Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2019

June 7, 2019

Link: Big Thief / Vampire Weekend / Martin Frawley / Fred Thomas / The Yawpers

Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD) The deepest satisfaction of Big Thief is hearing something manifestly fragile hold together. Notions and emotions so fleeting they're gone before you can pin them down embody and then vanquish uncertainty before it can settle into the depression that may well lurk below. Each quiet, tiny-voiced tune emerges like a crocus pushing through the snow, and how much you enjoy as opposed to admire it will depend on how moving you find minor miracles. Not terribly fragile myself, I identify most readily with the subtle blatancies that sometimes surface--the quiet boom of the lead-in to "Jenni," or "Cattails" with its noticeable beat and subtle guitar hook sounding almost martial in this sonic context. But I'm definitely touched by the whole. A MINUS

Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride (Columbia) Somehow the raft of confused reviews that greeted VW's half-decade-coming fourth album failed to ditch the old saw that set designer's son turned Columbia scholarship boy Ezra Koenig sings the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Maybe this is because at 35 he actually does, just not the "Ivy League" ones of legend. More likely, however, the problem is sheer befuddlement at how complex this class stuff can be. So recognize that his rich-and-famous has little resemblance to the old-money kind. It's Hollywood rich-and-famous, and far from its upper reaches, although Quincy Jones is eight-month-old Isaiah Jones Koenig's granddad. As I hear this sprightly, allusive, elusive, technically accomplished collection, all but a few of its 18 melodic yet seldom uplifting or effervescent songs bespeak some fraught combination of lost youth, career anxiety, and, way down deep, political dismay. "Why's it felt like Halloween / Since Christmas 2017?" Peruse the lyric booklet and find other such moments among these honeyed puzzlers. B PLUS

Martin Frawley: Undone at 31 (Merge) Like many former twerps, former Twerp Frawley understands love's pains, pleasures, and epiphanies so much better than the horndogs who get laid all the time (they tell us) ("You Want Me?" "Smoke in Your House") ***

Fred Thomas: Aftering (Polyvinyl) Depressed chronicler of the indie life keeps his spirits up while fretting about the size of his gut ("House Show, Late December," "Altar") **

The Yawpers: Human Question (Bloodshot) Ingrained humanism and earned guitar chops only get a song so far without some kind of rousing chorus to take it home ("Can't Wait," "Child of Mercy") *

June 14, 2019

Link: Lewis Capaldi / Lizzo / Kevin Abstract

Lewis Capaldi: Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent (Capitol) Although he shares the writing with an array of minor U.K. song doctors, this very male, unassumingly unsexist 22-year-old Scot deploys his big open white-soul voice with an originality so built-in few outside his growing female fanbase will notice. His secret weapon is that he's no dreamboat, a step or two less sexy than melodic everyman Ed Sheeran--shlubby, blokeish, with white socks, black shoes, and just-woke-up hair, he looks and acts like a goofy guy who does truly need a fangirl's love. And although more of his songs excavate romance's pain than celebrate its bliss, they come with plenty of self-examination and minimal blaming the other: even the opening "I'm not ready to be just another of your mistakes" is pretty mild, and then there's "I was getting kind of used to being someone you loved," "How come I'm the only one who seems to get in my way," and "I'm sayin' thank you to the one who let her get away." While it's likely every one of these lines has been uttered verbatim somewhere somehow, they're each one perfect, and putting them all on one album is a feat of uncommon emotional intelligence. My fond belief is that every word is Capaldi's. The song doctors just made sure they're catchy enough. A MINUS

Lizzo: Cuz I Love You (Atlantic/Nice Life) Bigging up via an exuberantly overstated intensity that doesn't quit when the tempo eases and only slows to a creep for some erotica that gets loud at a climax worthy of the name, this long-running hopeful makes good on an iconicity worthy of her casual pride and skilled transition from rapper to singer. She's so talented it's hard to believe it took her till 31 to get the job done until you consider how many doubts and fears she must have faced down first. Part of the way she enacts her pride is to pretend it comes effortlessly, as is her right. But you can be sure she has some confessionals in store. A MINUS

Kevin Abstract: Arizona Baby (Question Everything, Inc./RCA) Brockhampton guy keeps the details of his joys and sorrows too deep in the lyrical closet for us to see what's in there. ("Big Wheels," "Joyride") ***

Lizzo: Coconut Oil (Atlantic/Nice Life) Still figuring it out on this 2016 EP, her clear, capable voice hasn't gained the voracity her image sets you up for. ("Good as Hell," "Phone") **

June 21, 2019

Link: Chai / Charly Bliss / Tacocat / Abjects / Drinking Boys and Girls Choir / Pup

Chai: Punk (Burger) Proudly "new-cute" and post-if-not-quasi J-pop, Mana, Kana, Yuki, and Yuna play k, g, b, and d respectively. On their second album, they beef up the high-soprano chants of their 2017 Pink with hard beats that turn march-like occasionally. They also decorate their lyrics with stray bits of English. "Choose go!" "Don't kidding me." "What a cute girl I am! What a cute girl you are!" "Do you do housework? It's a great job! [Chortle chortle chortle chortle]." Replete with bite and body yet so light it might blow away like a puffball in a summer breeze, it's super simple yet unprecedented in its tiny way. Grab it now. It'll still be there when you open your hand--I promise. A MINUS

