Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: March 2018

March 2, 2018

Link: Black Panther / Rapsody / Rhiannon Giddens / Talib Kweli

Black Panther: The Album (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope) Shrewdly, Kendrick Lamar conceived this not-actually-a-soundtrack as a relief from the burden of remaking himself album to album to album. Credited on only four tracks, he's all over it vocally anyway, marking every one of the nine remaining songs with a verse or chorus or hook defined by the least regal of the great rap flows, unassumingly slurred while making every word count. Throughout Lamar delivers star-studded, hooky-to-jingly, sneakily experimental pop-rap product tinged with the flick's racialized broad-stroke humanitarianism; whatever sketchy plot references some exegete may imagine, "I Am" is a stand-alone love song, "Paramedic!" a street-ready gangsta metaphor. As in the film, the music's African tinge bears down on electronic decibelizations of the ensemble percussion to which Americans of all races still reduce the continent's many musics, but with the saving grace that the wealth of cameos doesn't stop with the multiple star turns. Room is made not just for the phlegmy young Vallejo spitters Slimmy B and DaBoii unfazed by Top Dawg godfather Jay Rock, for UK ingenue Jorja Smith standing tall next to Top Dawg seeker SZA, but for five South Africans, one of whom rams home the most arresting verse on the record: seasoned "Jo-Burg Femcee" Yugen Blakrok, who tops "Opps" off with a deep-voiced rhyme that only begins by assonating "millipede" and "Millie Jackson." Blakrok has her own album coming. What a blow for Wakanda it would be if Top Dawg picked it up. A

Rapsody: Laila's Wisdom (Roc Nation) Country girl Marlanna Evans only got into hip-hop at North Carolina State, and 2017 Grammy nominations or no 2017 Grammy nominations she'll never be a promising young rapper again. Not only is she 35, she's too sane, too civilized, too deep into deep-soul beats every bit as Southern as their trap antitheses. Yet on this artistic breakthrough her "real life rap" matches her conversational, comprehensible, musically modest flow to content that's anything but regional. Rhyming her diary and mulling her cultural tribulations, she represents for young black working women everywhere. Would they all were so quick-lipped. Would they all had enough money. Would they all had a Busta Rhymes at the ready when they feel the need for some sugar. A MINUS

Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch) Maybe the songs about slavery top the songs about love because it's harder to oversing a song about slavery, especially one as honed as these are ("Julie," "At the Purchaser's Option," "Come Lover Come") ***

Talib Kweli: Radio Silence (3D) More woke than you, more skilled than you, and doing OK in the paper department too, he proves all these things yet again without getting his music around the crisis he knows his people and his country face ("She's My Hero," "Knockturnal") **

Rapsody: Beauty and the Beast (Jamla/Culture Over Everything) Underground rap manifesto as genuinely worthwhile endeavor ("Hard to Choose," "The Man") **

Rapsody: The Idea of Beautiful (Jamla/Culture Over Everything) Having waited years to unload her wisdom, she does go on about it ("Believe Me [9th Wonder HaHaHaHa Remix Mix]," "Celebration") *

March 9, 2018

Link: Superchunk / Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band / Grant Peeples and the Peeples Republik / Prophets of Rage

Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (Merge) Call the most affecting political album of our brutally politicized era the lament of the slack motherfucker. Unlike most alt-rockers, Mac McCaughan thinks railing against Trump is a proper use of his aesthetic essence and finds words for his loathing: "Hate so graceless and so cavalier," "You have a dream / a bloody nightmare / for any human that's not you," "all your bad choices / are gonna cause suffering yeah." And while claiming the good guys have time on their side, he can't help observing that "all these old men / won't die too soon," which is one reason "everyone is acting normal / but no one's sleeping through the night." He's torn apart by the ineffectiveness of his present and the "shit decisions" of his past. He calculates that youthful Reagan voters greatly outnumbered Reagan Youth fans who thought they were so smart. "We were awful bored," he recalls; "too late we find our feet," he realizes. So he devotes his wakeful fifties to bitter lyrics that make themselves clear, anthemic tunes that make them inescapable, and broken vocals that make them hurt. A

Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band: Bone Reader (Grigri) That this longtime DC horn-funk unit ain't Fela's goes without saying. It's also a given that its politics are saner than Fela's. But Michael Skereikis's felt wisdom comes as a considerable surprise. Where so many similar messages come off unthinking, you never doubt that these preoccupy Skereikis as deeply as his music. When he calls his opener "Questions of Our Day," you wouldn't mind if he ran them back again. When "Tribulation" winds through a long list of war-torn nations, there are so many you half wish he'd stop. And when he makes the case for DC statehood, you remember that in politics, sanity alone guarantees nothing. B PLUS

