Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: December 2014

December 5, 2014

Link: Sam Cooke / Aretha Franklin / The Flaming Lips / Bette Midler / James Brown

Bring It On Home: Black America Sings Sam Cooke (Ace) As a benighted one who admires Cooke's voice and songwriting without adoring them, I like the way these 24 cover versions reconceptualize the beloved departed. It's as if Cooke's crossover convinced all the soul singers who followed him out of gospel that simply by marshaling their intelligence and pretending to be nicer than they had any reason to be they could achieve . . . not equality (I mean, get real), but undreamed-of levels of acclaim and material well-being. Not all of them did, of course--with or without racism, show business is a bitch. But the positivity that lifts every track here is both inspiring and poignant. And for us benighted there's the bonus of improvements on the originals: Percy Sledge moaning "You Send Me," Mel Carter sweetening "When a Boy Falls in Love," Theola Kilgore feminizing "Chain Gang," Johnny Nash reciting "Wonderful World" like maybe he can be an A student after all. And more. A

Aretha Franklin: Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (RCA) At 72 her voice has lost range and clarity, so if athleticism is your thing, maybe you'd better go buy that Whitney's greatest live excrescence I couldn't get past track six of. With Aretha I always thought vocal quality trumped vocal ability--the latter merely extraordinary, the former unfathomable. At present, the voice has taken on a squall I identify with Bobby Bland and hear in Mahalia Jackson too--a phlegmy, self-possessed, powerful, interesting old person's voice. The interpretations aren't definitive--Etta James still owns "At Last," there are better "Teach Me Tonight"s, and although Aretha's "Nothing Compares 2 U" is her own, Sinead's remains not only definitive but stranger and better. And although I get how jealous she is of Barbra Streisand and Ms. Houston, I still don't ever want to hear "People" or "I'm Every Woman" again. Yet somehow, when I let my guard down, I catch myself chuckling over how she floats and rocks and skirls and squalls through each of them. And I hope neither Gloria Gaynor nor Adele Adkins is too much of a diva not to be tickled by "Rolling in the Deep" and "I Will Survive," regal interpolations and all. A MINUS

The Flaming Lips: With a Little Help From My Fwends (Warner Bros.) You don't have to hate Sgt. Pepper to think it couldn't do with a little ribbing, travesty, desecration. In fact, you could love it as much as I do and think that. As hilarious sobersides from multiple generations charge indignantly that the Lips and their various beards fail to "interpret" the songs, all three modes of deconstruction are in play on this grand hoot of a fore-to-aft remake. Highlights for me include a theme statement that gains meanings it never had from its attendant distortions, a creaky "When I'm Sixty-Four," Miley Cyrus so sweet on "Lucy in the Sky," and Julianna Barwick adding just what "She's Leaving Home" cries out for--a female voice. Only "Fixing a Hole" truly fizzles. As for "A Day in the Life," yeah--the original rocks. A MINUS

Bette Midler: It's the Girls! (Warner Bros.) When Midler covered the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las in 1972, she was reclaiming "rock"'s female principle. So on this tribute and Christmas gift, the artist who did so much to make "girl group" a brand and a byword broadens its reach. In addition to mining the great American songbook of Goffin-King, Mann-Weill, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, she invites the foundational Boswell Sisters, the Cuban-born DeCastro Sisters, cover queens the Chordettes, and the Andrews Sisters singing in Yiddish to the party. She turns TLC's "Waterfalls" into a nightclub ballad and the Shangri-Las' "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" into a senior-care burlesque. Her wittingly lowbrow notion of class uncorrupted by her success, she sings every lyric like it's Cole Porter, or at least Irving Berlin, because in historical context it is. Midler recognizes no disconnect between good-humored sincerity and the idea that camp is a tender feeling. And she knows "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is every bit as eloquent as "They Can't Take That Away From Me." A MINUS

Get On Up: The James Brown Story (Polydor) This soundtrack album is mostly for JB loyalists offended by how quickly Universal gave up on its excellent biopic. But in fact only five of its 20 tracks appear in this exact form on the Star Time box, long may it sell, with many of the differences trickier and more substantive than single-versus-LP or even live-versus-studio. I'm especially partial to the inauthentic new piano on "Caldonia" and "Try Me"'s 2014 backing track, and also recommend the protofunk one-two of the post-Star Time versions of "I Got the Feelin'" and "I Can't Stand Myself." An excellent one-disc overview. B PLUS

