Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2016

February 5, 2016

Link: Singer-Songwriters Endure: Robert Forster / Eszter Balint / Father John Misty / Thomas Anderson / Steve Martin & Edie Brickell / Donnie Fritts / Stephen Kellogg

Robert Forster: Songs to Play (Tapete) Subtlety isn't exactly an aesthetic choice for the other Go-Between. It's his destiny, imposed by his limitations as both singer and tunesmith. But in his first album in seven years he's clearly tailoring lyrics to that destiny, and that is an aesthetic choice, apt and sometimes droll but also limiting. It works best on "A Poet Walks," where the artist's ordinary stroll through the city doing ordinary things that make him better than you is accessorized with mariachi el-toro trumpet at the close, and "And I Knew," about the love he was certain destiny would impart if he undertook to travel 10,000 miles and wait till it happened--the last quarter of which repeats the phrase "and I knew" over and over (and over). A part of me wishes that coup was catchier, although I've definitely adjusted. The same part insists that I reveal the title of the catchiest track by far: "I Love Myself (And I Always Have)." A MINUS

Eszter Balint: Airless Midnight (Red Herring) A Hungarian-born Squat Theatre alumna who once upon a time landed a money gig playing Louis C.K.'s love interest emanates the flintiest songs of 2015. A son is killed after his mother curses out his guards. The fun of tonighting it is over by 2 a.m. but tonight isn't. A mother calls her daughter at 3 AM and can't think of anything to say. A mad old geezer finally dies at 63. The plane lifts off and finally our antiheroine feels alive. Marc Ribot, JD Foster, etc. keep it terse. Balint barely emotes at all. A MINUS

Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop) Whether the character of the conflicted lifemate is the "real" Josh Tillman, as we are assured, or a subtle fictionalization, as is my default assumption, quality time is not much in him ("I Love You Honeybear," "Strange Encounters") ***

Thomas Anderson: Heaven (Out There) Thirteen songs about dead people and the strophic muse ("Arguing With the Dead," "Dolceola Glory," "Sheb Wooley Dies in Oklahoma") ***

Steve Martin & Edie Brickell: So Familiar (Rounder) Hobbyists with serious chops, resumes, and things to do put their love and skill sets into the best songs they can come up with ("So Familiar," "Won't Go Back") *

Donnie Fritts: Oh My Goodness (Single Lock) Hither-and-yon Memphian who helped write Dusty's "Breakfast in Bed" sings his seventies in other people's well-chosen words ("Errol Flynn," "Temporarily Forever Mine") *

Stephen Kellogg: Blunderstone Rookery (Fat Sam/Elm City) Indie-Americana journeyman wonders why bother, keeps on going ("The Brain Is a Beautiful Thing," "I Don't Want to Die on the Road") *

February 12, 2016

Link: Post-Punk Springs Eternal: Colleen Green / Shopping / Wetdog / All Dogs / Sheer Mag

Colleen Green: I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art) Sad girls have never been my thing--better post-sad, all angry and sarcastic and breaking on through. But in the wake of 2013's slow, hung-up Sock It to Me, I like the way this clinical depressive assumes agency by asking the musical question, "Why do I feel so sorry for myself?" Recovering or regressing, she's so direct, so candid, so saturated with therapeutic truisms whose truth value only a guy she's better off without would deny. And as a consequence her self-examination is captivating. The music plods steadily forward, her quiet, thoughtful, girlish soprano beefed up by her loud, straightforward, unvirtuosic guitar and solid two-piece backup. The tunes are singsong things suitable to confessions like "Because I'm sick of being immature / I wanna be responsible / And I'm sick of being insecure / I wanna be more comfortable." The one stunner is the six-minute "Deeper Than Love," which begins: "Someday I hope for a lover to kill me / It's the closest I can hope to get to anybody." But from "TV is my friend" to "I can't stop grinding my teeth," there's plenty nondepressives should know here, and the music delivers it. A MINUS

Shopping: Consumer Complaints (Milk) Because I really like this ridiculously sharp U.K. three-piece, I wish I could tell you that one of their little albums is markedly more desirable than the other. But although they aren't indistinguishable, they are pretty much interchangeable. Both ride full-bodied vocalist-guitarist Rachel Aggs, and both are driven by no-nonsense drummer Andrew Milk and supple bassist Billy Easter. The sound is early-postpunk, Gang of Four times Delta 5--nicely retro-purist if you carry those bands in your memory, fresh and spare if you don't. But the minimalist dexterity of Aggs's guitar flows more irresistibly than either. On both sub-40-minute albums I find my attention flagging as I approach the 30-minute mark even though both sound fine when I begin there and both end with nifty songs--on this 2013 debut, "Theme," the only time they actually address the consumerism you're half afraid a band called Shopping will go on about. Ever alert for a joke, I'm also a fan of the 1:26 opener "Any Answers." Consumer alert: vinyl and DL only. A MINUS

