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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: December, 2021

Protest music then & now, decency with slightly sour pitch, politics not charity, hip-hop that's flying and grounded, Xmas song greatness, pandemic anomie, and Greg Tate's Arkestra goes for Miles

The dismaying and totally unexpected news of Greg Tate's death reached me the day after I finished this Consumer Guide and the day before it was scheduled to go up. But although it included Greg's latest Burnt Sugar album I felt no need to rewrite even a word, because my breakthrough to Angels Over Oakanda occurred exactly as described. It had been years since I'd seen him for more than a quick hello, although I did do a Zoom panel with him a few months ago. But I was so blown away by not just his acuity but his warmth in the Miles Davis documentary Birth of the Cool that I decided to relisten to the new one with '70s Miles in mind, and not only did I hear the connection I intuited would be there, I loved it--the vamp tracks began to function as a kind of chill-out music that I replayed more than any review required. Hence Burnt Sugar's first full A, arrived at exactly a week ago. I was so looking forward to laying it on him, just as a gesture to a man and colleague I've marveled at for 40 years.

A Soldier's Sad Story: Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1966-1973 (Kent '01) Stupidly, I never wrote about the two picks here that I knew to be classics back when Vietnam was the linchpin of left consciousness: Joe Tex's armed-and-loaded 1966 "I Believe I'm Gonna Make It" and Freda Payne's imploring 1971 "Bring the Boys Home." But I never forgot them, and as the war wore on was also a fan of Swamp Dogg's acerbic take on John Prine's "Sam Stone" and Bill Withers's excruciating live-at-Carnegie "I Can't Write Left-Handed." But the many keepers here I was ignorant of is impressive and embarrassing: for starters, the Monitors' conscripted "Greetings (This Is Uncle Sam)," Mel & Tim's lonely "Mail Call Time," Johnny and Jon's sentimental "Christmas in Vietnam," James Carr's resigned "Let's Face Facts," Emanuel Laskey's consoling "A Letter From Vietnam," Gloria Edwards's understanding "Something You Couldn't Write About," the O'Jays' understanding "There's Someone (Waiting Back Home)," and Edwin Starr's clarifying "Stop the War Now." James Maycock's notes calculate that 41 percent of post-1966 draftees were Black at a time when African-Americans made up 11 percent of the U.S. population. And note that although Starr's "War," which Motown presumably wouldn't license, was a 1970 #1, only two of these generally excellent records cracked top 40, both in 1971: Payne to number 12 and Starr to 26. So educate yourself, by no means painlessly but pleasurably as well. A

Courtney Barnett: Things Take Time, Take Time (Mom + Pop) Not to get too esoteric on you, but Barnett reminds me of Perry Como, who crooned exactly 100 hits in pre-rock 'n' roll 1943-1954 and kept going till 1960 and beyond, including a number-two 1955 cover of Gene and Eunice's "Ko Ko Mo" and the number-one 1956 teen-targeted "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)." Como hosted his long-running TV show in a cardigan, was married to the same woman for 65 years, and died of Alzheimer's complications in 2001, and though as a kid I thought he was boring, I now admire how likable and decent he was. I enjoy the same traits in Barnett even more because unlike Como she never pretends the world is easy, which is certainly one reason that for all her cameos and collabs, this is only her second solo album since 2015's breakthrough Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett's tenuous love life seems unkind only by mishap; her talky, slightly sour pitch suits melodies that don't come easy. Watching the world burn doesn't stop her from noticing trees turn green which doesn't distract her from the ones that are nothing but char. She congratulates one friend on her or his new place and asks another "Are you good? Are you eating?/I'll call you back next week." Is she actually such a mensch? It's impossible to be sure. But she definitely makes it sound that way. A MINUS

