's 1967 "Wrap Your Trouble in Dreams," with the only full-fledged exceptions an expendable spoken-word closer recited by the honorable James Osterberg, "Perfect Day" from 2007's The Raven, and the inevitable "Walk on the Wild Side." It's enough to leave you shaking your head saying, "Jesus, and he was just getting started." As you'd figure, paying tribute are new wavers honoring their roots--Yo La Tengo do right by "I'm Set Free," the Soft Boys by "Train 'Round the Bend," Echo & the Bunnymen by "Run, Run, Run." Equally impressive is the lyricism of such varied female admirers as June Tabor, Rachel Sweet, Tracey Thorn, and Susanna Hoffs all singing as if Nico has never crossed their minds. And though I'd love to hear a follow-up comp that included, say, "Sally Can't Dance," "Set the Twilight Reeling," "Smalltown," "Egg Cream," and "Ecstasy," I wish I was convinced there were young singers out there savvy enough to pluck those songs from the great tradition. A

And It Don't Stop, June 9, 2021

May 12, 2021 July 15, 2021