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: March, 2022

Haunting delicacy that clatters, queer noise-pop that's cleansing, a Malian feminist produced by an ex-punk, & a Romani horn band covering Bill Withers. Plus: songs from Trinidad, Lagos, & John Prine.

Benji. & Spillage Village: Smile, You're Alive! (SinceThe80s) Candidly preachy, candidly sinful singer-lecturer epitomizes what Spillage Village is for--smart, humane musicians more appealing than compelling who deserve our attention ("East Side Bounce," "Black Satin") ***

Big Thief: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You (4AD) However impressive Adrienne Lenker's skill set--and if you don't think it's worth your time go away--Big Thief's fragility has always brushed a little too close to fey for those it didn't enrapture. But on this this 80-minute let-it-all-hang-out, a breakup album and a breakout album in one convenient package, such piddling macho talking points don't apply. With no loss of Lenker's haunting trademark delicacy, Big Thief is louder here, and rocks more in a clattering kind of way. Their guitars are virtuosic like none other. The good tunes even her best albums don't guarantee abound. So that's the music part. As for the lyrics, they're so outta sight I'm gonna quote too many just in case my fellow crits missed 'em. "I got the oven on, I got the onions wishing/They hadn't made me cry, filling the sink with dishes/Letting them air dry/Waiting for the wind's permission." "When I say heart, I mean finish/Last one there is a potato knish." "I am the sweaty sheets/The wet bed/The things she'll do and the things she's said." "Ash to ask and dust to dusk." "I wanna be the shoelace that you tie/I wanna live forever till I die." A

Fimber Bravo: Lunar Tredd (Moshi Moshi) A Trinidadian pan master who's been London-based for half a century gets uncannily relaxed and gentle identity music out of the keyblike textures he coaxes from a single steel drum and props up with subtle bass and traps. He does get laxer as the hour of music proceeds--the title number right next to the end is atmospheric and a half, and one called "Coming Home" is the fanciest and least interesting at the same time. But nothing in my experience prepared me for the sonics Bravo deploys here. At the very least, background music like you've never half-heard it before. A MINUS

Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine Vol. 2 (Oh Boy) If this wasn't volume two, I'd be ready to swear that Prine's songbook is both infinitely renewable and utterly unruinable. But although these interpreters are of a somewhat higher general calibre than on its somewhat disappointing 2010 predecessor, instead I surmise that the shadow of death added its usual measure of urgency to what is in brute fact a posthumous tribute album. For me the vocal highlights are the matched but distinct high-breaking hillbilly intensities of Tyler Childers's "Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You" and Valerie June's "Summer's End." But except for purist Emmylou Harris declining the Bette Midler Gender-Switch Option on "Hello in There," which along with "Donald and Lydia" and "In Spite of Ourselves" is my own most beloved among the uncountable Prine songs I adore, this collection may falter slightly but never trips up. Of course not every track is a knockout. But listen up buster and listen up good to Nathaniel Rateliff, Amanda Shires, Margo Price, Bonnie Raitt, and Sturgill Simpson. A MINUS

Fanfare Ciocarlia: It Wasn't Hard to Love You (Asphalt Tango) Initially convened a few hundred miles from Kyiv in the eastern hills of Romania near the Moldavan border, this highly professional Belgian-backed Romani horn band leads its first album since 2016 with a Bill Withers cover and fills it out with quite a few compositions by Tel Aviv-trained, U.K.-based session pro Koby Israelite. How exactly any of these facts pertain to the horrors of Ukraine with its shockingly courageous comedian-turned-president who in 2006 won a Dancing With the Stars competition I couldn't further specify at this time. But it does. Having gradually warmed to it since its September release, I was nonetheless startled to find how bracing and relevant the blaring, proactive fanfares of "Cruzzzando El Campooo" and "Pannonicated Polka" felt at this moment. May they remain unalloyed, untragic forces for good between the Wednesday when I'm writing this and the Wednesday when you get to read it. A MINUS

R.A.P. Ferreira: The Light Emitting Diamond Cutter Scriptures (Ruby Yacht) The most cerebral and avant rhymer-rapper in hip-hop history flows atop beats that could be beatier nevertheless ("Hot Bref," "Gamilut Hashidim") **

A Gift to Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong All Stars (Verve) This was organized by Pops-besotted 48-year-old New Orleans-born trumpet titan Nicholas Payton rather than Pops-besotted 60-year-old New Orleans-born trumpet titan Wynton Marsalis. So to keep his hat in the ring, Marsalis claims "The Peanut Vendor" right after Pops establishes his own inimitability by singing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" to open and doesn't get to outgravel or outshine the ad hoc fan club here again till he and the Fleischmann Yeast Hour Show bequeath us a spoken-word closer called "Philosophy of Life." For sure others sing, particularly Marsalis drummer-sideman Herlin Riley, who takes soft-spoken passes at "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" and "St. Louis Blues" and gets away with actual gravel on "Up a Lazy River." But the fundamental idea here is to honor his heirs' camaraderie and congeniality as a function of his inimitable genius. Only once do these inheritors mess with the canon, and on the right song too: a rearranged "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" with Payton singing and Common having the temerity to add an up-to-date rap. Good for him. I've always believed "Black and Blue" was the only Pops standard Pops never joked around with. It meant too much. Still does. A MINUS

