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: September, 2021

A decade worth of New Jersey indie rock, Tune-Yards' very best, erotic engagement and ennui from the '20s (the 1920s, that is), and Lucy Dacus's verbally and musically detailed religious apostasy.

Adult Mom: Driver (Epitaph) When your theme statement evolves into "You're a lover I am not/That's why I love you," you've gotten to where your quiet girlpop/queerpop is saying it acutely but not completely ("Sober," "Adam") ***

Leroy Carr: Whiskey Is My Habit, Good Women Is All I Crave: The Best of Leroy Carr (Columbia/Legacy '04) Columbia sent me this 40-track double-CD back in the day, but though I certainly A-shelfed it, in a banner year for best-ofs I never wrote it up. Now it's harder to find as such, though readily downloadable as The Essential Leroy Carr, and while there are certainly competing physicals that sound good enough, they just as certainly lack Tom Piazza's terrific notes and most likely the must-hear novelty "Papa's on the House Top." One likely-looking candidate doesn't even include Carr's seminal 1928 "How Long, How Long Blues," which in tandem with Tampa Red's 1928 "It's Tight Like That" initiated and pretty much defined an enduring pop-blues tradition summed up by Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta as "hip, urbane soloists or duos who sang clever twelve- and eight-bar compositions in a casually assured barroom manner." Carr grew up in Indianapolis's Bronzetown, as did his essential recording partner, guitar picker Scrapper Blackwell. A flat-out alcoholic who died of nephritis at 30 in 1935, he sang about the twin necessities of life adduced in the title in a lean, conversational high baritone. From "Hard Heated Papa" to "You Left Me Crying," from "I've got so many women that I don't care when one dies" to "I would not quit my black woman baby if I could" in the self-same song, he articulated a seesawing pattern of erotic engagement and ennui we've come to know too well. And Robert Johnson was definitely a fan. One way you can tell is that he converted the casual Carr hit "I Believe I'll Make a Change" into an earthshaking classic called, you know this one, "Dust My Broom." A

Lucy Dacus: Home Video (Matador) Having slotted Dacus as a don't-get-her rather than can't-stand-her, I liked this one so much I checked back to No Burden and Historian, both of which I'd found too static, and decided there'd been more there than I'd thought, although Historian opener "Night Shift," for instance, is a great song only if ones that don't move much count. Without once rocking out, album three definitely moves. From "Hot and Heavy"'s basement dalliance with a gem who only got brighter to "Please Stay"'s "Quit your job, cut your hair, get a dog" suicide watch, these verbally and musically detailed reminiscences of an alienated ex-Christian get me going. As a committed backslider who knows "VBS" stands for Vacation Bible School, I find her religious apostasy especially useful and poignant. But "Thumbs," in which she clutches the hand of the friend/lover who's face-to-face with her dad for the first time since fifth grade, is also pretty intense. And there's more. A MINUS

The Front Bottoms: The Front Bottoms (Bar/None '11) Comprising New Jersey vocalist-guitarist Brian Sella and drummer Mat Uychich and then picking up help here and there, self-branded folk-punk even if I still call it indie-rock, the Front Bottoms remained stalwartly productive for over a decade after self-releasing albums (plus several of the many EPs I haven't heard) in 2008 and 2009. So for this pass, at least, I'll stick to their five label-supported long-players, perhaps the most self-aware and fundamentally likable oeuvre in a vanishing musical subculture of white male post-collegiate slackers making a self-employed lifestyle out of recreational consciousness adjusters and romantic musical chairs. Were those really just fireworks Sella bought in Pennsylvania? Is it literally true that he spent a summer on steroids because the girl he was crushing on liked muscles? Does he actually want to reread American Psycho, poor guy? Did his father knock him around so bad he dreams about hitting him with a baseball bat? Although in 2012 I semi-dismissed them as a "two-'man' Bergen County Nerd Liberation Front cell," they've grown in my mind as they've grown older and kept at it. So yes to all the above questions is my takeaway. Tell me more. A MINUS

The Front Bottoms: Talon of the Hawk (Bar/None '13) Why hasn't somebody famous covered the lead "Au Revoir (Adios)," the kind of sure shot with a punch line that can inspire college graduates to spend their early twenties on the road because it beats the day jobs they don't have anyway. Nor are the tale of Brian Sella's space-age crystals versus his mother's lottery habit or the one that keeps repeating "I got so stoned I fell asleep in the front seat" or definitely the one that goes "I wanna be stronger than your dad was for your mom" low-fat cottage cheese. Deep, not especially. But far from dumb, meaning deep enough. Tuneful enough too. A MINUS

The Front Bottoms: Back on Top (Fueled by Ramen '15) On an album unified by the megatheme we'll-break-up-we'll-break-up-not, be grateful the music keeps improving as Brian Sella applies his pitch-poor voice to marginally catchier variations on the theme. A propitious omen is that the one that repeats "You can tie me up but don't tie me down" is called "Ginger" in honor of the dog he rescued--an omen that "2YL" soon puts more flesh on. Only then the chorus switches into "Love of my life, gone forever." And in the closer someone dies, although not Sella. B PLUS

