Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: December 2016

December 2, 2016

Link: Ominous If You Know the Ending: Mose Allison / Hoagy Carmichael / Johnny Mercer / Professor Longhair

Mose Allison: I'm Not Talkin': The Song Stylings of Mose Allison 1957-1971 (BGP) This Mississippi farmboy turned US serviceman turned Louisiana State English-philosophy grad turned jazz pianist-singer-songwriter died November 15, four days past an 89th birthday that couldn't have been the happiest for a Southern progressive. His relaxed drawl and time made him Sun Records' contemporary in the South's white-man-sings-the-blues sweepstakes, plus he could write. But because he identified jazz he didn't get an all-vocal album until the 1963 Prestige comp Mose Allison Sings, soon a totem for young aesthetes like Pete Townshend and Bonnie Raitt. From a base of Prestige standards like the Who cover "Young Man's Blues" and the John Mayall-etc. cover "Parchman Farm," this fortuitously timed new selection mines his uneven late-'60s Atlantic book, which has plenty to offer--the philosophical "Jus' Like Livin'," the physiological "Your Molecular Structure," the reassuring "You Can Count on Me," the endangered "Back on the Corner," the paranoid "Foolkiller," the strategically taciturn "I'm Not Talkin'" itself. My favorite is "Western Man," which begins: "Western man had a plan / And with his gun in his hand / Free from doubt / Went right out / On the world." Pretty ominous if you know what's coming. But he managed to give it a happier ending than he lived to see. A MINUS

Hoagy Carmichael: Mr. Music Master (Coral) Mose Allison set me to exploring the older Carmichael, a white songwriter from southern Indiana who played piano and loved jazz, and this confusing title is where I came to rest. When the creator of "Stardust" and "Georgia on My Mind" writes one called "The Old Music Master," discographical chaos will ensue. So I'm recommending neither the Pearl Mr. Music Master available at list from Amazon and elsewhere nor the Naxos Mr. Music Master available at bonkers ditto, which are different from each other and differenter from this modest '40s comp a Decca subsidiary tossed on the pile in 1970. Beginning with "Darktown Strutters' Ball," the only one he didn't write, and ending with the thematically related "Old Man Harlem," it's never been a CD, and although Discogs has the vinyl cheap as I write, I suggest streaming--from Spotify, Napster, Google Play. I picked it out because it lets Carmichael sing and play--brass is deployed to color or comment rather than enlarge trio arrangements that are often left to signify on their own, and no choral sweetening bedizens a talky voice that these days could pass for accomplished. Beyond "Stardust," "Georgia," and "Memphis in June," the songs are light-hearted when they're not full novelties like "He Killed 'Er," 'er being a black widow spider. In the title song, a young colored prophet advises some pal of Beethoven to "play that rhythm faster." Then he predicts music history through 1935. And then: "He hit a chord that rocked the spinet / And disappeared into the infinite." As it happens, Carmichael was a Republican back when that wasn't always a bad thing. But he did love jazz. A MINUS

Johnny Mercer: The Capitol Collectors Series (Capitol) Too bad Savannah's jazz-steeped master lyricist--"Blues in the Night," "One for My Baby," "Autumn Leaves," on and on--never mastered lounge piano, because as a big-band singer he can't resist period smarm, cute, or boilerplate ("G.I. Jive," "I'm Gonna See My Baby") ***

Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago (Orleans) Noticeably alive even backed by blues bros at folk fest, he could be live-er still ("Big Chief," "Got My Mojo Workin'") *

December 9, 2016

Link: Country Livin': Margaret Glaspy / Miranda Lambert / Kacey Musgraves / Amanda Shires / John Prine / Southern Family

Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math (ATO) The title song is about what it says it's about--"Counting the days till you're back," to be precise. But it also announces Glaspy's aesthetic strategy. Nominally she's a singer-songwriter, applying a voice labeled both lilting and gravelly but that I'd just peg as adult to songs that always make room for feelings we needn't assume are always hers. But she's even more striking as a guitarist, running a thick, rockish sound through a harmonic palette that suits both a Berklee dropout who audited master classes after she couldn't afford tuition and a Texan who got hip to passing chords playing backup fiddle with her musical family. Although her music is cleaner and clearer, she sounds like Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis if she sounds like anybody. But with Glaspy you have a clearer bead on whatever love the song is about--just not whether it's hers. A MINUS

Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings (Epic) Although singles are country's lifeblood, this Nashville chartbuster has been popular music's most consistent album artist for nearly a decade--four solo plus two by the triple-threat Pistol Annies. But on this double-CD, one subtitled "Nerve" and the other "Heart," she overreaches, sells herself short, or both--particularly, surprise surprise, on the "Heart" disc. Maybe she wants to prove something to her ex Blake Shelton, who I doubt is smart enough to justify the effort. Or maybe she just wants to convince herself she's worthy of a schmaltzfest like "Tin Man": "If you ever felt one breakin'/You wouldn't want a heart." Needless to say, I greatly prefer the album's sole solo composition, her current hit "We Can Be Friends"--rude couplets like "If you use alcohol as a sedative/And 'bless your heart' as a negative" are why I'll love her forever. But it would be sexist to insist she be all feisty all the time, and a co-write with Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe called "Use My Heart" is the love song that proves it--by pondering whether Lambert lacks the "nerve" for love. Here's hoping she learns how to put the two together. She deserves it and we need it. B PLUS

