Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2015

May 1, 2015

Link: Huey "Piano" Smith / James Booker / Crackin' the Cosimo Code

Huey "Piano" Smith: Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu (Hallmark) Huey Smith newbies beware: make sure the "Rockin' Pneumonia" on your confusing Spotify list or crappy-looking reissue runs 2:17 or so rather than 3:11 or so, because the longer version that now dominates both the streamosphere and online retail was cut for an Allen Toussaint who paid Huey even worse than Ace's Johnny Vincent--in the '70s no less, when the poor guy was up to his nose in Jehovah and failure and the endless slog of prying his money away from Johnny Vincent. My favorite Ace comp is Music Club's out-of-print 18-track This Is . . . Huey "Piano" Smith, still findable used if you're flush and quick; the 31-track Jax 501 with the same title as the one I'm featuring also looks good. But this more findable albeit shorter item covers most of the bases however much I miss "Beatnik Blues" and "Pop-Eye" and the nutty "Would You Believe It (I Have a Cold)." When his original cast of pranksters augmented his congenial chops and expert groove, piano maestro Smith had as much rock and roll in him as Fats Domino or Bo Diddley. Recording for hang-loose con man Vincent in Jackson rather than friendly professional Cosimo Matassa in New Orleans, he and his Clowns fell into an irreverent merriment in which collectivity was of the essence. His virtuosity and his commitment to fitting in were both so principled that they generated just plain fun in more ways than we can count, because that's the way that great prize just plain fun is. A

James Booker: Gonzo (RockBeat) Live in Germany, 1976--everything the virtuoso fonk-classical-cocktail piano man played for two shows, it looks like. I personally didn't want to hear even one "Please Send Me Someone to Love," and often the songs of hope and brotherly love deliquesce into mush, but there are loads of on-the-other-hands. The florid fanfare that evolves into "Sixty Minute Man" before your unsuspecting ears will possibly fool and definitely delight you twice, when it switches over to "You Talk Too Much" if not before. Booker likes him some medley effects--the one billed as "All by Myself/Let the Four Winds Blow" also includes a verse of "I'm in Love Again." "Tipitina" and "Junco Partner" and "Rockin' Pneumonia" are his by eminent domain, the Dr. John songs somehow not. "Tico Rico" and "Besame Mucho" make a fine pair. And let me mention the one about his mother called "Ora," because it convinces me that she's always worth mentioning. A MINUS

Cracking the Cosimo Code: 60s New Orleans R&B and Soul (Ace) Consumer advisory: check track listing before considering purchase. Any non-owner of three or more of the six certified classics herein--by Jessie Hill, Earl King, Chris Kenner, Lee Dorsey, Robert Parker, and Aaron Neville--should proceed directly to checkout. For seasoned New Orleans curiosity seekers, these 24 selections are less essential, especially as they embrace full-on soul. But not counting one pathetic twist number, the dance trifles make their presence known, and the full-on jokes are funny every time out. By the '60s, New Orleans music was too fully industrialized for Cosimo Matassa's studio to dominate anymore--Allen Toussaint had taken over by then. But the spread of local talent and the Big Easy ethos produced pleasurable marginalia in quantities no one will ever sort out. Consumer advisory: check Willie Tee's "Teasin' You" and Oliver Morgan's "Who Shot the Lala" if you think I'm jiving. B PLUS

Huey "Piano" Smith: That'll Get It (Even More of the Best) (Westside) Smith-penned/produced oddments that include one Huey-plus-Clowns essential, eight previously unreleaseds, and much amiable joking around (Bobby Marchan and the Clowns, "Would You Believe It [I Have a Cold]"; Danny White, "Educated Fool"; the Clowns, "Barbara"; Jesse Thomas, "Baby Won't You Turn Me On") **

May 8, 2015

Link: Young Fathers / White Mandingos / Death Grips

Young Fathers: Dead (Anticon) As a U.S. admirer of this interracial Scottish hip-hop trio's brave, dour Tape Two EP, I was bummed by the diminished lyricism of their proper debut until its 2014 Mercury Prize got my attention. The album is indeed different--chanted unison and solo more than rapped, tribal in feeling at times, with beatmaker G Hastings making like a fucked-up in vitro synth-rock band. But insofar as I can decipher their intent, now I'm bummed the way they want me to be, as the songs that surface one by one make me worry about the state of their world, and of mine. A MINUS

Young Fathers: White Men Are Black Men Too (Big Dada) I don't know what the title means either, and I doubt they do. "Poor lives matter"? "After all, our beatmaker is white"? "We never ever want to think about racism again"? But note that when they utter the title during "Old Rock n Roll," there's a "some" in front. Note too that said beatmaker has progressed in his quest to invent some new rock n roll. Note that the vocalists are in on the project. Note that in "John Doe" they repeat and repeat "Laissez les bon temps roulez" with a disquiet that splits the difference between street fair and wailing wall. A MINUS