Grant Peeples and the Peeples Republik: Settling Scores Vol. II (Gatorbone) Steals a world-class hook from Bob Dylan, who had it coming, and nails two protest songs out of four, which is better than Dylan has done in quite a while ("The New Brownsville Girl," "This Could be a Long Night," "More feor Us, Less for Them") ***

Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (Concord Music Group) I'd fret more about how set in its ways their Public Enemy-Rage Against the Machine alliance is if the machinery of American capitalism had loosened up even a little in the decades since they began their railing ("Living on the 110," "Smashit") *

March 16, 2018

Link: Ezra Furman / Car Seat Headrest / Walter Martin / Born Ruffians

Ezra Furman: Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union) The frenetic escape saga "Suck the Blood From My Wound" sets an emotional pace the album can't possibly sustain, but an underlying metaphor provides all the momentum it needs--the angel Furman is on the run with has had serious wing surgery and the authorities mean to get him for it. So in picaresque desperation Furman and/or his half-tinfoil lover/confederate hide out in a beach house and spend a sleepless night in an Arkansas trailer park, recite a prayer in Hebrew and steal a dress from Goodwill. Furman remains vulnerable yet indomitable throughout, indulging an appetite for life that respects both its sanctity and its friability. Think of him as an alternate version of your better self. A MINUS

Car Seat Headrest: Twin Fantasy (Matador) In case you haven't been keeping score, this is a re-recording of what Will Toledo fans consider his Bandcamp masterpiece: an associative suite or bunch of 10 songs ranging in length from 1:30 to 16:11 that circle around his teenage crush on a guy who could be a fond memory or an educational fabrication. At 71:41, the new version is 11 instrumental minutes longer; at 25, its creator is a phlegmier, more masculine singer who's clearly not a teen anymore. But he now leads a band capable of rendering his quest in a hi-fi that illuminates both its seriousness and its sense of play. Young admirers reminded of their own existential confusions have every right to feel poignant about them. But so do obervers pleased to be merely touched. My favorite track is the shortest, which goes, in its entirety: "Stop smoking, we love you/And we don't want you to die." A MINUS

Walter Martin: Reminisce Bar & Grill (Ile Flottante) More pretty good indie-rock songs about a satisfying enough indie-rock life ("Too Cold to Waterski," "I Went Alone on a Solo Australian Tour") *

Born Ruffians: Uncle, Duke and the Chief (Yep Roc) Cheeky boy-os grow up, concoct tunes to match ("Forget Me," "Fade to Black") *

March 23, 2018

Link: Mast / Thelonious Monk / Ornette Coleman

Mast: Thelonious Sphere Monk (World Galaxy/Alpha Pup) The only jazzman whose compositions have racked up more cover versions than Monk's is Ellington, who copyrighted over 2000 tunes. Monk's life total was 70. Think about that for a second. Counted too weird, too blunt, too ham-fisted, too trinkle-tinkle, too spacey, too nutty, Monk was a melodist of genius. But beyond "'Round Midnight," most of his covers are jazz covers; even Hal Willner's lost 1984 tribute That's the Way I Feel Now legitimized its Shockabilly and Joe Jackson sallies by giving equal time to Steve Lacy and Barry Harris. This sound-collage is different. Masterminded by techno-friendly LA guitarist Tim Conley, it performs the magic of refreshing a catalogue that's eternally new to begin with--just when you're wondering what's up, in sidles "Misterioso" or "Evidence" or "Epistrophy" or "Blue Monk" or "Let's Cool One" or "Nutty" itself. Rather than desecrating these timeless classics that were once too weird for words, the bleeps and electro-textures prove the melodies' mettle. Nor is Conley above strings or horns or playing a few of these beauties himself. Does it, er, swing? The answer, as it should be, is sometimes. A

Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Saga/Sam) A pricey French import that targets serious fans like me, so why not you? Recorded down by the riverside in Weehawken because Monk wasn't together or perhaps even interested enough to get to France, this unsynchronized 1959 "soundtrack" for a sexed-up Roger Vadim rip of the 1782 novel of the same name offers no new compositions but several this-time-onlys as it deploys the exceptional rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor and on some tracks a second saxophonist named Barney Wilen to texture Charlie Rouse's breathy imperturbality. Toward the end comes a brief improvisation entitled "Light Blue" that later resurfaced as "Round Lights" and a brief reading of the Charles Tindley hymn "We'll Understand It By and By" by the same pianist who spent two teen years woodshedding with a gospel show. And then there's the bonus disc, which really is for fans only, like the one I know who can't get enough of the 14-minute "Light Blue (making of)," which consists entirely of Taylor trying to get the tune's bluntly off-kilter beat straight. A MINUS

