Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2016

September 2, 2016

Link: It's Britney, Bitch: Britney Spears / Tegan and Sara / Bibi Bourelly / Ravyn Lenae / Empress Of

Britney Spears: Glory (Deluxe Edition) (RCA) Not much music that aspires to pornography achieves the purity of its pleasure principle, and not much pornography does either--not if the ideal is physical sensation undiluted by either the distractions of romance or the power trips of big-dick netsmut. So Glory's fast-tracked eroticism is an unprecedented achievement even for this longtime professional sex toy. If she has "personal" issues, and why shouldn't she, they go unaddressed. But that doesn't mean there are no signs of growth here. Never has she slammed less or cooed more, and never has she seemed so in command of her desires, or so comfortable with them. She always likes her partners and sometimes loves them, but only three of the 17 songs go off message unless you count the voyeuristic one where she catches her doppelganger atop the cad she's driven 250 miles to dump. My favorite sequence tops the single "Clumsy," where they're banging all over the bedroom, with the single "Do You Wanna Come Over?," where she promises not to start kissing and touching without his go-ahead. But since tastes in sex differ radically, you may have your own. A MINUS

Tegan and Sara: Love You to Death (Warner Bros.) It's kind of a hoot for twin sisters to begin Indigo Girls, wind up Maroon 5, and just get gayer as they do. In the synth-cushioned highlight "Boyfriend," Sara wheedles/implores her bi-or-not gf to make up her mind with a hook that goes "I don't want to be your secret anymore." Other winners include the contrite "That Girl," the erotic "Stop Desire," and the anti-marriage "BWU." But thematically, these women are adaptable. Every track is a three-minute formalist construct that captures a mood rather than a three-minute romanticist statement that expresses an emotion. Some of these moods are more complex than others. But every one is catchy. A MINUS

Bibi Bourelly: Free the Real (Pt. # 1) (Circa 13/Def Jam) More breadth and personality than the topliner norm, rawer guitar too, but that don't equal hitbound or even cult hero ("What If," "Ego") **

Ravyn Lenae: Moon Shoes (Atlantic) Birdlike 17-year-old romantic proves how precocious she is with jazzy keyb chords I hope she outgrows and tricky beats that mark a way forward ("Moon Shoes," "Free Room") **

Empress Of: Me (Terrible) Independent female's reports from the hookup zone heat up as they go along and her relationship(s?) wax(es?) and wane(s?) ("Make Up," "Icon") *

Tegan and Sara: Heartthrob (Warner Bros.) Not exactly the first pop stars to be better at sex than love ("Closer," "Drove Me Wild") *

September 9, 2016

Link: 'Prima Donna' and Young Thug's Name Is Actually Jeffery: Vince Staples / Young Thug / Rae Sremmurd

Vince Staples: Prima Donna (Def Jam) The Crip whose life was saved by DatPiff mixtapes proves how real his gangsta is by stressing on how bad it makes him feel. Wrecking his clipped, high-pitched flow with obsessive moans that don't stop and don't stop, he feels guilty about abandoning the street and guilty about the lives laid waste there. Two of the EP's six songs end by repeating the dejected refrains "Sometimes I feel like givin' up" and "Is it real is it real" well past their saturation points, while three others hammer away at "Born ready, war ready," "Pimp hand strong," and "We all waste away" like they're "Fuck tha police" or "Easy as one-two-three." The overall effect is admirably grim, with one essential exception: his very old friend Kilo Kish recalling their pre-K years. In this context, McDonald's birthday parties are so cute they're surreal. A MINUS

Young Thug: Jeffery (300/Atlantic) The one wan joke I noticed must have been so beside the point it slipped between the cracks, because now I can't find it. But here as never before, Black Portland included, the former Jeffery Lamar Williams makes black comedy out of irrepressible sound, cutting the fool with such delight that I found myself not just engaged but agape. Nude or digital, speaking or chanting, narrating or bragging, exclaiming or explaining, sobbing or gasping or chuckling or cackling, his hoohoos and melismas and blahs and mwas and frogcroaks and put-puts are the message. The nearest he comes to thematic embellishment is when he barks the keywords "work" and "earn" in the Rihanna song "RiRi," which in other respects is no more about the superstar than "Harambe" is about the gorilla. The main ostensible subjects are sex and luxury goods, and admit it--they both beat opioid addiction and killing people. A MINUS

Young Thug: Slime Season 3 (300/Atlantic) Best line is "Why not risk life when it's gon' keep goin'," which means pretty much what you think it means even if he doesn't mean it only we're not in this for the meanings--I hope ("With Them," "Drippin'") **

