Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: January 2016

January 1, 2016

Link: Ladies First: Lana Del Rey / Jazmine Sullivan / Halsey / Carly Rae Jepsen / Adele / Madonna

Lana Del Rey: Honeymoon (Polydor/Interscope) Presumably anybody who thinks her shtick has stagnated is too embarrassed to pay attention, because without doubt it's evolved. Subtly, OK, but the slowing tempos at least are hard to miss, and they go with the subtle part: the changing ways she's portrayed both herself and the objects of her affection over the past four years. Initially she enacted rockish boy-toy masochism--a pretty girl who got wet for an entire casting call of rough trade sugar daddies. But the third album of her tuneful, bonus-studded catalogue stars the torchy femme fatale who always lurked underneath, and by now half the objects of her exploitation are pretty clearly jerks. Born-to-lie Mr. Born to Lose is a game to her--she never bought into his bullshit. "Salvatore," who could be based on her real-life Italian boyfriend for all I know, is auto-crooned so close to the edge of parody I wish she'd figured out how to sneak in the moon hitting her eye like a big pizza pie. But the biggest breakthrough is Lana herself on "God Knows I Tried," where the artist born Lizzy Grant cops to her real-life fame and interrupts the come-ons to swear, "I feel free when I see no one." You never know--this dame might write a love song we can believe in someday. "Freak" and "Blackest Day" come fairly close. A MINUS

Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA) No one in r&b tells stories like Sullivan, and not just because no one in r&b tells stories at all anymore. Shouting, crooning, or oversharing, she's not some fake-or-not gangsta moll, though once she carries a .45 in her Louis Vuitton because that's how "#Hoodlove" rolls. Other personas include a club moll paying the rent with her prosthetic ass, a jobseeker turned stickup kid, a Mona Lisa, a junkie, and a gal smart enough to polish up a Babyface hook for the love of her life (she wishes). In one song Meek Mill is "dumb." In another Jazmine is "stupid." In a third she'll settle for a man who'll take a bitch to dinner. A MINUS

Halsey: Badlands (Astralwerks) In the old days, the classified would have read something like: "Lyrics-first tri-bi adventuress seeks musical partners for almost famous sex success." In the new world, she's a 21-year-old Tumblr sensation with 1M followers on Twitter, where she announced her attainment of that Instagram goal months ago. Logocentric cuss that I am, I'm not "on" Instagram, but recommend Googling her Buzzfeed-curated Instagram top 25. I bought her physical album after vetting the MP3s on my Sansa player; at Best Buy, where most of the exploitees in attendance barely know what a compact disc is, my young African-American hostess led me right to it. I congratulate the former Ashley Frangipane on musical sex partners much livelier than Lorde's. In the track I'm feeling, she kisses one as they ride to Queens. A MINUS

Lana Del Rey: Ultraviolence (Polydor/Interscope) Self-made sad girl celebrates self-caricaturing sex appeal of self-fulfilling bad love. ("Cruel World," "Ultraviolence") ***

Carly Rae Jepsen: Emotion (Schoolboy/Interscope) 30-year-old Canadian idol retrofits as sexy-bubbly teen in combination star bid, art project, and escape from reality. ("I Really Like You," "Gimmie Love") ***

Adele: 25 (XL/Columbia) Warm, thoughtful human being bestows a voice capable of enlarging those virtues without melodrama--without boatloads of melodrama, anyway. ("Hello," "Million Years Ago") **

Madonna: Rebel Heart (Deluxe) (Interscope) I grant her this--when she promises me my "best night," I still wonder exactly what she has in mind. ("Bitch I'm Madonna," "Best Night") *

January 8, 2016

Link: Up the Alt: Speedy Ortiz / Foxymorons / Ought / Lord Huron / Beach House / Low Cut Connie

Speedy Ortiz: Foil Deer (Carpark) I've always liked the nice Bettie Serveert catch in Sadie Dupuis's voice and the strange tunes that go with it. But as someone who prefers lyrics to poetry and is positive there's a difference, I don't find her MFA in the latter an attraction. In fact, I liked her first album enough as music that I only put it away when I got annoyed by its obscurantism. The follow-up's more legible--"We were the French club dropouts," tell it sister, though that one's a bit of an outlier. Even if it wasn't, however, I would have compromised my principles, because on the follow-up I love the even nicer Bettie Serveert catch in Sadie Dupuis's voice and the stranger tunes that go with that. And since I also love the guitars, I was intrigued to learn that tourmate guitarist Devin McKnight has replaced original guitarist Matt Robidoux. Dupuis does all the writing and most of the lead parts. But watch a little YouTube and you'll see--McKnight's a major improvement. A MINUS

Foxymorons: Fake Yoga (Foxyphonic) On their fifth album in 21 years, two Dallas pop-punk hobbyists and/or perfectionists attain the pop-punk grail: 10 tough, catchy, ebullient, stealth-strange songs in 32 minutes, dudless unless you count the dirgey change-of-pace novelty "The People" and fast unless you refuse to accept the closer for the summum it is. Summumming what exactly I cannot say, although such topics as the rewards of sentience, cherry lips in a permanent frown, drugs and hugs, and pop-punk nerds bullied on the schoolbus definitely arise. What signifies is that tunes abound, as do musical jokes. Let's just figure out what it all means when they do it again. A MINUS

