Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2017

May 5, 2017

Link: Kendrick Lamar / Migos / Future

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope) Thematically, these thoughts of a pushing-30 superstar are almost conventional compared to the rest of his official output--good kid, m.A.A.d city's top-this narrative, To Pimp a Butterfly's political ambition and jazz-hip sweep, even untitled, unmastered's barrel-scraping scatter. Old head Greg Tate is reminded of De La Soul Is Dead--it's the kind of album you make after you've experienced fame's drawbacks from the inside. But this one's much harder to resist. Lamar's pensive self-doubt and modest buying habits are reassuring if you wish him well as a person, as why shouldn't you, and the simple keys-percussion-chorus beats flatter his cushiony timbre. Musically, Damn. is as calm as To Pimp a Butterfly is ebullient; lyrically, its only misstep is a pseudo-scriptural "don't call me black no more" that inspired Tate to quote Franz Fanon. Remaining skeptics should proceed directly to what vinyl fetishists know as side two, with its hit single, its "Lust"-to-"Love," its remembrance of ass-whuppings past, and its autobiographical miracle. He got what he wanted without squandering what he had. A MINUS

Migos: Culture (QC/YRN/300) It would be silly to deny how good this music sounds. These three rather different young men are much more than amigos--they're blood relatives raised by the same heroic mama, and while they don't harmonize like Isleys or Everlys, their pitch-corrected interactions are a consanguineous delight. Rather than bitches, cars, etc., they're about homologous voices twisting internal rhymes through associative verses, with the "ad libs" that punctuate line after line the payoff that's made them such a thing. Although sometimes these merely repeat the line's final word, that can be fun in itself, and it sets up the repeated jack-in-the-box joke of springing an improved alternative keyword instead. And as anybody who's heard "Bad and Boujee" three times knows, best of all are the sound effects: bwah, skrrrt, brrrup. Some believe these echo gunfire. I prefer to table that theory till next time. A MINUS

Migos: Y.R.N. 2 (Young Rich Niggas 2) (self-released) Their farewell to DIY is slightly less hooky and more thug, and it makes a difference ("You Wanna See," "Chances") ***

Future: HNDRXX (Epic) Better half of a pretty decent album, in order of appearance: "My Collection," "Coming Out Strong," "Testify," "Fresh Air," "Neva Missa Lost," "Turn on Me," "Sorry" ("Turn on Me," "Coming Out Strong") **

Future: Future (Epic) Lesser half of a pretty decent album, in order of appearance: "Zoom," "Mask Off," "Outta Time," "Scrape," "When I Was Broke," "Feds Did a Sweep" ("When I Was Broke," "Mask Off") *

May 12, 2017

Link: Les Amazones d'Afrique / Oumou Sangaré / Ladysmith Black Mambazo / Ibibio Sound Machine

Les Amazones d'Afrique: République Amazone (RealWorld) Conceived by the great singers Oumou Sangaré, Mariam Doumbia, and Mamani Keita, then joined by the dynamite organizer Angelique Kidjo after Sangaré withdrew, this loose feminist alliance out of Francophone West Africa feels more like a movement than any other stab at musical do-gooding you can name. I don't understand the lyrics, including the scattered English ones said to be in here somewhere. But the thorough notes articulate the ideology they share, which calls out sexist violence while asking men to back them up where it could just tell them to go fuck themselves. The particulars of the vocal attack differ, as voices will. But empowered by a rock-informed groove overseen by French-Irish Mbongwana Star producer Liam Farrell, the music is unbowed and declarative as it subordinates squarely rousing Euro-America to polyrhthmically engaged Africa--an Africa represented by Panzi Hospital in southern Congo, where 200 of the 350 beds go to rape survivors. A MINUS

