Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2016

June 3, 2016

Link: Listen to More (Swing) Jazz: Rough Guides / Township Swing Jazz / Debo Band

The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network '16) "South African jazz" still signifies the simple swing combos of the '50s, topped by pennywhistle or clarinet or singers such as Miriam Makeba, who you've heard of, and Dolly Rathebe, who you should hear. It's showcased most gloriously on the long-gone 1996 Music Club CD Township Jazz 'n' Jive, which captures early Afropop's heroic ebullience as well as any compilation I know. For the Zulu and Basotho and Xhosa musicians then being forced into worker camps labeled townships, liberation didn't beckon the way it did in Ghana or Guinea or Congo. But that didn't inhibit the jaunty danceability of Music Club's 18-tracks-in-48-minutes--which, sad to say, currently sells used for prices ranging as high as, and I quote, "$1,449.16." (Find a viable lesser alternative below.) In contrast, the now-deleted 2000 Rough Guide comp of this title set out to prove that post-apartheid South Africa's cultural revolutionaries could match the harmonic chops and improvisational endurance of jazz musicians worldwide even if, Abdullah Ibrahim aside, few of them were as inspired as old township heroes like West Nkosi. This new compilation also intersperses contemporary jazz with a few township numbers. But here the jazz recalls its roots as it gets respect. With the major exception of the lounge-ready "Ntyilo Ntyilo," almost every track harks back at least momentarily to the '50s combos in ethos, mood, or tune, in conscious reiteration or wacky detail; every one evinces a willed knack for living in the moment and dancing while oppressed. Try Errol Dyers's leisurely yet declarative "Dindela." Or Batsumi's neotribal-gone-urban "Emampondweni." And don't miss Dolly Rathebe's track. A MINUS

Township Swing Jazz Vol. 1 (Harlequin) Where the 18 Music Club tracks, four included here, are by 18 different artists, this 1991 Gallo Records anthology singles out just nine. With some luck I nabbed a used 20-track CD, but just as listening the 16-track MP3 version improves on it, because the four songs it eliminates are pretty generic. Then again, in township jive generic isn't always such a bad thing. Either way, think of this as a starter kit. B PLUS

Debo Band: Ere Gobez (FPE) Wary of bohemian musos gone ethnic and hostile to horn tuttis, I find this Boston-based pan-Ethiopian aggregation somewhat forced and obstreperous. Sonically, both adjectives are literal--cue up your favorite Éthiopiques comp and you'll be surprised how gentle the old stuff sounds by comparison. But from Ellington copyright to Okinawan golden oldie, other descriptives also pertain--open, surprising, catchy. And though you may have reservations about one track or another, not one is thrown away. As for bohemian musos, note that three musicians had to record their parts in Addis Ababa--cameo guests surnamed Hassen and Tesfaye, which makes sense, and a five-string violinist named Kaethe Hostetter. A dabbler I bet she ain't. B PLUS

Debo Band: Debo Band (Next Ambiance '12) The conceptual growing pains of a good idea for a band, English lyrics included ("Habesha," "Ambessel") ***

The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network '00) Indigenous African jazz any American jazz fan would enjoy once and never miss when it was over--but check its sample jive classics and revivals (Lemmy Special, "See You Later"; African Jazz Pioneers, "Nonto Sangoma") *

June 10, 2016

Link: Women Rule the World: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down / Heartsrevolution / White Lung / Heron Oblivion / The Kills

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive (Ribbon) I suppose it's simplistic to credit friendly neighborhood producer Merrill Garbus with Thao Nguyen's great leap forward from Nguyen's intelligently cheerful indie-rock. But her fifth or seventh album sure does sound like Tune-Yards. Same disquieting harmonies, same hyperactive percussion, same general roil, with Thao's lighter, more unburdened voice delivering darkened lyrics that dwell on her up-and-gone father and "an endless love" with an unhappy ending. "Carve it on out of me," she implores again and again. But due to the music, this compulsion sounds like a strength--even a triumph. A MINUS

Heartsrevolution: Ride or Die (Owsla) The band is riot grrrl Lo Safai and her muso boyfriend Ben Pollock, who make or made their living renting out her crystal-covered ice cream truck to rich kids' birthday parties. The album is the debut they began promising in 2008, which materialized two years ago to the tune of a few distracted reviews as well as full lyrics on Genius. I downloaded a press copy I forgot until I tripped over it in iTunes, whereupon it went into heavy rotation: beaty synth-guitar-drums, hummable tunes, Safai's girlish-not-grrrlish soprano delivering lyrics about following your heart down the byways of love to the end of the world. Breathy with a sweetness even when she's putting the plosives on "ping pong pussy," Safai sells the record like it's an organic lollipop. "They give us hope then they take it away" is about love and the world at the same time. "KISS" predicts "Sooner or later I'm gonna get you/Sooner or later I'm gonna let you down" so it can "hope we get forever." The birthday-ready "Final Warning" counsels: "Hey little kids you better take a warning/There's this little thing called global warming." Thirtysomethings may find the whole schmear too icky, 2008, or both. I'm charmed straight up. A MINUS

