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: June, 2023

Lovestruck avowals, stealth-ethical jokers, Black pop standards, and lovers smart enough to understand how much worse it could be.

África Negra: Antologia Vol. 1 (Bongo Joe) It would be idiot vanity not to quote the press copy on this one, so ahem: "Heat-seeking, puxa-style blends of semba, merengue, kompas, soukouss, coladeira from the two Portuguese-speaking islands of Sao Tomé & Principe in the Gulf of Guinea." Goes on to assert its place among "the roots of current Lisbon kuduru," a subgenre last referenced by me in January in regard to Angola-born Pongol's Sakadila. For sure its dozen picks tend speedier and more pumped up than not only Franco but, say, Kanda Bongo Man, yet lighter as well. Given that they've been recording since 1981, it should be no surprise that the premier selection assembled here never flags as guitars establish the melody, voices stick with it, and horns bulk it up a little. How irresistible the resulting music proves long haul remains to be determined. But for sure these dozen examples don't quit. A MINUS

Bar Italia: Tracey Denim (Matador) As 50 bears down on them and all too quickly waves goodbye, alt-rock oldtimers tend to get exercised about how pure or derivative or clever or facile or cheap or confused or just plain inadequate young style/genre mix-and-matchers like this cheeky and subtle young UK trio may or may not be. But having never fully worked out myself what shoegaze and its satellites even were, I find myself thrown back on ancient pop verities: melody-clarity-decency, whether kind or irate. So I'm touched when sweetly singsong Nina Cristante switches from first person to third person so as better to croon/murmur words of encouragement to a going-on-distraught Jezmi Tarik: "I know you trip and stumble when you're trying to be graceful/And there's no way you don't think it's funny/So brush yourself off and lift yourself up/And I'll be here ready to hold you." Have a heart, oldsters. Whatever their shifty ambitions, they're trying to be nice, and these days that's a good thing. So why don't we just hum along? A MINUS

Big Joanie: Sistahs (Daydream Library '18) Not exactly the same all-female, all-Black trio that put out the 2022 Back Home album on Portland-based Kill Rock Stars because that band replaced bassist Kiera Coward-Deyell with Estella Adeyeri, making absolutely clear that while all three share cowrites on their two dozen songs, it's lead singer Stephanie Phillips who unassumingly puts them across. Note also that both albums were propped up by decisive American backing: Kill Rock Stars was preceded by Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz's label on this one. It makes sense as well that the Americans they opened for most often when they were getting started was Parquet Courts, indie-rock's most plainspoken band. They begin this 2018 debut with a bunch of what are better called friendship songs than love songs, thoughtful and calm if also slightly unsatisfied. Which is not to claim that trending in the love direction, as they do toward the end, seems to solve much. A MINUS

Lewis Capaldi: Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent (Capitol) When I finally took the plunge and back-to-backed this with Harry's House, I was pleased to conclude that while Capaldi's 2019 debut was strong, this follow-up is a triumph I admire even more than I do Styles's estimable consensus fave. Moreover, it's in a mode I've never had much use for: the power ballad. Formally we're talking Celine Dion and Michael Bolton only with more character, variation, and textural range, or if you want to stretch it try Springsteen or Garth Brooks or even Ray Charles--tempos moderate, vocals pushed, jokes sparse to nonexistent. This last matters because in concert Capaldi plays his tween-song material for laughs he gets on a scale with John Prine or Loudon Wainwright only they write their share of funny lyrics where Capaldi's material is soaked in lovestruck avowal, romantic angst, and emotional apercu--which for some reason generate a credibility the likes of Bolton and Dion seldom succeed in selling skeptics and intellectuals like Prine and Wainwright shy away from. A

Brandy Clark: Brandy Clark (Warner) The best country songwriters have tended female in this century, and Clark is pretty much the sharpest, as indicated by her chief rival Miranda Lambert glomming onto Clark's "Mama's Broken Heart" as her smash-hit own. Now 47, a forthright lesbian who's all over Ashley McBryde's small-town musical-beds burlesque Lindeville, Clark writes so much ace material that not one of her four albums lags. In the lead track here, two young sisters murder their abusive father and it feels so uplifting you're proud nobody's the wiser. You know how much she loved her grandma when she calls one "She Smoked in the House" and how much she loves an unnamed other by bragging about how often she comes up in therapy. A MINUS

Ernesto Djédjé: Roi Du Ziglibithy (Analog Africa) Summing up the horn-fed old Afropop fusion Djédjé designed for Félix Houphouet-Boïgny's theoretically international Ivoirian fanbase ("Behido," "Houphouet-Boïgny Zeguehy") ***