Shopping: Why Choose? (FatCat) I guess you could say their only CD is even suppler--you can tell they've been woodshedding. Their distinction between time wasted, which is yours, and time lost, which the bad guys have stolen from you, qualifies "Time Wasted" as a welcome apercu from a band who have to keep explaining they're not really political because their fan base misses the Gang of Four even more after hearing 2015's What Happens Next. Their fan base's Delta 5 contingent should ask whether the slightly more femme-sounding Billy Easter ever takes the lead on the de facto breakup sequence that begins at the flagging point with "Sinking Feeling," because she should and I'm pretty sure doesn't. Everyone should stick around for the abstract closer "12345," which Spotify reports is their least played track and I report is their most fetching. A MINUS

Wetdog: Frauhaus! (Captured Tracks) On their 2009 debut, before Billy Easter got distracted, her frisky girlpunk band honors several girlpunk foremothers, most auspiciously Kleenex ("Lower Leg," "Wymmin's Final") ***

All Dogs: Kicking Every Day (Salinas) There's no knowing yet how many proudly vulnerable folk-grunge girls we want telling the world their problems--and their strengths ("That Kind of Girl," "Ophelia," "Black Hole") **

Sheer Mag: II 7" (Wilsuns RC/Katorga Works) Philly quartet with shrieky woman on top do indeed convert Skynyrd's "Gimme Two Steps" into their own "Fan the Flames," but I say they're headed for a Real Album and predict the remake will rock ("Fan the Flames," "Button Up") **

February 19, 2016

Link: Poets, Playwrights, and Pranksters: Hamilton / Saul Williams / Peaceful Solutions

Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Atlantic) To get value from these 142 minutes of audible libretto you must first--this is essential--buy the physical, a double-wide double-CD redolent of the early jewelbox era. Next, play both discs casually a few times, resisting the temptation to snort "This is 'rap'?" Then reserve a few hours and replay it in its entirety while following every word in booklets so cunningly designed you always know who's saying what. If after that you're not taken with how skillfully Lin-Manuel Miranda compresses 30 years of history, sell the thing--it does hog shelf space. Me, I was so gobsmacked I can now hear past its musical peculiarities. Not only isn't this hip-hop, it isn't pop, and not just because the tunes are vestigial. It's theater music in which almost everything is sung and even the spoken parts come with music, like recitative in opera. So naturally the singers are theater singers. They enunciate, hit the notes, act a little. But starting with Manuel in the title role, they don't command the sonic singularities with which pop stars beat off the competition, nor stand out like Gypsy's brassy Ethel Merman or South Pacific tomboy Mary Martin. I can't vouch for the civics-class democracy of Miranda's historical vision and, despite the digs at Jefferson and the nice plays on immigration, find him too subtle as regards slavery. (Nontrivial factoid: both Hamilton and his deadly rival Burr belonged to the New York Manumission Society.) But I can attest that the intrinsic intellectual interest he powers up here is so impressive it's exciting. And I can also report a surprising emotional bonus: two songs about love and death--"Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" and, even better, the agonized, atypically melodic "It's Quiet Uptown"--that make me tear up a little. Which only happened, to repeat, because I'd read along for two and a half hours. A

Saul Williams: Martyr Loser King (Fader) After undermining a decade of honorable leftwing slam-rap with one of the most joyless pop sellouts in the annals of musical poesy (what? you missed Volcanic Sunlight?), Williams grabs some beats from rapper-turned-rocker Justin Warfield and justifies a lifetime of well-intentioned hype. Where political rage has a way of turning musical headache even when it's as informed and focused as Williams's is, here it's a show of power. Income inequality as death dance; Black Lives Matter as African chant; coltan as cotton as the new slavery. The guy's very nearly in a class with Linton Kwesi Johnson, the most politically astute beatwise songpoet ever. Mantras like "down for some ignorance," "fuck you understand me," and "hacker in your hardrive" have teeth. And "Think Like They Book Say" is warmer than anything on the sellout because it's hot not for love or even sex but for logic--the logic, and hence the politics, of the transsexual option. A MINUS

