Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: December 2017

December 1, 2017

Link: Saint Etienne / St. Vincent / SZA / Rev. Sekou / The Relatives / Primate Fiasco

Saint Etienne: Home Counties (Heavenly/PIAS) On an album situated in London's feeder communities, the stealth-arty putative-disco trio split the difference between a celebration of suburbia, which would be a lie, and a send-up of suburbia, which would be a rank cliché. Instead they fashion a sometimes sad, never tragic reflection well-suited to keyboard maestros Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs's steady-state tunecraft and Sarah Cracknell's calm, affectionate, all-conquering competence. Not much seems to happen in these songs beyond the distinct if similar female characters' pursuit of ordinary pleasure, occasional escape, and satisfactory love. But there's an inescapable sense that while the lives lived on these airy hillsides and mock-Tudor streets are limited, they're decent and admirable. Only the catchiest and drollest number rises above, eavesdropping at a transport hearing to borrow a righteous hook: "We need train drivers in eyeliner / We need train drivers all over this land / That's our plan." A MINUS

St. Vincent: Masseduction (4AD) Jack Antonoff or no Jack Antonoff, pop-tailored synth sonics do not a pop album make, and artist avowals to the contrary, being personal requires more than the will to do so--it takes a certain kind of talent, one of the few Annie Clark may not possess. Big choruses you find yourself humming? But of course. Alluring lyrics that walk the tightrope of legibility? She passes that test. So there's not a track here that isn't manifestly memorable and intelligent. What's missing is the more amorphous and lowbrow aesthetic quality called accessibility. It's certainly possible to imagine fans in the hundreds of thousands aspiring to Clark's latest self-presentation. But the smaller number who identify with her are deluding themselves--she's a genius and they're not, and she's proud of it. So admiring every song though I do, I warm to precisely two: the one hooked to her "I can't turn off what turns me on," an endangered principle or is it compulsion in this sociosexual moment, and the imploring "please"s moaned by the putative top in the sadie-maisie cosplay tale "Savior." B PLUS

SZA: Ctrl (RCA) Self-starting, insecure eroticist negotiates the tricky web of pathways between love and sexual autonomy--tries to, anyway ("Weekend," "Doves in the Wind," "20 Something") ***

Rev. Sekou: In Times Like These (Zent) Aided by several North Mississippi Allstars, NYC-based preacher-activist activates protest soul ("Burnin' and Lootin'," "Resist") ***

The Relatives: Goodbye World (Luv N' Haight) Gospel-funk journeyman Gean West rises from his deathbed to put his God's stamp on this mortal coil ("Rational Culture/Testimony," "Can't Feel Nothin'") **

Primate Fiasco: Massachusetts Winter (self-released) With roots going all the way back, genealogically, to the Salem witch trials, banjo-accordion-sousaphone-drums steamfunkers got a right to sing the bemused ("Astronauts," "Little Arrow") **

December 8, 2017

Link: Now That's What I Call 90s Pop / Now That's What I Call Tailgate Anthems / 13 Days of Xmas / Nick Lowe

Now That's What I Call 90s Pop (Sony Music Entertainment) This unusually useful pre-Now lookback--Stateside, the series only began in 1998--means to reinstall 18 four-minute pop songs in your short-term memory. From Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy With It" to the New Kids' "Step by Step," with the likes of Boyz II Men, Wreckx-N-Effect, born-againer-in-waiting Montell Jordan, Mad TV fave Bobby Brown, and "Livin' La Vida Loca" on board, the default mode is male-dominated funk-lite broadly defined, with the ambiguous-lite Max Martin classics "...Baby One More Time" and "I Want It That Way" flanking the concept. Cheap nostalgia for thirty-somethings, a refresher course in pop history for the rest of us. Among the missing: "U Can't Touch This," "Jump," "C'Mon 'N Ride It," "The Macarena," and the cheekily non-male "I Kissed a Girl." But so much easier than burning your own. A MINUS

Now That's What I Call Tailgate Anthems (Sony Music Entertainment) This decades-spanning blunt instrument dispenses with the vaguely heart-warming ecumenical mix-and-match the Now cartel usually makes a pass at. It's segregated by what we'll call culture: first six pop-metal warhorses whose Queen-Bon Jovi-Journey-Kiss-Survivor-Europe titles you can fill in yourself, then seven somewhat less reliable dance-rap bangers, after which sole woman Pink's best-in-show "Get the Party Started" transports us into a three-track country finale that left me wondering how I'd missed Sam Hunt's off-concept "House Party" and concluding once and for all that Jason Aldean is a blander, less macho Luke Bryan. Every single track is broad in the beam, "rock" at its most obvious even if the details are hip-hop or country--rock for jocks. But there are times when the Kiss-Lil Jon continuum is just right for clearing the sinuses or getting you to the next rest stop, and this will definitely do that job. A MINUS

