Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2016

April 1, 2016

Link: Roots Rock Rebels: Robbie Fulks / Waco Brothers / The Mekons / Richard Buckner & Jon Langford

Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories (Bloodshot) On his second straight "folk" or even, oh Lordy, "Americana" album, you can tell the producer is once again, oh Lordy, Steve Albini, not just because five tracks have drums on them but because those drums signify tougher arrangements in general. The approach remains quiet, thoughtful--"Needed," the pocket autobiography of a horny youth turned corny man that's the best song Fulks ever wrote, travels on a single voice and two guitars. But note that the only time the album hauls out one of those reassuring finger-picking jams is also the only time it turns comic--the no-sex-please-we're-country "Aunt Peg's New Old Man," an old man who wields his long bow to show his nephew-in-law's Scruggs banjo how music's s'posed to sound. Elsewhere the m.o. is subtler. Hear how Brazilian viola textures the unresolved James Agee tribute "Alabama at Night," how "Baby Rocked Her Dolly" deploys six pieces to evoke a lonely widower reminiscing in his "old folks home," how Jenny Scheinman's fiddle underlines the adjective in "America Is a Hard Religion." The nearest thing to a throwaway is "Sweet as Sweet Comes." Bass and organ provide all the weight it needs. A

The Waco Brothers: Going Down in History (Bloodshot) Ten songs in half an hour with little to distinguish them formally or harmonically but plenty emotionally. Jonny Langford and Deano Schlabowske are so fervently acerbic that it doesn't matter much that the full lyrics of "Lucky Fool" and "Going Down in History" don't deliver on their titles the way "Building Our Own Prison" and "DIYBYOB" do. And the playing packs the kind of conviction you expect of college kids who've just figured out that straight rock and roll can take you out of yourself when you really truly feel the need--and really truly bang away at it. "This is the first track of the last album," Deano begins, sounding like he wants never to stop. But half an hour later, he does. For the time being. A MINUS

Robbie Fulks: Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot '13) Lest you suspect that Fulks has fallen victim to loser mythology, "Where I Fell" at track two leads to "That's Where I'm From" at track four. First one's a politico-economically sapient tale of drinking won't kill you and rust never sleeps, the second the reflections of a night-school whiz who's climbed from dirt roads and double-wides to two cars and a picket fence--he's sure he did right, proud even, but he also has regrets. You think maybe Luke Bryan would cover this diptych? How about either half of it? Me neither. Oh well--Fulks sings better than Bryan anyway. A MINUS

The Mekons and Robbie Fulks: Jura (Bloodshot) Recorded on the Scottish title island for Record Store Black Friday with jaunty pessimist Fulks sitting in for heroic depressive Tom Greenhalgh, this sold out pronto and is now download-only. Although Fulks fits in, Greenhalgh is missed, and from Rico Bell's resigned "Reason walks with rabid dogs gnawing at its hands" to Sally Timms's dolorous "But he can't have a harboring here," the performances lack the full-bore joy-in-bitterness their cult fetishizes vinyl for. Yet in the end, it is a Mekons record. It's been quite a long time since that wasn't enough. A MINUS

The Waco Brothers: Cabaret Showtime (Bloodshot) Live covers of rough-cut country chestnuts of varying sheen, plus, er, a Jimmy Reed, a Pink Floyd, two T. Rexes, and a narsty Christmas ditty of their own devising ("Merry Xmas to Me," "20th Century Boy") ***

Robbie Fulks: Revenge! (Yep Roc '07) "Springfield, Salt Lake, Champaign-Urbana/Farmer City, Fairbanks, Gary Indiana/West to east Portland all across the land/We're never home. We're gone. What is it that we're on?/We're on the road" ("The Cigarette State," "The Buck Starts Here") **

Richard Buckner & Jon Langford: Sir Dark Invader vs. the Fanglord (Buried Treasure '05) Langford kids Buckner into taking it easy, which for Buckner is a species of grace, and takes it easy himself to be a good sport, which for him is a kind of slackness ("The Inca Princess," "Nothing to Show") *