Jack Ingram/Miranda Lambert/Jon Randall: The Marfa Tapes (Sony Music Nashville) Two fellas and one gal fool around in a tiny West Texas town without consummating any relationships I can discern ("Am I Right or Amarillo," "Waxahachie") **

Rokia Koné & Jacknife Lee: Bamanan (RealWorld) Koné was one of the less renowned West African feminists to sign on with Les Amazones d'Afrique, the permanent floating grown-up girl group nonstop activist Angelique Kidjo took over after Oumou Sangare withdrew, and in that context embraced a groove-first aesthetic. But here the more melodramatic structures of her international solo debut, produced by an ex-punk who's worked with everyone from Modest Mouse to Taylor Swift, recalls Youssou N'Dour if it does anyone, and it's to both Koné and Lee's credit that I can type those words without getting the shakes. Her instrument sinewy as opposed to sizable, declarative as opposed to sharp, Koné is gender-positive without caring whether she wears the pants; the hater-baiting "Shezita" and the kindly "Mayougouba" bespeak a spirit that's proud when it needs to be while continuing to tend sweet-tempered, its morality declarative rather than polemical. The keys-and-drums groove with which Lee drives the best-in-show "Kurunba" is deployed to lift up a middle-aged mother who's outlived her child-rearing usefulness. It's followed by the contemplative and rather beautiful "N'yanyan," which Koné reports is a traditional song about mortality. A MINUS

Femi Kuti & Made Kuti: Legacy + (Partisan) Maybe Fela's number one son, who turns 60 in June, has finally grown into his lighter voice. Or maybe I have. Either way it's clear that he's put his father's far from inimitable, utterly unduplicatable Afrobeat groove behind him--this music is less about headstrong, headlong propulsion, more about contemplative depth, about cushiony texture with a good sense of rhythm. And not only does Femi have his own band sound, he has his own son Made to back him up, albeit less pointedly. From the opening track of this double-CD, he's all militantly reasonable demands and talking points: "When government waste our time/Government waste our life, brothers and sisters." "Make them give us good healthcare/Make them give us clean water to drink." "Stop the land grab." "You can't fight corruption with corruption." I'm betting, however, that whether father and son needed to go on for two discs is more a function of filial relations than of historical necessity. B PLUS

Playboi Carti: Whole Lotta Red (AWGE/Interscope '20) Sounds like nobody else, means as little as any rapper of consequence ever ("Rockstar Mode," "Punk Mode") *

Slum of Legs: Slum of Legs (Splurge '20) From the LGBT-friendly seaside haven of Brighton, this "queer, feminist, noise-pop" sextet has been around for almost a decade, with this 2020 album their only longform to show for it. Fortunately, thrillingly, it never quits. If you're put off by news of a six-minute opener called "Benetint and Malevolence," which I'm here to report takes off pretty quick, have faith. The title track will be right along, with hoarse, loud, violin-sawing Tamsin Chapman announcing: "We are a superstructure/Spiked with glass/We are a fur-lined rupture/A clatter mass." Sometimes they're harsh, sometimes almost choral. Always Chapman is the fearless leader. Cleansing and declamatory, a doozy and a hoot. A

Wiki: Half God (Wikset Enterprises) "Your favorite rapper's favorite rapper's poster child," Upper West Side-raised and Park Slope-based with a crucial Lower East Side stopover, it's no wonder borderline nerdy Patrick Morales appropriated his hip-hop handle from an encyclopedia. He favors "little bit of me"-"literally"-"gripped my knee" and "consciousness"-"consequences"-"competence" rhymes, and on the ideological front opposes "buying from the bougie boutique instead of from the guys." Be sure not to miss "Never Fall Off," which samples a pop-gospel oldie called "I Fell in Love With God" that sure sounds like Thom Bell to me and piles on Delfonics-style romanticism to match. Inspirational Verse: "Then one day I realized what I wanna say/But it only came out right when I was on the mic." A MINUS

Lainey Wilson: Sayin' What I'm Thinkin' (Broken Bow) Also what she's drinkin', often with a sexual edge to it, which says plenty for her skill set and not enough for her emotional equilibrium ("Dirty Looks," "Sunday Best") ***

And It Don't Stop, March 9, 2022

February 9, 2022 April 13, 2022