13 Days of Xmas (Bloodshot) Short on cheer, which doesn't mean love (All Our Exes Live in Texas, "How to Make Gravy"; Ha Ha Tonka, "The List"; Zach Schmidt, "I'm Drunk Again This Christmas") **

Nick Lowe: Quality Street (Yep Roc) On an album decked with Xmas rarities penned by Roger Miller, Boudleaux Bryant, Roy Wood, and the great trad. arr., the prize selections are Lowe originals ("Christmas at the Airport," "I Was Born in Bethlehem") *

December 15, 2017

Link: American Epic: The Best of Blues / 24 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's / American Epic: The Best of Country

American Epic: The Best of Blues (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy) Anyone interested owns somewhat fainter and scratchier versions of tracks on this definitive country blues compilation. But conceptually and song for song, these 17 clear, rich, cannily sequenced Duke Erikson remasters--Delta guys mostly, with hokum bands and two Texans mixed in for extra flavor--leaves them in the dust. Bernard MacMahon defies convention by beginning with an anachronistic culmination--Robert Johnson's mythic "Cross Road Blues" was cut in 1937, well after country blues's 78-rpm flowering. He blends in the warhorses-in-waiting "'Tain't Nobody's Business," "Walk Right In," and "Sitting on Top of the World." He welcomes Mattie Delaney's polished, still obscure "Tallahatchie River Blues" and Geeshie Wiley's eerie, now canonical "Last Kind Word Blues" into an assertively male canon. And he justifies the ongoing mystification of Blind Willie Johnson's hummed, moaned, postverbal "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" by closing with it, as if to prove that, in the end, the message of this music is beyond words. But it isn't. "Every day seem like murder here." "Ain't no heaven, there ain't no burnin' hell / Where I'm goin' when I die can't nobody tell." "Come on mama on the road again." A

24 Classic Blues Songs From the 1920's: Vol 15 (Blues Images) As always, the deal here is 25 bucks plus the usual for a handsome vintage blues ad art calendar and a blues CD compiled by collector-designer John Tefteller. Seldom have these CDs reached out to nonspecialists by achieving a balance of accessible collectors' items and classics not yet worn thin. But this one is different, primarily but not exclusively because the American Epic people lent Teftweller their remastering apparatus, adding clarity, brightness, and presence to occasionals like Bo Weavil Jackson and Rev. Steamboat Bill's Revival Singers as well as titans like Charley Patton and Memphis Minnie. Direct comparison, for instance, revealed striking noise reduction on two songs that had never reached me--Tommy Johnson's "I Wonder to Myself" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Hot Dogs." Not that I was knocked out by sonics alone--as a shallow person, I prefer the Jefferson novelty. But all this music is now easier to hear for whatever it may be. My special favorites are two Memphis Minnies I hadn't previously registered, "Frisco Town" and "Goin' Back to Texas." My special discovery is Mississippi-to-Chicago pioneer Johnnie "Geechie" Temple. Without improved audio, his plaintive "The Evil Devil Blues," about a love triangle rather than a meeting at the crossroads, might have captivated me anyway. But chances are not. A MINUS

American Epic: The Best of Country (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy) This is less revelatory or deeply satisfying than the blues edition--the talent pool is smaller and shallower and Harry Smith long ago made the most of it. But sparked by the jaunty dance instrumentals "Ladies on the Steamboat" (hiya), "Brown Skin Gal (Down the Lane)" (hmm), and "The Lost Child" (huh?), the non-Smith tunes that emerge second half hold their own. So for me, this might well replace Legacy's White Country Blues whenever I need reminding that the Trumper-spawning white supremacists who lost the Civil War had their moments of blessed foolishness, bemused melancholy, and supernal grace. For sure those moments flowered into some Johnny Cashes, some Doug Joneses. But don't kid yourself that the process was close to automatic. B PLUS

December 22, 2017

Link: Dawn Oberg / Tim Heidecker / Mavis Staples / Downtown Boys

Dawn Oberg: Nothing Rhymes With Orange (Blossom Theory) It's not good that the most satisfying anti-Trump "long player" yet to surface comprises three compact download-only songs by a Berklee-trained Nashville-to-Frisco lounge DIY-er. But the not good part is the paucity of alternatives--Oberg is a serious talent who gets some nasty licks in. The title track marches smartly from "A walking slab of brain damage beneath a bad toupee" to "He can't grab my snatch but he can bite my bloody rag" without deigning to utter the name of the "orange-tweeting twat" who rhymes with "dump/And stump and chump and bump and lump and hump and slump and rump." That dirty business done, Oberg declines to address him again. Instead she delivers a rhymed disquisition on "double-blind and peer-reviewed" empirical method that's over faster than Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" while repeating "We all enjoy results of scientific inquiry" three times just in case some dumbass missed the point. And then she bids us and history adieu: "I can see the sunset burning at the end of the world from the end of the continent/The final frame of this ill-fated experiment." "I'd Rather Be Wrong," that one is called. It doubts she is. A