Kacey Musgraves: A Very Kacey Christmas (Mercury Nashville) Amid many welcome reminders that Christmas is mostly for kids, a few--thank you Jesus--that it isn't just for white people ("I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," "Feliz Navidad") **

Amanda Shires: My Piece of Land (Silver Knife) Unsurprisingly given her ax, go-to alt-country violinist sounds more herself on the twisty, evocative melodies than the direct, declarative rockers ("Harmless," "The Way It Dimmed," "Pale Fire") **

John Prine: For Better, or Worse (Oh Boy) 14 divorce duets plus one excellent Hank Williams ringer, none written by Prine, whose wife Fiona joins in on "My Happiness" lest you worry ("Mental Cruelty," "Just Waitin'") **

Margaret Glaspy: If & When (Storysound) In 2013 still a work in progress, especially as regards her low end ("Cynthia," "You're Smiling [But I Don't Believe You") *

Southern Family (Low Country Sound) Oh gee, go-to alt-country producer Dave Cobb's conceptual supersession is less than the sum of its parts, which, oh gee, include Zac Brown (Jason Isbell, "God Is a Working Man"; Morgane Stapleton, "You Are My Sunshine") *

December 16, 2016

Link: Deap Vally, Nots, and 'Punk': Deap Vally / The Nots / Warehouse / Sneaks

Deap Vally: Femejism (Nevado) Two-grrrl guitar-and drums, except that it's rock not punk--the guitars thick, the tunes sticky, the tempos merely up, the politics "I'm gonna do what I wanna/Do it 'cause I wanna." Feel don't think, they advise; value your bitterness, value your rage. Only they're also grrrl-smart, and sensible to boot. They know teens turn 25, then 35, eventually 85; they know sometimes that guy you want to go down on may think he can video you while you're at it. The guy of theirs I identify with is "Julian," to whom they extend their sincere regrets: "You've caught me at the wrong time." Check back in six months, pal. She might be worth the wait. A MINUS

The Nots: Cosmetic (Goner) This Memphis "punk" quartet is the rare young rock band that can pull you in on music alone. The secret is in those quotation marks, because what defines their sound is the synthesizer vocalist-guitarist-honcho Natalie Hoffman convinced her visual artist pal Alexandra Eastburn to take up. Where on their debut the result was generic grrrlpunk plus sound effect, here Eastburn bears down on the keyboard's natural sustain to imbue the accomplished enough guitarbassdrums herky-jerk with a continuity that intensifies its momentum. Part of me wishes I could understand word one of what Hoffman is going on about behind such generic titles as "Blank Reflection," "No Novelty," and "Entertain Me." But if she was smart enough to lasso Eastburn and give her her head, maybe she's also smart enough not to make herself clear until she has something new to say about her angst and ours. A MINUS

Warehouse: Super Low (Bayonet) I enjoyed this punky Atlanta Pylon derivative so much more when I realized that the raspy female voice and the grave female voice emanated from one woman in anxious dialogue with herself ("Super Low," "Reservoir") ***

Sneaks: Gymnastics (Merge) DIY Pylon miniaturizers squeeze 10 songs into 14 minutes for the ADD demographic ("No Problem," "This Is") *

December 23, 2016

Link: Choral Clatter and Savannah Sounds: Populous / Arca / Charlie Haden / The Avalanches / Burial / Horse Lords / Bon Iver / Earth Wind & Fire

Populous: Night Safari (Bad Panda/Folk Wisdom) The Italian soundscaper who got my attention kicking off the Senegambia Rebel comp begins a little electro-arpeggiated for my taste but by track three starts shading "tribal," as electro-arpeggiation fans like to sniff. I say it's nicely weird from there till the two richly climactic tracks: "Night Safari," in which crickets introduce drumlike rhythm figures that slowly gain volume, detail, and authority, and "Brasilia," a multilayered, multivocal urban showcase worth building in the right savannah. A MINUS

Arca: Entranas (self-released) Translates Entrails. Streamable at Soundcloud, downloadable at Mediafire. Divides 25 minutes into 14 untimed titles I estimate as breaking 0:00, 0:48, 2:40, 3:58; 4:29, 5:06, 5:28, 6:15-6:48, 10:38, 13:10, 13:50, 15:24, ???, 20:49, 24:10, and damn right I could be wrong, although not about 5:28. Since Alejandro Ghersi once took a class from me, discretion suggested that I respectfully note the existence of this unballyhooed abstract work from a sonic universe I seldom sample and leave it at that. But as has happened before with Arca, who's too big a deal to need my belated attention, I enjoyed its sounds too much not to say so--the lowing of "Torero," the booming of "Cement Garden Interlude," the preindustrial clatter of "Pargo." I also enjoyed Micachu's reflections on gender identity in 5:28's "Baby Doll." To simulate closure, however, it relies on the kind of choirboy soprano that's signified transcendence, spirituality, and other such rot since there were castrati who were known as such, and as ever I'm unconvinced. A MINUS

