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, 2023

From the UK, a trustworthy superstar. From Canada, shoegazing power-pop. From Brazzaville, rhythms that rock as much as they roll. And from an ex-fundamentalist, courage, idealism, and self-sacrifice.

Adele: 30 (Columbia '21) Curious, I Googled "Adele haters" and was naive enough to be surprised by how many there were--because she's too sad, because she's too proud, because her sincerity isn't clever, because she hondled a weekends-only Vegas deal that let her spend time with her family, because she lost weight. Of course she has haters, her level of celebrity guarantees it, but that's just too bad for them. Album four is a breakthrough I initially put aside on the shotgun assumption that she was merely repeating herself when in fact it explores new vistas of virtuosity, subtly because subtlety is her thing. More than on her 2008, 2011, and 2016 megahits, she's texturing and shading her mezzo on an album a step up variety-wise from its predecessors, conversational here and climactic there but natural or rather "natural" either way and all the stops in between (although note that the twin closers are both almost seven minutes long). Casting about for an all-inclusive adjective I arrived at "trustworthy," which I like because it's not the kind of word you apply to superstars yet serves the purpose of bringing her down to earth, where more than most superstars she belongs. And let the record show that I'm a proud sucker for the snatches of recorded conversation with her young son, who it's hard to believe is now 10 years old. A MINUS

Alvvays: Blue Rev (Polyvinyl/Transgressive) Something bothered me about the sound of this much-admired album by Canadian power poppers I was on early only not with album three, which made many top 10s. So I got to it late by buying a CD whose hi-fi I thought might help separate the tunes proper from the shoegaze fuzz that dimmed them when I Spotified it--and still does, but less hence not decisively. Instead what converted me was yet more replays plus closer attention to the lyrics. First I noticed how explicitly collegiate they were, situating Molly Rankin both culturally, in her devotion to aesthetic usages less staid than "the lettered life" she once aspired to, and generationally, as the postgrads who populate her songs negotiate love lives they're seldom ready for. "Is she a perfect 10? Have you found Christ again?" she asks one soon-to-be ex. "You were my Tom Verlaine," another is reminded as she enjoys the feel of the breeze on her back. And the noisy double-time three-minute kissoff "Pomeranian Spinster" levels so many insults at one or more whoevers you can hardly believe it leaves room for an extra touch of anticlericalism: "Presbyterisn ministers/Travel in packs and never split/They deviate in the tiniest concepts." Rock and roll! A

Balka Sound: Balka Sound (Strut) Based across the river from teeming Belgian Congo Kinshasa in less fraught French Congo Brazzaville, hence not directly under the thumb of the tyrant Mobutu, Balka Sound gathered around Albert Nkibi, adept of a rural five-stringed lute called the ngonfi. Their jaunty, amiable, relatively abrupt rhythms rock as much as they roll, barely hinting at the rippling escapist uplift of Zairean soukous but generating plenty of bustle to take its place. These 15 tracks average over five minutes, taking on occasional saxophone as they proceed from the early '80s to June 1997, when the band's studio was looted in one of the military flare-ups that wouldn't peter out until the new century was in place. A MINUS

Robert Sarazin Blake: One Summer Night (Same Room) I'd estimate it as several summer nights--during which, for instance, the Sarah Palin and Hunter Biden harangues proved more exhilarating than, for instance, the jams ("Enemy of the People," "Ukrainian Phone Call") ***

Built to Spill: When the Wind Forgets Your Name (Sub Pop) To my considerable surprise and mild delight, Doug Martsch's steadfast new Uncle Neil tribute is so much more rocking than that amorphous Wilco trek ("Gonna Lose," "Understood") **

Iris DeMent: Workin' on a World (Flariella) Too often on her first album since 2012 DeMent bonds with progressive rhetoric as uncritically as she memorized Bible verses when she was eight. In "Goin' Down to Sing in Texas," language like "the establishment," "people of color," "obscene amounts of wealth," and swear to God "those brave women in the Squad" can seem banal, even corny. But as she keeps going her ex-fundamentalist commitment to human equality is so out front its sincerity becomes a wonderment, until it's a lock cinch that the lead track's "Workin' on a world I may never see" bespeaks a courage, idealism, and self-sacrifice you're damn right she's preaching about. The one that begins "John Lewis stood on the Pettus Bridge" goes on to honor Rachel Corrie, crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza; DeMent's husband Greg Brown crafts a just barely satirical rabble-rouser for a racist evangelist called "Let Me Be Your Jesus" that she whispers into music; Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson, and Anton Chekhov all get their own songs. A horn section you weren't expecting helps punch her message home, and although her voice has deepened a tad as she passes 60, its clarity and directness remain. A MINUS

