Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2015

September 4, 2015

Link: You'd Think Willie Nelson Wrote the Song About Pot: Boz Scaggs / Leonard Cohen / Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard / Richard Thompson / Bruce Springsteen / Elvin Bishop

Boz Scaggs: A Fool to Care (429) In which the vital signs of 2013's Memphis are juiced by both his shift of symbolic locale to New Orleans and his dawning suspicion that the world is going to hell in a bank statement. For more on the latter, proceed directly to the Bonnie Raitt duet "Hell to Pay." He's so mad he wrote it himself. But mostly he resets forgotten gems like Al Green's "Full of Fire," Huey Smith's "High Blood Pressure," and Bobby Charles's long-neglected "Small Town Talk." The opener is "Rich Woman," the same Dorothy LaBostrie curio that led Robert Plant and Alison Krause's Raising Sand. Sashaying so weathered and jaunty, not to mention so New Orleans, Boz's is better. His best album since Silk Degrees in goddamn 1976, and by a wide margin. A MINUS

Leonard Cohen: Can't Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (Columbia/Legacy) Trust your Zen uncle to rehash a rehash the classy way. Although half these ten live songs are so old they precede the scam that cost him the royalties on his 20th-century catalogue, he not only performs them anyway but resuscitates relative obscurities, which in the case of the "Field Commander Cohen"-"I Can't Forget" opener have more relevance now than when he was a mere 50. On two new ones he's feeling too feeble to make love and too pissed to make nice. On the George Jones cover, his bass is just as deep if not as puissant as that superhuman's. And capping it all off is a monologue about the stages of aging, which he's copyrighted just in case some scamster gets any funny ideas. A MINUS

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie (Legacy) They do enjoy themselves, but although you'd think Willie wrote the buoyant one about the world going to pot, instead he wrote the lugubrious one about dreams going to die ("It's All Going to Pot," "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash," "Live This Long") ***

Richard Thompson: Still (Fantasy) Meaning of title: at 66, "still" the horny seeker who loves his guitar more than his girl--by a lot ("Guitar Heroes," "Long John Silver") **

Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes (Columbia) Overstatement is his weakness, and Tom Morello definitely doesn't rein in him, but only cynics resist his skill set ("Harry's Place," "Dream Baby Dream") *

Elvin Bishop: Can't Even Do Wrong Right (Alligator) (Folksy) (University of) Chicago bluesman holds onto his chops--also his wits, except about the internet ("Everybody's in the Same Boat," "Let Your Woman Have Her Way") *

September 11, 2015

Link: Young Thug's Most Useful Performance Since 'Black Portland': Jamie xx / Diplo / Shamir / Major Lazer / Funkadelic / In the Mix / Skrillex and Diplo / Glitterbeat / Duck Sauce

Jamie xx: In Colour (Young Turks) With zero stake in the rave-techno-whatever purists claim he rips off, not to mention sub-zero belief that there's anything wrong with appropriating classic materials, I took my usual approach with, er, electro--find out how it works as background music. Poorly, I determined--burbles along anonymously. But figuring I also owed this quiet young turk's solo debut a try as foreground music, I found myself taken by its glimmers of beat, snatches of melody, trick sounds, and fluctuating dynamics as well as the hooks with which most tracks are equipped and around which few are structured. Old raver yelling "Oh my gosh." Most useful Young Thug performance since Black Portland. Romy assuring us she's OK. Nice. A MINUS

Diplo: Random White Dude Be Everywhere (Mad Decent) Seven proven bangers gussied up with five remixes--in short, the obvious shit his base long ago had enough of d/b/a music for normal people seeking a pick-me-up. I suppose we could do without the remixes, but hell, excess is why he's richer than he is famous, and they're certainly not painful. In fact, I'm glad I don't have to choose between the two versions of the objectively counter-revolutionary "Revolution" or the N.O. bouncy "Express Yourself." I'm also glad a prev unrel featuring the prev useless Waka Flocka Flame bears the fetching title "Techno." A MINUS

Shamir: Ratchet (XL) Shamir Bailey sings his sweet tunes in a mellow high tenor devoid of falsetto striving or pretensions to femininity. Yet he's not exactly boyish--just a gentle-sounding man flaunting and/or enjoying the irony of his intelligent club-kid anomie, with Nick Sylvester's electro matching him soft edge for soft edge. What sharpens the album is club-kid beats that are always understated and sometimes forsworn altogether but also sometimes irresistible--contextualized by intelligent lyrics that critique club-kid escapism more than they celebrate it. Overarching theme: "Girls are sad all of the time cuz/Good guys are so hard to find/So why not go out and make a scene?" Al  MINUS