Young Thug: I'm Up (300/Atlantic) That "germ in it"/"worm in it" rhyme graces a Latinish number pledging his readiness to die for his "people," who we'll know when we see them ("F Cancer," "Family") **

Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife 2 (Eardrum/Interscope) Less excitable now that they've gotten used to the money--funny how that happens ("Do Yoga," "Real Chill") *

September 16, 2016

Link: Frank Ocean's Candidness and the Ambitious Blood Orange: Blood Orange / Frank Ocean

Blood Orange: Freetown Sound (Domino) Don't let the spoken-word samples that signify Dev Hynes's intellectual ambitions distract you from the smartest stuff here--namely, the choruses that beckon you through them. Then home in on the extraordinary run of women singers who enliven and intensify his songs as past collaborators have not: Empress Of, Carly Rae Jepsen, Zuri Marley, Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, Kelsey Lu, BEA1991, Ava Raiin. And dig how casually he varies his falsetto with bass-baritone chant-raps and juices his keyboards with percussion. The ambitions themselves could be clearer--why should "Hands Up" be so much more explicit about police violence than "Squash Squash" is about lives lost to addiction? But credit Hynes with connecting his romantic instability to a personal insecurity that in turn connects to what the larger society makes of his blackness and queerness--and for having the consciousness to insist that his blackness is rooted in Africa, and not just because his father was born there. A MINUS

Blood Orange: Cupid Deluxe (Domino '13) Four arresting pieces of intelligent funk-lite set up six merely accomplished pieces of intelligent funk-lite before Dev Hynes's virtuosity saves the day. The transvestite subway trip "Uncle ACE" turns focus track when its distressed harmonics bloom into a saxish finale-turned-fade, with David Longstreth's pained shtick right after augmenting the mood. But despite the added charge of two surprise raps whose ordinary male sexism and striving accentuate Hynes's doomed sweetness, too much vocal space is tendered the pretty, vacant Samantha Urbani. Only when the auteur's piano saturates the climactic "Time Will Tell" does his vision of romance in perpetual suspended animation regain the poignancy he's so convinced it's worth. B PLUS

Frank Ocean: Blond/Blonde (self-released) This indifferent melodist's coup d'art only comes into its own when he brings the noise--especially as of the clamorous "Nights," which together with the 100-mph Andre 3000 rap and the rehearsal-tuneup chorale that follow add up to the only nine minutes on his stairway to nowhere that I'd call thrilling as well as admirable. Sometimes it's deeply admirable, true, like for instance the candidly awkward "Good Guy," the telling "Facebook Story" tale, and Ocean's determination to rely on the musical authority of his expressive and capable but unathletic voice--I love the way "Good Guy" Auto-Tunes down. As on Channel Orange, however, his angst is a luxury of leisure--his wealth, hold the fame. Because some of his interpersonals could happen to anyone, his fans relate, and good for him. But most are specific to his social status. Why doesn't he whine more about the travails of stardom? Because he knows damn well how much he enjoys the freedom it affords him. B PLUS

September 23, 2016

Link: Enjoy, However Bad This Shit Gets: M.I.A., Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Yoni & Geti

M.I.A.: AIM (Interscope) Nothing has made me happier in this horrendous moment than Maya Arulpragasam's loopy, simplistic fifth album. Fuck you if you think it's "lightweight" or "confusing" or "aimless" or "ho-hum"--it's the hard-earned proof of the happiness she's achieved after years of fretting about the asinine shaming of 2010's excellent Maya for the crime of following Kala, which was only the greatest album of the century. As no one notices, her sonorities, scales, and tune banks have never been more Asian--mostly East Asian, especially up top, although I'm partial to the uncredited oud-I-think on "Ali r u ok." That's one more signal of the self-acceptance enjoyed by this refugee on an album she says is about refugees, as is her damn right as someone who migrated/fled from London to Sri Lanka to India back to Sri Lanka back to London to--after absurd bureaucratic hoohah--the USA. Never a convincing intellectual, she makes a point of keeping these lyrics beyond basic--declaring "we" a trope, jumping on the byword "jump," riffing on every stupid bird rhyme she can think of. The recommended non-"deluxe" 12-track version ends with one called "Survivor," which like it or not she is. "Men are good, men are bad/And the war is never over," she notes. "Survivor, survivor/Who said it was easy?/Survivor, survivor/They can never stop we." Takeaway: bad shit being her heritage, she intends to enjoy herself however bad the shit gets, and so should we. A

