Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: July 2018

July 6, 2018

Link: tUnE-yArDs / Courntey Barnett / Neko Case / Kurt Vile / Lily Allen

tUnE-yArDs: I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD) Merrill Garbus has a gift for embarrassing people, especially by caring so deeply about the unpackable racial complexities her music has always addressed head on. It's these complexities she's now chastised for making a mess of in a time-slip when African-Americans have earned the right to charge appropriation whenever white musicians venture into racial territory, which is such a relief to the many white people eager to let things ride. On an album marked by the theme statements "I must be witness to everything," "Honesty, honesty gone / Don't know right from wrong," and "I know I'm not to be trusted," she acknowledges more white guilt than she's probably incurred, so of course sometimes she's clumsy about it. Who isn't? But with decisive input from bassist-lifemate Nate Brenner, her musicality--smoother here, perhaps due to the black-pop softeners some reviewers descry--remains something to believe in. Proud against her better judgment, she can't stop exploring her art or living her life. "Sitting in the middle of the Sixth Extinction / Silently suggesting the investment in a generator," she gives no sign she'll ever stop flailing away at everything that makes her crazy and compels her to sing. A MINUS

Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop) Cheeky title notwithstanding, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. didn't just sit. It was an album where a band powered up at just the moment its singer evolved into a guitarist to reckon with as she came up with the best-observed lyrics of her life. Three years later, what little observation there is peers inward--half the songs sound written in a flat she hasn't left in a week. If anything, the band is sharper. But rather than a singer dynamic enough to match it, we get a dynamic guitarist who also happens to be the sole lyricist and solo singer. So be grateful for the Margaret Atwood lift "I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them," especially for sparking the crucial add-on "I hold my keys between my fingers." And for a finale called "Sunday Roast," where someone she likes comes for a visit. A MINUS

Neko Case: Hell-On (Anti-) Lyrically and melodically, Case has never been more accessible or accomplished. Emotionally, however, she's as distant as ever, and no longer inclined to soften that fact with a reassuring scrim of obscurism. Like her, you may well think God is a tire fire and petroleum an offense against the organic life it exploits and destroys. But that won't make the two of you allies--she rides alone. Here she's smartest and most effective memorializing a family friend who abused children without assaulting them sexually or physically, rendering him the proximate cause of "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" and its devastated "So I left home and faked my ID/And fucked every man that I wanted to be." B PLUS

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (Matador) Fetching guitars, nice goofy vibe, songwriting dominated by spaced-out drip Vile rather than Barnett's distracted depressive ("Over Everything," "Continental Breakfast") **

Lily Allen: No Shame (Warner Bros.) Thrown out of whack by bad romance and worse social media, she's no longer so clever about putting up a front or hiding behind a tune, but don't assume it's permanent--not yet ("Three," "My One") *

July 13, 2018

Link: Pusha T / Tierra Whack / Kanye West / Kid Cudi / Gift of Gab / Nas

Pusha T: Daytona (G.O.O.D. Music) G.O.O.D. Music's weekly-EP gimmick was basically a neat excuse to fuck around and call it art. But as a compression device, the seven-song limit was perfect for framing and accentuating its CEO's narrow strengths in an opener the series never got near to topping. Pusha's verbal pride is a formal passion that rejects both excess and half measures as he enunciates every syllable in his impassive, sibilant flow, and no objective observer would deny how skilled he is at narrativizing the cocaine hustle. But where 45 minutes of his unflinching tales wear ordinary humans out, the EP format compels him to hone every line, as in, oh: "If you ain't energized like the bunny for drug money / Or been paralyzed by the sight of a drug mummy / This ain't really for you, this for the Goya Montoya / Who said I couldn't stop, then afforded me all the lawyers." It also helps that the label owner provides the hardest and simplest beats he's stooped to in years. And that Pusha hates Drake so much he compares him to Trump. A

Tierra Whack: Whack World (self-released) The third commandment of my school of Orthodox Rock Criticism, after "Fuck getting there first" and "Never read the comments," is "Thou shalt not watch the video." We Orthodox stick to music music music. So having concluded after a few streams that these 15 one-minute songs belonged in my permanent collection as songs, I'm reviewing the music here--a burn of the Philadelphia rapper-singsonger's EP, which I DLed from Amazon after determining that it wasn't on Bandcamp. The fragments gain emotional weight as they accrue, so that the second half is more affecting than the jokes, brags, reveries, and interpersonal touches that draw you in, with the turning point the hooky hillbilly stomp "Fuck Off." But the most emotional moment of all is the 15 seconds of wordless, keyboard-brushed cymbal ticks that transition out of Whack's final line: "I know that I am worth mo-o-o-ore." Having figured all this out, however, I decided that professional ethics required me to check the video everybody was raving about on my desktop. And how about that--for once everybody was right. Soon I had it up on the flat-screen for my wife, who'd only liked the EP. The video she loved. "It gave me reason for living," she told me, and we all need those these days. A MINUS [Later: A]

Kanye West and Kid Cudi: Kids See Ghosts (G.O.O.D. Music) What's best about this trifle isn't that the big man and his protege acknowledge their madness, with West shitcanning his meds while Cudi turns into such a rehab nut that the five-minute focus track "Reborn" repeats the mantra "I'm movin' forward" 53 times." Instead, what's best is that they fool around like male bonders should--"Feel the Love"'s vocal rat-a-tats, "Fourth Dimension"'s Louis Prima sample, "Kids See Ghosts"'s nursery rhyme in waiting, "Freeee"'s long guttural E's. So its closest brush with wisdom is political rather than therapeutic: Yasiin Bey a/k/a Mos Def envisioning "Civilization without society / Power and wealth with nobility / Stability without stasis / Spaces and places." A MINUS

