Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: September 2018

September 7, 2018


John Kruth & La SocietÓ del Musici: Forever Ago (Ars Spoleteum) The book-length celebrator of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Rubber Soul and leader of the departed TriBeCaStan is a native New Yorker who gets around. So having upped his game with two albums rooted in summers spent with his Croatian-born wife in the holiday port of Split, he crossed the Adriatic to cut 14 of his songs in Spoleto with a Neapolitan mandolinist he met in Manhattan. Thematically and geographically, the material gets around too, from a Milwaukee pal loading up a bag of Christmas goodies for poorer folks across the river to a tuna melt heated up on a desert dashboard to a cautionary reflection on Croatian Catholicism: "There's only one thing that I fear / When the old communist goes to church." Switching among seven instruments including his own mandolin, honoring Sylvia Plath's paranoia, or playing checkers with his cat, he's no kind of singer except the kind Dylan let in the side door with his everyman impressions. But he sure has a broad compass. And he lives to convince anyone who'll listen that that's the best kind of compass to have--by miles. A MINUS

Clay Harper: Bleak Beauty (self-released) In a counterpart to Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me, where solitary guitarist Phil Elverum processed the shocking loss of his wife Genevieve to pancreatic cancer, Harper honors the passing of his longtime partner Stephanie Gwinn, who succumbed even faster to a brain tumor. But where Elverum's miserable minimalism grabs and haunts you, the mediated art blues of a shifting ensemble of Harper's pals is less devastated and less literal, though it never quite compels the total attention it repays. Lyric worth absorbing: "Tells me what to think and objects to what I say / I don't know why / But I like it that way." And how about: "It's me again / I'll hold your hand / I'll be your man forever / But you sigh and then / Squeeze my hand / Say what if I don't get better"? B PLUS

Sam Baker: Land of Doubt (self-released) Spare, expressionistic songster teeters across the impossible tightrope between the lugubrious and the wrenching ("Same Kind of Blues," "Moses in the Reeds," "The Feast of St. Valentine") **

Chris Butler & Ralph Carney: Songs for Unsung Holidays (Smog Veil) Pan-instrumental dynamo and world's friendliest saxophone player collaborate one last time after the latter asks, "How come there are no more silly bands?" ("Salami Appreciation Day," "Blessing of the Bikes Day," "Day of the Dead") **

September 14, 2018

Link: The Mekons 77 / Tropical Fuck Storm / Ceramic Dog / Ike Reilly / Marc Ribot

The Mekons 77: It Is Twice Blessed (Slow Things) These are not the legendary yet by some mischance obscure Brit-born Mekons an adoring cabal swears by--the collective led by Jon Langford whether or not the Country Music Hall of Fame portraitist who also leads the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Sadies, and many others admits it. So of course it was Langford who invited the Mekons' original vocalists--red-tape-cutting touring advisor Andy Corrigan and artist turned international antipoverty volunteer Mark White--to reconvene the 1977 edition of a band where current vocalists Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford played guitar and drums. Based on dim recollections of their Virgin debut, I wasn't surprised to learn the singers still can't sing, their breathy keen and outraged croak oddly indistinguishable sometimes. Yet as a Mekons fan I stuck at it, and to my surprise, these raggedy-ass plaints now add up to my favorite Mekons album since 2002's OOOH!. Corrigan and White are old enough to wonder when humanity got bored with peace and recognize that what we do now is the future. They extol border crossers, lose a daughter to war, and note that "the average British household has 50,000 things." They're "Still Waiting" for "an end to world hunger" and "the money to trickle down." And Brits though they be, they take care to address "You Lied to Us" to the president of the United States of America. A MINUS