Charlie Haden Music Liberation Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse!) In a farewell so posthumous electric bassist Steve Swallow replaces him on the three Carla Bley-composed tracks, the great humanitarian tells the planet he loves it so ("Time/Life," "Song for the Whales") ***

The Avalanches: Wildflower (Astralwerks) Their rude sense of humor beats their banal sense of beauty and their unlikely song finds beat their incalculable musical appropriations, so keep your ear on Wilmouth Houdini whenever they give you the chance ("Frankie Sinatra," "The Noisy Eater," "Subways") **

Burial: "Young Death"/"Nightmarket" (Hyperdub) Two more soundscapes about vinyl and clinical depression, unofficially entitled Young Death: It Never Gets Old **

Horse Lords: Interventions (Northern Spy) The allure of the cycle--for avant-garde guitar minimalists, an oldie so goody ("Truthers," "Time Slip") *

Bon Iver: 22, a Million (Jajaguwar) So much cuter when his voice is a high pitch in the soundscape rather than a conveyor of putative verbal content ("666[bent downward arrow or else some emoji I'm too uncool to recognize]," "21 MOON WATER") *

Earth, Wind & Fire: The Classic Christmas Album (Legacy) Why the hell not? ("Joy to the World," "Sleigh Ride," "Get Your Hump on This Christmas") *

December 30, 2016

Link: End of 2016 Blues: David Bromberg / Dues Paid / The Rough Guide to Blues Women / Buddy Guy / The Rough Guide to Delta Blues

David Bromberg: The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing but the Blues (Red House) In the year the Rolling Stones capitalized their franchise on the cheap by mining the blues of their youth, who'd have guessed they'd get smoked by this equally ancient folk muso? Yet it's no contest. Where the one remake Mick and the boys shine up a little is Little Johnny Taylor's near-soul 1971 "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing," Bromberg leads a livelier band through a set that kills the same the-postman-told-me shtick. Prone as a young hippie to the fallacy that blues was a music of old men on porches, now he digs into these lyrics as the sexually insecure cuckold he can evoke as Sonny Boy Williamson and Bobby Bland could not, adding a nerdy comedy routine to Bessie Smith's "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" and showcasing the belated debut of the pathetic "How Come My Bulldog Don't Bark When You Come 'Round," which he learned long ago from a lead sheet whose composer was too embarrassed to put his name on it. In real life, meanwhile, Bromberg has long been married to musician Nancy Josephson. They own a violin store in Wilmington, Delaware, where she's made a name for herself creating vodou-influenced beaded objects in a nearby studio. Ain't love grand? And let's hear it for art, too. A MINUS

Dues Paid: The BluesTime Story (Ace) Blues revivals have a long history that began with the acoustic finds of the JFK-era folk circuit, lionized Muddy and Wolf and their crowd, and moved on. Thus wandering record mogul Bob Thiele, whose Impulse label was where Coltrane became mythic, devised the late-60s BluesTime imprint to introduce rock dudes to pre-rock Texas-KC stalwarts Big Joe Turner (1911-1985), T-Bone Walker (1910-1975), and Cleanhead Vinson (1917-1988) as well as crucial Chicago pianist-vocalist Otis Spann (1930-1970). Soon dead of cancer, Spann doesn't play much, and four of the 15 tracks document only Thiele's lifelong tendency to throw pocket change at oddities he'd tripped over (you may think you recall Harmonica Slim, but you don't). Nevertheless, Walker and Turner made many slacker records, and from beginning to end the material is either straight down the middle (Walker on "Every Day I Have the Blues," live Big Mama Thornton "Hound Dog") or so far off the plate it gets driven the other way (Turner's "Plastic Man," Walker's "Sail On"). And it saves the best for last: the 14-minute jam "Paris Blues" and the crazed Leon Thomas classic "Disillusion Blues." Really, try to hear that one. B PLUS

The Rough Guide to Blues Women (World Music Network) Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Ma Rainey all have their own fine comps; pickings are slim because women were underrecorded, and these picks don't beat the odds (Mamie Smith, "Crazy Blues"; Kate McTell Feat. Blind Willie McTell, "God Don't Like It"; Louise Bogan, "Shave 'Em Dry") ***

Buddy Guy: Born to Play Guitar (Silvertone) At 79, last Chicago blues master standing nabs cameos, nails songs by his Berklee-trained drummer, survives the Muscle Shoals Horns, and claims his birthright yet again ("Come Back Muddy," "Kiss Me Quick") **

The Rough Guide to Delta Blues (World Music Network) Spreads its net wide to remarkably unremarkable effect--even the legends don't stand up and shout about it (Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, "I'm Talking About You"; Mississippi Sheiks, "The World Is Going Wrong"; Arthur Petties, "That Won't Do") **

Noisey, December 2016

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