Burnt Sugar/The Arkestra Chamber: Angels Over Oakanda (CDBaby) It was only when I witnessed Greg Tate deploying more brains and heart than any of the other star commentators who render the Miles Davis documentary Birth of the Cool such food for thought that I realized I'd been flummoxed by his 20-year-old band's latest release because it honored '70s Miles, on sheer electricity always a key influence but never before adduced with such revisionist reverence. Here be two tracks of free and two of vamp, neither loud much less abrasive, in a 39-minute gambol we might as well call an Agartha offshoot that aspires to the listenability of In a Silent Way. Tate may have had nothing of the sort in mind, but he won't mind if you do. The only trumpet is Lewis "Flip" Barnes's in the opener. Miles didn't play that much trumpet back then himself. A

Bushido (Mello Music Group) Almost every track on this label comp is solid but zero are don't-miss, which is the story of alt-rap like it or not (RJ Payne, Apollo Brown, "Black Man"; Joell Ortiz, Namir Blade, Stalley, Solemn Brigham, "Black Rock"; the Perceptionists, Illmind, "Banners"; B-Real, Kool Keith, Joell Ortiz, "Zero Fux") ***

Does Anybody Know I'm Here?: Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1962-1972 (Kent '05) It's striking how deeply name artists and obscure strivers alike feel a war whose racial inequities they know in their bones. In order of appearance, my top half dozen picks on volume two are Tony Mason's "Take Good Care" ("Sometimes lying close to the dead"), the Temptations' "War" ("Friend only to the undertaker"), Melverine Thomas's "A Letter From My Son" ("'You know Evelyn who lives down the street?/I want you to tell her to meet me at our same old hideout'"), Inez & Charlie Foxx's "Vaya Con Dios/Fellows in Vietnam" ("And just like babies snatched from their mothers' arms/You give them a gun and you tell them to shoot/And I mean kill"), Martha and the Vandellas' "I Should Be Proud" ("He wasn't fighting for me/He didn't have to die for me/He was fighting for the evils of society"), and Funkadelic's "March to the Witch's Castle" ("For others, the real nightmare has just begun/The nightmare of readjustment"). B PLUS

Gift of Gab: Finding Inspiration Somehow (Nature Sounds) The brainy Blackalicious frontman died at 50 in June, but he went out flying and grounded at the same time--glad to be alive and knowing death might be in the offing, which you can tell because "kidney failure" is such a rare turn of phrase in the popular music canon. Riding beats designed to flow not signify, "Gentrification" revisits a ruined-because-rehabbed hood where "money took the place of love" and "You Gon' Make It in the End" fuses firm moralism with irrepressible affection as he maps the foibles of friends he swears have better in store. "The Idea of America" is one he knows will remain only an idea until its citizens remember that Texas used to be Mexico and our new president is an "American-born Iraqi." "A Weekend in Venice" relives a dream romance. "Back to the Light" makes a pass at the universe itself. A MINUS

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Georgia Blue (Southeastern) First let's specify that this guest-chocked collection of Georgia covers isn't what's being called a "charity album." As a title that takes the "S" out of "blues" indicates, it's a voting rights album--one Isbell conceived while Biden was saving democracy as best he could by winning Georgia, with proceeds divided among Black Voters Matter, Stacey Abrams's Fair Fight outfit, and Georgia STAND-UP (Strategic Alliance for New Directions and Unified Policies). So just by way of saying thanks you have every reason to buy it unheard, as I did. This doesn't means I have to like Cat Power as per the gifted Amanda Shires any more than I used to as per the annoying Chan Marshall. Nor need I feign conversion to the Indigo Girls. Nonetheless, there are musical strokes aplenty here. My favorite is Brittney Spencer's feminist "makes all that money to steal from another man" revision of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." But I also dig the way 400 Unit stalwart Sadler Vaden spruces up his old mates Drivin' and Cryin' and Adia Victoria embellishes Precious Bryant's Piedmont blues "The Truth" and Isbell himself cherishes the earnest conjugal heartsong Otis Redding and Jerry Butler cooked up for him under the title "I've Been Loving You Too Long." And then there's "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," which hasn't lost a step in what is now half a century. A MINUS

