Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: February 2017

February 3, 2017

Link: Injury Reserve / The Hamilton Mixtape / Atmosphere / Noname / Ka / J. Cole / Kool A.D. / Battle Hymns

Injury Reserve: Floss (Las Fuegas) Two rappers from, well, suburban Phoenix--native Arizonan Ritchie With the T, a year short of a B.A. with his dad dead and his mom fighting cancer, and Oakland immigrant Steppa J. Groggs, pushing 30 with drug, alcohol, and weight problems and a new daughter--generate the most unpretentious hip-hop you ever heard. No bitch fictions unless protecting her bad self with their dad self counts. No street fictions either--if you must come strapped, they request you leave it in your pants. No preaching even as they dispatch anti-black bias, anti-Native American bias, consumer fetishism, global warming, and the trans bathroom perplex in one 100-second interlude. No flexible flow or crystalline enunciation, yet every apt word distinct. Parker Corey's production nothing to tweet about, yet every beat strong and hook real. The sole questionable moment comes when Ritchie anticipates his Grammy nomination in "Look Mama I Did It," a longshot even if you give him props for not claiming the statuette itself. But when they say they're making a living at it, you'll believe they deserve to earn more in this perilous year than they did last. A MINUS

The Hamilton Mixtape (Atlantic) Few of the three dozen featured performers are any kind of hanger-on--Jimmy Fallon sure, maybe Andra Day or Francis and the Lights, but not, for instance, Snow Tha Product or Riz MC or Residente, who take the multilingual "Immigrants" home. But it is a mixtape--up, down, and all over the place. So its lessons and pleasures hang together in only one respect--by proving that committed rappers and pop stars do more for these theater songs than the actors who rendered them a phenomenon. It also reminds us that a hyper-intelligent rapper of dubious flow will eventually sound iconic if granted sufficient access to our earholes--Kanye West, meet Lin-Manuel Miranda. It affords Kelly Clarkson the smartest big ballad of her leather-lunged life. It finds a social use for Ja Rule and Wiz Khalifa. It folds in an anti-slavery bonus. It gives Dessa a chance. In some kinda way, it works. A MINUS

Injury Reserve: Live From the Dentist Office (Las Fuegas) Still deciding what to rap about on their debut, they deliver the eternal we're-good-rappers-so-listen-up with their already trademark matter-of-factness. To hammer their point home, they provide hooks in highly reliable fashion, two of the best attached to lyrics more lyrical than the titles "Yo" and "Wow" portend. On two successive six-minute closers, however, they either run out of ideas or mistake slowcore for a good one. B PLUS

Atmosphere: Fishing Blues (Rhymesayers) Rap lifer is so glad he got there and hopes you are too ("Next to You," "The Shit That We've Been Through") ***

Noname: Telefone (self-released) On the brink of a poetic breakthrough, gentle sweety-pie with a Hennessy habit isn't ready to assume the burden, not quite yet ("Yesterday," "Casket Pretty") ***

Ka: Honor Killed the Samurai (Iron Works) 46-year-old NYC firefighter--a "job," not a "calling," he stresses--crystallizes Brownsville gangsta knowledge into finely worked rhymes gruffly and grittily served ("Finer Things/Tamahagee," "Just") **

J. Cole: For Your Eyez Only (Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope) So dweeby he's got balls about it, and you gotta love two of the most domestic love songs in a hip hop canon guaranteed to ignore them ("Foldin Clothes," "She's Mine Pt 2") *

Kool A.D.: Official (self-released) Boy Crisis founder changes shit up on theoretically hit-seeking hyphy album ("Es Nada," "U Kno We on the West Side") *

