Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: November 2017

November 3, 2017

Link: A. Savage / Big Thief / Ape Records Vol. 1 / Mitski / Baby in Vain

A. Savage: Thawing Dawn (Dull Tools) Ten stray titles written in the course of 10 multitasking years and shaped into a solo debut with a selection of the Texan expat's Brooklyn pals. In other words: For Parquet Courts Fans Only. But it turns out that band's de facto frontman has every right, because these tracks all share an intimate, vulnerable mood--a mood that's outgrown breakup songs and opts for faith as opposed to religion. From steel guitar some call country to the horn-drone-plus-guitar-screech that binds the eight-minute "What Do I Do," its atmospheric sonics showcase subtle vocals at tempos that seldom exceed mid. Catchy, too, especially on the oompah "Eyeballs" and the singsong "Thawing Dawn." A MINUS

Big Thief: Capacity (Saddle Creek) Disrupting her delicate, speechlike soprano with unpredictable guitar comps acoustic and electric, Adrianne Lanker and her guys mean to prove that women needn't be loud to be strong and men needn't be needy. As the explicitly heterosexual opener puts it: "There's a woman inside of me / There's one inside of you, too." Admittedly if not proudly best suited to headphones or computer speakers, the band is subtle, arty, obscure--you know "Great White Shark" references an automobile accident only because Lanker said so in an interview, and "Watering" attenuates the brutality of sexual assault with imagery so sensationalistic it's abstract. But throughout she evokes the discordant ins, outs, and in-betweens of friendship, family, and you bet the romantic bond. B PLUS

Ape Records Vol. 1 (Ape) Balkan Beat Box drummer-hondler Tamir Muskat's avowed singles label re-records three good ones "Live in the Jungle," whatever that means, to generate an EP where I prefer the originals (Loco Hot Feat. A-WA, "I'm a Tribe"; Renno, "Perfect Is Dead") ***

Mitski: Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans) Pretty together for a depressive who falls for the wrong guys--sad, yet smart enough not to self-destruct ("A Loving Feeling," "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars," "Happy") **

Baby in Vain: More Nothing (Partisan) Screechy Goth-metal edge adds gravity and cred to Anglophone Danish grrrlpunk ("To Heaven and Back," "Transcendent") **

November 10, 2017

Link: Lee Ranaldo / Pere Ubu / Howe Gelb / Thurston Moore / Filthy Friends

Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim (Mute) In the Sonic Youth days, Ranaldo's solo forays were even further out than Kim's or Thurston's, but that was then. Now he's that lost band's only committed bandleader. Sometimes dubbed the Dust, it's a good one, assured and realistic and dissonant: Alan Licht guitar, Tim Luntzel bass, Steve Shelley drums. Insofar as it doesn't energize the base, that's probably because its emotional center is equanimity, an emotional state less sexy than the similar calm--it's too cerebral, too achieved. Impressed myself, I attribute it to some combination of limited vocal compass and getting the divorce out of the way when he was young--his first Dust album bears the credit "Lyric consultant, muse, etc.: Leah Singer," his wife-collaborator since 1991. The selling point of album three is that Jonathan Lethem cowrote five of the nine lyrics, including those that turn on "But it's always the same thing--you had a view of your own / Everyday feelings--like seeds that get sown," "Are you scared of a woman's love? (No-no-no I'm not) / Are you scared of a man's love? (No-no-no I'm not)," and "You've got everything, that diamond ring / Some fine time left to die / So listen closely to your own sweet talk of nuthin'." But they're no better than Ranaldo's solely-writtens, the most striking "Let's Start Again," which has a happy ending--even a happy middle. A MINUS

Pere Ubu: 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo (Cherryred) As the nuclear Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight than it's been since 1953, David Thomas and a sizable contingent of old allies hunker down in a launch pad turned fallout shelter and bash out the most songful and physically powerful Pere Ubu album of our fraught century. Of course untoward noises abound along with the urgent tempos. But after the searing two-minute "Red Eye Blues," it ends with three more ruminative tracks, each a love song one way or another. First papa invites her out for a walk. Then a guest vocalist designated Roshi turns out to be female. And then begins the finale, crooned high and grainy: "Hold me close / I feel the time running out / I know you must feel it too." A MINUS

Howe Gelb: Future Standards (Fire) With the sand running out on his atmospheric alt-country, he shifts to cocktail piano--effortlessly, or so he makes it seem ("Terribly So," "Relevant") ***

Thurston Moore: Rock and Roll Consciousness (Caroline) Tectonically propulsive riffing signifying besotted erotic enchantment ("Exalted," "Smoke of Dreams") **

Filthy Friends: Invitation (Kill Rock Stars) Ominously, perhaps, Corin Tucker and Peter Buck's faith in alt-rock is more convincing than their faith in democracy ("Faded Afternoon," "Brother") **

November 17, 2017

Link: The National / Deer Tick / The Paranoid Style / Shilpa Ray / LCD Soundsystem

The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD) Matt Berninger's depressive tendencies have always been shticky--probably sincere enough, whatever that means or matters, but a stance for sale regardless. Yet as he murmurs through the quietest and most lyrical of the band's albums, I often find myself touched, moved, even sorry for him. From the stairwell tryst at the outset to the matched pledges of devotion and destruction that bring proceedings to a close, the amassed detail of the settings and feelings doesn't so much eliminate shtick as transcend it. One thing, though. Not to be a prig or a scold, but insofar as the details are autobiographical, maybe somebody should quit drinking. A MINUS

