Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2015

February 6, 2015

Link: Taylor Swift / Shakira / Katy B / Tove Lo / Haim / Lorde / Sia

Taylor Swift: 1989 (Big Machine) The NYC tourist jingle everybody hates on to prove they're not her shills is my favorite thing here. Having emigrated to Manhattan myself, albeit from Queens, I think it's silly to demand sociology from someone who can't stroll Central Park without bodyguards. I note that even from a limo you can tell that the "everyone" here who "was someone else before" includes many immigrants of color. And I credit its gay-curious moment even if she ends up with a banker like her dad. All that said, however, there's a big difference between Swift's Manhattan and the one I can afford only due to real estate laws as vestigial as the family grocery that just closed up across the street, and you can hear that difference in the music. In principle I'm down with the treated hooks and doctored vocals with which Swift makes herself at home. Freed of Nashville's myth of the natural, she echoes and double-tracks and backs herself up, confides with soft-edged subtlety and fuses the breathy with the guttural. But I have less use for the cyborg with feelings she's playing now than for the gawky 15-year-old she created on Fearless--the one who was a hundredth as talented and a tenth as self-possessed as the 18-year-old who imagined her, the one who gathered an audience of country fangirls Nashville didn't know existed. That fifteen-year-old obviously isn't much like me. But she's more like I was when I got here than the cyborg will ever be, or most bankers either. A MINUS

Shakira: Shakira (RCA) This album finally made me its own in a Puerto Rican traffic jam, where I felt compelled to pull Tom Zé out of the slot because I needed a bigger lift. The Latin setting fed this decision. But Zé is no gringo, and the hottest Latin track here, including the two in Spanish at the end, is the Dr. Luke confection that climaxes the four-song takeoff I was craving--a musical jam that, as I'd hoped, brightened my mood until well after the traffic jam had dissolved. Later Shakira gets more pensive, as is her warbling wont. But right up to "Loco Por Ti" she works well-meaning variations on her special brand of chipper sentimentality--seldom deep, but so useful in getting one through life's smaller crises. A MINUS

Katy B: Little Red (Columbia) Best beats front-loaded, first ballad Robyn-worthy, but after six-seven songs it slides into a pop void and the bonus tracks are worse ("Next Thing," "5 AM") ***

Tove Lo: Queen of the Clouds (Island) R-rated concept album about clubworld "SEX," "LOVE," and "PAIN" ramped up by neither PG-rated remix hit nor modest tune quotient ("Habits [Stay High]," "Moments") ***

Haim: Days Are Gone (Columbia) Three sisters unite to negotiate reassuringly generic man trouble--even the madrigal hooks have a suprapersonal anonymity to them ("The Wire," "Falling") **

Lorde: Pure Heroine (Lava/Republic) Her ambition's in the right place, but the reason she always co-writes is that 16-year-olds don't just crank out hits ("Royals," "Tennis") **

Sia: 1000 Forms of Fear (Puzzle/RCA) Hookmeister with a voice too big and/or a vocal style too self-regarding to keep things light--and now, one stone masterpiece in her kit ("Chandelier," "Elastic Heart") *

February 13, 2015

Link: Sleater-Kinney / tUnE-yArDs / TV on the Radio / The National / Thurston Moore / St. Vincent

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) This return to the wars isn't necessarily their best album, but that it might be is an up in itself. Their pride is their joy, their standards are high, and they show no sign of getting back together because they could use the payday, although except for Carrie I expect they could--between its noisy desperation and its narrative detail, the clashing Corin opener "Price Tag" nails the overbooked constraints of the strapped middle class like she knows them by heart. Honed back down to punky three-minute songs because the leisure to stretch out is a luxury they can't presently afford, the music carries the seed of tumult to come, the sense that something or everything could explode without notice just the way this album did. My only cavil is that I wish the singing would relax more, even at the cost of softening the album's tension, and note that Carrie lets herself go that way on a kind of love song that links fame with mediocrity in the rare woe-I'm-a-star number fueled by emotions anyone can feel the point of. A

tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (4AD) Where Merrill Garbus's contemporaries pro and con hear a boldly experimental self-expresser/cultural appropriator, I've always slotted her as a hyperconscious, hyperemotional misfit with a long-gone weight problem and a generous voice. From the start she's extracted her exhilaration from an insecurity that sounded hard for her to bear. I've encountered many such people in my life, most of them not too deeply--they're hard to take. But because they're so hyper they make excellent early warning systems and political consciences. Some may wonder why two different songs fret about the water supply. I believe it's because she lives in California, end of story. Some may wonder why she devotes an entire track to four lines about a rocking chair. I imagine it's because she became self-conscious about breaking it and composed the song in the ensuing insomnia. Somewhat more overwrought than its predecessors, this album is harder to take as a result. But it's also hookier and more clearly recorded. And as a musical sensor she has few peers. A MINUS