Girl Scout: Real Life Human Garbage (Made) Divvied up 50-50 female-male with Emma Jansson singing more sweetly than not and everybody writing songs, this Swedish guitar foursome's EP is nothing like the rage-punk its title suggests. Yes they're alienated, but alienated like just barely ex teens confronting adulthood rather than nascent feminists getting a bead on sexism. Is she a "Weirdo"? Jansson wonders. "Sally where'd you go and where've you been?" she goes on. "Can you run me over with your car?/I want to be a road that leads far far away from here." Not exactly girl-pop, I guess. In fact, far enough away to keep things interesting. A MINUS

Lyrics Born: Vision Board (Mobile Home) Recording in New Orleans to adjust as opposed to update the no-nonsense Oakland forward march that's been his signature groove for a quarter century, the impressively slimmed-down Tom Shimura has new material ready, as has always been his hard-working practice and commercial ticket. Admittedly, I'm a guy who can't resist someone who rhymes "shuttle bus," "double dutch," "honey bun," and "cummerbund," and also a guy who warms to any rapper I'm sure knows the real meaning of "conjugal" even if the word itself doesn't come up. Will he ever be famous? Not as hip-hop judges such things. But his skills are so real he's still making a career of it as he passes 50, and keeping things conjugal in the process. A MINUS

Grant Peeples: A Murder of Songs (self-released) Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke--assuming a joke is what it is ("Insurrection Song [January 6]," "Liberal With a Gun," "Let's Start Killing Each Other") **

Quasi: Breaking the Balls of History (Sub Pop) The 58-year-old Portland-not-Seattle organ-not-guitar grunge lifer Sam Coomes--whose first band met cute as the Donner Party and who formed this one with ex-wife and world-class drummer Janet Weiss--could well be the grimmest frontman the northwest ever let out of his niche, and that includes the ones who committed suicide. If songwriters are "just a bunch of dudes trying to sell their egos to the world," as Coomes once remarked, his ego is forever obsessing on "the dead horse before the cart," "flying to Niagara in a lead balloon," "walking on water in your made-in-U.S.A. concrete shoes," "Everyone sleeping in their cars/And all the teenage TikTok stars," "All the houses lost to fire/The anti vaxxers and the climate deniers," and not only could he go on, he does. So recall that it was Coomes who midwifed the pre-inaugural anti-Trump compilation Battle Hymns, a better way to sell his ego to the world than Elliott Smith ever came up with, and figure his darkness is more politico-philosophical than biochemical. In fact, when he and Weiss bring their tour to your neck of this riven land, check them out. Coomes especially could use the money, and deserves it. A MINUS

Homeboy Sandman: Still Champion (Mello Music) Sometimes you should just settle for contender ("Radiator," "Fresh Air Fund") *

Stephen Ulrich: Music From This American Life (Barbès) Especially with Romanian-Israeli drummer Tamir Muskat making his Gypsy racket, guitarist Ulrich's Big Lazy was pretty disruptive. Here well-connected sidemen Thomas Bartlett on keyboards and Dean Sharenow on drums help him fit in on a show that regularly tests without challenging the NPR politesse that permits Ira Glass to tweak if not pump liberal values without making more trouble than is good for him. Since Ulrich gets full composer credit throughout, I congratulate him for having achieved a rare thing--masterminding 10 easy-listening tracks that have certifiably enlivened not just dinner but breakfast at my house. I've always admired his sense of tune. But I'm nonetheless allowed to hope he still has Muskat in his phone. A MINUS

Wednesday: Mowing the Leaves Instead of Piling 'Em Up (Orindal) Covers album proves it's hard to do justice to Roger Miller or Chris Bell and how lucky we are that scattered musos still remember Vic Chesnutt and Gary Stewart (and for that matter Chris Bell) ("Rabbit Box," "She's Actin' Single [I'm Drinkin' Doubles]") **

Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World (Matador) It may seem perverse to quote an entire stanza of an all too jam-heavy nine-track album five years in the waiting, but that stanza is quintessential: "I was wrong/I knew right away but I played it cool/That trick never works/Took too long/And then I got mad because you got mad/Another one of my delightful quirks/What a jerk." If Ira has a message to the world, that sums it up even better than Inspirational Verse we should be glad comes in the middle: "Prepare to die/Prepare yourself while there's still time." B PLUS

And It Don't Stop, March 8, 2023

February 8, 2023 April 12, 2023