December 12, 2014

Link: Wussy / Miranda Lambert / Withered Hand / Drive-By Truckers

Wussy: Attica! (Shake It) In which the best band in America remains the best song band in America while passing the Sonic Youth consortium on the outside to become the best distorto-guitar band in America, and although the competition in both categories has thinned out, how many ever dared combine it? Television? Nirvana? The Thompson Couple? That is the territory here. What once seemed the overkill of replacing minimalist Dawn Burman with muscleman Joe Klug opened a thruway to the big beat. What once seemed the neighborly gesture of taking in Ass Ponys steel hand John Erhardt powered sonic dimensions arena-rock dumbos risk tinnitus to achieve with Marshall stacks. The lyrics mix heroic feats of individual transcendence with a romantic striving vexed equally by economics and psychology as the melodies flow on unabated. Gender parity also guaranteed. A PLUS

Miranda Lambert: Platinum (RCA) Sixteen songs in an hour, half with her name on them and half farmed out, add up to 2014's most ambitious and accomplished big-ticket album. Pragmatically, Lambert front-loads the hookiest material, getting us to track 11 or 12, with four of her cowrites tailing off just slightly at the end. Among those, "Holding On to You," although not quite a grabber, mixes formal exercise with idealized autobio the way pop songs do, a connubial hymn it's hard to imagine Blake Shelton deserving--and hard to imagine Miranda Lambert deserving if he does. I also fall for its opposite number, the Miranda copyright "Bathroom Sink," a crucible her mama taught her to clean at 16--she doesn't like what she sees in the mirror there and doesn't like that she's still fighting with her mama either, but she takes her meds and faces the day. I must also mention "Platinum," about her records and hair, and "Gravity Is a B*tch," about her breasts, thighs, and girlfriends. Nor are the farmed-out sure shots any shorter on sass. Apolitical de facto feminism at its countriest. A

Withered Hand: New Gods (Slumberland) Almost 40 as he released his second album, Edinburgh singer-songwriter Dan Willson is one of those walking miracles who writes songs that seem simple until you try to think who they remind you of and pretty much stop at Neil Young, may the force be with him. Except insofar as they're also songs about losing God, they're songs about finding a better if by no means simple substitute. Which is love, of course, easy to say and hard to do in art and life both. Horny on tour, he remembers her entreating "Don't go breaking my heart." Taking a drive in the country, he wants to lick the tears from her face but can't unblock his own heart. Telling her she'll be beautiful yet again, he imagines tongues of fire above their heads. A

Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans (ATO) Mike Cooley has always been a more facile singer and tunesmith than Patterson Hood. But facile implies that things come easy for him, and Cooley has never written enough to sustain that illusion until this album, where the leaders of the world's smartest boogie band split thirteen tracks smack down the middle. Two hymns to a caring fatalism bookend pained descriptions of simple men who believe clever bumper stickers and the piece of shit they vote for, of marriages too tragic for cheating songs because their ends are not in sight: the relaxed, acerbic Cooley lead "Shit Shots Count" ("The boss ain't as smart as you'd like him to be/But he ain't near as dumb as you think") and the pained, oncycling Hood elegy "Grand Canyon" ("I'm never one to wonder about the things beyond control"). But pervading it all is a musical ease that's on Cooley--a groove and feel that accomplishes a provisional and uncomplacent peace for a band eternally grateful that the highway still rolls. A

December 19, 2014

Link: Old 97's / Amy LaVere / Bob Dylan in the 80s / Link of Chain / Robert Randolph and the Family Band / Jason Isbell / Mavis Staples / Grant Peeples / Valerie June / Hard Working Americans / Otis Taylor / Thomas Anderson / John Murry / Defibulators

The Old 97's: Most Messed Up (ATO) "I'm not crazy about songs that get self-referential," declares lead track "Longer Than You've Been Alive," which goes on at impressive length about the most self-referential of all rock and roll topics, Life On The Road. Only here's the thing--it may not be the best such song, but I haven't thought of a better one. And it's also a Theme Statement, because without gauchely claiming Concept, the whole record is about Life On The Road. The pretty-boy is off Rhett Miller's voice on their most raucous studio album, which for someone in his mid forties is a concept flirting with a necessity. "We got our share of lovin' in our past/Although we were all lookin' for someone who'd last," declares the aforementioned lead track, whereupon ensue a whole bunch of songs about Lovin' On The Road, all top-drawer Rhett Miller--funny, hooky, raunchy, unpredictable, bristling with colloquial turns. How self-referential they are I have no idea. What I do know is that they fit right in on a rock album this raucous. And it is my pleasure to report that the last time I saw them live they closed with "Career Opportunities." A

Amy LaVere: Runaway's Diary (Archer) "There shouldn't be rules in rock n roll/And who are we saving our broken hearts for?" croons the stand-up bassist on what's rather more a two-step than a twerk, breaking three Memphis rules in the process--size of voice, size of bass, size of beat. A self-made orphan and lousy pretender according to her titles, she purrs her post-blues in her soft little soprano like a pussycat lapping up cream before climbing that tree, which is where she begins the one that ends "Leavin' is gonna rock." Any horndog who thinks strong women rough up their voices and show off their tits is fixing to wind up with his tail between his legs. A MINUS

Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One (ATO) Direct comparison to Maria Muldaur's and Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint's go-to Dylan covers redounds favorably to this verkakte concept album in which young Americana survivors of varying status and profile interpret stray favorites from the cheesiest period of the great man's catalogue. The anonymity of the multi-artist format turns the fortysomething Dylan into a gifted hack waxing catchy on automatic rather than a pompous preacher instructing the faithful on Dristan. The abracadabra recedes as the selection progresses. But don't miss "Series of Dreams" down at track 13. And then check out the original--the key version of which the preacher, user-friendly as e'er, buried on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, and is a damn masterpiece. A MINUS

Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither (Signature Sounds) Speaking of songwriters, Loudon Wainwright and Dave Alvin are, Bonnie Raitt has done well pretending she isn't, and not one of the dozen remaining contributors has ever made a better album on his or her lonesome. Smither's signature wordcraft lifts Tim O'Brien from his bluegrass congeniality and Paul Cebar from his pan-roots congeniality, Mary Gauthier from her gravity and Patty Larkin from her purity, and so on. Nor would any Smither partisan deny that his vocals could use more changing up than his voice can manage. Which makes this a good idea coming and going. A MINUS

Robert Randolph and the Family Band: Lickety Split (Blue Note) Sacred steel boogies, with better songs than are normally required or do I mean inspired at jamworld's secular camp meetings. Two Carlos Santana cameos add flash and a thickness, and when they cover "Love Rollercoaster" you'll swear they snuck Bootsy in the side door. Respect to Tedeschi-Trucks, absolutely. But this is so much less corn-prone. And when they mix up good lovin' and born again, both ideas gain brain and heart. B PLUS

Jason Isbell: Southeastern (Southeastern) The problem with sobriety records is that they're so damn sober ("Elephant," "Cover Me Up") ***

Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti-) Tweedy-Staples Secular Gospel Revival Finalists: George Clinton and . . . the Staple Singers ("Can You Get to That," "I Like the Things About Me") **

Grant Peeples and the Peeples Republik: Punishing the Myth (Gatorbone) Sub rosa reports from the Travis County Liberated Zone ("It's Too Late to Live in Austin," "The New American Dream," "Aunt Lou") **

Valerie June: Pushin' Against a Stone (Concord) Why are my favorite songs by this mountain-music eccentric the leads, neither co-written by Dan Auerbach, whose production is supposed to lift her from the DIY ghetto? ("Workin' Woman Blues," "Somebody to Love") **

Hard Working Americans: The First Waltz (Melvin) Seven protest songs from their studio album take on heft and emotional focus as boogieing Allmans-style jams that also stretch them too far past the limitations of all involved ("Blackland Farmer," "I Don't Have a Gun") **

Otis Taylor: My World Is Gone (Telarc) Conscious bluesman's dolor is always earned, but that doesn't guarantee that it's always compelling, and sometimes it's enough already ("Blue Rain in Africa," "Jae Jae Waltz") **

Thomas Anderson: On Becoming Human (Out Here) Subtitled "Four-Track Love Songs," and I wish I could tell you it's the love songs that connect--wish I could tell her, too ("Song for Walter Mondale," "Get Home, Sally") **

John Murry: The Graceless Age (Evangeline) Nine lachrymose redemption songs in 52 minutes have more wit than you'd expect, more impact too, and less than Murry hopes in the way of "soul" ("The Ballad of the Pajama Kid," "Penny Nails") *

The Defibulators: Debt'll Get 'Em (PigCow) Po'-boy bluegrass rock makes some noise out there ("Working Class," "Real Slow") *

December 26, 2014

Link: Azealia Banks / Iggy Azalea / Wu-Tang Clan / Nicki Minaj / Lecrae / Buck 65 / Tricky / Big Sean / T.I. / Freddie Gibbs and Madlib /Run the Jewels / Earl Sweatshirt / Ghostface Killah

Azealia Banks: Broke With Expensive Taste (Prospect Park) The articulation of our most musical young rapper is crystalline without flaunting its precision. Her singing rolls full and easy from somewhere in her torso. The grain of her voice is both pretty and sensual. And unlike her male counterparts she doesn't equate sex with power--there's verbal as well as vocal evidence that she feels it elsewhere than her genitalia. That said, she does seem to equate rapping with power--her troubles are the usual star-time overindulgences, and just about every terrific song here is a boast one way or another. Yet just about every song is a serious pleasure regardless. Here's hoping that when she achieves the security she deserves, she uses her IQ for something more useful than battling a melanin-deprived rival who admits more vulnerabilities than she does. A