Robbie Fulks: Happy (Boondoggle '10) Michael Jackson covers front to back, and why the hell not, but n.b.--the tribute comes easier when he isn't compelled to negotiate the funk ("The Girl Is Mine," "Mama's Pearl") *

April 8, 2016

Link: Southern Blues Bonanaza: Blind Willie Johnson / God Don't Ever Change / The Rough Guide to the Blues Songsters/Bottleneck Blues / Jane Voss & Hoyle Osborne / Otis Taylor / Toronzo Cannon / Blues Images Presents / Charlie McCoy

Blind Willie Johnson: The Rough Guide to Blind Willie Johnson (World Music Network) All of Johnson's 30 recordings are on Columbia/Legacy's The Complete Blind Willie Johnson double, the sorely missed "Praise God I'm Satisfied" included. This remaster quiets considerable surface noise without much enhancing the size of a voice that's not merely gravelly--more like a bass gargling with actual pebbles. Yet there are reasons for a newcomer to opt for it. Johnson wasn't such a songbag that you need more than the 22 tracks that fit on one CD. Moreover, Rough Guide provides a "Gospel Blues Legends album" bonus disc--a catchall that includes such sinners as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bukka White, Skip James, and Barbecue Bob in Sunday-morning mode as well as specialists in God's guitar like the Reverend Gary Davis and the philosophical Washington Phillips, whose magic zither tune "Denomination Blues" provides a doxology: "It's right to stand together, it's wrong to stand apart / 'Cause none's gonna enter but the pure in heart / And that's all, now I tell you that's all / But you better have Jesus now, I tell you that's all." A

God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson (Alligator) We hear Johnson less as a singer of songs than as a primal force: gruff roar softened slightly by female backup overwhelming resonant bottleneck to honor a merciful God who had damn well better be strong enough to get us out of a damn hard world. So one advantage of this tribute album is that the vocalists foreground the lyrics. Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams get two songs apiece, and although they will no doubt be accused of oversinging as if this isn't Johnson the exaggerator already, Waits's opening "The Soul of a Man" and Williams's "God Don't Never Change" are milestone performances and the other two rock. Almost as impressive is how confidently and conceptually lesser honorees Sinead O'Connor, Susan Tedeschi, Margo Timmins, and Maria McKee put their songs across. All women, notice--Luther Dickinson fares less well, although not as ruinously as Rickie Lee Jones, whose affected croak wrecks "Dark Was the Night--Cold Was the Ground," which Johnson recorded guitar-only. Crucially, each performs with her or his own band. And then there are the only black performers here, the eternal Blind Boys of Alabama, who amid all the bellowing and emoting deliver "Motherless Children" as if thanking God for getting that hellhound off their trail a long long time ago. A MINUS

The Rough Guide to the Blues Songsters (World Music Network) Take the notes' terminological drift as a sign. I'd say the greatest "songster" we know of is Lead Belly, who had 500 tunes of every sort on instant recall yet is referred to here as a "legendary bluesman." "Songsters" are distinguished from "bluesmen" mainly because (12-bar except when they're not) "blues" are supposed to be the "art" spawned by the "entertainment" of itinerants like the paradigmatic Henry Thomas, born in Texas in 1874 and famed for "Fishing Blues" although here doing the less lively "Don't Leave Me Here." But however we categorize it, Thomas's track is worth hearing, as is almost everything else, because what sets these 24 selections apart isn't so much stories worth telling as tunes good to hear. From Charley Patton and John Hurt, canonical Mississippi bluesmen even if Patton was too old and Hurt too agreeable to always follow form, to Louie Laskey and Simmie Dooley, who survive as names on the labels of rare 78s, they are all entertainers. There are jug bands here, and two white coal miners from West Virginia, one of them Dick Justice, whose straight cover of Luke Jordan's "Cocaine" tops Jordan's CD-opening "Pick Poor Robin Clean." And best of all is a canonical classic: Rabbit Brown's 12-bar wonder "James Alley Blues." I'd cap this by quoting its final aab. But better you just go hear it. A MINUS