Tim Heidecker: Too Dumb for Suicide: Tim Heidecker's Trump Songs (Jagjaguwar) Satire is too good for this potbellied pigwad, this flab-dicked jism drizzler, this ADD SOB, this pustule in a truss, this snake oil salesman in a cancer ward, this, I don't know, real estate man. Loathing is all he deserves, and loathing is hard to put into words, so that even a rhetorician as committed as comedian and challenged singer Heidecker has trouble finding language beyond the magnificent "Imperial Bathroom," a detailed description of *****'s black, rocklike, KFC-informed feces that's keyed to the useful catchphrase "Trump dump" and culminates by predicting he'll die on the porcelain throne. But to be fair, "Wilbur Ross" and "Cooked Chinese Chicken" do pack bite if not bile, as does Heidecker's account of his own brave death in the dungeons of Trump Tower. And "Sentencing Day"'s fantasy of ***** shitting in a pail and/or hanging in the sun is kinda sweet. But where's last spring's Father John Misty collab "I Am a Cuck," a sharper song by far than "Trump's Private Pilot," which gets a Misty remake for musical cred here? Face it, Tim--*****'s pilot is licensed to kiss ass. Motherfucker attracts toadies like a sump full of lily pads. B PLUS

Mavis Staples: Livin' on a High Note (Anti-) All-star songwriting crew works changes on the political truths and homilies this rights standard-bearer has been nailing for half a century ("MLK Song," "History, Now," "Action") ***

Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-) Flummoxed by the exacting distinction between catchy and memorable, she does her gospel-pop best with 10 Jeff Tweedy protest songs so subtly crafted they barely leave a mark ("Who Told You That," "If All I Was Was Black," "Try Harder") **

Downtown Boys: Cost of Living (Sub Pop) Don't conceive your music as a blunt instrument that'll ram your message home unless you've conceptualized a message a good deal finer than that ("A Wall," "I'm Enough [I Want More]") *

November 29, 2017

Link: Marcel Khalife/Mahmoud Darwish / Omar Souleyman / Sweet as Broken Dates / Boubacar Traoré

Marcel Khalife/Mahmoud Darwish: Andalusia of Love (Nagam) I can't swear how often I'll pull it out now that I've finally concluded that, mere exotica though it may be, this suite of settings for love poems by the late Palestinian poet Darwish is eminently worth reviewing. Playing it only when I felt the need for something quiet that would still qualify as work, I've never failed to find its placidity intelligent and beautiful. The auteur is Lebanese oud maestro Marcel Khalife, the ensemble his son Rami on piano, his son Bachar on percussion, and Jilbert Yamine on the harplike qanun. Conceptually, this quiet, emotional, sometimes lively, always intense, nonetheless calming music is said to fuse two things: first, the same longing for physical love--not mere sex, eros--you get in Omar Souleyman's macho dance workouts, and second, an intellectual nostalgia for the pre-Columbian Andalusian accord, where Jews, Christians, and of course Muslims lived together in harmony in the south of Spain, supposedly. In short, an honorable and even inspirational prayer for peace. A MINUS

Omar Souleyman: To Syria, With Love (Mad Decent) In a way it's simple and in a way it's anything but. The simple part is that if you like rhythmically intense music that's spare and huge and human-scale all at once, you have to hear this intransigently masculine Syrian exile: call-and-response between his imploring baritone and oud lines adapted to baritone synth (over percussion aplenty, you bet). If you're impressed, as you will be, buy an album, why not? Moreover, you might as well start with this one, which has Diplo's label behind it the way 2013's Wenu Wenu had Kieran Hebden's. The not-simple part comes if you've already got your Souleyman album--Wenu Wenu itself, or the live Haflat Garbia, say. This one's more . . . I don't know, these differentiations are so marginal, focused or measured. Also, the Arabic lyrics you'll need a booklet to parse yearn on two occasions for his lost homeland rather than some metaphorical woman. But if you already own two of his albums, I doubt you need a third. B PLUS

Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From the Horn of Africa (Ostinato) Fifteen reclaimed '70s and '80s tracks, some literally dug out of the ground, showcase a politically repressed Islamic pop scene long on female singers and more Ethiopian than it wants you to think--just look at a map (Xasan Diiriye, "Qaarami [Love]," Duur Duur Band Feat. Sahra Dawo, "Gorof [Elixir]") ***

Boubacar Traoré: Dounia Tabolo (Lusafrica) This indefatigable old-timer always has a gimmick, which high-generic world music can always use--here actual American bluespeople to shore up his Malian-blues cred, most noticeably on harmonica and most fruitfully on violin ("Je Chanterai Pour Toi," "Dounia Tabolo") *

Noisey, December 2017

November 2017 January 2018