Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: August 2017

August 4, 2017

Link: Randy Newman / Burnt Sugar / Arto Lindsay / Chaim Tannenbaum / James Luther Dickinson

Randy Newman: Dark Matter (Nonesuch) It begins with an eight-minute playlet enacting a Godsplaining rally in the Research Triangle. It follows with five minutes of "Brothers" JFK and RFK launching the Bay of Pigs to save Celia Cruz. Then comes the four-minute "Putin" Newman put on YouTube last October. All informed and funny and painful and complex, all intricately and wittily orchestrated. But well past a dozen engaging passes I still can't guarantee how replayable they'll eventually prove, which I wouldn't say of five of the remaining six tracks, in particular two heart songs: the multivocal, jam-packed, basic-sounding 3:55-minute tour de force "Lost Without You," in which a frightened old man eavesdrops on a conversation between his kids and his dying wife, and the made-for-TV "She Chose Me," which my wife and I certified as a great pop song by feeling it personally and individually even though it's autobiographical for neither of us. Too bad "It's a Jungle Out There," the expanded theme song of Tony Shalhoub's OCD TV sleuth Monk, seems merely sarcastic. But the only way there'll be a better album in 2017 is if some genius comes up with one that unifies the Democratic Party in song from the left, only not . . . never mind, this is a record review. A

Randy Newman: The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 3 (Nonesuch) Yes I enjoyed the first two volumes of this fanbase-stroking specialty item, in which Newman sits down at a piano and reprises some dozen and a half carefully wrought catalogue staples. But without his carefully wrought arrangements, they came up short on use value. Only then I stuck Vol. 3 in my CD slot on a Florida getaway and voila--this was fun, and meant to be. Why else lead with the 39-year-old novelty hit "Short People" and the 45-year-old Three Dog Night hit "Mama Told Me Not to Come"? Why else pair "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" with "Davy the Fat Boy"? True, it's not all yuks--that would be crude. This is indeed where I figured out that 1988's "Red Bandana" was a Bloods-and-Crips fable. It ends with 1988's bleak "Bad News From Home" segueing into 1971's reassuring "I'll Be Home" and then, on the expanded box set version, 1995's heartwarming-by-acclamation "Feels Like Home." But barely fun at all is what follows on the box, 2008's Iraq-steeped "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" and the even grimmer capper, 2012's all too prophetic election-year sick joke "I'm Dreaming": "I'm dreaming of a white president / Someone who we can understand." You think maybe he underwent a mood shift between September of 2016, when the single CD came out, and December of 2016, when the box did? The theory's too neat. But there's an awful poetry to it. A MINUS

Burnt Sugar: All You Zombies Dig the Luminosity (AvantGroidd) Greg Tate's permanent floating black-bohemian-nationalist big band speaks its truths to power and its beauties to the grays ("The Charmer," "Yung Black & Vague," "Black Fros Black Gold") ***

Arto Lindsay: Ciudado Madame (Northern Spy) Bent sambas I expect straighten out quicker for those who understand the Portuguese four of them are written in ("Grain by Grain," "Arto Vs. Arto") ***

Chaim Tannenbaum: Chaim Tannenbaum (Storysound) Brooklyn-born sideman, philosophy prof, and alte kaker waxes tender and unperturbed on the wings of gospel music and his Canadian citizenship ("Farther Along," "Brooklyn 1955") **

James Luther Dickinson: I'm Just Dead, I'm Not Gone: Lazarus Edition (Memphis International) Three years before he'd die at 67 in 2009, the Memphis producer-paterfamilias has lost his voice, as the 1983 coda proves, while retaining the entirety of his brain, spirit, and attitude ("Redneck, Blue Collar," "Lazarus") **