Battle Hymns ( Pay what you want, but with every penny forwarded to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and, I clicked the suggested 20 bucks for this Portland-scene "protest record." Though it does fade at the end, a perceived historical imperative focuses these aesthetes on the proudly political. Not only is there no alt-poetic obscurantism, there's nothing preachy-programmatic-etc. about the sure shots, which outnumber the OKs two-to-one unless you're "bored" by phraseology like "We Won't Go Back," "Fight the Hate," "Save Our Soul," and "Love in the Time of Resistance," in which case Love Always, Mary Timony, Boss Hog, and Corin Tucker will get in your face about it. Most historic are Quasi's allegorical "Ballad of Donald Duck & Elmer Fudd" and Mac McCaughan's post-slack motherfucker "Happy New Year (Prince Can't Die Again)." "This year it seemed like nothing really mattered / You could be any horrible thing and rise to the top of the shitheap," he recalls. "Next year might be better / But I don't see any proof," he admits. Yet he brims with love and energy anyway: "Play the long game, muster up some cheer," he advises, then predicts "The South won't rise again." He's from North Carolina, so let's hope he knows something. A MINUS

February 10, 2017

Link: Ab-Soul / Danny Brown

Ab-Soul: Do What Thou Wilt (Top Dawg Entertainment) "Mischievous, mysterious, miscellaneous," he calls himself--with exceptional self-awareness if you ask me. This big reader with the pathologically light-sensitive eyes will never write a senior thesis--college rap he ain't, which is a positive, nuhmean? But his music emanates intellectual excitement and pleasure as he grows up. Confused though the particulars of his "heroine addiction" are, his tree-huffing doggishness recedes whenever he rhymes his feminist-curious yearnings, and if his politics are too Aleister Crowley, at least he's down with the Beatles' psychedelic seer rather than Zeppelin's megalomaniac. As listening, more fun than his fellow Black Hippy's outtakes for sure. As wordplay too. As thinking, leaves room for improvement and reason to hope there'll be some. A MINUS

Danny Brown: XXX (Fool's Gold '11) "It's the Adderall admiral writing holy mackerel/Your bitch say my dick long like the strap on a satchel/I took me a capsule with no hassle/Now it's like I dip feathers of ink in a castle." For Brown, these lines are subaverage. But they were playing when I decided to describe his writing, and instantly I realized that his subaverage was 90th percentile at least--vocabulary like "satchel," vernacular like "holy mackerel," arcana like the quill pen, six off-rhymes in four lines, the news that he spun them off on speed. Also, he raps in at least two voices--one higher than his Detroit homeboy Shady's, one so street-manly he sounds like someone else. By changing up the usual fatalistic dope-fiend hedonism with new verbiage and situations--I direct sex fiends to the cunt-lapping relish of "I Will"--Brown's first proper album means to show us he's got a right to "Die Like a Rockstar," meaning rich, high, and verging on bored. But two-thirds in it suddenly turns as bleak as his ruined city. "DNA" blames not his father but his father's genes. A two-song sequence frames the downhill choices of a middle-class groupie as the tragedy they are. And the social-realist "Scrap or Die" gives us the dirt on the hood's heaviest junk--scrap metal stripped from condemned buildings. A MINUS

Danny Brown: Old (Fool's Gold '13) "They want the old Danny Brown," begins "Side A (Old)." So he executes a straight street-dealing rhyme like the ex-con he is, tells us how seven-year-old Danny got stomped by fiends on a trip to the store, and pairs off two lookbacks as convincing as anything in the hood-life literature--"25 Bucks," where his mom braids hair on the stairs for their supper, only then there's "Torture," where one fiend beats another with a hammer and another has pit bulls loosed on her pussy. "Side B (Dope Song)" begins with his very last, yeah sure, dope song before dealing up some of hip-hop's most detailed porn--Brown is the rare rapper for whom sex is about pleasure not power, flesh not hot air. But the climax is "Kush Coma," which is about what it says it's about and rides an eerie synth sustain to prove it. And the clincher is Ab-Soul's cameo on "Way Up Here," because Ab-Soul is a top-tier rapper who in this context you barely notice. That's how musical Brown's flow has become since the sing-song boilerplate he started out with. A MINUS