Major Lazer: Peace Is the Mission (Mad Decent) It's simple enough. Those who think JA dancehall remains unjustly neglected 35 years after Yellowman made slackness irie will tell you this so-called band has betrayed its conceptual mission. Those personally offended by industrial-grade EDM, the gaggle of pop divas, or that dick Diplo will blame this record for purveying any or all of the three. Me, I'm a picker and chooser, hence grateful that said dick gave me a reason to enjoy Ellie Goulding and Ariana Grande, because good Lord I've tried, and to get closer to enterprising Jamaican-American Nyla and especially indie-pop strivers Wild Belle, whose hummed, crooned, and ultimately keened opener provides the perfect warmup for the harder stuff. As in today's punk, slackness does tend more irie with women up front. B PLUS

Funkadelic: First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate (The C Kunspyruhzy) Three discs, three-and-a-third sample-ready hours, 33 mostly George-fronted subclassics, and you gotta hear Sly's Lord Buckley ("First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate," "Baby Like Fonkin' It Up," "The Naz," "Pole Power," "Snot 'n Booger") **

In the Mix: Dancepop Anthems (Astralwerks) Kissing us loudly with their beats (Katy Perry, "Peacock"; Duck Sauce, "Barbra Streisand") **

Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü (Mad Decent) Powerhouses sucker-punch hardest with help from 2 Chainz and Kiesza--not, hilarious idea and predictable profit-taker though it is, Justin Bieber ("Febreze," "Take Ü There") **

Glitterbeat: Dubs and Versions (Glitterbeat) African Afrogroovers benefit obliquely from European fucking around (Schneider TM, "Be Ki Don [Cockpit Dub]"; Nozinja, "Tamala [Nozinja Version]") *

Duck Sauce: Quack (Fool's Gold) Breakmaster/mega-DJ Armand Van Helden and cratedigger/mega-DJ A-Trak joke around so you can laugh along ("Barbra Streisand," "Chariots of the Gods") *

September 18, 2015

Link: Exploring Legendary and Overlooked Afropop: Le Grand Kallé / Youssou N'Dour / Amara Touré / Verckys et l'Orchestre Vévé / Highlife on the Move

Le Grand Kallé: Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Music (Sterns Africa) Ken Braun's exhaustively selected, expertly annotated document of the Congolese borrowings, innovations, and masterstrokes that dominated Afropop into the 80s is as solid as yet smaller than a slab of virgin vinyl: two CDs flanking a 104-page bound booklet dominated by Braun's typically well-schooled critical-historical opus. Joseph Kabasele was born into a prominent Roman Catholic family--an uncle became Africa's first cardinal--but broke away as a music-mad teen to become the most influential early master of the rumba that evolved into soukous. Kinshasa's Luambo Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau got their start with Le Grand Kallé; Cameroon's Manu Dibango was his European buddy long before and long after "Soul Makossa." The high-born Kabasele never matched the bite or lift or blat of these titans. His music tailed off by the mid 60s, although he always remained a force, and he was smoother than neoprimitivists might prefer. But he was a singer of exceptional sweetness and flow, and he had true pop savvy--it wasn't just his hustle that turned "Independence Cha Cha" into a continent-wide anticolonalist theme song or induced John Storm Roberts to begin the groundbreaking Africa Dances comp with "African Jazz Mokili Mobimbo." You can play these discs for days without getting bored. I know because I've done it. A MINUS

Youssou N'Dour: Mballax Dafay Wax (FM) Apparently released in 2012 on the "label" indicated, a welcome sign that the Senegalese activist-entrepreneur counts among his many projects reminders that he'd still be the greatest popular musician in the world if he had the time. There are only three new songs here, apparently concerning children's education, embezzlement in high places, and political commitment in general. The other three tracks, all well over ten minutes, are medleys designated "Pot Pourri 1," "2," and "3." Amid clattering tamas and familiar snatches I can't name because my Wolof isn't up to snuff come instantly recognizable goodies such as "Birima" and "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da." And what's this, culminating "1"? Why it's Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom." Hasn't sounded so right in years. A MINUS