August 11, 2017

Link: The Bob's Burgers Music Album / Howsla / Kill the Noise / Brexit Blues

The Bob's Burgers Music Album (20th Century Fox/Sub Pop/Bento Box) For two hours or so, cartoon characters led unofficially by a mother played by a man sing or act out 107 tracks that clatter by so fast barely a pop-rock tunelet will stick with you. On my initial foray I had to stop midway through the first disc even though I was enjoying myself--it was that hectic, that fundamentally unmusical. Nor am I a special fan of the show, although I find it cool enough. But before long I discovered that when choosing music to do chores to, say, I couldn't resist expending more time on an album I'd slotted as unreviewable and deduced that it wasn't unreviewable after all. Now past five plays on both discs, I'm still chuckling at jokes I know and catching new ones, and in some vaguely avant-garde way no longer finding the thing unmusical. Instead all this song-plus-dialogue stop-and-go functions as an aural simulacrum of a two-parents-three-kids family that recalls neither my childhood in that precise situation nor my own parenting history. It's cartoonish, hence zanier. Yet this "sincerely silly character-driven music," as the notes put it, transfigures the chaos that inflects so many of our daily doings. Recommended starter tracks: "I've Got a Yum Yum," "Kill the Turkey," "The Nice-Capades," "Buckle It Up," "Equestranauts Theme," "Mononucleosis." Less thematic: the Quiet Storm parody "Whisper in Your Eyes" and the pickup artist bringdown "The Prince of Persuasia." A MINUS

>Howsla (Owsla) I haven't ALL-CAPPED the title of this Skrillex-generated producer/DJ compilation because it's not an acronym. It's a pun that yokes the artiste-antrepreneur's Watership Down-derived label name to various developments in house--the dance genre, not that place that's not a home. This being Skrillex, assume the genre's ideologues are having none of it. I have no plans to dance to it myself. But to get me through my cardio regimen or even spur a piece of what we homebodies call housework, its obstreperous pulse and novelty vocals do the trick. B PLUS

Kill the Noise: Occult Classic (Owsla) I admit it and in fact am proud of it--the tracks I love from Skrillex's rightful heirs are the one with the novelty vocals ("I Do Coke," "Kill It 4 the Kids," "Dolphins on Wheels") ***

Brexit Blues (Riverboat) The British dullards who rejected the EU aren't mere racists, because like Britons since there's been a Britain they look down on any human who isn't one, so here brighter Britons prove just how good for the environment Poles, Greeks, Serbs, etc. can be (Olcay Bayir, "Jarnana"; Kristi Stassinopoulou & Stathi Kalyviotis, "Erhetai Heimonas (Winter Is Coming") **

August 18, 2017

Link: Waxahatchee / Beth Ditto / Paramore / Valerie June

Waxahatchee: Out in the Storm (Merge) Here be the tunefully bish-bash nonstop document of a breakup recollected in tranquility--only she's not tranquil, she's pissed and makes something of it, so instead stay at a distance, because finally she's kicked the asshole out of her band as well as her bed. Psychologically, the tell is: "You were so condescending / You wrote me in, gave me a part / See, I always gravitate toward / Those who are unimpressed." Not anymore--with no romantic entanglements to sing of, she's more than content with family, friends, and an all-female band so impressed they love her to pieces. And since she's chosen this moment of emotional clarity to deploy not only verbal clarity but the syntax it deserves, I'm all in. Any guy who'd condescend to this forthright young woman has got serious problems. Too many guys do. A

Beth Ditto: Fake Sugar (Virgin) The unsinging hero of this solo debut is a song doctor I'd never heard of named Jennifer Dicelvio, whose big credit is too big--the bombastic Andra Day Grammy nominee "Rise Up." Always drawn to Ditto's punky fat-lesbian image, I never thought her band was much or her songwriting either. So I make it a good thing that at 36 she's gone both solo and pop, and with Dicelvio's help delivered what pop albums are supposed to deliver, only with guitars rather than keyboards--well-defined tunes with relatable lyrics that get where they're going without distracting shows of the pipes I'm grateful she doesn't have. People think her voice is huge, but that's really her energy, or maybe just how bold she is about her body. Here her most salient vocal quality is a clarity that never thins out her commitment or understates her joy and pain. The pain, I read, reflects a bad patch in her marriage. May she outlast it to enjoy the perfect confluence of "We Could Run" and "Love in Real Life." A MINUS

