Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2018

February 2, 2018

Link: Nona Hendryx & Gary Luacs / The Rolling Stones / Van Morrison / Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans / Frank Zappa

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas: The World of Captain Beefheart (KFR) Although avant-guitarist Lucas accompanied and eventually managed Don Van Vliet during his mercurial 1978-1982 second coming, to reimagine him with post-soul artiste Hendryx he leans on Beefheart's blues-besotted youth. Ten of these dozen selections are from 1972 or before, and the two from 1967's Safe as Milk you may not believe are Beefheart at all--the Delta-as-desert "Sure 'Nuff Yes I Do" and "I'm Glad," a doowop torch song the captain wasn't tender enough to nail himself. Gentle ain't exactly Hendryx's default mode either, but she knows how to fake it, then switches smoothly into the jagged "Smithsonian Institute Blues." On the whole, the album cants sensuous, Latinizing Beefheart's jagged groove--before climaxing with the nutso "Tropical Hot Dog Night," which remains as much fun as two flamingos in a fruit fight. A MINUS

The Rolling Stones: On Air (Deluxe Edition) (Polydor/Abkco/Rolling Stones) Exploiting the surprise sales spike of their 2016 Christmas album Blue & Lonesome, their 2017 Christmas album purportedly revisits the band's early-'60s blues beginnings, which in fact were no such thing. Chuck Berry, who wrote six of these songs, was not a blues artist, and neither was Bo Diddley, who gets three including the previously bootleg-only "Cops and Robbers" playlet (theirs is fine, Bo's better). Billed "R&B" as they started playing out in 1963, the Stones were catchier and quicker than blues, and on these 32 radio transcriptions they sound like the premier bar band of their time if not ever. Where Blue & Lonesome is a sodden thing--many old rockers have recorded sharper, spunkier, wiser music--this collection proves what world-beaters they were even before they got serious about songwriting. True, the unperfected "Satisfaction" some hedger stuck in sounds pretty good--how could it not? But "2120 Michigan Avenue," the instrumental they concocted to celebrate recording at Chess, is the closer because it oughta be. A MINUS

Van Morrison: Versatile (Exile/Legacy) Introducing the concept and smoking his other five other copyrights with a jauntily repetitive original called "Broken Record," he proves his mature mettle by covering the great American songbook with more panache than Linda Ronstadt if not Joni Mitchell ("They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Makin' Whoopee") ***

Peter Stampfel and the Atomic Meta Pagans: The Cambrian Explosion (Don Giovanni) Polyphony spins dizzily awry as fearless leader plus ad hoc nonet reel off protest songs, pop standards, banjo improvs, nursery rhymes, etc. ("This Is My Country," "Blue Moon," "Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase") ***

Frank Zappa: Zappatite: Frank Zappa's Tastiest Tracks (Zappa) Pop being beyond him emotionally, the anal guitar virtuoso applies his high IQ to satire ("Trouble Every Day," "Valley Girl," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow") **

February 9, 2018

Link: Rich Krueger / Modern Mal / Scott Miller / Case Garrett / Jason Eady

Rich Krueger: Life Ain't That Long (Rockink) Born on a Wednesday full of woe, a 58-year-old Chicago neonatologist undertakes to show the world he's also a major songwriter, complete with wavery high baritone that hurts so much it'll make ordinary mortals wince. Although most of his evidence dates from the current century, only two selections are near new. The most recent goes on about Nero--"At night in his garden, Christian torches glow / He entertained the masses with fiddle and bow"--before observing that "a lie is a lie, and not 'fake news,'" and should you wonder what a Christian torch is, the CD comes with a useful booklet that will also make you wince. So will "The Gospel According to Carl," which re-enacts the pre-suicide ruminations of a car salesman who just discovered his conscience, and "Ain't It So Nice Outside Today?," which diagnoses suffering sinners who lust for life against all odds. Two songs praise Sid Vicious, a bunch indicate in agonizing yet generous detail why the guy's love life hasn't been everything it might, and the most memorable of all can't get over that girl he ditched so stupid when he was 17. Krueger's band accommodates horns, violin, accordion, and femme chorus. He borrows afterhooks from Bonnie Tyler and Jose Feliciano. And somehow I never mentioned that he can be pretty funny. Also nice. A

Modern Mal: The Misanthrope Family Album (Mal) Modern Mal are what might happen if blurry reincarnations of Leonard Cohen and Dolly Parton hooked up to form a bent Americana band in the Michigan north woods. Dolly hopes he'd love her even if she wore different-colored shoes; Leonard hopes she never sees him in his old earmuffs. Two of their songs adduce astronomical as opposed to astrological metaphors, and two others are lightened by glockenspiel colors with their roots in Dolly's Fender Rhodes. Inspirational Verse: "Death death death, where do you take us next?" B PLUS

Scott Miller: Ladies Auxiliary (F.A.Y.) All-female band lifts Americana vet to unaccustomed heights without squelching a mother-in-law joke I hope none of the gals thought was funny ("Jacki With an Eye," "Lo Siento, Spanishburg, WVA") **

Case Garrett: Aurora (Suitcase) Inspirational Verse: "What you think about screwin'? It don't have to last very long" ("The Thought of You," "She Never Liked Elvis") **

Jason Eady: Jason Eady (Old Guitar) Smooth alt-country lifer writes his own songs without creating his own identity ("Where I've Been," "Black Jesus") *