Amara Touré: 1973-1980 (Analog Africa) This Touré--there are, of course, many Tourés--was a Guinéean-born percussionist-vocalist who hooked up with the super-seminal Star Band de Dakar in the late 50s, possibly before the game-changing guitarist-attorney Barthelemy Attisso and certainly before the world-beating vocalist-genius Youssou N'Dour. These ten tracks, lasting just over an hour and recorded with a band he led in Cameroon and a bigger one he joined in Gabon, constitute his recorded legacy. They epitomize the languorously "Latin" West African clave Attisso's Orchestra Baobab nurtured to fruition before N'Dour's Étoile de Dakar accelerated it into the future. I don't understand a word Touré is saying, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't respond like this to his Cuban or Puerto Rican counterpart. But something about African clave just warms me. B PLUS

Verckys et l'Orchestre Vévé: Congolese Funk, Afrobeat & Psychedelic Rumba 1969-1978 (Analog Africa) Showcasing the saxophonist more than the bandleader, the James Brown fan more than the Franco wannabe ("Cheka Sana," "Nakobala Yo Denise") ***

Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian and Ghanaian Recordings From London & Lagos--1954-66 (Soundway) Direct European links the concept, diluted African content the result (the Quavers, "Money Money"; Kwamalah Quaye Sexteto Africana, "Son of Africa"; Fela Ransome-Kuti & the Highlife Rakers, "Aigana") *

September 25, 2015

Link: Chance the Rapper and Friends Count Their Blessings: Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment / Paris / STS X RJD2 / Akrobatik / P.K. (Park Kultury) / Public Enemy

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment: Surf (free) At a moment when conscious rap has never had more reason to be militant, Chance the Rapper, his man with a horn, and friends near and far count their blessings, to borrow an idiom one Saba invokes immediately before his uncle on house arrest dies in his sleep. Not by chance does Chance lead with one called "Miracle," because the title ain't no joke--the mood does in fact recall the Beach Boys of, say, six months before Pet Sounds and 60 years before Cali turned firetrap. Like Broken Social Scene with more swing and deeper soul, most of these young adults are making decent livings making good music, quite a few are better off than that, and all of them are so glad about it they infuse even their warnings about open windows and Migos videos with an airy lyricism that evokes Digable Planets, PM Dawn, and Jon Hassell himself. This is an album where Big Sean and B.o.B. reflect separately and ruefully on their high school careers, where Erykah Badu plays den mother and sage, where Bustah Rhymes figures "This whole planet belongs to me/We all feel the same so it belongs to we," where I haven't even mentioned the should-be hit. It's called "Sunday Candy" and it comes at the end. A

Paris: Pistol Politics (Guerrilla Funk) The Bush killa switched from rapper to stockbroker circa Y2K, made a modest fortune, then returned to music self-financed and angrier than ever. America? "We lead the world in only three categories-number of characters locked up, number of grown folks who believe angels are real, and defense spending." Obama? "They hate 'cause he black. We hate 'cause he wrong." And those are mere cappers. Like Boots Riley, Paris rhymes over the kind of old-fashioned funk favored in the East Bay from Too Short to Lyrics Born, inveighing knowledgeably for an hour and a half against the capitalism he knows so well as he drops his own brand of street science-try "Side Effect," about thugging without health insurance, "Murder Suit," about funeral wear, "Truce Music," about ending hostilities best redirected, "Bring That Slap Back," about armed self-defense. Of course I don't "agree" with everything he says. Do I "agree" with Lil Wayne? Anyway, usually I do. A MINUS

STS X RJD2: STS X RJD2 (RJ's Electrical Connections) Consciously good-humored Atlanta-to-Philly Sugar Tongue Slim cajoles seriously conscious Philly beatmaker ("Hold On, Here It Go," "Do It Right") ***

Akrobatik: Built to Last (Playaktion) Nice guy almost dies, lives to rap about it ("Alive," "Let's Keep It Goin'") **

P.K. (Park Kultury): Get Lost (H.S.I.) Screwed-and-chopped the natural way-they rap in Russian ("True La La," "Boss Obama") **

Public Enemy: Man Plans God Laughs (Spitdigital) Pained, somewhat congealed, they soldier on ("Give Peace a Damn," "Mine Again") *

Noisey, September 2015

August 2015 October 2015