White Mandingos: The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me (Fat Beats) Brainchild of Ego Trip's Sacha Jenkins, Bad Brains' Daryl Jenifer, and well-meaning backpack rapper Murs, this concept album about a well-meaning projects-born crossover rapper actually succeeds at saying something coherent about interracial possibility in America. Part of its secret is not digging too deep--the romances and family matters it describes partake of the contradictions everyone knows are there with the kind of clarity and humor that gatekeepers dismiss as corny only because gatekeepers think they're so great. Murs has always had trouble finding fresh material on the alt-rap circuit. By fictionalizing himself slightly, he gets to write what are essentially fables, and by adding guitars he gets dibs on a new bunch of beats. Released mid-2013, this album has no reputation I know of. But it should, because it does have heart, and that heart is made of muscle where so many fetishize marzipan. A MINUS

Death Grips: The Powers That B (Third Worlds/Harvest) Having outlived their modishness, the biracial art-rap-cum-ragecore trio release a double album that, as I once requested, sidesteps their sex-hating/fearing misogyny. This they achieve not by putting it aside altogether but by sticking it on one disc, based musically on "Björk's vocals (as found object)" har har, epitomized thematically by "Have a Sad Come BB" (pronounced "baby"), and entitled for confusion's sake Niggas on the Moon. Its longer opposite number, entitled for confusion's sake Jenny Death, is epitomized thematically by a breakneck Humvee of an opener called "Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States." They couldn't have anticipated Freddie Gray except in the sense that there'll always be another, the rare ragecore truism with undeniable truth value. But in this time of racist callousness, I find their all-purpose hostility and alienation apt and, sometimes, perversely satisfying--on "Pss Pss," "Centuries of Dawn," "Beyond Alive." B PLUS

May 15, 2015

Link: Cracker / The Mountain Goats / Sun Kil Moon / Modest Mouse / Clem Snide / Mac McCaughan

Cracker: Berkeley to Bakersfield (429) Camper van Beethoven joker-in-chief turned Cracker singer-songspokesperson David Lowery was always too ironic by approximately 72 percent. But he's older than that now. The Californian turned Georgian pursues what musical career remains to him, lectures in business at UGA, and devotes much of his energy to his unofficial post as scourge-in-chief of a supposedly futuristic streaming economy that he claims, accurately, is "unsticking it to the man and sticking it the weirdo freak musicians!" And this crusade has awakened in him an explicit class consciousness often discernible in his songs from the start and just as often undercut by his snark. The Berkeley disc of this double-CD celebrates what might be called protest culture, lobbing stink bombs at the rich as it celebrates the lifestyles of the quasi-bohemian lower middle class. The Bakersfield disc aims for an Inland Empire country-rock that goes soft the way country-rock does but still sneaks a migrant laborer and a dead junkie in with the San Bernardino boy and the red-state union man, neither of whom lack charm themselves. Politics! On an American rock album! So much rarer a thing than the snark-damaged claim! A MINUS

The Mountain Goats: Beat the Champ (Merge) As interested parties didn't need me to tell them, John Darnielle's latest is a concept album about the professional wrestlers of his '70s youth. The romanticization of the grotesque not being my thing, I have no inkling which stories are legendary and which extrapolations. But I like them all. I thank Darnielle for naming like-father-like-son Chavo Guerrero as he wages his battle against evil and Bull Ramos as he holds onto his whip for dear life. But the anonynous ferocity of "Werewolf Gimmick" and camaraderie of "Animal Mask" are just as inspirational. And although the opener establishes a tender lyricism consonant with Darnielle's own, there's no mistaking the album's most indelible line: "I will stab you in the eye with a foreign object." That's the name of the song--"Foreign Object." A MINUS

Sun Kil Moon: Benji (Caldo Verde) Mark Kozelek has always been one more alt-rock sad sack to me, and without much a beat at that, so I won't pretend there's any musical reason to listen to this wall-to-wall bummer. But where he's generally obsessed on an alt-rock melancholy about which most human beings could care less, here he explores something that happens to everyone: death in the family, mostly in working-class Ohio, where he grew up. There's his second cousin Carissa gone at 35 in a freak garbage fire, his uncle gone the same way long ago, his kindly grandma in L.A., and worst of all his dad's pseudonymous mercy-killing friend--who with his wife taken out of her misery turned the gun on himself only then "failed at suicide" and got sentenced to prison. All of which induces him to write "I Love My Dad" and "I Can't Live Without My Mother's Love," and whether you're attracted to his songs or not you feel just how bad this depressive is gonna hurt when his long-separated parents go. That's musical enough for me. B PLUS

Modest Mouse: Strangers to Ourselves (Epic) Still anxious after all these years--at a level of articulation so developed I can't tell you why they don't just move on already ("Sugar Boats," "God Is an Indian and You're an Asshole") ***

Clem Snide: Girls Come First (Zahpwee) Wise advice, unmistakable empathy, questionable promises, pained voice, minimal band ("Grace," "Wendy") **