Ornette Coleman: Ornette at 12/Crisis (Real Gone Music) Released 1969 and 1972, Ornette's lost Impulse albums were recorded live at Berkeley May 1968 and NYU March 1969. Dewey Redman's tenor sax roughs up the alto/trumpet/violin-wielding leader, Charlie Haden bows darkly more than he plucks staunchly, and the drummer is 12-year-old Denardo, rumbling irrepressibly all over nine titles that are sometimes also tunes--"New York" and "Broken Shadows" cross-referential, "Song for Ché" a dirge to remember. It sounds good because what Ornette doesn't? But you hardly notice Don Cherry returning on the second album, and while you can hear what a magnificent player Denardo will become, he's here partly because he isn't yet--Ornette wanted a bottom more untethered than the mere magnificence a grooving Ed Blackwell would soon provide on 1970's Friends and Neighbors. The late '60s were politically turbulent times, and good for Ornette for trying to tell the truth about them. But in the end, that wasn't the kind of truth that set him free. B PLUS

March 30, 2018

Link: Amy Rigby / Yo La Tengo / Wreckless Eric

Amy Rigby: The Old Guys (Southern Domestic) Between 1996 and 2005, the 37-to-46-year-old ex-wife of excellent drummer Will Rigby released five excellent-to-superb pre-Americana CDs stocked with more terrific songs than any competing non-rapper except maybe Jon Langford--including Bob Dylan on his last great run, although I'll give you Sleater-Kinney while noting that songs per se aren't really what they do. Concrete, class-conscious, cutting, forlorn or funny or both, Rigby's lyrics chronicled a single mom's quest for love and sex, so of course they were never taken as seriously as "Cold Irons Bound." Only then she hooked up with Wreckless Eric, who's ridden "Whole Wide World" for four otherwise marginal decades, in a marriage so engrossing her writing slowed down to two hers-and-his albums. So now comes her first solo work since her great run, with Eric's production lending an unmannerly distorto gravitas that suits its audacity. If you don't want to hear a 58-year-old female singer-songwriter litcrits have never heard of impersonating Philip Roth emailing Bob Dylan about his Nobel, you probably think she's on Dylan's side, and you're wrong. Robert Altman also gets a song, as does an unnamed sack of shit she resists in her mind by imagining she's Tony Soprano, Lucky Thompson, or Walter White--the NAACP one not the Breaking Bad one, as Wikipedia helped me figure out, after which I looked up the unbowed Thompson and recalled that Soprano had a specialty in assassinations. A MINUS

Yo La Tengo: There's a Riot Going On (Matador) This inward-looking, barely verbalized album describes a parabola. Beginning with the hypnotic instrumental "You Are Here" and ending with the fragmented instumental-with-murmurs "Here You Are," it builds through five low-key songs to three six-minute instrumentals centered on the pulseless electronic "Shortwave," which reveals ionospheric subchatter when you turn the volume up, only why would you? Then come five less shapely songs, and there you are: in a time roiled by the political turmoil the title puts up front, a domesticated Yo La version of the kind of esoteric atmospherics I myself treasure in Hassell & Eno's Fourth World Vol. 1, Orüj Güvenc's Ocean of Remembrance, We's As Is, and Marcel Khalifé's Andalusia of Love. They mean to create not just music as a refuge, but recognizably indie-rock music as a refuge. "Shortwave" is too murky and cerebral. But "You Are Here" could open their sets forever, "Esportes Casual" is a perky relief, "Polynesia #1" makes me want to go, "For You Too" is my kind of love song, and "Forever" is my wife's. So yes, I find succor here. A MINUS

Wreckless Eric: Construction Time & Demolition (Southern Domestic) A few fine songs peek out from these 11 tracks--the bridge-to-nowhere gentrification threnody "Gateway to Europe," the fanboy expose "Wow & Flutter," the unraveling autobiography "40 Years." So do fine chants like "The Two of Us," a title he yells 19 times. But note as well instrumentals designated "Mexican Fenders #1" and "#2," a guitar-not-car metaphor that evokes the shambolic fuzz and droll electronic detritus he smears everywhere. A deliberately unkempt whole whose stray noises will make you chuckle against your suspended judgment throughout. A MINUS

Noisey, March 2018

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