February 16, 2018

Link: Youssou N'Dour / Tal National / Les Filles de Illighadad / Songhoy Blues / Amadou & Mariam

Youssou N'Dour: Raxas Bercy 2017 (self-released) N'Dour having uploaded all the songs from this live Paris concert to YouTube, none with video and most preceded by ads, I have my physical from a friend who took the trouble--in a maneuver well beyond my own know-how--to download them and burn them sans ads onto a CD-R that runs over an hour. Sequence: "El Fťnomeno"-"Djino"-"MbeguŽl Is All"-"Djamil"-"New Africa"-"Africa Remembers"-"Sama Gamou"-"Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng Mbackť"-"Bul Nangu." Earlier versions of four of these songs are already in my N'Dour iTunes collection, with "Djino" dating all the way back to the strange 1998 Best of '80s. The recent "MbeguŽl Is All" is diminished here by a dexterously pro forma guitar intro; "Serigne Modou Boussou Dieng Mbackť" and "Djami" are intensified by female vocals from I don't know who. N'Dour is in undiminished voice as sabar drums clatter everywhere, although after all these years that voice finally has some grit to it--among other things, of course. The nearest thing in my collection is the bootleg (?) Le Grand Bal Bercy 2001 Vol. 2. This is more songful, yet so intense I've played it more than any recent N'Dour except Senegaal Rekk. Happy hunting, reconfiguring, whatever. A MINUS

Tal National: Tantabara (Fat Cat) It was a good idea to juice the title opener with some talking drum, a "kazaguť" (?) I can't pick out of the hectic mix, and--especially--mouthy Zara Moussa, a Nigerien who has long rapped under the handle ZM although here she only sings. Another good idea was the lead solo one of three named guitarists takes on the so-called "Entente"--really, this uncompromising thing is an entente? Unrelentingness having been the specialty of this shifting cast of male Nigeriens for three CDs now--14 are credited, including six singers and four drummers--both effects render them somewhat more accommodating while remaining dead set on directing your attention to nonstop rhythm music. If Youssou seems too calm and unflappable even live these days, try this. It will not let you be. A MINUS

Youssou N'Dour: Seeni Valeurs (Jive/Epic) Although I doubt a physical would add much context, this download-only album proves that the Dakar tycoon and sometime pol still knows music is his bedrock--without conveying anything specific outsiders can make out, true, but when the music is N'Dour's, that's usually enough. Six new songs, eight tracks, kicked off by the atypical ululations that announce the atypically relaxed title opener and highlighted by three versions of the apparently Senegal-centric "MbeguŽl Is All" unimpeded by the superfluous guitar intro of the live one, as well as two very similar mixes featuring kora master Toumani Diabate. For Wolof speakers, this album may function as a major statement. For me the major statement is that this great musician and fairly great man is unlikely to go away soon. B PLUS

Les Filles de Illighadad: Eghass Malan (Sahelsounds) Nigerien sisters soften Saharan intensity with an innocence that's sweetly girl-group, although admittedly less catchy ("Eghass Malan," "Tihilele") ***

Songhoy Blues: Resistance (Fat Possum) "Voter" skanks, then "Bamako" funks, then Iggy fronts "Sahara," and without ever quite nailing the Malian-American fusion Garba Toure's guitar just knows is there, they get closer and closer ("Dabari," "Bamako") **

Amadou & Mariam: La Confusion (Because) This is who they are, and it remains a heroic story, but extra synth wash cannot disguise what an awkward time it is to put a Malian stamp on feel-good dance-pop ("Bofou Safou, "La Confusion") *

February 23, 2018

Link: Fever Ray / Shopping / Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet / Kissey

Fever Ray: Plunge (Mute) Karin Dreijer's solo debut was about money when you listened up. This long-aborning follow-up is about sex. The tentative openers "Wanna Sip" and "Mustn't Hurry" end up where she and you had hoped before concerns about unsafe spaces and fraught hookups culminate with the free-abortion-on-demand "This Country": "This country"--and she means Sweden!--"makes it hard to fuck." Yet strangely or maybe not, that attack of nerves is the turning point. Immediately the title instrumental leads directly to "I want to run my fingers up your pussy" and an open if complicated beyond. Take the plunge, she's hinting. It'll be fine. You'll be glad you did. A MINUS

Shopping: The Official Body (Fat Cat) This theoretical dance trio are such miniaturists it may take their admirers a play or three to notice that on their third and I guess best album the music has broadened. The catchy treble guitar riff at the start of the 2:38 "Suddenly Gone" is partner to the virtual guiro somebody coaxed from a computer at the end--both are the kind of surprise that's good for a tiny thrill when you're out on the floor listening with your body. But no matter how well-honed they are, in this kind of miniaturism all distinctions are marginal--unlike classic Wire or Gang of Four, Shopping never risk a joke or break into something marginally anthemic. For them, "I know what I like and I like what I know" is still "never enough to satisfy me." Which does limit the use value to which they're theoretically committed. A MINUS

Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet: Landfall (Nonesuch) Audio version of string-quartet-driven multimedia meditation on loss and Hurricane Sandy stops at elegiac except when the artist uses her words ("All the Extinct Animals," "The Water Rises") ***

Kissey: Unplug the Delusional Monkey (Fool's Gold) If you think it's several decades too late for sexy trip-hop, very blonde Swedish coo-coo bird has a modeling career she'd like to get underway ("Kiss the Ground," "Delusional") *

Noisey, February 2018

January 2018 March 2018