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp) Brown has reached the point where success deadens more than it animates, conspicuous consumption turns trope turns bore, and copping to your "downward spiral" loses its pedagogical mojo. He's still plenty clever, but saying "Some people say I think too much/I don't think they think enough" only begins to prove it, and blaming his biochemistry as he keeps bitches on rotation is getting "old," as one might say. What saves it more than ever is musicality. Not only does Brown add the voice of a thoughtful struggler to his squealing weirdo and caustic thug, he sees to it that the tracks permute and evolve into something that feels thought through. So when he dubs himself "Coltrane on Soul Plane," Coltrane he earns, sort of. But I read where Soul Plane--never saw it, never will--was an unfunny hip-hop/blaxploitation parody of the already dumbass laff riot Airplane. Right, even bad jokes are better than going on about what a mess your life is. But they don't straighten it up. B PLUS

Danny Brown: The Hybrid (Deluxe Edition) (Hybrid Music '11) The cadences and dope tales too pat, the joys of fressing generics and jacking sunglasses far from it ("Thank God," "Cartier," "Guitar Solo") ***

Ab-Soul: These Days (Top Dawg Entertainment '14) In love with a suicide in a world controlled by forces he can't quite grasp, half-blind autodidact retains more brain if not reason than the average black hippy ("Closure," "Sapiosexual") *

February 17, 2017

Link: Leonard Cohen / Jens Lekman / Allison Crutchfield / Angel Olsen

Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia) A few weeks before this was released, Cohen deflected rumors of his imminent passing by telling reporters that he intended to live forever; a few weeks after, he cemented his well-earned reputation as an incorrigibly courteous liar by dying. Thus he transformed how these eight songs would be heard and remembered, and accentuated how shrewdly his living will's gravity, austerity, and sparse wit dovetail with its thematic and emotional preoccupations. Feeling impossibly frail and weary, the 82-year-old Cohen parried with a thoroughgoing renunciation--of Jahweh, Jesus, Vishnu, sex, and the acrid jokes he'd been cracking for half a century. A company of musical pallbearers added touches that hint at a consoling spirituality if you give them time and don't insist on actually being cheered up. But note that the most soothing softens a final statement credited solely to the dying man, which you could call a parting gift if it wasn't topped off by an instrumental track that reprises his most enigmatic farewell song: "I wish there was a treaty we could sign/It's over now, the water and the wine/We were broken then, but now we're borderline/I wish there was a treaty/I wish there was a treaty/Between your love and mine." To those literal last words one can only add: hmmm. A MINUS

Jens Lekman: Oh You're So Silent Jens (Secretly Canadian '05) Juvenilia recorded 2003-2004, when he was 22 and 23, make clear why Lekman is compared to Jonathan Richman and Stephin Merritt--he too was a pop adept who talked his songs more than sung them. But spiritually he's so different. He shares Richman's sweet innocence. But unlike Richman, he's devoid of irony, slapstick, or post-rockist snark--his words and melodies project his innocence so unassumingly you have to assume that's who he is. As it happens, his "I just want someone to share my life with" is attached to one of his less memorable tunes. But it sticks even so. Your daughter can bring him to dinner any time. A MINUS

Jens Lekman: When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog (Secretly Canadian '04) It would be silly to insist that there's much musical magnetism in the archly received/sampled arrangements or sad-sack delivery of this young Swede's official debut album. But it would be stupid not to want to hear the lyrics again--and again. "Yeah I got busted/So I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio"? Quiet yet audacious. "When I said I wanted to be your dog/I wasn't coming on to you/I just wanted to lick your face"? You can't argue with that. "Lick those raindrops from the rainy day/You can take me for a walk in the park"? But that doesn't mean he can't top it. B PLUS

Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian) Beginning with a Mormon missionary mourning Lady Di and a guy showing his friend a plastic model of his tumor over lunch, Lekman is no longer mooning toward the bland anonymity of his 2012 breakup album. But as with so many great songwriters, his chief concern continues to be love. Usually but not always this means romantic love, although "How I Tell Him" cuts that distinction close and those first two songs make you wonder exactly how secular this humanistic Swede might be--the Mormon is envied, the cancer survivor learns his friend was praying for him. From back when he came on like a nicer relation of Stuart Murdoch, Lekman's romanticism and indeed sexuality have always had a lot of agape in it, hinting at social consciousness only insofar as agape is social consciousness's engine and embodiment. I believe that's because he's Swedish. Be grateful there's still a nation where a fellow can preach an ostensibly apolitical humanism with a clear conscience. A

Allison Crutchfield: Tourist in This Town (Merge) Indie-rock notes from a sweet, intense, failed romance, or maybe a few of them--not her last, anyway, and just maybe these songs will help her achieve that consummation ("Dean's Room," "Expatriate") **

Angel Olsen: My Woman (Jagjaguwar) Never convinces me her melodramatic manner reflects deep pain as opposed to raw aesthetic self-regard ("Intern," "Never Be Mine") *

February 24, 2017

Link: Tom Zé / Fanfare Ciocarlia / The Klezmatics

Tom Zé: Cancoes Eroticas Para Ninar (Irara) Sadly, I can no longer locate the YouTube promo clips of the lithe, black-haired, 80-year-old Zé, naked except for black socks or red shoes, demurely concealing his privates behind an acoustic guitar as he sings the opening "Sexo." But the music makes amply clear that this isn't sex as his fellow rhythm masters usually conceive it--the album's 12 compact "erotic lullabies" abjure the lilting sensuality so many Brazilians bend toward. They're punchy, pop the way the advertising jingles Zé used to write are pop, and although a Brazilian review Google translated for me suggests that the breaths that punctuate "Sexo" "carry the dynamics of the sexual act," I wouldn't have known that just from hearing it. So even more than most Zé and granting that the Brazilian CD I've acquired has a lyric sheet, I must note that most Americans would enjoy this album more if it came with clear verbal guidelines--an inserted or online trot, em ingles por favor. I want to know the words! Especially since his chief collaborator is the wife who long ago told him that if writing more music meant losing their house, they should sell the house. That woman clearly has a mind on her--a sexy one, I bet. A MINUS

Fanfare Ciocarlia: 20 (Asphalt Tango) Like the Markovics' Serbian orkestar, this Romanian Gypsy horn band poses a discographical dilemma for gadje casuals--just how much of this high-energy stuff do committed eclectics need? That's why the Markovic catalog has always driven your faithful marginal differentiator crazy. But though said differentiator has never heard a Ciocarlia album he didn't like, including 2016's Onward to Mars with the zippy "Crayfish Hora" opener you won't find here, he believes you can make do with two: the guest-studded live 2007 memorial concert Queens & Kings, and this vinyl-and-download-only double album, which cherrypicks a catalog they were accruing long before vinyl fetishism became a thing. Trad though they are, they began recording well into the CD era in 1996. Gili Garabdi owners should be aware that that 2005 breakthrough provides seven of its 26 tracks, but what can you do? None of them are 20's most audacious moments, which Balkanize two American classics that suddenly take on equal weight: "Summertime" and "I Put a Spell on You." A MINUS

The Klezmatics: Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village) The definitive modern klezmer band's first album of new originals in well over a decade finds them as lovely and lively as ever, with Lorin Sklamberg's tenor plenty pliant in his sixties. Note, however, that it's entirely in Yiddish. I can attest from the booklet that the lyrics bite, uplift, and amuse in translation if you read along. But I advise that you ascertain what you get musically from tracks four-five-six--in English, the frolicsome "Party in Odessa" to the bereft "Dark Is the Night" to the defiant "Heretics" itself. If suitably entranced or intrigued, buy the CD with its cheat sheet. If not, play Possessed again and proceed with your life. B PLUS

Noisey, February 2017

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