Jane Voss & Hoyle Osborne: Never No More Blues (Ripple) Veteran folkie adds period pop to Bessie-Jimmie-etc., a welcome move in itself and because it suits her lean voice. ("Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!," "Baby Rose") ***

Otis Taylor: Hey Joe Opus: Red Meat ( Never a tunesmith, always a master of blues atmospherics, he knows just how to deconstruct the folkie-penned sexist classic. ("Hey Joe [B]," "Sunday Morning [A]") ***

The Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues (World Music Network) If you like blues and don't love slide guitar, you probably haven't thought about it enough. (Gus Cannon, "Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home"; Tampa Red, "The Dirty Dozen No. 2"; Bukka White, "Bukka's Jitterbug Swing"; Jim and Bob the Genial Hawaiians, "The Hula Blues") **

Toronzo Cannon: The Chicago Way (Alligator) Bandleading municipal busdriver powers out those licks and writes new words to go with them. ("Mrs. From Mississippi," "Walk It Off") **

Blues Images Presents . . . 20 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's: Vol. 13 (Blues Images) Everyone reports that Hattie Hyde was a woman, including the Memphis Jug Band, but here you may wonder (Jim Jackson, "My Monday Blues"; Hattie Hyde, "Special Question Blues") *

Charlie McCoy: Jackson Stomp: The Charlie McCoy Story (Nehi) Brunswick Records hokum as opposed to Bluebird Records hokum, meaning more country ("Lead Pencil Blues [It Just Won't Write]," "Miss Meal Cramp") *

April 15, 2016

Link: Parquet Courts Are Making Lou Reed Proud: Parquet Courts / The Coathangers / Tacocat / Downtown Boys / Gazebos / Swim Team

Parquet Courts: Human Performance (Rough Trade) Figure the all-jam, all-slack Monastic Living for a metal-machine stumble that sets up this crazy-feeling leap forward--not just driven drones, spare tunes, and catchy sprechgesang, but an album where their art dreams for their straight talk come true. "One Man, No City" really does say something about urban alienation, "Captive of the Sun" about megapolitan avantism, "Steady on My Mind" about long love, "Berlin Got Blurry" about missing someone, "Two Dead Cops" about police brutality, "Paraphrased," I mean it, about signification and its disconnects. Uncle Lou would be so proud. Our little garage punks are growing up. A

The Coathangers: Nosebleed Weekend (Suicide Squeeze) Although they have the balls to open their breakthrough album with the midtempo songpoem "Perfume," this all-woman Atlanta trio are ready to rule American punk, as they proved when they set a roomful of Bushwick coolsters moshing on April Fool's Eve. Live or on record, hoo-hooing guitarist Julia Kugel and gravel-voiced drummer Stephanie Luke are happy to cheerlead a happy mob through three-chord dithyrambs of fury, frustration, and love hard love: "Hiya," "Dumb Baby," "Make It Right," you bet. Of course there are slower ones--even the Ramones did slower ones. "Perfume" could turn into a singalong quick. A MINUS

Tacocat: Lost Time (Hardly Art) There's a clueless bohemian chauvinism about the thematically irregular, melodically irresistible lead single "I Hate the Weekend." I mean, aren't the drunken loudmouths who overrun Emily Nokes's hood--"Got a hall pass from your job / Just to act like a fuckin' slob"--damn near as, well, oppressed as the retail-trade "working stiffs" who bring them their comestibles and consumables? Nor is the X-Files-themed opener exactly cutting-edge. So on what could be the breakout album I'm pretty sure they deserve anyway, the winners are the back-loaded "Talk," with its brooding "stay true to your phone," and "Men Explain Things to Me," which I hope requires no further elucidation. And all the way at the end comes the capper: "Take your time because / It's your time to take / And the values that you want / Are the ones that you create." OK then. A MINUS

