Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2015

April 3, 2015

Link: Kendrick Lamar / Rae Sremmurd / Drake / Far East Movement / J Cole

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It's a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America's CNN--more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that's the hole that needs filling. Fortunately, the concept starts with the music, which eschews party bangers without foregoing groove, sampling rhythm godfathers P-Funk, Michael Jackson, and the Isley Brothers and building a house band around jazz pianist Robert Glasper and what-you-got bassist Thundercat. But it's even more racially explicit in lyrics that don't protest racism because what good does that ever do--just assumes it as a condition of life for his people, root cause of the cultural breakdowns he laments and preaches against throughout. Acknowledged only in passing is a mega-success too obvious to go on about, not to mention enjoy--a privilege that's also a temptation, to which he responds not with hater paranoia but with a depressive anxiety that resurfaces as a narrative hook without ever starting a pity party. Lamar knows he's got it good. For his people he wants better. Few musicians of any stylistic persuasion are so thoughtful or so ardent. Few musicians have so little need of a hooky review. A MINUS

Rae Sremmurd: Sremm Life (Eardrum/Interscope) Innocence is relative in Atlanta party-rap. Not only are there too many bitches in this brother duo's customized fun machine, they admit "I've been living life like I lived twice" even though they sound too young for that brand of suicide. But be glad they're admitting not bragging. And respect them for trying to sound younger than they are no matter how much Auto-Tune they use to get there, because it adds materially to the fun--fun by way of a formula no one had heard until last summer, when it was put in play by the dizzyingly off-kilter "No Flex Zone" and "No Type." Inevitably, those two tracks stand tall here. But not much taller than the silly "Up Like Trump," the reverberating "Unlock the Swag," or the words to live by "Safe Sex Pay Checks." A MINUS

Drake: If You're Reading This It's Too Late (Cash Money) So articulate, so intelligent, so (relatively) decent--so how come I perk up when Lil Wayne comes on with his pottymouth absurdities? ("Used To," "Legend") ***

Far East Movement: KTown Riot (Cherrytree) Their paradox: a song called "The Illest" that aims to be merely the catchiest ("Grimey Thirsty," "Bang It to the Curb") **

J Cole: 2014 Forest Hills Drive (Roc Nation/Columbia) Full of the kind of good intentions the road to irrelevance is paved with ("Wet Dreamz," "Love Yourz") *

April 10, 2015

Link: James McMurtry / Terry Allen / Gurf Morlix

James McMurtry: Complicated Game (Complicated Game) McMurtry has the musical limitations you'd expect of a singer-songwriter whose loud declaratives pound away over a beat designed for a guy who "can't dance a lick." But this time you should definitely live with them--of the dozen songs on his first album since 2008, the two that are less than compelling come close, and half are superb. The struggling-class portraiture this Texan makes his specialty relocates to South Dakota, Virginia, Florida, and comfier Long Island, whence an Oklahoman salaryman reports: "When the 5:30 rush hits the Cross Island Parkway/It's not for the squeamish or the gentle of heart." One of the four love songs painfully rekindles an old flame, while the rest address a single fine piece of work: a handy bartender who writes better prose than the writer she loves and who, as per an agreement the writer never thought would go into effect, makes do with a Harley-riding parking lot attendant while he's away on tour. Two others reflect on the singer's existential inadequacies, including is a finale called "Cutter" I find less than compelling only when I can't feel the knife focusing the pain in one spot so I can get to sleep. A

Terry Allen: Bottom of the World (self-released) I bought this on the strength of one astonishing song: "Emergency Human Blood Courier," which isn't just what the title makes you hope because the title can't make you hope enough--five minutes that hit harder than any hour of, just as a for instance, The Bridge. Elsewhere the singer-songwriter cum painter-installment artist holds forth with his usual droll soul about a dead dog, a dead banker, a boat, movies, and angels, the last-named twice if you count "Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven," which you should. A MINUS

Gurf Morlix: Eatin' at Me (Rootball) One of those guitarists whose songs aren't quite sharp enough to make you love his grizzled handshake of a voice--but believe it, they're getting closer ("Dirty Old Buffalo," "50 Years") ***