TV on the Radio: Seeds (Harvest) Until the triumphant mortality song "Lazerray" and the scared mortality song "Trouble," both right before the end, this album makes no discernible reference to the death of bassist Gerard Smith. It's a love album front to back--those two could be about love too. So if love is your idea of boring, carp away. Big on love myself, I nonetheless wince at the borderline banality of "Could You" and "Test Pilot," when love goes poorly. But when love goes well--on "Quartz," "Ride," the delicate, muscular "Careful You"--they're strong of mind, body, and spirit. And for your information, love songs that last don't come easy--they take guts, commitment too. A MINUS

The National: Trouble Will Find Me (4AD) Even after loss transmutes into pain sweet pain, it has a way of reverting to the same old same old ("I Should Live in Salt," "Don't Swallow the Cap") ***

Thurston Moore: The Best Day (Matador) Mantras-meditations-celebrations-boasts ("Speak to the Wild," "Tape") **

St. Vincent: St. Vincent (4AD) Classy lady reveals not only that she's feral but that she takes out the garbage ("Prince Johnny," "Psychopath") **

February 20, 2015

Link: Ex Hex / Allo Darlin' / Alvvays / Shilpa Ray / Courtney Barnett / Girlpool / Potty Mouth

Ex Hex: Rips (Merge) Two decades after Helium's ethereal prog-punk, Mary Timony strips down to an unrelenting forward motion powered by her own economical guitar hooks. Reminds me of an album I loved in 1978 and scarcely think of anymore: the Vibrators' Pure Mania. But where those guys projected closet-nasty nerd aggression, Timony sounds detached and even dreamy as she tells a male who may be one man or many different ones that he's not as cool as he thinks he is and would be better off not trying. Lyrically, this is an advance, tensing with principled irony against the thrust of the sound. Whether the voice has enough muscle to propel the music as conceived is a trickier question. A MINUS

Allo Darlin': We Come From the Same Place (Slumberland) Elizabeth Morris seeks only to find fame as our mellifluous songpoet of sane love--modest fame, because sane she is. If you're one of the modest number who think it possible to make unfailingly tuneful, moderately uptempo Rickenbacker-rock of such poetic strokes as "I think you're brave," "I wanted to impress you," "I am grateful for that," and "Please believe me I've never said this before," you will love her with all the suspension your disbelief can muster. If you don't, she's too good for you. The latter isn't great for her numbers and she knows it. But she'll settle. A MINUS

Alvvays: Alvvays (Polyvinyl) Molly Rankin's wan, naturally flat soprano renders her ironically upbeat cannot-love ditties more credible, and "Next of Kin" extends the cliche to a suitably alarming metaphorical extreme in which a suitor drowns due to Molly's emotional ineptitude. So no wonder her excited new fanbase is so relieved by "Archie, Marry Me." Assuming the challenged couple get to cut that cake, I wish them many lubricious years of one-on-one "debauchery"--Rankin's word, and I sincerely hope it's no metaphor. B PLUS

Shilpa Ray: It's All Self-Fellatio (Bad Seeds, Ltd.) Four forlornly sexy, gutsy songs that somehow sound better individually than as part of a whole that maybe just isn't one ("I Is What I Is," "Posted by Anonymous") ***

Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (Mom + Pop/Milk!) So redolent in their way, the EPs' titles, I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, suggest neither the irresistibility of her greatest shoegaze nor her ill-conceived tendency to strum when she can't think of anything charming to say ("Avant Gardener," "History Eraser") **

Girlpool: Girlpool (Wichita Recordings) The loneliness of the dirty-minded teengirl ("Blah Blah Blah," "Slutmouth") **

Potty Mouth: Hell Bent (Old Flame/Marshall Teller) Spiffy new bratmobile fully equipped with monotone, invective, and unguarded pride ("The Gap," "Wishlist") *