Mac McCaughan: Non-Believers (Merge) Less nostalgia for a postpunk youth than a historical record ("Only Do," "Box Batteries") *

May 22, 2015

Link: Tamikrest / Imarhan Timbuktu

Tamikrest: Adagh (Glitterbeat '10) Led, not to say dominated, by an impressive twentysomething singer-songwriter-guitarist named Ousmane ag Massa, this Tuareg guitar group came together at a Western-funded private school designed to protect the desert people from a Malian educational system that's stacked against them. They're vocal about their debt to Tinariwen, founders and leaders of their musical/political movement, but from the opening riff of their 2010 debut they don't favor Tinariwen's austerity. "He watches a world in movement evolving beyond him," that song translates, and they want better than to watch. Quite often you can hear how much. B PLUS

Tamikrest: Toumastin (Glitterbeat '11) This is the kind of second album where the group flowers rather than the kind where the group runs out of material. Read the trots and there's an arc, budding romance through to sustaining love, with plenty of self-doubt and plenty of solidarity in between. Listen to the music and you may get similar notions, although obviously they'll be more inchoate; I like the way troubled thoughts about alienation transition to lively celebration of a desert "full of liberty" to rousing call to fellowship to the solemn knowledge that "nothing is eternal." My theory is that it takes a man aware of his existential doubts to commit to the desert without committing to the absolute at the same time, and that this comes out in the music. Ousmane ag Massa is here to tell the world that a little education can be a broadening thing. A MINUS

Tamikrest: Chatma (Glitterbeat '13) Life got even tougher for the Kel Tamashek before this album was recorded, as thugs claiming piety imposed Sharia on a nomad culture that never trucked with the sadism of Islam's self-proclaimed ultra-orthodox. So as they fled their ancestral base in eastern Mali, these commercially ascendant, politically down youngbloods found themselves with a double set of injustices to address. And on an album whose title translates Sisters, that's what they've done. They've done it by honoring the uncommonly woman-friendly Tuareg ethos, including the installation of Wonou Walet Sidati, a female veteran of their revered Tinariwen, as the (near) equal of Ousmane ag Massa. They've done it by embracing both rock drumming and West African beats. They've done it by upping the Third World skank and absorbing a French guitarist and telling the world that the spacey "Assikal" is their Pink Floyd song. They've done it by voicing their despair and living their dreams at the same time. They've done it the 21st-century way. A MINUS

Imarhan Timbuktu: Akal Warled (Clermont Music) Saharan trance music as the contained dance music it was born to be, with citizens of the sand who make their musical rivals sound like tourist bands getting the party started with a track that could sell a whole album of the stuff ("Aïcha Talamomt") ***

Tamikrest: Taksera (Glitterbeat '15) A holding action like most Record Store Day vinyl, and not better because it's live-er no matter what Afrofolkies want to believe ("Tisnant an Chatma," "Outamachek") *

May 29, 2015

Link: Parkay Quarts / Slutever / Wire / White Lung / Total Babes / Spider Bags

Parkay Quarts: Content Nausea (What's Your Rupture?) The deal seems to be that the latest garage-punk heroes spell their name like the fancy flooring when they put in time on the long-player and the lower-priced spread when they don't. And though I've liked them all so far, I've preferred the quickies. This one includes songs about insomnia, catastrophe, and a shrink I'm glad they can afford, Roky Erikson and Nancy Sinatra covers, and no bitching about romantic dysfunction. The best lyric forswears social media, the worst waxes Dylanesque. Strong from the start, it takes off midway through with the ear-catching "Pretty Machines." All in all: the world looks kind of like hell, and punk won't save you from it, but meanwhile . . . A MINUS

Slutever: Almost Famous (self-released) Two bratty Philadelphia ex-girls take their DIY voice-guitar-drums to LA, where they dream of becoming the best-known rock group never to release a full-length. So the sound is bigger and the songs are too on this cassette-and-download-only EP--"Open Wide"'s laziness, "Smother"'s infantilism, "Miss America"'s alcoholism, "Maggot"'s dirtbag sex, "Teen Mom"'s broken heart. To call their self-imposed limits principled would misread their purpose. These women don't want to be momentous because what they've achieved already was fucking hard. They don't want to be momentous because enough is enough. A MINUS

Wire: Wire (Pinkflag) More anxious than ever, and they don't like postmodernity much, yet somehow they find electronics musically mellowing ("Blogging," "Harpooned," "In Manchester") ***

White Lung: Deep Fantasy (Sub Pop) Sex as warfare, self-obliteration as self-assertion, and they like it hard and fast either way ("In Your Home," "Drown With the Monster") **

Total Babes: Heydays (Wichita) "Our lives are ahead of us," so let's keep driving and hope the roses are still coming and going when we get there ("Heydays," "Circling") **

Spider Bags: Frozen Letter (Merge) Permanent floating Chapel Hill garage trio promise they'll always always be honest with you--and mean it ("Summer of '79," "Back With You Again in the World") **

Medium/Cuepoint, May 2015

April 2015 August 2015