White Lung: Paradise (Domino) Feminist punk Mish Barber-Way is not innarested in the horrible old proprieties of her appointed identity markers. Enlarging her enunciated yowl and Kenneth William's articulated speed riffs with goth echo and brushing them with synthesizer, she reaches out to the hardcore unwashed with two accounts of doomed female serial killers and a fantasy about giving birth in a trailer you can bet lacks AC. Is she representing an underclass or identifying with it? It's hard to imagine she makes the distinction. A MINUS

Heron Oblivion: Heron Oblivion (Sub Pop) Decorating friendly distorto guitar swells with sad angelic vocals, 21st-century supergroup (from Espers! Howlin Rain! Comets on Fire!) makes someting of the touching belief that "psychedelic" has a musical meaning ("Sudden Lament," "Rama") ***

The Kills: Ash & Ice (Domino) Polishing your minimalism becomes organic as you age, sharpening your songwriting not so much ("Doing It to Death," "That Love") *

June 17, 2016

Link: Praise to the Most Blessed: Chance the Rapper / Aesop Rock / Mr. Lif / Lecrae

Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book (self-released) An atheist till death takes me home to nowhere, I nonetheless welcome the gospel emphasis here--larger than Kanye's, larger than goddamn Lecrae's--for how it warms Chance's tone of voice and sense of family. The irrepressible cheer of his vocals has always lit up his music. But reaccess Acid Rap and notice how whiny his timbre gets sometimes--charming, always, but immature. Here the death of his grandma (who told him he was "kosher" why, exactly?) and the birth of his daughter (joint custody not wedlock; too bad) make a man out of him vocally--that adolescent thing is a memory. And the many church singers who pile on mellow melodicism and cultural affirmation broaden his vocal muscle and instill pitch control. His cheer remains irrepressible, and essential. But it's gained weight, even beauty. A

Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers) Indubitably brilliant, indubitably self-referential, Aes has exorcised his depressive demons with admirable tenacity since 2001. But for me the charm of his vast vocabulary, Google-ready references, and indecipherable significations wore off before he was 30, so it was mainly his ace collaborations with Kimya Dawson and Homeboy Sandman that inspired me to cue this up. Just two plays in I was loving a bunch of tracks: about his brothers, his shrink, his kitten, the passed-forward tattoos and dreadlocks of young servers at Baskin-Robbins and the local juice place, and his tour of duty with the neighborhood varmint patrol. Since all these songs were uncommonly literal for Aes, I wasn't surprised when the rest proved harder to parse. But this being an artist for whom catchy is about meanings rather than hooks, I was happy enough to try. A MINUS

Mr. Lif: Don't Look Down (Mello Music) Still articulating every word in his forties, he drops rationalist science and life-or-death mysticism over loops he's proud are old-school ("Pounds of Pressure," "Mission Accomplished") **

Lecrae: Church Clothes 3 (self-released) So when exactly does Kanye tap him for a cameo? ("Gangland," "Can't Do You") *

June 24, 2016

Link: Believe It or Not, Paul Simon Is Still Making Music: Paul Simon / Plus Sized Dan / Benjamin Dean Wilson / Veda Hille / Benji Hughes

Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger (Concord) Backwards street gospel, flamenco handclaps and heelstomps, and Harry Partch microtones move and color an obsessive craftsman's insomniac lullabies. But the unease of Simon's new songs runs deeper than the existential anxiety these technical strokes alleviate, and not just because they provoke musical anxiety to do so. Early in the opener, a Milwaukeean with "a fairly decent life" is murdered by his "fairly decent wife," and soon the rich are gobbling all the extra fries as the rest of us hoard canned goods; in the one after that, a bemused tale about a stage door clicking shut transmutes into a meditation on the rage of everyone who'll never get a wristband. Five years ago it was like Simon had been soaking up the Dixie Hummingbirds for so long he'd made his covenant with God. On this record the good news is that heaven has finally been found--located a mere "six trillion light years away." A MINUS

Plus Sized Dan: Plus Sized Dan With Marshall Ruffin (Plus Sized Dan) "My people are poor people/Poor people got problems/Problems with no solution/Problems with no solution," bearded white Atlanta Berklee grad and Sunday-morning guitarist Ruffin soul-croons dejectedly. And lest we doubt their problems are really as bad as all that, he proves it by evoking four dead-end relationships with details so homely, unsensational, and depressing--"customer service on the phone" meets "a pet store smell, an old dog dish," like that--I wish I could just keep quoting them until you're convinced. Ruffin's chief enabler is Atlanta ex-Coolie and pizza baron Clay Harper, last encountered showcasing an Arabic-singing massage therapist. I hereby nominate him for any Americana award you got. A MINUS

Benjamin Dean Wilson: Small Talk (Tapete) Somebody organize a band for this Tulsa grad student (in math), who probably shouldn't even be singing his six extended, well-imagined songs about complicated middle-class lives, much less playing all the parts as if stuck on presets ("So Cool," "Sadie and the Fat Man") **

Veda Hille: Love Waves (Canadian Council of the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada) Vancouver melodist quotes Rilke, references Isherwood, reprises Gilbert & Sullivan, covers Bowie, covers Eno, insists M.F. stands for megafauna, and steals her best lines from her young son ("Burst," "Lover/Hater") **

Benji Hughes: Songs in the Key of Animals (Merge) Jingle king's lark seems designed to piss off the Anti-Silliness League and the Earworm Eradication Society ("Girls Like Shoes," "Fall Me in Love") *

Noisey, June 2016

May 2016 July 2016