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I've Made (self-released) Since the only bad thing I know about this diligent, talented, sincere Evergreen College alum is his post-"Thrift Shop" stage gear, I consider his critical disrepute a disgrace to my vocation. Although clearly no cash-in or rush job, his second album gathered 17 Metacritic reviews averaging a pitiful 59, the most bewildering a sympathetic Pitchfork piece that could have been a 79 as easily as the 51 some asshole stuck on it. The three by black writers went 76, 75, and 50, which I mention because Macklemore's whiteness has been a cause celebre ever since he apologized for the rap Grammy The Heist snatched from good kidd m.A.A.d city. Yes, he's white, and his suburban drawl and choppy flow sound that way, although not Lewis's pop hooks, grand flourishes, and schooled piano. But just because he candidly embodies the awkwardness and contradictions in which white privilege embroils every Caucasian who isn't a flat-out racist, he makes white people uncomfortable, and they should stop blaming him for it. Beyond two preachy substance-abuse numbers, this is consistently fun, interesting, or both. The Anderson Paak. romp "Dance Off," the Melle Mel/Kool Moe Dee joke-boast "Downtown," the tonsorial joke-boast "Brad Pitt's Cousin," and the corny one for his little girl are unpretentious enough to justify the much-dissed 8:46 finale "White Privilege," which has more content than the twice-and-done Tupac feature you never play on To Pimp a Butterfly. A MINUS

Yoni & Geti: Testarossa (Joyful Noise) The fruit of a European tour by David Cohn d/b/a Serengeti and his beatmaker pal Yoni Wolf is goofy and fanciful in Geti's signature manner. It's quite slight, quite tuneful, quite funny--"Met a woman named Ella/Used to be a fella," or the long list of imaginary social-media sites like ListenUp, WhereYaAt, Lick4Lick, Gwaffalo, and GrindStone. But everywhere you can feel his marriage tugging at touring's frayed tether. At long last he returns home to his daughter's new bangs, his son's homework folder, and the computer he just bought his wife. But happy about it he cannot be. "This is just my tenderness/My wretchedness/I'm a pessimist," he mutters--and also, as he's mentioned before, a poltergeist: an invisible disruptor. Slight or not, if you've come to care about the guy it's pretty sad. B PLUS

September 30, 2016

Link: America on the Tip of the Tongue: Drive-By Truckers / Dogbrain / Watkins Family Hour / The Handsome Family / The Haymarket Squares / Rhiannon Giddens

Drive-By Truckers: American Band (ATO) In part because the Hood-to-Cooley ratio is back up and in part because they're less relaxed as the Obama Age ends, this superb song collection is raggedier than the last superb song collection. But in recompense it's more explicit and bereaved. Having resettled in Oregon just in time to detail an Umpqua massacre preceded by a victim's nice morning and idyllic weekend, Hood also spends 6:27 in Ferguson and its branches nationwide. Cooley opens with "Ramon Casiano," which minimal Googling makes clear is an assault on the NRA, and soon follows with "Surrender Under Protest," about the actual outcome of that war the starry-eyed say ended at Appomattox. Then there's the finale that begins "I was listening to the radio when they said that you were gone." Gotta be Merle, right? Uh-uh--Robin Williams. It's about mood swings and depression out of control, a somatic heritage Hood tells us he knows firsthand. A

Dogbrain: Blue Dog (dogbrain) Wondering why these six slices of slide-guitar Americana cut through with such uncommon truth power, I learned that Jay Ward is a lifelong stutterer who escapes his prison not just by singing but by singing about his prison. Standin' at the edge of a dream gettin' ready to jump, nothing special in itself. Turnin' at the fork in the road, ditto. But "I've got some tales on the tip of my tongue / Gettin' ready to speak"? Now you're talkin'. B PLUS

Watkins Family Hour: Watkins Family Hour (Thirty Tigers) Musos with a right enact an Americana songbook that makes room for Lindsey Buckingham and Lee Ving as well as Roger Miller and Robert Earl Keen ("Feelin' Good Again," "Not in Nottingham") ***

The Handsome Family: Unseen (Carrot Top) In this unpoetically dark time, only the social realism that has never been their style of pessimism seems to truly . . . can I say spark them? they're way too dour to enliven ("Back in My Day," "Gold") ***

The Haymarket Squares: Light It Up (The Haymarket Squares) Musically clean-cut Phoenix "punkgrass" fixtures lay out the jolly economics of private prisons and swear their favorite cocktail is the Molotov ("High Demand," "Let's Start a Riot") **

Rhiannon Giddens: Tomorrow Is My Turn (Nonesuch) Soul-schooling the Americana artsongbook, with Patsy Cline as Mary Wells and Charles Aznavour fooling no one in his Nina Simone disguise ("Last Kind Words," "She's Got You") *

Noisey, September 2016

August 2016 October 2016