Lori McKenna: Christmas Is Right Here (CN/Thirty Tigers) Braver, sadder, and of course more positive than the Pistol Annies' half-sassed seasonal placemat, this would be the best album of new Christmas songs in years if it wasn't an EP, so let's just say it is anyway. Since few songwriters have extracted more detail from family life, why shouldn't McKenna generate her personal holiday catalogue? And since few are more modest, why shouldn't she dwarf the Paul McCartney opener with five of her own? "There isn't one un'Grateful' bone in my body," she's lucky and caring enough to swear at the close. But because we've all seen death, "Even if you wouldn't change one single thing about your life/It's a matter of time, you can't make it through Christmas Without Crying." When you're stuck in Nashville in December, the family you have in Texas and Georgia might as well live at the "North Pole." And "Hail Mary" means to remind us just how hard is is for any mother to watch her son go off on his own. A

Palberta: Palberta5000 (Wharf Cat) Grrlpunk herky-jerk of charming resolve and more impact than import ("No Way," "Before I Got Here") *

Parquet Courts: Sympathy for Life (Rough Trade) Although both their tunecraft and their stylistic range expand some, this album means to be the musical embodiment as opposed to apotheosis of pandemic anomie. From "Marathon of Anger"'s BLM surge to "Trullo"'s "living inside a house without a brain," they address this anomie as neither tragedy, probably because their personal contact with the afflicted doesn't include anyone who died, nor outrage--just nagging dismay at the cheap denials of the venal and asinine. Clearly their musical ambit continued to widen a little within their self-imposed guitar-band limits (a fan I know hears some Gang of Four here). After all, what else did they have to do in lockdown? Their most inspired new song details the inner life of a rideshare driver because that's who they're getting to meet these days. And to sum up: "It feels like my brain is the binary code's problem now/And I'm not in the mood to be lonely no more." A MINUS

Emily Scott Robinson: American Siren (Oh Boy) The two standout tracks here are so witty and tough-minded your hope that this folkie soprano can outwrite her pristine vocals turns into a belief that only one or two others begin to justify ("Things You Learn the Hard Way," "If Trouble Comes A-Lookin'") ***

Stop the War: Vietnam Through the Eyes of Black America 1965-1974 (Kent) Marvin Gaye and the Impressions emerge nearly as generic as obscurities like Jimmy Hughes and Artie Golden while weirdnesses where a GI's draft-dodging pals steal his stuff and a preacher recounts an even less lucky GI's unsegregated burial are not to be missed (the Staple Singers, "John Brown"; Joe Medwick, "Letter to a Buddie"; Dr William Truly Jr, "[The Two Wars of] Old Black Joe"; Chairmen of the Board, "Men Are Getting Scarce") ***

Tierra Whack: Rap? (Interscope) The way I hear it, three songs/raps/tracks in 8:39 is taking her over-before-it's-done trick a little too far, not far enough, or both ("Millions") **

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Barn (Reprise) In case you haven't been keeping track, I have. It's been a full dozen years since the once inexhaustible Young released an album of new songs worth hearing: Fork in the Road, his eco-car statement back when his passion was a revamped Continental that got 100 miles per gallon on "domestic green fuel" and Crazy Horse could thud along like it was old times. Here Crazy Horse is quieter and gentler as the green consciousness their boss embraced as of 2003's Greendale turns ever more militant and also, unfortunately but fittingly, much darker: "Canerican" is defiantly bipatriotic, "Change Ain't Never Gonna" takes direct aim at the yahoo yokels whose side he's always tried to see, and "Today's People" blames those people for killing the planet and "the children of the fires and floods" who'll go out with it. There's relief in the credible romantic passion of "Tumblin' Through the Years" and "Don't Forget Love." But the full-bore astonishment is the penultimate 8:28 "Welcome Back": "Gonna sing an old song to you right now/One that you heard before/Might be a window to your soul I can open slowly/I've been singing this way for so long," it goes, and that's just the vocal. What convinces you he means it is the guitar, so quiet and caring it feels like love. A

And It Don't Stop, December 8, 2021

November 10, 2021 January 12, 2022