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: August, 2021

Discontented candor, miraculous West Indian guitar, political hip-hop with aesthetic vortex, and punk-sparked roots. Plus: Ghanaian Afrofunk, a happy armed robber, and rhythm as a unit of meaning.

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: Simigwa (Mr Bongo '18) In Ronnie Graham's 1988 Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, this 1973 debut heads a list name-checking several dozen "Various" Ghanaian artists. So having learned that Ambolley had long since emigrated to the States the way Eddie Quansah did to Australia, and having already found his 2019-released 11th Street, Sekonde simply irresistible, I was spurred by Graham's sole annotation, "(A huge hit)," to order it unheard. I have no regrets. Most of this highlife turned Brownian Afrofunk has what I assume are Twi lyrics, but not this Inspirational Patter: "I'm gonna crack you like a peanut, tune you up like the radio, read you like the daily newspaper, until everything becomes about the quogyes of the yebofum." A MINUS

Directions in Music 1969 to 1973 (BGP) Sidestepping the vacuous virtuosity and toy funk that were the most egregious turnoffs of the "fusion" that followed in the wake of Miles Davis's 1970 Bitches Brew, which compiler Dean Rutland identifies as the fountainhead of what he chooses to designate "electric jazz," this atmospheric compilation keeps it textural, never coming near the flat-out rock sonics of sometime sideman John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, the abrasive outrages of Davis's own 1976 Agharta, or indeed the blandishments of Weather Report, who epitomized the tendency at its most consistently artful and coherent. So it's to Rutland's credit that were a guest to request some Weather Report, admittedly not a common occurrence around here, this is what I'd play instead. Betty Davis's "Politician Man" provides welcome verbal context. But if you're as allergic to flutes as I am, I suggest deprogramming the closer Rutland assigns to Herbie Hancock, who deserves better. A MINUS

Emily Duff: Razor Blade Smile (Mr. Mudshow Music) When I played this album up against producer Eric Ambel's Del-Lords so as to comparison-shop the grooves he'd laid on this Flushing-born, punk-sparked, country-steeped roots-rocker, I made a surprising discovery: due to volume drummer Phil Cimino and Duff's own power-twanging vocals, her music moved better. In songs mapping a serial monogamy perpetually doomed to close down and move on, she treasures tenderness, tries not to go to bed mad, and figures "nicotine and waiting" could kill her eventually even so. Not once is she content to settle for an ending that leaves her "flat broke and busted." But that doesn't mean she's figured out a sure-shot way to avoid them. A MINUS

Billie Eilish: Happier Than Ever (Darkroom/Interscope) Because she enjoyed the incomparable distinction and suffered the incomprehensible burden of sweeping the Grammys at 17, ordinary life will be out of her reach for a long time. So unless and until she elects to go public with romantic encounters I hope she enjoys and applaud her for concealing via "NDA," quote unquote because "NDA" is an actual song title here, that leaves her with one subject: stardom and its discontents, a privilege and dilemma it would seem impossible to say anything new much less interesting about. Only then out of sheer candor she does. "Things I once enjoyed/Just keep me employed now/Things I'm longing for/Someday I'll be bored of/It's so weird/That we care so much until we don't." Nor is this the only new truism she pulls out of her thoughtstream. How about "I sure have a knack for seeing life more like a child"? Or the meditation on the objectified female body that is "Not My Responsibility"? No wonder the music Finneas comes up with for her is calmer and less sprightly than the stuff that converted the world. But because I'm old enough to feel both concern for a youngster's well-being and awe at her unguarded resourcefulness, that's fine with me. Let's hope her fellow teens feel the same. A

Robert Finley: Sharecropper's Son (Easy Eye Sound) Where for Sa-Roc sharecropping is a brand, for this high-powered, high-generic blues artist it's an identity he's suffered and overcome ("Sharecropper's Son," "Country Child") *

The Goon Sax: Mirror II (Matador) More imposing sound but less fetching songs, though with exceptions ("Psychic," "Carpetry") **

Anthony Joseph: The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives (Heavenly Sweetness) His title long ago devised and explained by Trinidadian C.L.R. James, his poetry right now powered and enriched by Anglo-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and friends, nowhere on these six tracks is Anglo-Trinidadian poet Joseph more affecting or inspiring than delivering the Black-immigrant saga "Calling England Home." Other shards of autobiography enrich that strain. But given James's title Joseph is obliged to politicize as well, and he does so with a will as Guyanese soldiers reap "good U.S. currency" from Jonestown's killing fields and "Swing Praxis" delivers a clincher "in which considering the lack of a truly beautiful violent revolution we establish ourselves as mediums for change, change which must accumulate to maximum impact and speed like rhythm and rhythm is a unit of meaning of feeling of being." A MINUS

