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: November, 2021

Songs about God, scrumptious pussy, climate change, pool hopping your way to love, living paycheck to paycheck, and buying this and that but wanting flowers from outer space.

Asleep at the Wheel: Half a Hundred Years (Bismeaux) After a 1971 debut I admiringly dubbed subversive, Ray Benson's unprecedented nuevo Western swing band succumbed to twin deficits in songwriting and vocal pizzazz and became merely rather than ironically generic--until, that is, Benson inveigled the highly inveiglable Willie Nelson to join in on a bunch of Western swing classics selected by none other than Jerry Wexler that surfaced in 2009 as Willie and the Wheel, AATW's best album ever including their 2014 live best-of. Then they once again sunk from the view of all but their loyal fanbase and the Austin Better Business Bureau. But no more. Starting with a relaxed Benson title tune that neatly encapsulates their five decades on the road, this new one immediately switches gears into an obscure Jimmy Rushing number called "The Same Old South," written by an NYC songwriter later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee: "It's a regular children's heaven/Where they don't start to work till they're seven," and also "Let the Northerners keep Niagara/We'll stick to our Southern pellagra." There's also a "Paycheck to Paycheck" as self-explanatory as any union organizer could hope. Both add decisive tone to an album that also features George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Gimble, and none other than Willie Nelson. A MINUS

BKtherula: Love Black (Warner) For me a major charm of Brooklyn Rodriguez's 2020 Nirvana "mixtape" was that it came from another planet. One reason I found its stoned atmospherics so seductive was that I had no interest in what drugs or other dissipations activated them. They just sounded seductively weird in a way with no parallel in this aged white guy's considerable hip-hop experience, in particular the Atlanta trap that's failed to ensnare him for many years. Sonically, musically, Rodriguez's first proper "album" is different--its somewhat repetitive hooks and effects announce themselves in a well-tooled way that annoyed me at first, although soon I noticed that they were sinking in efficiently enough. So I ended up respecting this record and then some, and noted that the sexuality that's so muffled on Nirvana turns blatant as fuck as BKtherula passes from scrumptious pussy to scrumptious pussy, each one lured away from men who think they're all that in a cool show of sexual conquest as subcultural combat. "Hide your hoe," she warns; "I am that nigger, I am not your bitch." How long will this phase last? Quite a while, she brags, because she's got corporate moneybags behind her: "I'm smart as fuck and that's why they want me around." Dare I add until they don't? B PLUS

Hayes Carll: You Get It All (Dualtone) The opener is the jauntiest climate-change song you ever heard, only then two tracks later comes one so depressive you think about shutting the whole album down, only upon reflection you realize that in between there's a marriage song that melds both modes and also that the depressive one nails that mindstate without lionizing or minimizing it. In toto, a perfect triptych, though thereafter the album is merely mortal even if the bitter Brandy Clark duet "In the Mean Time," the sweet-and-sour "The Way I Love You," and a sanely fatalistic double finale I was relieved to see bore an Allison Moorer credit are quite all right. A MINUS

Illuminati Hotties: FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You've Been Waiting For (Snack Shack Tracks) Led in every respect by L.A. sound engineer Sarah Tudzin, this band debuted with 2018's engaging little Kiss Yr Frenemies but then felt compelled, due to indie-biz malfeasances too pathetic to delve into, to keep skin in the game with this bratty, off-the-cuff 2020 mixtape, which in 12 tracks lasting 23 minutes does definitely polish up its own pissed-off punk 'tude. Although the noise it purveys throughout turns doomy on one called "Content/Bedtime," there's also a finale called "reason 2 live" where she sends warm regards to friends who are nice in succinctly described, sweetly differentiated ways. Inspirational Prose: "Hang on to your masters, folks." A MINUS

Illuminati Hotties: Let Me Do One More (Snack Shack Tracks/Hopeless) For the first half the Sarah Tudzin we were waiting for proves kind of amazing--one song after another lays out a desperately giddy life of pool hopping in pursuit of a clean rebound, consulting a shaman in Ojai, and abjuring the bottled spit at the corner store. Though she calms down second half, because you're rooting for her that proves more a relief than a letup. Throughout she's a brave, manic, supersmart indie-girl auteur who not only wants love but has a fair idea of what it is: "You're leaning in/I'm leaning out/You think that you could love me through the sway?" Or wait a second while she makes that: "I'm leaning in/You're leaning away/You think that you could love me through the sway?" A

Ada Lea: One Hand on the Steering Wheel the Other Sewing a Garden (Saddle Creek) Worried that things are going south in Montreal, also worried that heading south won't help that much ("Damn," "Writer in NY") *