Paramore: After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen) Impure pop from faux-punk people ("Hard Times," "Caught in the Middle) **

Valerie June: The Order of Time (Concord) As constructed if fetching an authentic Southern gal as ever you'll hear fills out her identity quest with pretty much the same love problems as everyone else's ("Love You Once Made," "Got Soul") *

Waxahatchee: Ivy Tripp (Merge) Hold on to your feelings, but put down that thesaurus until you've got a firmer grip ("Breathless," "Summer of Love") *

August 25, 2017

Link: Hamell on Trial / Algiers / The Isley Brothers/Santana / Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone / Garland Jeffreys / Living Colour

Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (New West) From track one, which follows a snatch of you-know-who's "I'd like to punch him in the face" by promising Hamell's gang of misfits "You're safe here," to track 16, where the 62-year-old gets teary about a marriage eight years gone, this is an album I've been waiting for. Counting the lust song that quotes a mouthy Australian's anti-American analysis at length, only four tracks are explicitly "political," including a misfire aimed at bulletproof blankets. But "The More You Know," about raising a teenage son in the age of you-know-who, and the homely, specific, devastating "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)," about "I'm trying to teach him to Not Get Shot," are the best protest songs yet by an antifolk ranter who's never soft-pedaled his militantly nonviolent anarchism. And I should also mention the four kiddie ditties about the life cycle of a cartoon frog--as you'll learn from the laff-riot live Big Mouth Strikes Again CD you can own if you buy the vinyl and stream if you don't, this mouthy touring machine has a G-rated set he'll serve up on request at folk festivals and other family affairs. Either way he'll say it loud, flail his 1937 Gibson, and rock as hard as The Clash. Randy Newman too subtle for ya? This ain't. A

Algiers: The Underside of Power (Matador) Initially I thought they had the right idea and the wrong execution--in-your-face politics stretched past their stress threshold by a fusion of soul-rock histrionics and noise-metal aggression. But with fascists in my face too, I gave it another try, and gradually came to understand that electronics mean more to Algiers's guitar-bass-drums than Lee Tesche's ax--they're more Death Grips than Living Colour. "Cleveland"'s gunshots-as-whipcracks, "Plague Years"'s funereal techno, and "Bury Me Standing"'s Gregorian synths are less galvanizing than Death Grips' abrasives. But overwrought though he may be, Franklin James Fisher is more approachable than Stefan Burnett, and not just because he declines to weaponize his dick. Gospel warmth textures his every yowl as he calls out the powermongers, honors the martyrs, grieves for the dying world, and tries to stay on good terms with his mom. A MINUS

The Isley Brothers/Santana: Power of Peace (Legacy) Ronnie croons and cries the forebears' songbook while Carlos and Ernie soar-not-shred, and yes, consciousness is included ("Total Destruction to Your Mind," "God Bless the Child," "Mercy Mercy Me [The Ecology]" ***

Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone: Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone (ESP-Disc) She can be so ideological she's unlistenable, but every anti-racist could use a shot of Amiri's widow naming our enemies and celebrating her history ("Afro American Child," "The Things I Love," "The Fascist") **

Garland Jeffreys: 14 Steps to Harlem (Luna Park) A racially complex life recalled by someone who's extracted multivalent music from that life for well past four decades ("14 Steps to Harlem," "Colored Boy Said") **

Living Colour: Shade (Megaforce) Chops undiminished, vocals weathered by age, wisdom for some reason muted ("Inner City Blues," "Freedom of Expression [F.O.X.]") *

Noisey, August 2017

July 2017 September 2017