Tacocat: NVM (Hardly Art) The way I figure it, a feminist band who write a surfing song about menstruation called "Crimson Wave" and then swap in the alternate joke circumlocution "communists in the summer house" can do no wrong. But that doesn't mean they get everything right. I'd make the hit-to-meh ratio on this 2014 album two-to-one or a little less, and inconveniently, the mehs include the lead "You Never Came Back." Sure shots: "Hey Girl" ("You're just a sweaty jerk"), "F.U. #8" (her ride is late again), and "Psychedelic Quinceañera" (half-Mexican Consuela does 15 her way). A MINUS

Downtown Boys: Full Communism (Don Giovanni) Providence organizer organizes blistering, sax-fed political punk for people who believe Bernie can conjure single payer just by wanting it so much ("Break a Few Eggs," "Poder Elegir," "Dancing in the Dark") *

Gazebos: Die Alone (Hardly Art) Independent women who are getting too old for this shit, and feeling it ("Die Alone," "There Are Worse Things I Could Do") *

Swim Team: Swim Team (Infinity Cat) From the budding alt-rock Athens of Cincinnati, Ohio, three hairy thrash-pop guys help one bebanged post-riot grrrl work out her frustrations ("I'm Fine," "Reanimator") *

April 22, 2016

Link: Covers, Classics, and Tributes: Gary Lucas / The Del McCoury Band / Jimi Hendrix / Loretta Lynn / Willie Nelson

Gary Lucas' Fleischerei Featuring Sarah Stiles: Music From Max Fleischer Cartoons (Cuneiform) The master guitarist's avant-garde playmates have included Stampfel, Pulnoc, Beefheart, the Beefheart repertory band Fast 'N' Bulbous, and bigger weirdos than that. So for him, this re-creation of pre-Code animator Max Fleischer's leggy sexpot-ingenue Betty Boop is a pop move. Lucas ups the musical ante, of course--while respecting the cinematic idiom, his Gibson acoustic and Sesame Street music director Joe Fiedler's trombone prod an active rhythm section as everyone adds more spritz and oomph than would have made sense in a moviehouse. Lucas also plays both a Queens-accented Popeye and a rough-and-gruff Barnacle Bill in the six-minute "Beware of Barnacle Bill" transcription that closes. But the star of the show is Broadway find Sarah Stiles, who adds weight, sass, and flesh-and-blood nuance to the cartoonish squeals of the great Mae Questel, who brought Betty to musical life nearly a century ago. A MINUS

The Del McCoury Band: Del and Woody (McCoury Music) Musically, Woody Guthrie can wear out his welcome right quick, but it would be perverse to deny the inherent musicality of his lyrics. By my count, this is the seventh consecutive album in which friendly meddlers such as Wilco, Billy Bragg, the Klezmatics, and Rob Wasserman turn a few of his unnotated songpoems into something worth hearing again and again. Bluegrass lefty McCoury is an easy fit as he applies his lively trad to the New York subway system, budget car repair, a good-paying federal road project, a kind woman, a cute baby, and being poor. Only when Guthrie's sexism surfaces does the mood curdle. Born in 1939, McCoury is old enough to know that jokes about wimmin's hats were old hat by 1950 and probably weren't funny to begin with. A MINUS

Jimi Hendrix: Rainbow Bridge (Experience Hendrix/Legacy) This long-lost, new-to-CD album followed The Cry of Love in 1971, when slavemaster Mike Jeffery and some Warner Bros. overseers hired bereaved collaborator Eddie Kramer to make sense and of course dollars of the dead hero's vastness. Half of it reappeared on 1996's Kramer-overseen First Rays of the New Rising Son, a what-Jimi-wanted reconstruction that's always paled against Electric Ladyland. So probably the two in-the-moment profit-takers give us a better sense of who Hendrix was in the excited, spiritual, bummed-out sprawl of his final year. Among its rare gifts: a synthlike, pre-Woodstock "Star Spangled Banner" and the measured, lyrical "Pali Gap." A MINUS

