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: July, 2021

Underwear-clad quarantine broadcasts, bouncy Sleater-Kinney, mood music for a time of perpetual disquiet, and Cobain variations. Plus: strong women on love, cheerleaders and the men who rule the world

Aesop Rock: Spirit World Field Guide (Rhymesayers '20) Exceptionally brainy in a world where most rappers are brainier than they get credit for, his problem has always been not beats per se but hooks and flow, which is why he doesn't quite nail rhymes that are brainy even for him ("The Gates," "Boot Soup") ***

Body Meπa: The Work Is Slow (Hausu Mountain) With nary a trumpet or keyboard to be heard, this mood music for a time of perpetual disquiet might be inadequately yet usefully described as evoking both hectic '70s Miles and the weird tranquility of Hassell & Eno. Bassist Melvin Gibbs anchors and calms, drummer Greg Fox drives and disrupts, and providing the atmosphere, continuity, identity, and theme statements that will keep you listening are guitarists Grey McMurry and Sasha Frere-Jones. From Big Lazy to 75 Dollar Bill, other distant analogies also present themselves. But this is more complex than any of 'em--and save Hassell & Eno mellower too. A

Matt Caflisch: Runaway (Fat Oak '20) Good heart, sense of history, well-chosen words, functional tunes, but weak singer, because as I'm sure he knows, nobody said life was fair ("Paul Nelson [It Demolished Him]," "Simple Wide Trailer") *

Cloud Nothings: The Shadow I Remember (Carpark) No matter how evolved your noise-tune fusion, 29 is about as late as "I need to make time for me" is a lyric you can get away with ("Sound of Alarm," "Nara") **

Garbage: No Gods No Masters (Stunvolume/Infectious Music) Of all the many strong women to take on the burden of rock innovation in the '90s--O'Connor, Harvey, Stefani, Phair, Love, Tucker, Brownstein, a whole lot none too soon--Shirley Manson was the ice queen. So for me she proved an acquired taste hard to hear through to the end. I mean, if cold is your default affect, at least freeze out someone more worthy of scorn than whatever schmo has his third eye on your pants. Which I'm happy to say is what happens on an album that begins with songs called "The Men Who Rule the World" (and made "a fucking mess") and "The Creeps" (who sell her out). "Uncomfortably Me" ("I was a jerk") leads to the pained catalogue of human suffering "Waiting for God." "Anonymous Sex" she's above, "Would you deceive me if I had a dick" is fair enough, and "Our love was supreme" in the booklet becomes "Our love is supreme" on the record before the dumb guy swaps his "queen out for a pawn" anyway. It's enough to make me say too late to stop now, but not to charm me into signing off on the deluxe edition. A MINUS

John Kruth: Love Letters From the Lazaretto (self-released) Assume the "carnival" left behind on this multitracked solo recording's most fetching tune is the pre-Covid paradise where music makers could congregate at the drop of a text, phone call, or plane ticket ("After the Carnival," "The Virgin Gets Around") **

Low Cut Connie: Tough Cookies: Best of the Quarantine Broadcasts (Contender) Even during lockdown I remained a record man, with little interest in DIY livestreams. But Adam Weiner, whose band I talked up for years before they somehow evolved into the hardest-working draw on the theater circuit, survived the live-music drought bigger and better than ever with his indefatigable Tough Cookies series, which he often augmented with sub-celebrity interviewees from Richard Hell to Hunter Biden. This musical cherry-pick of those 101 shows encapsulates their enthusiasm and charm. Sometimes performing in his underwear and always accompanied by Low Cut Connie's Will Donnelly, whose command of an encyclopedic panoply of hard-strumming guitar intros makes the music move, Weiner never fails to project smarts and heart, and these 23 tracks document his range and chutzpah. Beginning with a "West End Blues" where Weiner sings the trumpet part and ending with a deeply felt cover of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again," his selections showcase his open range and big-hearted intelligence. An exceptionally fluent and percussive piano player if only a committed singer, he gives every selection including a "Kaddish" in Hebrew his all. Not counting the Armstrong-JB-Wings-Prince kickoff, my favorite sequence follows a pained version of Springsteen's "American Skin"--"This song was written over 20 years ago," he reminds George Floyd's mourners--with material that originated with Cardi B, Chic, Donna Summer, Grandmaster Flash, and the Weather Girls. Hava nagila. A