Tropical Fuck Storm: A Laughing Death in Meatspace (Tropical Fuck Storm/Mistletone) Crucially, this reboot of vocalist-lyricist-guitarist Gareth Liddiard's Perth-spawned, Melbourne-based, Canberra-averse Drones, who earned grunge-retro renown in their politically dysfunctional land without ever breaking Stateside, leans on three women: guitarist-keyboardist Erica Dunn, drummer Lauren Hammel, and former Drones bassist Fiona Kitschin, without whose shading and amplification the frontman's sociohistorical ravings might evoke a woke Nick Cave flexing his baritone. Although Socrates' hemlock meets Jesus' crucifixion and "The Future of History" details Gary Kasparov's 1997 defeat by a computer, the history part is seldom head-on. But whether the subject is family of assholes in legal trouble they deserve or plywood houses that should be armor-plated, Liddiard's songs are more sociopolitically situated than less verbose types generally manage, plus there's a Trump number where an Oompa Loompa brandishes drones and nukes. "The down side is that we're all about to get royally fucked / And the upside is we're all about to get screwed," he concludes. In most rock, this kind of dark joke comes off cheap if not stupid. Tropical Fuck Storm know how to scare you with them. A MINUS

Ceramic Dog: YRU Still Here? (Northern Spy) Disruptive, radical, all that good stuff, Marc Ribot-Shahzad Ismaily-Ches Smith jams are nonethless strongest at their most ideological ("Fuck La Migra," "Pennsylvania 6 6666," "Muslim Jewish Resistance") ***

Ike Reilly: Crooked Love (Rock Ridge) Never-say-die hipster rails at the powers that be--wins one occasionally, too ("Boltcutter Blues," "Clean Blood Blues") **

Marc Ribot: Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 (Anti-) True politics, true musicianship, and true diversity, with barely an anthem or fight song to be heard ("John Brown [Feat. Fay Victor]," "Knock That Statue Down [Feat. Mark Ribot & Syd Straw]," "Ain't Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around [Feat. Steve Earle & Tift Merritt]") *

September 21, 2018

Link: Eminem / Jean Grae & Quelle Chris, E-40, Rae Sremmurd

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope) Because I was between gigs when it came out in late 2013, I never reviewed Eminem's finest post-Encore release. But with Kamikaze dropped just nine months after Revival was trampled into the sod by a gaggle of sheep, I remain impressed by an underrated album that left Eminem well behind such dullards as Queens of the Stone Age and Phosphorescent in the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll that year. Already Marshall Mathers had worn out his welcome like Jerry Lee Lewis banished with his child bride, an analogy anyone who knows more than two Jerry Lee songs should consider. Lewis wasn't a very stable or likable guy either, but he was an irrepressible virtuoso. He seemed connected to his piano by the brain stem, so imbued with music that he emitted it unbidden, launching songs of every provenance that he might do this way and might do that--or the other. Eminem is far less spontaneous. But here his musicality runs free as his practiced articulation reminds us what flow used to mean, delivering lyrics honed until every line offers up an internal rhyme or stealth homophone or surprise pun or trick enjambment. Also, he holds his Slim Shady side in check here--offensive cracks remain undeveloped, with the "I'm a sucker for love you a sucker for dick" stanza delivered by none other than guest paragon Kendrick Lamar. You don't like it, you don't really like the art form, simple as that. A

Eminem: Kamikaze (Aftermath/Shady/Interscope/Goliath) Strangely, the album he devotes to demolishing the Metacritic drones and social media ignorami who slimed Revival is more substantial than that clumsy labor of pride itself. That's because it's about hip-hop, his truest passion and sole area of undeniable expertise, rather than the larger emotional and political themes of what he conceived as a groundbreaking statement of principle. I mean, I like Migos, "Hanna Montana" as much as "Bad and Boujee." But anyone who got through the ambient overkill of Culture II without falling asleep should kick meth, and the parodies of the trio here are overdue--"Brain dead, eyedrops/Pain meds, Cyclops/Daybed, iPod/May-back, Maybach" or "Lug nut coaster [actual online-available consumer durable]/Lung jug roaster [set-up]/Young Thug poster [wham]/Unplugged toaster [cool]" even more than the thematic "Hatata batata, why don't we make a bunch of songs about nothin' and mumble 'em." Similarly, the relationship songs are Kim songs that don't mention her name--metaphors for the emotional dysfunctionality of a narrator whose only show of relatable feeling here comes with his highly belated farewell to his D-12 crew. As for calling Tyler the Creator the F-word, can I mention that rebel without a clue Tyler has misused that odious term far more freely than Eminem ever did--and that the pro forma p.c.-ness of Mathers's apology ("hurting a lot of other people," attaboy) comes as a relief from someone we can hope comes to terms with conventional morality e'en now. B PLUS