Mereba: Azeb (Interscope) Having gotten the drift of this 31-year-old half-Ethiopian Stevie Wonder find as the placid oversoul of Atlanta's wacky Spillage Village collective, I initially thought her EP was overdoing the calm bit, but I got over it. Singing love or lust, sporting Chucks or blunts, preaching agape or rank injustice, she softens the edges of her first longish player since 2016 until you find yourself first appreciating and then almost craving their balm. A MINUS

Kacey Musgraves: Star-Crossed (MCA Nashville/Interscope) "This hookup scene ain't all that it's cracked up to be," she reflects quietly--too quietly, in fact, so here's hoping that by next time she's found somebody to make some noise about ("Camera Roll," "Good Wife") **

Onetwothree: Onetwothree (Kill Rock Stars) The most musically prominent of this newly constituted trio of female Swiss bassists is Klaudia Schifferle, who as Klaudia Schiff anchored the legendary Rough Trade proto-grrrlpunk Kleenex until Kimberly-Clark forced them to rename themselves Liliput. Somewhat surprisingly, they evoke without imitating the abrupt, sexy, cockeyed, herky-jerk whimsy of that legendary band, and not only that: direct comparison with disc two of Liliput's complete works establishes that while late Liliput were certainly more original--that was four decades ago, before we sussed how many bands would strip down, gussy up, speed up, slow down, poppify, funkify, aggrandize, politicize, depoliticize, feminize, phallicize, and otherwise fuck with musical tactics that felt so pure and absolute coming from the Ramones and the Sniffin' Glue subscription list--Onetwothree are on average more fetching, more varied, and more literary. Schifferle is the most prominent voice. "Buy Buy" best evokes the Liliput sound. The subject of the six-minute closer "Things" is more or less everything. A MINUS

Ready or Not: Thom Bell Philly Soul Arrangements and Productions 1965-1978 (Kent) I say that in general classically trained Philly r&b legend Bell was only as good as leads worth knowing in themselves: great if Stylistics, O'Jays, Spinners, Pendergrass, Butler, as here selected forgettable even if as renowned as Delfonics, Intruders, Lord forgive me Dusty Springfield (the Courtship, "It's the Same Old Love"; New York City, "I'm Doin' Fine Now") **

The Rough Guide to Spiritual Blues (World Music Network) There are definitely treasures here, but too few of these picks pack quite enough melody and/or drive (Josh White, "I Don't Intend to Die in Egypt Land"; Washington Phillips, "A Mother's Last Word to Her Daughter"; Blind Joe Taggert, "Religion Is Something Within You"; Rev. Emmett Dickenson, "Death of Blind Lemon") ***

Sacred Soul of North Carolina (Bible & Tire/Music Maker Foundation) Recorded just pre-pandemic, featuring mostly artists from Greenville, the 90,000-strong urban center of the east North Carolina KKK stronghold of Pitt County, this 18-track collection is almost as striking as the same label's 2020 Hanging Tree Guitars. Their forebears go back to the Mitchell Christian Singers, who represented for gospel at John Hammond's 1938 Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing do. And indeed, most of these groups--only three solo artists including the woman who closes things out with an unsurprising, unaccompanied "Amazing Grace"--have been at it professionally if not therefore fulltime for 30, 40, 50 years, and their songs tend traditional. But the joyful life of these titles, many of which feel familiar to me even though they don't show up in my iTunes, is convincing, irresistible, a guaranteed up. Credit at least some of their energy to the well-miked drums that back almost every track, particularly Phillip Johnson on "Trying to Make It" and the stalwart Jahiem Daniels on Johnny Ray Daniels's "Somewhere to Lay My Head." A

Swan Silvertones: Amen Amen Amen: The Essential Collection (Rock Beat/Archive Alive '15) Seven 1952-53 tracks originally on Specialty, where baritone shouter Solomon Womack was always there to rough things up, followed by 19 1957-63s from Vee-Jay, where Claude Jeter's sweet, mellow, transported tenor, which inspired countless singers who couldn't match it even when named Al Green, dominates as if he's buried all sinful shows of egotism 20,000 leagues down in the earth to which we will all return. There'll always be a sense in which I prefer the Soul Stirrers' somewhat mellower Rebert Harris simply because he's less awesome and otherworldly. But there's a reason heaven-seeking Christians and God-denying sinners preach Jeter to the unenlightened with equal fervor. So for the final hour here, chances are you'll be inspired to try and understand exactly what that reason is. A

Dean Wareham: I Have Nothing to Say to the Mayor of L.A. (Double Feature) Vocals were never Galaxie 500's strength, Luna's either, plus he's now 58, but on the other hand he's gained the acumen to fall in love with a Communist cat and concoct his own version of "The Late John Garfield Blues" ("The Last Word," "Red Hollywood") **

And It Don't Stop, November 10, 2021

October 13, 2021 December 8, 2021