Oumou Sangaré: Mogoya (No Format) Backed by an electro-friendly French boutique label with a specialty in Afro-Euro interaction and two welcome Mamani Keita CDs in its kit, the first album in eight years from Africa's premier female singer targets a boutique audience: non-Malians who've admired the music of this humane, well-off feminist for decades, among them my wife, who long ago wrote that "even when the liner notes tell me that Sangaré is being ironic, I just hear compassion." But admiration doesn't generate the engagement I might be freed up for if just one of the Bambara lyrics indicated how hellish a Mali wrecked by Islamist inhumanity and French passivity has become since Sangaré last recorded. Instead I'll have to settle for Guimba Kouyate's excoriating guitar on "Djoukourou," Ludovic Bruni's disruptive guitar on "Yere Faga," and synthscaper Clément Petit's spooky atmospherics on "Mogoya" itself. B PLUS

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Walking in the Footsteps of Our Fathers (self-released) Although no angel, their paterfamilias sang more angelically than any of his heirs, who opt in his absence for practical songs about Christian agape and parliamentary democracy ("Phalamende," "Mina Kangivumanga") ***

Ibibio Sound Machine: Uyai (Merge) Londoner juices African rhythms with electro arrangements while dissing Boko Haram in her Nigerian-born parents' native Ibibio ("Give Me a Reason," "The Pot Is on Fire") **

May 19, 2017

Link: Daddy Issues / Girlpool / Hurray for the Riff Raff / Diet Cig / I Am the Polish Army

Daddy Issues: Can We Still Hang (Infinity Cat) On their 2015 debut, this Nashville grrrl-grunge trio hit the bratty thing square on its pink-haired noggin. From stupid boyfriend to thrilling girlcrush, from toughing out the bruise to impressing the coolster, from creepy to ugly to out to lunch in this shitty world, they're tough and trash-mouthed and so needy it hurts. Of course these eight songs are good for a laugh--it's in the contract they believe they'll one day sign. But right at the outset their emotional complexity puts them beyond that and in it at the same time. A MINUS

Daddy Issues: Deep Dream (Infinity Cat) They grow up, as punk types always do, and as punk types almost always do, find adulthood as short on fun and thrills as they'd feared. So their guitars overextend into the Jesus and Mary darklands as their vocals blur over with distortion and dismay. But the songs tend musically distinct, sometimes sharp and sometimes heartbreaking. "I've been losing since I lost my virginity." "But it's unimportant now / Because I'm unimportant now." "She's a model / I'm a motel / She ditched college / I don't play guitar too well / We're both boring girls." Only then, just when they seem stuck in the dumps forever, they stick a "Boys of Summer" cover in Don Henley's smug mug. A MINUS

Girlpool: Powerplant (Anti-) Far be it from me to encourage punky minimalists to Learn Their Instruments on the path to Peace Through Art or Big Bucks. Too often that's a not-so-shortcut to sterile formalism or creepy-crawly commercialism. Yet the dream-pop these Philly-based Angeleno BFFs have worked up achieves a surprising softness, vulnerability, dynamic range, and melodicism. Cleo Tucker's guitar articulates and Harmony Tividad's bass complicates as some guy named Miles bangs the drums supportively. The only hitch is all the Explore Your Poeticism. More "You'll build him a tower and he'll burn you a bridge," please. I want to know what you're driving at, meandering toward, or both. B PLUS

Hurray for the Riff Raff: Navigator (ATO) Bronx Puerto Rican emigrates to New Orleans, where she crystallizes a rock group fit to declaim her story ("Living in the City," "Pa'lante," "Rican Beach") ***

Diet Cig: Swear I'm Good at This (Frenchkiss) Small voice, loud drummer, big dream: "I want to be the best one at this/But I don't want to get out of bed" ("Maid of the Mist," "Blob Zombie") **

I Am the Polish Army: My Old Man (self-released) Her emotions too strong for punk speed or indie irony, Emma DeCorsey rocks the way she feels, the old-fashioned way ("My Old Man, "Throat") *

May 26, 2017

Link: American Epic / The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues / Mahalia Jackson / The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues

American Epic: The Soundtrack (Legacy) There will be more of these--many more. In fact, there's already a five-CD set I may spend months with and may not, and on June 9 comes a 32-track Music From the American Epic Sessions double featuring such worthies as Nas, Beck, Raphael Saadiq, Christine Pizzuti, and co-producer Jack White that I hope I want to hear a third time. Artist and genre overviews also impend. And then there's the conflict that I've known Lo-Max Records' Bernard MacMahon, whose obsession clearly drove this project, ever since he started calling me from England circa 1990. But we've talked so little over the past decade that I was astonished to get this CD in the mail, and he had zero input into my theory that American Epic is a Sony plot to poach/rescue the American folk music franchise from the Smithsonian and the great Harry Smith. Still, isn't it obvious? All copyrights are public domain, and nowadays physical compilations are for the collector types who are Legacy's specialty. So these 15 tracks from MacMahon's three-part PBS documentary, overseen by his partner Alison McGourty, constitute a starter disc. Four repeat songs from Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and six more select other material by Smith artists, all arduously remastered to augment depth and grain. But add Smith omission Sister Rosetta Tharpe as well as Lydia Mendoza, the Aloha Serenaders, and Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, and note that two of the Smith artists are Cajun, and suddenly Smith's democratic gestalt has turned a third non-English, over a quarter female, and rather more rocking. The liveliest track besides Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" is the Aloha Serenaders' "Tomi Tomi," where the chorus races to keep up with Sol K. Bright's fleet steel guitar and tongue-twisting vocal, and right behind him comes Big Chief Henry, who never walks when he can run either. If this be political correctness, bring it on. A

The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues (World Music Network) Beats me why nobody's done this before, but it's great top to bottom. The sole Memphis Jug Band entry among these 25 finds, Will Shade's take on the ineffable work of genius "Stealin'," isn't even best in show. That would be Tampa Red's Hokum Jug Band's take on the equally ineffable work of genius "It's Tight Like That," which in the course of topping the leader's canonical Georgia Tom collab on the same song encodes into history the elan vital of a woman who laughs a verse in tune. Tampa Red also musters up daredevil jug and kazoo solos, but they're a baseline--the chances taken on both primitive instruments are hilarious and heroic throughout. It's as if all these forgotten African-Americans seizing their moment in the studio are inventing not rock and roll but punk, where for a few months a simple formal idea combined with an irrepressible social possibility to light up one 45 after another. Difference is, the formal idea isn't about energy, much less anger--it's about what a precious thing pleasure is when its lucky moment arises. And it lasted the better part of a decade. A

Mahalia Jackson: Moving On Up a Little Higher (Spirit Feel) In part because deciding that Jesus wasn't my savior was the toughest intellectual work of my life, I'm not much of a gospel fan, and that goes double for the kind of stately midtempo message singers I avoid in every genre--I don't even really get Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace, hailed as her very peak by many nonbelievers with their fingers crossed. Nonetheless, this is Mahalia Jackson, and I've tried, Lord, I've tried--particularly by buying her early stuff, from before Columbia turned her into what the indefatigable gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut once called "a black Kate Smith." But this career-spanning, Heilbut-compiled selection of live rarities reached me as my earlier tries hadn't, so with other Mahalia versions of half its songs already in my iTunes, I compared and contrasted. Heilbut's finds won every time. At their very best--"Keep Your Hand on the Plow," "Didn't It Rain," the storytelling "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well"--they rock and roll with such grace I shout about it. Often they remind me that the piano is a percussion instrument. And at the very least they're more relaxed. Yet in the end, there's still a bunch of stately message singing here. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues (World Music Network) Given how much African-American rhythm sprung up in church, these guitar tracks tend shockingly static (Blind Willie & Kate McTell, "I Got Religion, I'm So Glad"; Rev. Edward W. Clayton, "Your Enemy Cannot Harm You"; Bukka White, "The Promise True and Grand"; Blind Joe Taggart & Josh White, "Scandalous and a Shame") *

Noisey, May 2017

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