Jean Grae & Quelle Chris: Everything's Fine (Mello Music) Honorable alt-rap vet extracts long-awaited album from alt's most musical rapper, which despite many fine moments isn't focused by its silly concept and ends up longer on his raps than hers ("Waiting for the Moon," "Gold Purple Orange") ***

E-40: The Gift of Gab (HT5) At 50, he's still at his comic ease delivering blood-spilling, bitch-calling, dope-peddling truths and tales with a Cornel West coda because he knows that's real too ("When Life Shows Up," "These Days") **

Rae Sremmurd: SR3MM (Eardruma/Interscope) Two hours of generic sui generis hip-hop so easy on the ears you might think they never got the chance to utter the word "bitch" once--but you'd be very wrong ("Up in My Cocina," "Keep God First") *

September 28, 2018

Link: Noname / The Internet / Blood Orange / Medhane

Noname: Room 25 (self-released) I got why hip-hop heads were so besotted with her 2016 Telefone. But back then I felt she wasn't quite there yet--"on the brink of a poetic breakthrough" rather than in flight--and segueing directly from Telefone to Room 25 convinces me I was right. Lovely as Telefone is, Room 25 is standing up and waving as of the hummed piano intro to the 1:35 "Self," and soon "My pussy teachin ninth-grade English / My pussy wrote a thesis on colonialism" is rendering "And y'all still thought a bitch couldn't rap huh?" a rhetorical question. I can't resist a few quotes: "Africa's never dead, Africa's always dying," "Globalization's scary and fuckin' is fantastic," "Titties 13K, the pretty costs these days." Or mentioning that though Noname is glad you told her Telefone "saves lives," you should also be aware that she "got no money" and "almost passed out drinking." But delivering all this poetry is the dealmaker: a delicate, even fragile vocal pulse that's also complex and eventful, floating a murmured flow so conversational its rhythmic acuity seems modest, uncalculated. Noname carries the first half of the 35-minute album pretty much alone. But when other vocalists join her--Ravyn Lenae, Phoelix, Smino & Saba--their role is to augment and embellish her sound rather than change it up. Not only is she the boss, she's the source. And I admit it--I like Telefone more now. A

The Internet: Hive Mind (Columbia) Syd has the virtue of enjoying her success without getting a big head about it--she's so sensible she could already be squirreling away Roths and 401-Ks. And fine though she is solo, you can hear why she sticks with her group. Steve Lacy's skittering subtlety on guitar and solid quietude on bass suit what we might as well call her spirituality, a gentleness that never comes across genteel or weak or connects explicitly to her unassuming lesbianism, although you begin to sense a yen for serious romance after enough fooling around. "Look What U Started" is a kissoff song. But not only do you believe she's in the right, you notice how unvindictive she sounds. And then you go back and suss that "Next Time/Humble Pie" posits a second meet-up with a honey she has her eye on before she can finally dare a simple "I said hello." So maybe she's not spiritual after all. Maybe she's just shy. A MINUS

Blood Orange: Negro Swan (Domino) Bullied ambisexual child weaves adult aural tapestry about black depression that's more pleasing in its overall affect than its lyrical-to-meandering musical specifics ("Nappy Wonder," "Charcoal Baby") ***

Medhane: Ba Suba, Ak Jamm (Grand Closing) Depressive hip-hop beatmaking as economic--and professional--struggle ("Garden," "Clouds") *

Noisey, September 2018

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