Nirvana: Sliver: The Best of the Box (Geffen '05) In her 2011 review "Nevermind Already: Nirvana's 20th Anniversary Boxset," Jessica Hopper was inspired by a less redundant maxi-retrospective of Jimi Hendrix's Winterland shows to say it all in eight words: "Cobain is not our Jimi--he's our Jim"--that is, "a died-young druggie poet-totem" in the tradition of J. Morrison himself. It was because I'd whiffed this truth myself that I skipped 2004's three-CD rarities box With the Lights Out, although when I wrote my rave for 2009's Live at Reading, their very first true concert album, I allowed as how the "detritus-happy" box was "not only fascinating but pleasurable." Which means I had no excuse for skipping this single-CD distillation of that box when it came out in 2005. But it was only after a 2021 pull from my Nirvana section that I connected with it--immediately, after first noting that the opening "Spank Thru" was so pained and ungainly it was irresistible and then realizing that I was hearing a very young Kurt and loving it. Yes there are variations on songs you know by heart: a winningly unfinished "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Come as You Are" enlarged by a rare Cobain solo, two "Rape Me"s and a "Heart Shaped Box." But it's the more obscure material that fascinates me: the introspective "Opinion," the neat "Clean Up Before She Comes," the roiling "Oh the Guilt," the domestic abuse howl "Ain't It a Shame." As an old person I wish "Old Age" was sharper, and the music does get better when Dave Grohl joins midway through. But it doesn't really have that far to go. A

Nirvana: Bleach (Sub Pop '89) I never reviewed this historic debut, one of only three studio albums Kurt Cobain got to record, because it was released in late 1989 and Nevermind only became a thing in late 1991, when my '80s Consumer Guide book was already in print. I did praise it cautiously when I reviewed Charles Cross's 2001 Cobain biography, only to immediately credit Nevermind's "head-bustingly hyperactive drummer Dave Grohl" with rendering Nirvana "a great band." But my belated discovery of Sliver having sent me back, I find that not only do I admire Grohl less, as who the foo doesn't, but blame producer Jack Endino for how dry Bleach's songs sound--way too dry for grunge, a way of music that benefits from extra sputum. Sure it's still a major album: Cobain is a lost treasure. But I prefer Sliver. By a lot. B PLUS

Liz Phair: Soberish (Chrysalis) In her first new music since 2010, Phair fashions 13 sturdy and economical if slightly sub-tuneful pop songs from the precisely enunciated affections and anxieties of a serious serial monogamist. In the boldest she assumes the voice of fellow greater Chicagoan Laurie Anderson sick of Lou's Warhol stories: "Oh Superman, I've done as much as I can/You're not the life of the party." In the catchiest, a welcome snatch of "I Want It That Way" softens hard truths about how much he'll miss what they had. In the drunkest, she admits that love at first sight is scary but wishes they could stop "dicking around" even so. A MINUS

Pom Pom Squad: Death of a Cheerleader (City Slang) Mia Berrin having ignited the proceedings with a straightforward "I'm gonna marry the scariest girl on the cheerleading team," rocked-up girl-group materials contort into romanced-up riot grrrl emotions seconded musically here and verbally there. She loves her, she loves her not; she loves herself, she can't stand herself. But no matter whose side you're on, watch out you don't delete that "Drunk Voicemail"! B PLUS

Sa-Roc: The Sharecropper's Daughter (Rhymesayers '20) Literate and articulate versus hookless and humorless to an all too self-confident alt-rap draw ("The Black Renaissance," "Goddess Gang") *

Sleater-Kinney: Path of Wellness (Mom + Pop) As a Janet Weiss lifer, I'm surprised to conclude that Corrie and Corin are better off without her. A quarter century on, both needed room to stretch out moodwise as well as musicwise, although there's definitely that--would you believe that occasionally this album is, well, bouncy? (How about listenable?) In this moment in their and our parallel histories they need as much room as their skill sets can accommodate whether addressing love's vagaries--which are doubly various when one of you has stuck with a single domestic partner for decades and the other hasn't. Then there's the problem of understanding how a home city whose laid-back hipness the right multi-talent could spend eight TV seasons satirizing turned into a culture-war war zone. The love songs concocted by the changeable Brownstein outnumber those of the stabler Tucker, sharp from the infatuated "High in the Grass" to the try-a-little-tenderness "Method" to the sardonic "Complex Female Characters" no matter how loudly Tucker's "Worry With You" resonates with more settled fans. As for Portlandia, the fragmentary "No Knives" evokes the p.c. quirks that from "Favorite Neighbor" to "Bring Mercy" are forgiven and all but forgotten as evildoers assault its tolerant streets. A

Sons of Kemet: Black to the Future (Impulse) Shabaka Hutchings isn't the first jazz musician to believe aurally arresting musical originality has intellectually salient political bite, and this project's cheerful, tuba-grounded resolve is a message in itself. But losing the thread comes naturally when an album launched by the scornful Joshua Idehen attack on the audacity of Caucasity "Field Negus" passes Idehen's baton to lesser lyricists and then turns strictly instrumental for its second half. Luckily for us, Idehen gets the last word with the climactic "Black," which is salient and then some from "Black is tired/Black would like to make a statement/Black is tired/Black's eyes are vacant/Black's arms are leaden/Black's tongue cannot taste shit" to "This black struggle is dance/This black pain is dance/This black struggle is dance/And this black blaze is dance/Just leave black be/You already have the world just leave black be/Leave us alone!" B PLUS

And It Don't Stop, July 15, 2021

June 9, 2021 August 11, 2021