Iggy Azalea: The New Classic (Def Jam) The hooks pop-rap lives off abound, and the cameos are essential because that's what they're here for, adding a measure of soul or power or fetching melody Iggy herself doesn't have in her. That's demonstrably true right now--line the seven bonus tracks that fill out the useless Reclassified repackage all in a row and you still won't have a decent EP--and might be true forever. Doesn't matter, because as a pop album this tops Ariana's, Sia's, dare I say it Taylor's, even Nicki's. What's more, it's Iggy herself whose striving Australian-Atlantan cadence puts every song across. Hooks you can hire easy these days. Originality you can't. And as Elvis Presley told Marion Keisker sixty years ago, she don't sound like nobody. A MINUS

Wu-Tang Clan: A Better Tomorrow (Warner Bros.) Less a tour de force than a show of force, this is the music that can happen when a master producer gets to deploy nine skilled veteran voices--although the departed ODB is sampled, and effectively too, it's Cappadonna who fills out the cipher. If you're counting, rough-smooth-soulful Method Man and rat-a-tat-tat Masta Killa step up twice as often as Ghostface and Raekwon. But everybody's in the house, everybody raps better than he rhymes, nobody rhymes badly, and RZA is the man. Verbally, in the year a white Staten Island cop martyred a black Staten Island loosies vendor and a white Staten Island cop-turned-felon represented Staten Island in Congress, the album's vision of African-American life is longer on community than getting yours, but it's hardly unmaterialistic--mature, not respectable, as why the fuck should it be? Musically, it's almost utopian. A MINUS

Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint (Deluxe Edition) (Cash Money/Republic) Sometimes gossip can be so enlightening. The reflective opener "All Things Go" is pretty solid on its own. But word that this particular best rapper alive just ended a 12-year relationship with her homeboy boyfriend renders the two ballads that work off that prologue touching. The bad part is that it doesn't render them major ballads, although she gets somewhat closer on "Bed of Lies" at the other end of the narrative arc before overblowing the supposedly climactic "Grand Piano." Only then come three album-defining bonus tracks. The Meek Mill-assisted "Big Daddy" is so generic it establishes how ungeneric the Drake/Weezy-assisted "Only" and the Lunchmoney Lewis-assisted "Trini Dem Girls" were--makes you want to play them again, in fact. And on "Shanghai" and "Win Again," Minaj returns to her triumphalist mode prepared to embrace the role of a 32-year-old woman ready for love--even, in both songs, the motherhood she reflects on as the record begins. A MINUS

Lecrae: Anomaly (Reach) He can rap, he can rhyme, and Christian ethics are a lot better than than no ethics at all--especially when they don't moralize from above ("Welcome to America," "Dirty Water") ***

Buck 65: Neverlove (Warner Music Canada) The yoked disconnect of the rapper's hyperarticulate monotone and his female helpmeets' sweet hooks mirror the broken marriage he obsesses on ("Super Pretty Naughty," "Je T'Aime Mon Amour") ***

Tricky: Adrian Thaws (False Idols) Leaning harder on his ladies' auxiliary than Leonard Cohen, he continues to mutter that it's a bummer out there, and half the time prove it ("Lonnie Listen," "Nicotine Love") ***

Big Sean: Hall of Fame (Def Jam) Bildungsrapper gets his freak and conscience on ("10 2 10," "MILF," "World Ablaze) **

T.I.: Paperwork (Grand Hustle/Columbia) Docked a notch for disrespecting pubic hair ("No Mediocre," "New National Anthem," "About the Money") *

Freddie Gibbs and Madlib: Piņata (Madlib Invazion) Fabulous beats, absolutely, only . . . sorry, I know this is esoteric, but . . . Freddie Gibbs is to Rick Ross as Ryan Bingham is to Luke Bryan--"realer," but not therefore worthier ("High," "Broken") *

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal) Peace to Killer Mike, Bing his Ferguson speech please, but I've been around too long to let a corticosteroid abuser like El-P get in my face about right and wrong ("Crown," "Angel Dusters") *

Earl Sweatshirt: Doris (Columbia) Earl's return of the depressed is so much more soulful than Tyler's revenge of the nerds ("Sunday," "Sasquatch") *

Ghostface Killah: 36 Seasons (Salvation/Tommy Boy) Complete with live band and comic-book trot, but lacking a single irresistible track, 40-minute concept album mythologizes D. Coles's evolution from drug-dealing capo to drug-fighting romantic hero ("Emergency Procedure," "Blood in the Streets") *

Medium/Cuepoint, December 2014

November 2014 January 2015