Ought: Sun Coming Down (Constellation) Three Americans and an Australian escaped to Canada for its moderate tuition and patina of rationalism, they're regularly compared to the Fall and early Sonic Youth but are wound tighter than either. Philosophically they recall the less frenetic hardcore bands--personal anxiety due to or is it just expressed as anti-conformist alienation. Tim Darcy fuses the detachment of a lecturer with the morality of a prophet, and the constriction and unresolved tension of the music justifies his white-boy mindset better than straight punk would. Think early Talking Heads without a hint of David Byrne's leaping weirdness. Hope they're wrong about the future while admitting they could be right. A MINUS

Lord Huron: Strange Trails (IAmSound) Repurposing sonics from Buddy Holly and Workingman's Dead, this beguilingly melodic and cheerful-sounding record is about love and death at the end of the world--a world that for metaphorical purposes is barely settled woods and wilderness without a trace of the urban jangle and connected chaos that drive so many under-30s to distraction. The idea being that even without that postmodern stuff bearing down, life'll get you good, although sometimes they confuse life with pretty girls who don't work out because they're devilish or full of fate. But assuming the urban jangle doesn't spiral out of control, they could beat this thing yet. That's why they bother with the tunes. B PLUS

Beach House: Depression Cherry (Sub Pop) Some lyrics are hard to ignore, others hard not to ignore, so file this with Clams Casino and pull it out when you're in the mood for background music with a saccharine soprano flavor--which has its uses ("Levitation," "Sparks") **

Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars (Sub Pop download) Seldom in the annals of marginal differentiation has so much been made of so little as with the near-simultaneous release of two certifiably different yet obviously similar albums by the alt-pretty snoozemeisters ("Elegy to the Void," "Somewhere Tonight") **

Low Cut Connie: Hi Honey (Contender) Song band turns groove band, not necessarily on purpose ("Danny's Outta Money," "Little Queen of New Orleans") **

Speedy Ortiz: Major Arcana (Carpark) Plowing past the fun, but never quite plowing it under ("Fun," "Plough") *

January 15, 2016

Link: Music Meets Comedy: Childbirth / Lil Dicky

Childbirth: Women's Rights (Suicide Squeeze) Feminist jokes over punk-rock thrash--fun though it undeniably is, it sounds suspiciously easy and unmusical until you compare the debut, which is both. This thrash is committed as well as pragmaticlly tuneful in the punk-rock manner. And these jokes are something else--insulting, embarrassing, pansexual, post-generational, and pointedly un-P.C. Subjects include bad hygiene, rich tech guys, Tinder, Best Coast, permissive parenting, exploitative parenting, teen angst, bi-curious etiquette, cocaine at a baby shower, and getting pregnant all the time. When Universal Republic assembles the deluxe edition, I fervently suggest the bonus tracks include the debut's "How Do Girls Even Do It" and "I Only Fucked You as a Joke." That'll take care of that. A MINUS

Lil Dicky: Professional Rapper (Lil Dicky) Two major negatives: David Burd has zero-to-crap politics despite the liberal parents who wish he'd stuck with the ad agency, as documented by "Oh Well," and he can't sing, as documented by many assiduously Auto-Tuned singsongs. But that's the way most rappers sing, and he has learned to rap, as documented by how deftly this born comedian holds his own against Snoop Dogg in the opener, pitching hip-hop's underexploited little-bitch market with rhymes of true wit, speed, articulation, and rhythmic panache. As a born comedian, he of course risks offending, but there's plenty of cultural resonance on this double-disc official debut, especially as regards sex, about which it is detailed and proudly self-deprecating. As Lil Dicky's rap career progresses along with the album's narrative, the word "girl" fades as "bitch" asserts itself, and I believe he knows it, though not that he regards "woman" as an alternative. But he never gets to "hoe," and throughout there are individual females in the relationships he details so loquaciously. "White Crime" is borderline offensive, "$ave Dat Money" no-holds-barred cheap. His parents' cameos are no-holds-barred droll. His reflections on the contradictions of his career path are smarter than he'll ever get credit for. A MINUS

January 22, 2016

Link: A Blast From the Balkans: Tarad de Ha´douks / New York Gypsy All Stars / Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra / This Way to the Egress / Asphalt Orchestra

Taraf de Ha´douks: Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts (Crammed Discs) A great band, I'm beginning to think, regroups for the 25th anniversary of its formalization by gadje record men in the blessed Romanian mountain village of Clejani. Where the "second generation" of their Andalusian opposite numbers the Gipsy Kings proved even more anodyne than the first, this aggregation hasn't lost a wink or a flourish even though its eldest generation has died off. I wish I could tell you who takes the first violin break on their old "Clejani Love Song," a 20-second countermelody that sums up their collective pizzazz so irresistibly that all three violinists join in when it comes around again, and again, only to change it up around the seven-minute mark, and that ain't all--the track clocks in at 11:11. Most of the 13 songs are briefer, but their immersion in tradition never reins them in. The male voices are somewhat less grizzled, but you know they'll roughen too. And then there's soprano Viorica Rudareasa, who adds a welcome female principle to this highly masculine posse. Sweet she's not--too much sob and swagger there. Anodyne she's definitely not. A MINUS