Los Lobos: Native Sons (New West) Five white-haired longhairs revisit East L.A.'s '60s, horn section well in hand ("Bluebird," "The World Is a Ghetto") ***

Mach-Hommy: Pray for Haiti (Griselda) Like label head and off-and-on collaborator Westside Gunn, whose input here cultists believe render this the best of more Mach-Hommy albums than I can miscount, the Haitian-American rapper seems to regard what was once called gangsta rap as a fully aestheticized musical tradition ripe for formal exploitation. And on this album that tradition is in flower--every time it announces itself, the synth riff that undergirds the lead "The 26th Letter" cheers me up a little. But it's the verbal content that seals the deal. From the journalistic expose of Haiti's victimization by drug cartels to an academic discussion of regional Creole variants to Westside Pootie's shoe deal, some touches are literally prosaic. But I see no point in resisting "put this .38 in your mouth spit your magnum opus" or the way he rhymes "cornballs with no aesthetic vortex" with "Gore-Tex." Not to mention "every time I heard the voice of God it was a female." A MINUS

Mach-Hommy: HBO (Haitian Body Odor) (Griselda '16) From an opener anchored by an irresistible punk-metal drone Bardo Pond found in the trash through spoken wisdom by an M-H associate who sounds like Jay-Z to the relaxed, matter-of-fact "Bloody Penthouse" closer, this Newark Francophone will keep you interested. But the stunner climaxes the title track that serves as this hard-to-find album's fulcrum: a two-minute P.S. in which anti-Duvalier activist Raymond Joseph describes a nationally televised Port-au-Prince ruling-clique gala in which Michèle Bennett Duvalier and her rich-lady cohort showed off the furs they've taken out of a freezer built specially and solely to store them. Puts recent events down there in a perspective I'm not wise enough to elucidate. B PLUS

Billy Nomates: Emergency Telephone (Invada) With some well-earned money in her pocket, she has a bead on the normal life every person deserves--which, unsurprisingly, is rather less fascinating than her pissed-off life ("Petrol Fumes," "Heels") *

Amy Rigby: A One Way Ticket to My Life (Southern Domestic '19) Here be nineteen four-track demos recorded on a Tascan Portastudio between pre-Shams 1987 and post-Diary of a Mod Housewife 1997 and released in this form in 2019, with just one selection apiece from that pioneering female trio and Rigby's superb solo debut and follow-up albums. Their demo provenance isn't a positive--even the solid Nashville-style arrangements she favored pre-Wreckless Eric added more oomph than she generally manages here whether solo or with helpers. But Rigby has been one of our finest songwriters for a quarter century, and the only reason this material stayed in that Portastudio so long is that she couldn't figure out where else to put it. So though the three tracks preceding the "Tomorrow's All We Got" closer could use some of that oomph, the quality here is impressively consistent, with two songs it would have been hard to slip onto her early albums altogether remarkable: "Mrs. Gordon Ray Thomas," in which an imprisoned armed robber explains why her crime spree made her "a happy woman," and "Contractor," in which asbestos breaks up a marriage none too soon. B PLUS

Joseph Spence: Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing (Smithsonian Folkways) Although it opens with two signature tunes, "Out on the Rolling Sea" and "Won't That Be a Happy Time," most of these titles are not yet in the canon of the miraculous Spence, a sui generis West Indies stylist whose congenial accent, grunted hums, gargled embellishments, and now-treble now-bass picking render him as irresistible for me as any blues icon this side of John Hurt. Some of them are classics: the good-enough-for-me hymn-cum-jubilee-song "Give Me That Old Time Religion," the study-war-no-more hymn-cum-protest-song "Down by the Riverside," the infinitely coverable Benny Goodman hit "The Glory of Love," the Belafonte as opposed to Beyoncé "Brown Skin Girl." Others--the loosely anchored "In Times Like These," the God-seeking "Death and the Woman"--probably should be. Miraculously only maybe Spence was the miracle, all but two were recorded during a single May 1965 New York City weekend. A

Star Feminine Band: Star Feminine Band (Born Bad '20) The females are all teens, young-sounding ones at that, but while my delight at hearing the underage sing beat music is unending, few of these eight tracks break through as songs ("Feba," "La Musique") *

And It Don't Stop, August 11, 2021

July 15, 2021 September 8, 2021