February 27, 2015

Link: Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie / Ladysmith Black Mambazo / Loudon Wainwright III / David Greenberger & Dozens / Chuck E. Weiss / Oscar Brown Jr. & Maggie Brown / Willie Nelson / Scott Ramminger

Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie: December Day (Legacy) After the jaunty "Alexander's Ragtime Band," I was disappointed to note the tune density diminishing markedly here. Luckily, on my third and I thought final run-through, I noticed Willie emitting the bandless but far from unmusical or amelodic words "I don't know where I am today/I don't know where I was yesterday/This song has so many notes to play/I just hope that I hit them today." Thus begins the Senile Dementia Suite, which proceeds through Nelson's 2014 "Amnesia" and 1972 "Who'll Buy My Memories," pauses to dig up Al Jolson's "Anniversary Song," and then tops itself off with the inescapably tuneful 2014 "Laws of Nature": "I get my water from the rain/If it don't rain I'll die/Stormy weather saves my life/Sometimes I laugh and wonder why." There are seven songs after that, mostly remakes of self-written chestnuts he's no doubt remade before. Hell, there's another "Is the Better Part Over" on his 2013 album, although you can see how the concept fits better here, as does what is just barely or maybe not a different version of Django Reinhardt's signature "Nuages," which you'll understand when you learn that this is Willie's guitar album way more than it's Bobbie's piano album, which it also is, and yes, the rest of his band pitches in subtly when needed. My mother-in-law played Willie's Stardust on repeat in her last years. I won't be like that--I have more music in my kit. But as a senescence album this definitely tops L. Cohen's. A

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Always With Us (Uyohlale Unathi) (CDBaby) Often this highly evolved, showbiz-savvy family choir have courted their international target market of congenial folkies by keeping company with their many admirers in Western pop. This has been dodgy musically, and although their filigreed tenor blend is hard to ruin, 2006 collaborations with Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, and Natalie Merchant were not propitious. But on this self-released album a South African female provides blessed relief: semi-retired 73-year-old Joseph Shabalala's late wife Nellie, who was murdered in a murky 2002 incident just as her Women of Mambazo choir was about to go international itself. Through the earthly miracle of magnetic tape, Joseph's men and Nellie's women join their voices, and the differentiation is just the thing to make Ladysmith's fifty-somethingth album ring out. Gorgeous has never been their main thing--they're wittier and more intricate than that. But this is gorgeous. A MINUS

Loudon Wainwright III: Haven't Got the Blues (Yet) (429) Waggish Wainwright ordinaire, all but a few of the 14 tracks equipped with laugh lines that vary considerably in depth, acuity, and, come to that, humor. The parking song is a deft trifle, the dog-walking song a sharp cut; the NRA satire is heavy-handed, the Harlan County lament multidimensional; the one where his estranged lover dies of guilt is uglier than it knows, the one where they can't find the right date to split kinder than it pretends. My favorite is a birthday song for a kid I figure for young Lexie. It's tender, not funny at all. A MINUS

David Greenberger & Dozens: Near the Edge of the Penny Jar Spill (Pel Pel) Best when he trusts his sources more and his pick-up musicians less, you think--until Paul Cebar constructs a threnody from the linguistic shards of late-stage Alzheimer's ("Used to Say," "Six Snakes," "How to Make a Record") ***

Chuck E. Weiss: Red Beans & Weiss (Anti-) With a lot of help from his friends, Hollywood's pet reprobate shows some talent of his own after all ("Tupelo Joe," "Exile on Main Street Blues") **

Oscar Brown. Jr. & Maggie Brown: We're Live (ESP Disk) Blacklisted elder statesman boosts his daughter, who sounds fine in her way and who needs it ("Bird to Word--Billie's Bounce," "Young Jazz") *

Willie Nelson: Let's Face the Music and Dance (Legacy) Not his dance album, silly, this is Willie Nelson--just one of his after-80-you-get-to-sing-whatever-you-want albums ("Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love") *

Scott Ramminger: Advice From a Father to a Son (Arbor Lane) Better on road safety than on wimmin, but not altogether devoid of second-line wisdom either way ("Advice From a Father to a Son," "More Than One Flavor") *

Medium/Cuepoint, February 2015

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