Deer Tick: Vol. 2 (Partisan) Unlike 2013's simultaneously out-of-its-skull and pop-curious Negativity (try: "Hey Doll," "In Our Time") or 2017's simultaneously depressive and folk-leaning Vol. 1 (try: "Sea of Clouds," "Rejection"), this is the kind of garage Americana that's John McCauley's modest gift to the world: half an hour's worth of noisy, catchy, rootsy songs about fucking up, self-doubt, provisional camaraderie, rowdy abandon, and, most important, good times that haven't ended yet (but still might). The classic is "S.M.F.," which stands for Shitty Music Festival. May they end their Bonnaroo set with it. A MINUS

The Paranoid Style: Underworld U.S.A. (Bar/None) "We tried to figure out exactly the point of show business during this most lurid of all impasses," Elizabeth Nelson noted recently, and whether avocational indie counts as show business or not, it's clearly been a trial. The title tune is properly scary: "It's like the founders said the jaws of power are always open to devour," soon followed by "You dined on us so long you lost the taste for delicacy." But "I Believe U Believe U Can Fly" is the one great song on this EP because it torpedoes a catchphrase we figured out long ago. Other zingers of varying quality are dropped here and there--the throwaway "Langford's still an atheist" is one I like. But the lyrics tend opaque--pretty sure "Hawk Vs. Prez" is about Lester Young, for instance, but that took a lot of delving that only got me so far. What makes this lacuna doubly frustrating is that Nelson probably knows more about the ins and outs of Washington politics than any songwriter working, and it would be nice to think she could make something of what may not actually be an impasse. It would also be nice if she roped in a more limber rhythm section. A MINUS

Shilpa Ray: Door Girl (Northern Spy) Blessed with the New York heart and attitude of Patti and David Jo, cursed by lesser talent, night thoughts, and Gotham's rising rents ("Add Value Add Time," "Revelations of a Stamp Monkey") ***

LCD Soundsystem: American Dream (Columbia) Still an expert architect of musical spectacles, but . . . does anybody actually like the guy? ("Tonite," "Oh Baby") **

November 24, 2017

Link: Kasai All Stars / Afrobeats Hot Hits / Siana / Zaire 74 / DRC Music

Kasai Allstars: Around Félicité (Crammed Discs) The fourth album from this biz-fabricated, many-armed Congotronics aggregation is a discographical muckup from a label always happy to exploit "world music" fans' craving for the next different thing. It comes with two add-ons. The first is a bonus disc of remixes, which makes three of the things total since the group was conjured up in 2008--their second album was a by no means terrible all-remix double-CD enlisting rock-oriented meddlers whose point of entry was sonic. This time, as one might hope, it's dance guys, who set themselves to foregrounding and embellishing the groove's through-line. And that's only the extra added attraction. The occasion is a film soundtrack in which some songs repeat from earlier albums and, hang on to your ears, three tracks are symphonic snippets by Ärvo Part. Despite a soupçon of authenticité from the Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, these do spoil the mood. Solution: burn a CD-ROM consisting entirely of the Kasai Allstars material the film celebrates, cherrypicks, exploits, whatevs. The result is the best Kasai best-of anyone will likely ever own--eight tracks spread over 52 buzzy, groovy, echoey, multivocal minutes. A MINUS

Afrobeats Hot Hits: New Urban Dance Grooves From Africa (Shanachie) This strangely spelled, cartoonishly pitch-corrected Nigerian style is not to be confused with Fela Kuti's oh so singular Afrobeat, and don't worry, you won't. Purportedly "a high-octane mash-up of Jamaican dancehall, Soca, Hip-Hop and African rhythms," I'd call Afrobeats plural a high-electro smoosh-together of catchy clichés from all those places and more, with beats cruder than hip-hop's or Afropop's rendering it utilitarian international club fodder. For stay-at-home laggards and office drones with earphone privileges, it's new novelty music, hence fresher than old novelty music. Afrobeats flash Wizkid furnishes use value with a collab on the standout "Crazy," which goes, in my orthography: "I'm in love with my bé-bé / I'm in love with my bé-bé / I'm in love with my bé-bé yé-yé / He's been drivin me crazé." If that one doesn't do it for you, the rest won't. If it does, take a chance. B PLUS

Siama: Rivers: From the Congo to the Mississippi (self-released) With foundation help he deserves, hard-traveling Minneapolis soukous guitarist makes something varied and delicious of the kind of world-music amalgam others turn to goo ("Ndombolo," "Yeke Yele") ***

Kasai Allstars: Tradi-Mods Vs Rockers (Crammed Discs) Congo legends lend status to white remixers, who never wreck the Africans' cultural identity and even texture it sometimes (Deerhoof vs Kasai Allstars, "Travel Broadens the Mind"; Mark Ernestus vs Konono No 1, "Masikulu Dub"; Eye vs Konono No 1, "Konono Wa Wa Wa"; Skeletons vs Sobanza Mimanisa, "Kiwembo/Unstuck") **

Zaire 74: The African Artists (Wrasse) Two CDs from Mobutu's Ali-Foreman festival, one striking (masterful Franco, savvy Makeba, rude Orchestra Stukas) and one merely historic (hyper Taby Ley, breathy Abeti Masikini) (Franco and T.P.O.K. Jazz, "Kasai"; Miriam Makeba, "Amampondo"; Orchestra Stukas, "Elatina") **

Kasai Allstars: Congotronics 5: Beware the Fetish (Crammed Discs) Inconveniently, it's true--12 songs over 102 minutes do get samey ("Beware the Fetish," "The Chief's Enthronement/Oyaya") **

DRC Music: Kinshasa One Two (Warp) Damon Albarn production collective members evoke rather than focus Congo post-soukous for atmosphere, enlightenment, and Oxfam ("Hallo," "We Come From the Forest") *

Noisey, November 2017

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