The Ekphrastics: Special Delivery (Harriet) Their name means, unfortunately, "commenting in words on a work of visual art," not "adept at turning witty, intellectual song ideas into hooky, hilarious songs" ("Sunday River Ski Mishap Could've Been Worse," "Making Fun of Bitcoin") ***

Fokn Bois: Fokn Wit Ewe (Pidgen Music '12) Anglo-Ghanaians Emmanuel Owun-Bonsu dba Wanlov the Kubolor, who oversees the alt-Afrobeats, and Mensa Ansah dba M$ensa, who chants-raps-sings the wisely wiseass leads, released this disruptive debut over a decade ago and damn it I missed it. Given how much I now love a lead track that goes "We know you fear guns/We know you fear knives/We know you fear strong homosexual guys" before moving on to make something comparable of such titles as "Jesus Is Coming," "Want to Be White," "Famous in China," "Help America," and "Thank God We're Not a Nigerians," this was clearly a flub. I'm aware that I'm supposed to thank God Burna Boy is a Nigerian, and Lord knows I'm still trying even though he would appear to be too bland to keep me interested. But these hyperintelligent, stealth-ethical jokers are my kind of guys, and though their catalogue is hard to get straight by the flexible standards of the download epoch, I sincerely hope to report on their subsequent musical adventures in the months to come. A

Larkin Poe: Blood Harmony (Tricki-Woo) Forceful, guitar-brandishing, home-schooled Georgia sisters are surnamed Lovell not Allman but won't mind if you let that slip yours ("Deep Stays Down," "Lips as Cold as Diamond") *

Lil Yachty: Let's Start Here (Quality Control) One way you can tell that this formally unusual hip-hop product isn't "psych-rock" is that he makes a point of being nice to his girlfriend, thus transforming it into "r&b" ("We Saw the Sun," "Running Out of Time") *

Taj Mahal: Savoy (Stony Plain) His voice has dried up a pinch or two since he was born in 1942, so long ago that his pianist-arranger dad and gospel-singing mom could well have heard most of these Black pop standards at the landmark Harlem ballroom of the title before they emigrated with young Henry to Springfield Mass. True, these performances can't quite match the voracity that animated Taj's Blues and Ooh So Good 'n Blues lo these many years ago. But the songs he settled on are so classic yet so varied--Gershwin, Ellington, Mercer-Arlen, Louis Jordan, McKinney's Cotton Pickers--they vie with the traditional blues he's been recording off and on since he abandoned agronomy so he could spend his life exploring Africa's musical diaspora. Over the years he's focused on his familial Caribbean while going so far as to hook up with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate on 1999's Kulanjan. But with invaluable help from the great lost producer John Simon, who also adds the kind of piano Taj's dad might have, this album is pretty much one of a kind. If you're afraid it's not for you, at least check out Maria Muldaur's cameo on "Baby It's Cold Outside." You owe it to yourself, and to history. A

The Nude Party: Rides On (New West) Reining in postmodernity with the ties that bind good old rock 'cause it's too late now for much "and roll" ("Hard Times [All Around]," "Hey Monet") **

Water From Your Eyes: Everyone's Crushed (Matador) From a band consisting entirely of instrumentalist Nate Amos and vocalist Rachel Brown, a major-minor-label debut that's their fifth long player all told proves a ramshackle, associative, textural, synthpoppy, sneaky kinda thing that turns modestly captivating inside of a minute despite a lyric that as of that moment still pretty much comprises the single phrase "Your cool thing count mountains." Later the same mystery woman is "wearing gold" in a sequence of songs or "songs" that no one would call catchy except for the inconvenient fact not just that they are but that they could go head to head with the covers EP the duo put out in 2021. Experimental yet also congenial, questing yet also homey, here be two young people finding their voice without saying all that much. I hope they work on that. But if they choose not to I expect to dig them anyway. A

Wednesday: Rat Saw God (Dead Oceans) Clotted, murky, ruefully sarcastic, yet also resigned, grateful, and at moments even funny in a "There's a sex shop off the highway with a biblical name" kind of way, these 10 just barely rockin' songs in 37 minutes add up to the story of a pair of lovers neither of whom deserves the other while remaining a decent bet to stick it through even so, because they're smart enough to understand how much worse it could be, as in the drugged decrepitude their neighbors put up with. Where Ashley McBryde's Lindeville peeked beneath the made-up surface of a two-faced Alabama town and played its hypocrisies for fond laughs, Jarly Hartzman and her gang know the outskirts of country-hipster Asheville too well to think its habitual hypocrisy anything but some cross between pathetic and tragic. So they figure the best way to escape its pitfalls is look them in the eye and dare them to do their worst. A

And It Don't Stop, June 14, 2023

May 10, 2023 July 12, 2023