Front Bottoms: Going Grey (Fueled by Ramen '17) Romance remains hard, but give them credit for trying to not just work on it but explain it ("Bae," "Vacation Town," "Ocean") ***

The Front Bottoms: In Sickness and in Flames (Fueled by Ramen) After a decade-plus of predicating his art on a changeable love life, now thirtysomething Brian Sella endures more romantic angst, thinks about it, and grows up, germinating a complex, changeable, catchy succession of songs that create the probably not altogether factual impression that his entire adult life has been one up-and-down hookup. "Everyone blooms in their own time," the opener begins. But in "Montgomery Forever," the permanence of this union is challenged by the demolition of the Jersey City housing project where they once resided--and also, well, that other guy she met. Yet soon enough "The Truth" ignites the invaluable axiom "You are the truth I choose to bend myself around." In other words: "I do it like that because that's the way my baby likes it," singing lessons included. So as the finale swears: "We're both going to the same place/Just at very different speeds." A

Dylan Hicks: Accidental Birds (Soft Launch) Lounge music (or perhaps even the fabled "lounge-rock") by and mostly for indie-rock lifers--with real lyrics, which help ("2059," "Twyla Tharp," "Wrong") **

Tommy James & the Shondells: The Very Best of Tommy James & the Shondells (Rhino '93) Catchy '60s schlock-rockers notched two great singles, three if you count "Hanky Panky," as well as many serviceable ones, all but "Draggin' the Line" on a 10-track 1969 best-of this Rhino CD doesn't much improve on ("Crystal Blue Persuasion," "I Think We're Alone Now") ***

James McMurtry: The Horses and the Hounds (New West) McMurtry turns 60 next March, and on his first album since 2015's superb Complicated Game, he's feeling it, but as usual not from the usual angles. In the opener he makes out on a Brooklyn bus with that San Jose chick he never got to hook up: "Cashing in on a 30-year crush/You can't be young and do that." But in the honeymoon gone awry later on his worst problem comes up three times at least: "I keep losing my glasses." That's also where he wonders "How're they gonna build a wall with no Mexicans anyway," which goes with the one where wars are now called "operations" and nobody notices because they're not on TV and also because "The country boys will do the fighting/Now that fighting's all a country boy can do." Meet as well Jackie, who feeds the horses she loves by driving a truck until she hits a patch of black ice, or the broke farmer who gets so drunk he guns down a luckier friend. As usual if less often than we might hope, double guitars over an unmistakable four-four carry a declarative baritone that could belong to a 40-year-old--one you should be glad is disciplined enough to record only when he's sure he has a whole album in his kit. A MINUS

More Girl Group Greats (Rhino '01) Where the magical Girl Group Greats piled on indie miracles--Exciters, Toys, Chiffons, Dixie Cups, Little Eva, Claudine Clark, Ad Libs, holy Jaynetts--its same-year follow-up is keyed to the Universal-controlled Motown and Mercury catalogues, which include many artists with album-strength oeuvres: Supremes, Marvelettes, Shangri-Las, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Lesley Gore, eight front-loaded tracks in all. Where the four such selections on the first album were subsumed in its tendency to follow "How did this happen and will it ever happen again?" with "How did I forget that one?," here the big names tend to overshadow even one-of-a-kinds like the Cookies' "Chains" and the Raindrops' "The Kind of Boy You Can't Forget." So my advice to dabblers is to spring for a Marvelettes or Shangri-Las best-of first--after Girl Group Greats, that is. B PLUS

Sztu: Lances (Selo Traste) Imagine Tom Zé in calm pursuit of pure, bent avant-tropicalia beauty--no big concepts, no nuttiness, no female shock absorbers, maybe no non-Lusophone content at all ("Resta Um Gesto," "Rasgar a Pano") ***

Tune-Yards: Sketchy (4AD) More forceful yet more lyrical than ever, Merrill Garbus's fifth album since she broke in at 30 is her and fully vetted bassist Nate Brenner's most aesthetically willful yet listener-friendly so far--to put it plainly, their very best. Never shy, never overbearing, its soundscape is less irregular without smoothing the jaggedy rhythms over and its lyrics skirt specificity nicely as they honor a dying planet. While it's true that "Homewrecker" could well be an actual real estate guy, "My Neighbor" is simply an "enemy" and both old and female at that--one who ultimately inspires the cooed refrain "Let me love, let me love, let me love, let me love." The keystone is "Hold Myself," where the parents who "betrayed us even when they tried" are all the reason a 42-year-old needs to remain childless. Or are they? A

And It Don't Stop, September 8, 2021

August 11, 2021 October 13, 2021