Peaceful Solutions: Barter 7 (self-released) Stoner alt-rap from Wesleyan and Das Racist graduate Kool A.D., who in late November also posted O.K., a 100-track pay-what-you-want Bandcamp mixtape I wish he'd fucking "curate" and haven't found time for, although for research's sake I enjoyed the seven-minute "Alice Coltrane" OK. With affable sidekick Kassa Overall making it a duo, this August release is somewhat more . . . can I say finished? Nah. Passage taken half at random over an undeveloped loop from the by no means focus track (whatever that would mean with these jokers) "Hot Negro Pause": "Shit that/Huh/It's that shit that/It's that shit that/Make you slip all of the clips out the guns though/Sippin on a Cris but not the racist champagne the Cuban beer/So y'all can know it's a real Cuban here/Happy Nubian New Year." And it goes on, affably and much more than passably. I've never been much of a pothead. But Victor Vazquez's goofily utopian, politically hip benevolence makes more of weed than Jerry Rubin or Dr. Chronic ever did. He's an escape and a comfort, and I wish him enough money to live on. Curated Verse: "Plus green energy/Clean green energy/No frackin' or dependence on foreign oil/Uh tamales in corn husks no foil/Uh cut the billions allotted to military spending and put that shit into education/But save me one spaceship just in case man." A MINUS

February 26, 2016

Link: G.O.O.D. Music Abounds: Kanye West / Pusha T / Lil Wayne / Compton / Travis Scott

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music) In this ever-changing world in which we live in, I can't swear my 18-track DL is the same as yours, and should there materialize a CD with a pretty cover and a credits booklet, I will buy one with my own money. But for all the chatter about this hypefest's mutability, I doubt any "final" will be different enough to merit a second review. I just don't have time to untangle West's "creative process" with so many lesser artists' creative products ready to go, and neither do you. C'mon--his genius isn't about his famous fame or his stalled fashion sideline. His genius is musical--production chops above all, plus the flow fools once mocked. And musically, The Life of Pablo is a backslid Christian's anti-Yeezus. Dark Twisted Fantasy's synesthetic layering subsumed 808s's electropop miniaturism enabled Watch the Throne's coronation boomeranged to the sacriligeous provocation my man Big Ghost summed up as "I KNOW YALL LOVE TURKEY BUT YALL EVER TRIED MONGOOSE?" The Life of Pablo is turkey--West's latest course correction, wittingly casual and easy on the ears. Unlike Yeezus, it won't top many 2016 lists--it's too blatantly imperfect, too flagrantly unfocused. But that's also its charm, and I prefer it. The opening parlay of "I'm tryna keep my faith" and "Same problem my father had" hints at contrition. Hedged hedges distance-or-don't the porn boasts he can't kick. His kids breach the narrative like that uppity Blue. His sweetest hook tops Bajan superstar with Jamaican sister. Kendrick gets his chance to bookend Chance and all but falls down. The pseudo-freestyle meta-wink "I Love Kanye" is a narcissist's "We Don't Care" and almost as funny. The sour-grapes self-examination morphs into a pseudo-outlet track. So right, there's a lot here. But right, it's no masterpiece. Get over it. It'll do you good. A MINUS

Pusha T: My Name Is My Name (Def Jam) The enduring artistic value of Pusha's clipped flow is how masterfully it evokes what Caucasians call a prick. There's no romance in his dope tales, no pleasure either. Where long ago Kelefa Sanneh observed that Jay-Z never told us how the champagne tasted, King All-I-Can-Be never drives the cars he treats better than his hoes. This is what ruthless acquisitiveness sounds like. To reduce it to music is a true achievement. But ask yourself whether it's what you want. Don't lie now. A MINUS

Lil Wayne: No Ceilings 2 (Free DatPiff download) Saith Big Ghost: "Ayo I aint got nothin against Wayne but his crew is some garbage niggaz nahmean. That aint a dynasty or nothin nahmean. Thats a crew wit like 10 Memphis Bleeks namsayin." ("My Name Is," "Big Wings") ***

Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre (Aftermath/Interscope) So many guests Dre spends half the record off the mic, improving it immeasurably. ("Genocide," "Animals") **

Pusha T: King Push: Darkest Before Dawn--The Prelude (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music) Well-bent Timbeats back the usual easy coca lies/hard coca truths and are docked a notch for arrogating Freddie Gray and Public Enemy into the kind of protest rap I thought he was too real for. ("Crutches, Crosses, Caskets," "Retribution") *

Travis Scott: Rodeo (Epic/Grand Hustle) I await the blessed day when Vincent Vazquez or Angel Del Villar II taps this wellspring of comfy hooks in the service of a rhyme about butter almond ice cream or improving our city parks. ("90210," "3500") *

Noisey, February 2016

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