April 17, 2015

Link: Courtney Barnett / Nellie McKay

Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. (Mom + Pop) I insist that the most striking advance here is musical, as her Melbourne g-b-d rock out where formerly they strummed her weaker material into oblivion. Not like Nirvana or something--they're nowhere near that galvanic. But they pack the kind of drive and focus that convince the listener every song matters to the people who are playing it, with the singer-songwriter's committed vocals the clincher. I'll concede, however, that song quality per se could have inspired this effect, because these don't quit. Take this casual opener from "Dead Fox," which you'd best believe scans: "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables and I must admit I was a little sceptical at first a little pesticide can't hurt." Triangulates her culturally--soon we learn that she's always found organic kind of pricey. But what I love most is the half-rhymes that half-link the "vegetables"-"sceptical"-"pesticide" polysyllables before she continues an autobiographical reminiscence based on a road trip through cattle country. That's Barnett's m.o. Formally, her songs are confessional, only they describe her material life and conflicted feelings acutely rather than dreamily, so that the songs occur in and are inflected by a deftly rendered physical and social world. "Dead Fox" isn't even a standout. You want one of those, try "Depreston," in which a house-shopping expedition is stopped dead by a Vietnam snapshot the deceased owner has left behind. Say Barnett is Jens Lekman only folk-grunge not pop. Say she's John Prine as a lesbian boho 40 years his junior from the other side of the globe and maybe tracks. Say she's herself. Hope she remains so. A

Nellie McKay: My Weekly Reader (429) Once the cabaret upstart was a golden faucet of song, but since she messed up her karma in 2007 by cracking a feminism joke that men didn't find cute, not to mention understand, the originals have dried up. So as cabaret stalwarts will, she's turned to Other People's Material. Having reimagined Doris Day in 2009, she ups the ante and reimagines the '60s in 2015. And from the sublime "Sunny Afternoon" and "If I Fell" to the ridiculous "Red Rubber Ball" and "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," from the secret class politics of Alan Price and Moby Grape to the out-there freak politics of Frank Zappa and Jefferson Airplane, she manifests more historical grasp than any psych band yet to show its hand. Songs are so much easier to hold onto than acid visions you can only dream about. A MINUS

April 24, 2015

Link: Sunny Sweeney / Sturgill Simpson / Steve Earle / Corb Lund

Sunny Sweeney: Provoked (Thirty Tigers) Another gal gives bros the finger. With Sweeney among the creators of 11 of these 13 songs and Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, and Brandy Clark all helping out for a track or two, the former Republic Nashville wannabe turns her whole album into what Clark or Jessie Jo Dillon or maybe it was Shannon Wright thought to call "a bad girl phase." And by the way, how marketable a singer is this Natalie Hemby chick with her name on "Used Cars," which explains her preference for previously owned men? And how about Connie Harrington or even Brett Beavers with their co-writes on a finale called "Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass," which rhymes with "So if you're with me, raise your glass/Here's to working class"? A MINUS

Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (High Top/Thirty Tigers) Exactly how deep you find his songs depends on whether you find Waylon Jennings more moving than George Jones or Willie Nelson and the extent of your attraction to psychedelic drugs and Tibetan or any other kind of Buddhism. "Turtles All the Way Down" is one of the great tripping songs. "It Ain't All Flowers" is trip-hop country. And when he says love is all that matters I believe he means it. But I didn't need him to tell me that. I'd just as soon he tell me about coal mining, or what must be an interesting marriage. B PLUS

Steve Earle & the Dukes: Terraplane (New West) Boss of the Blues, a/k/a Single Again ("Baby's Just as Mean as Me," "Ain't Nobody's Daddy Now") **

Sturgill Simpson: High Top Mountain (High Top Mountain) Hard to believe the big bad label guy told him to write about outlaws when he loved his daddy so much ("Life Ain't Fair and the World Is Mean," "King Coal") **

Corb Lund: Counterfeit Blues (New West) Fourth-generation rancher and his Hurtin' Albertans repair to Sun Studios for some analog raw and a show-stopper starring two bags of genetically modified canola seed ("Truck Got Stuck," "Counterfeit Blues") *

Medium/Cuepoint, April 2015

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