New York Gypsy All Stars: Romantech (Traditional Crossroads) Released late 2011, this debut by a post-Balkan quintet built around Macedonian-born clarinet genius Ismael Lumanovski and knocked around by irrepressible Berklee-trained Turkish drummer Engin Kaan Gunaydin lags after a strong start and then races to the finish line for 25 minutes or so. Not that it's always speedy--"Outcry" adds some gravity just when it's needed. But the closing "EZ-Pass" definitely makes a beeline for the no cash lane. B PLUS

New York Gypsy All Stars: Dromomania (self-released) Maintaining a nice intensity for most of its first half and settling into a lyricism that flirts likably with cheese after that, this is the showcase Ismael Lumanovski deserves--or would be if it made room for one of the Eric Dolphy homages I heard him unfurl as a fledgling ten years ago. Tamar Pinarbasi has guitar moments on a cymbalon-looking zither called the qanum. Engin Kaan Gunaydin impresses more subtly because he has fewer holes to fill. "Catch" isn't the only catchy one. "Melandia" isn't either. Like most indigenous styles, Gypsy music risks identity when it aims to please. This is too self-assured for that. A MINUS

Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra: Gipsy Manifesto (Piranha) Adding "guitar, accordion, piano and drum kit, giving a decidedly contemporary sound that's both danceable and radio-friendly"--in other words, completing their evolution into a damn fine tourist band ("Caje Sukarije (Beautiful Girl)," "Zivot Cigana (Whistle)") ***

This Way to the Egress: Great Balancing Act (self-released) Gogol Bordello as novelty act, albeit novelty act about our approaching doom ("Earworm," "Lucy") **

Asphalt Orchestra: Asphalt Orchestra (Cantaloupe) Avant-garde brass band covers Mingus and Zappa, Swedish metal and Icelandic songbird, commissions from Battles, Stew, and, hmm, non-Roma Roma appropriator Goran Bregovic (who might be worth a concept album, fellas) ("Zomby Woof," "Champagne") **

January 29, 2016

Link: Box Set Bonanza: The Velvet Underground / Jon Savage's 1966 / The Rolling Stones / Bob Dylan

The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes (UMe) Four hour-plus CDs, 42 tracks, 20 discrete songs, zero new material, $29.95 list, and when "Venus in Furs" followed "The Black Angel's Death Song" mid-Set One I decided I could happily live out my allotted years without ever hearing either again. But I was wrong. Sonically these four discs comprise the classic Velvets' strongest live recordings. The performances are lively, varied, and engaged, and there's a perverse pleasure in hearing Lou Reed keep the poetry prosaic and crack wise about his bummers before tiny crowds in a San Francisco more post-utopian than it was ready to admit. Although the Velvets had been playing Marty Balin's club off and on for a month, they seem more assured the second night, Thanksgiving 1969. Set Three ends with a "Sister Ray" played as a 37-minute urban slow jam no less hypnotic than a Grateful Dead blues-and-bluegrass trip. Set Four ends with "Sweet Jane." A MINUS

Jon Savage's 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded (Ace) There's not much flow to this chronologically arranged 48-song soundtrack of the year the '60s became the '60s, which was also the year Sex Pistols' biographer and Teenage theorist Savage turned 13 while glued to pirate radio in London. But there wasn't much flow to turning on the radio anywhere that year--just wonderment, exhilaration, the "Kicks" Paul Revere and the Raiders claimed were "getting harder to find." That may be why they didn't make Savage's cut, but the main reason was the competition--there are only two number ones here, but beyond a few instrumentals most of the 20 or so singles Yank me didn't recall are pretty kicky, including a spooky Seeds B-side, a Kim Fowley freak-out, and an R&B hit joking about the draft. My sole cavil is why in hell opt for the B-side of Joe Tex's magnificent "I Believe I'm Gonna Make It," in which an R&B draftee ain't no joke: "I raised up and got me two more enemies"? Note, however, that my sentimental fave here isn't on the condensed version Ace provided Spotify: Norma Tanega's loopy hippie fable "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog." Find it on YouTube, like, now. Or better still, buy this thing. A MINUS

The Rolling Stones: Brussels Affair (Live 1973) (Rolling Stones) The rare arena-rock recording that does justice to the subgenre's power dwarfs their 1971 Marquee Club vault-pull while making a case for the excision of "Midnight Rambler" and "Brown Sugar" from their A list ("Happy," "Starfucker") **

Bob Dylan: 1965-1966: The Best of the Cutting Edge (Columbia) Scoff at Bootleg Series hype though you may (and should), you'll want to check and recheck Vol. 12's outtakes from his most amped-up period, only to conclude that the standard versions rool every goddamn time pre-Blonde on Blonde, when slowing it down a little turned out to have its downside ("Visions of Johanna," "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat") *

Noisey, January 2016

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