Gift of Gab: Rejoice! Rappers Are Rapping Again! (Giftstribution) Don't let the "again" suck you in--of course he's more fluid and sapient than the Soundcloud upstarts, but they have things to tell the world that he can't ("Gentrification Song," "Freedom Form Flowing") ***

Nas: Nasir (G.O.O.D. Music) Bringing the knowledge, mixing in the sophistry, and dropping a laugh line he knows the boss can't top: "Everybody's saying my humility's infectious," what a card ("Cops Shot the Kid," "Everything") *

Kanye West: Ye (G.O.O.D. Music) The assiest moment in his half-assed attempt to make asshattery germane again is when he claims #MeToo for his foggy fat self, and if it's also the catchiest, fuck you if you can't take a joke--her too ("All Mine," "Yikes") *

July 20, 2018

Link: Sophie / Beats Antique / DJ Koze / Allen Ravenstine

Sophie: Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides (Transgressive/Future Classic) The riskiest tracks here are the two where the London-to-L.A. producer-vocalist suppresses one half or the other of her disorienting stealth-comic synthesis: the opening "It's Okay to Cry," which leans hard on the soprano whose dulcet artifice is believed by some metaphysicians to represent her TRUE SELF, and the six-minute "Pretending," all strident squalls and swells that roll slowly to a stop like hardening lava or a Harley slurping its last ounce of fuel. Often I tune out the first and get annoyed with the second. But the rest of the album is all laughs and thrills in which sweet clarity defies a panoply of beaty techno sound effects at different junctures every time you listen. For me the most reliable comes as a reward right after "Pretending": "Immaterial," where she has the generosity to grant one of technodancepop's most generic and cheerful riffs the Sophie version of eternal life. A MINUS

Beats Antique: Shadowbox (Beats Antique) Struck by this Oakland trio's tenth-anniversary album, which was released shortly before Donald Trump killed Leonard Cohen in 2016, I delayed coverage because I hadn't given them a thought since 2008's Collide and also because I got distracted. I hope they're working on the next one as I write. But I can finally attest that if you're buzzed by the idea of Middle East dub rendered vaster by the complementary miracles of data storage and guest cameos, this is where to start and you're unlikely to need a whole lot more. Simultaneously atmospheric and detailed, abstract and groovalicious, it makes the case for international understanding while limiting its lyrical content to a distorted chant called "Vendetta," a defense of a 17-year-old murderer, something in Japanese called "Three Sisters," and something in French that includes the word "salaam." A MINUS

DJ Koze: Knock Knock (Pampa) Kindly Berlin psych DJ does his bit for world peace with complex feel-good mix, world keeps feeling bad anyway ("Pick Up," "Club der Ewigkeiten") **

Allen Ravenstine: Waiting for the Bomb (Morphius/MVD) Pere Ubu synthmaster concocts instrumental evocations of the historical period preceding not the bomb we're waiting for now, but the bomb they were waiting for in the '50s, which had the decency never to arrive ("If Only There Was More Time," "Day Shift") *

July 27, 2018

Link: Elza Soares / Tom Zé / Iara Rennó

Elza Soares: Deus É Mulher (Deck) Soares was a major samba star for decades--a more robust singer than Gal Costa or Maria Bethania, say, with a voice you can still stream till you drown in it should that option appeal. But I prefer the disruptive Soares masterminded by producer Guilherme Kastrup on 2016's The Woman at the End of the World (A Muher Do Fim Do Mundo)--the same Soares I got to witness holding forth from atop a pyramidal six-foot throne at an enthralled Town Hall in May, 2017. This Kastrup follow-up surfaced a year later, as Soares turned 81, and once again it roughs up the suave beauty of carioca convention. You don't need to know the title translates to God Is Woman to register how Soares's no longer curvaceous contralto makes the lyrics sound skeptical and soul-deep at the same time. But spelunk around and find a few clunky translations anyway. "Hyenas on TV," say--what in the world could that be about? For a credo, how about "To be happy at the moment is the strength that envelops me"? And to sum up her spiritual goals? Defining "clarity" as "the day so lucid," "a lucky remnant," "the shadow of death," and--best of all--"uncomfortable." A MINUS

Tom Zé: Sem Vocę Nâo A (Irara) Zé isn't just a great artist. He's an ever-evolving one, an 81-year-old who sings this album with a warmth and verve that does equal justice to his melodic grace and his sing-song hooks. But the songs themselves are less intriguing than usual. Written for children 30 years ago, their lyrics apparently add up to an associative fable about the alphabet losing the letter A. "Is that A for amor?" one wonders, and maybe Portuguese speakers can figure out an answer, although that answer won't strictly speaking be Zé's--the words are by his illustrator friend Elifas Andreato. But for the rest of us it's just Zé's kiddie record, an apt but minor addition to a major legacy. B PLUS

Iara Rennó: Arca (YB Music) Second-generation sambista gathers all-female ensemble for rock-tinged, salt-flavored reflections on her artistic heritage that can now be downloaded free from her website ("Mama-Me," "Sonâmbula," "O Que Me Arde") ***

Tom Zé: Tribunal do Feicebuqui (Irara) For non-Lusophones, the wittiest moment of the avant-garde jingle writer's five-song rejoinder to the haters who Feicebuque-shamed his Coke commercial is the Microsoft fanfare that announces the enterprise, and he knows it ("Irará Iralá," "Zé a zero") ***

Iara Rennó: Flecha (YB Music) Whatever it signifies, it's the second and less musically pointed of two linked mini-albums that translates "arrow," where the first is "bow" ("Ritmo de Moçada," "Se Amanhence") *

Noisey, July 2018

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