Charly Bliss: Young Enough (Barsuk) It's been a while since a new power-pop machine has operated at this pitch of tuneful intensity. Eva Hendricks never lets her breathy childishness undercut her determined professionalism, and she doesn't live in a catchy bubble--the lead "Blown to Bits" catalogs satisfactions, distractions, and incidentals ripe for extinction in a world where an unnamed "he," as "Bleach" puts it, "could destroy everything that I like." Still, something about these songs feels pat, even unempathetic sometimes. Beneath their punk-informed momentum and textured-chrome surface are self-realization precepts about believing in who you are and accepting your own insecurities that mean more to well-fixed postcollegiates still figuring shit out than to those all too preoccupied with earning a living. These are legitimate power-pop themes. But spiritually they only take you so far. A MINUS

Tacocat: This Mess Is a Place (Hardly Art) "What a time to be barely alive" equals dejection that bridges the social and the personal, but putting dejection across requires more musical drama than they have in them ("Hologram," "Grains of Salt") **

Abjects: Never Give Up (Yippee Ki Yay) Who better than a London-based punk trio made up of Noemi from Spain, Yuki from Japan, and Alice from Italy to sing one called "Fuck Brexit"--which isn't even their best song! ("Never Give Up," "Awake") **

Drinking Boys and Girls Choir: Keep Drinking (Damnably) Do how they sound, which is punky-tuneful-rebellious, not what they say, which is usually in Korean anyway. ("Keep Drinking!!," "Oh My California") **

Pup: Morbid Stuff (Little Dipper) Punks or not, even Canadian road dogs tend to turn macho if they're male to begin with, a tendency softened here by images of death that feel fearful, as they should. ("Closure," "Morbid Stuff") *

June 28, 2019

Link: Desaparecidos / Nicki Minaj / Mekons / Kristi Stassinopoulou & Stathis Kalyviotis / Western Centuries / Wreckless Eric / Better Oblivion Community Center / Robert Cray

Desaparecidos: Payola (Epitaph) The catch in Conor Oberst's voice isn't much of a vehicle for punk outrage, but that's not why so many ignored his gift for the conscious quatrain when he released this just as Trump began making bigotry big again in June, 2015. It's the alt-rock world's endemic confusion of the explicit with the corny combined with the pop world's aversion for anything serious except romantic chagrin. The bombast is so committed to volume that the tunes get muffled. But that doesn't mean they're not there. And among lyrics that vary in quality and clarity as lyrics will, most are sharp and five are machetes: "City on the Hill" excavating the bones it's built on, "Search the Searches"'s surveillance-state advisory, "Golden Parachutes"'s venture-capital spreadsheet, "MariKKKopa"'s refugee anthem, and "Te Amo Camila Vallejo," for Chile's very own AOC. A MINUS

Nicki Minaj: Queen (Young Money/Cash Money/Republic) I missed this August 2018 item while homing in on Eminem's September album because hip-hop's bureau of standards brushed hers aside as inconsequential while actively attacking his as an offense against the polity. In fact, both are quick-lipped, sharp-tongued arguments for the hip-hop they and I came up on and the endangered kind of flow both excel at. And both are funny, outrageous, self-confident announcements that neither artist has any intention of going away. Minaj articulates the stakes with the opening "As the world turns, the blunt burns/Watch them cunts learn" before reeling off three pointedly female, pointedly unfeminine sex songs so spectacular that the album never tops them. She also drops brand names like a good rap star should and shows off her connections with seven high-profile cameos, including godmother Foxy Brown, little sister Ariana Grande, postflow Swae Lee, and world speedster Eminem himself. And then there's the best touch--her hip-hop turf all too obviously contested, she doesn't sing a note. A MINUS

Mekons: Deserted (Bloodshot) Powering rock music of ineluctable muscle with Tom Greenhalgh's congested outcry at its heart, it's more like they're struggling out of the mud than spinning their wheels in the sand, so pray it's not an omen that the mud still has them as it does us all. ("Harar 1883," "Lawrence of California") ***

Kristi Stassinopoulou & Stathis Kalyviotis: NYN (Riverboat) Keyed to Stassinopoulou's simultaneously gentle and haunting soprano, Greek multi-traditionalists find pleasure and the will to go on in schooled, imaginative modern fusions. ("Erhatai Heimonas [Winter Is Coming]," "Kyma To Kyma [Wave by Wave]") ***

Western Centuries: Songs From the Deluge (Free Dirt) Devoid of cornball retro throughout, three-songwriter nuevo-honky tonk combo rises to the top whenever Ethan Lawton's number comes up. ("Far From Home," "Own Private Honky Tonk") ***

Wreckless Eric: Transience (Southern Domestic) Half a dozen riffs durable enough to support a jam of sorts, many attached to strong first lines, perhaps three of which unfold into full-fledged songs. ("Father of the Man," "Strange Locomotion") ***

Better Oblivion Community Center: Better Oblivion Community Center (Dead Oceans) In which Conor and Phoebe muster too much crafty retrospect and tuneful desperation, not enough clear-eyed anger or social resolve. ("Didn't Know What I Was In For," "Chesapeake") **

Robert Cray: Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm (Jay-Vee) Al Green's band is the concept for a blues reviver who's always written even better than he played and played rather better than he sang, with focus tracks by the late great Lowman Pauling and the Trump-despising blues reviver himself. ("I'm With You," "Just How Low"). *

Noisey, June 2019

May 2019 Sept. 18, 2019