Loretta Lynn: Full Circle (Legacy) Remakes that never seem redundant from an 83-year-old who's lived clean but never been a prig about it. ("Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven," "Wine Into Water") ***

Willie Nelson: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (Legacy) Great singer applies his old no-verses-please-we're-country trick to greater songbook. ("It Ain't Necessarily So," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off") **

April 29, 2016

Link: Africa Ignites: Konono No. 1 / Noura Mint Seymali / Senegal 70 / Dieuf-Dieul de Thiès / Youssou N'Dour et le Super Etoile de Dakar / Rokia Traoré

Konono No. 1: Konono No. 1 Meets Batida (Crammed Discs) I always knew Batida's hard-ass beats were why I plucked his eponymous 2012 CD out of the welter of DJ albums--and knew they meant to be hard-ass, because that's how you translate the Angolan kuduro style he went electro with. But it took Crammed Discs schemer Vincent Kenis to alert me to the obvious: just as soukous's rippling polyrhythms once migrated south from Congo, there's a congruence between the modern Lusaka sound and the unforgiving attack of Kinshasa's 21st-century street bands--the much-missed Staff Benda Bilili and the self-renewing Konono No. 1. Now led by Agustin Makuntima Mawangu, whose late father originally rigged up their battery-powered likembes, Konono have always seemed a touch spare and samey at album length, and Batida is just the hard-ass to fill out their sonics without softening them. Here be guitars and handclaps, thick electronics and stuttering glitches, guest singers who can actually sing. Konono's steady improvement over four albums may have cost them primitivist cachet and novelty appeal. But don't be the kind of fool who thinks they're just repeating themselves. A MINUS

Noura Mint Seymali: Tzenni (Glitterbeat) Like her stepmother, Mauritanian iggawin queen Dimi Mint Abba, Seymali has one of those foghorn voices that wears you down after it's knocked you over. Complete lyrics probably wouldn't help that much, but not knowing every word hurts. So what kept this album in the play pile for me was less the singing than the band, which with Seymali playing a traditional females-only harp is anchored by another hereditary griot, her guitarist husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly. Justly, they regard their style as a modernizing, genre-bending "fusion." In fact, the musician who stands out mans a trap set. His name is Matthew Tinari, he's from Pennsylvania, and he manages them. Good for him. B PLUS

Senegal 70 (Analog Africa) When will it dry up? Multiple Youssou and Baobab and Star Band excavations. Great forgotten bands from Adamantios Kafetzis's upstart Teranga Beat and long-forgotten tracks from Ibrahim Sylla's hegemonic Syllart. All '70s, all Senegalese, and now here's a dozen more tracks. Beyond two fine finds from the orchestra it spells Bawobab, the artists are unknown to me beyond the same obscure Gestü de Dakar whose cassette-only "Djirime" blows out Mark Hudson's still-available teranga-beat primer, 1998's The Music in My Head. Newbies should start there. This stuff--Laye Thiam's actual Afrofunk, Le Tropical Jazz's uno-dos-tres salsa, well-named Groupement Mobil D'Intervention's well-named "Africa"--is for after you get hooked. Believe me--you won't stop at just one. B PLUS

Dieuf-Dieul de Thiés: Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2 (Teranga Beat) They've reformed for a three-decades-late tour I hope I catch, but there were better mbalax bands and this is volume two for a reason ("Am Sa Waye," "Nianky") **

Youssou N'Dour et le Super Etoile de Dakar: Fatteliku (RealWorld) Live in Athens 1987 by the grace of internationalist sponsor Peter Gabriel, who clunks him up musically as usual and oversees an encore where N'Dour sings backup. ("Immigrés," "Nelson Mandela") *

Rokia Traoré: Né So (Nonesuch) Watch out, lady--even sung more lissomely if not cannily than a well-respected Billie Holiday, humanitarian homilies requiring lyric-booklet translation will eventually put your respectful cadre to sleep. ("Né So," "Sé Dan") *

Noisey, April 2016

March 2016 May 2016