Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: April 2017

April 7, 2017

Link: The New Pornographers / Conor Oberst / The Shins / Spoon / The Old 97's

The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord) Carl Newman's ad hoc outfit could be the greatest band in the world if he didn't write so obsessively about purveying their tune-porn, but he'll settle for the status he's got. Claiming Krautrock and shrugging off the departed Dan Bejar, he generates 11 soaring new pop songs, which in some abstrusely Krautrock way are sparer than the 13 on Brill Bruisers. And from those songs let me corral a few snatches of meaning. "I only play for the money honey." "You can imagine all the factions/That form around high ticket attractions." "A scalper's price built into the design." "Colosseums of the mind / An ancient con, the shadows of a song." "This is the world of the theater / Come up with some highbrow move / Think of all the lives we're saving / Think of all the ways we'll cave in." "With the ignorance of a poet." "Second-rate Socrates" (second, eh?). "Cottage industry." "I wasn't hoping for a win / I was hoping for freedom / You couldn't beat 'em / Forget the mission just get out alive." "Didn't choose what we mean / Just went along with what's played / There were rules once before / There should be rules again." But until that by no means impending day . . . A

Conor Oberst: Salutations (Nonesuch) Musical cult heroes come in all gradations of quality. So Randy Newman is a genius, Chris Carrabba ain't, and Oberst falls in between in more ways than one. As is clear from 2016's Ruminations, where 10 of these 17 songs surfaced as acoustic demos, material per se isn't enough. You need support to put songs across, here organized by 74-year-old master drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, you bet Randy Newman, also Russ Giguere, Henry Gross, Firefall). Attitude also matters, so good thing that by the time he cut this--after ruminating not just on Ruminations but on 2013's stillborn Upside Down Mountain--Oberst had become more upbeat, not to mention concerned about his professional future. This time "A Little Uncanny," which compares Ronald Reagan unfavorably to Jane Fonda without falling for either, is nothing like a dirge, and neither is "Rain Follows the Plow," which meditates on sin. Make him a gifted guy with a good heart, a handy tune sense, and a signature throb in his voice. Believe that he's not callow anymore and never will be again. A MINUS

The Shins: Heartworms (Columbia) Not a band, of course--a shell company for a less boyish and supple James Mercer, who keeps things simple enough only on his memoiristic, hot sex, and feminist numbers ("Mildenhall," "Rubber Ballz," "Name for You") ***

Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador) If you start them up, well, they'll never stop, never stop, never stop, never stop ("Shotgun," "Tear It Down") ***

The Old 97's: Graveyard Whistling (ATO) Stretches Rhett Miller's skill set most impressively when he takes the name of the Lord in vain ("Good With God," "Jesus Loves You") **

April 14, 2017

Link: Khalid / Kevin Abstract / Sampha / Kingdom

Khalid: American Teen (RCA) Deft line by deft line, each self-evident, each unprecedented, the first half of this R&B album justifies its title with a clarity and candor so astonishing it overshadows the music's racial identity: "I'm 18 and I still live with my parents," "Young dumb broke high school kids," "Let's do all the stupid shit that young kids do," "There's so much trouble to get into," "I don't want to fall in love off of subtweets," "I'll keep your number saved," "I let the words come together/Then maybe I'll feel better," and most tellingly of all, "We don't always say what we mean." Second half is skillful but conventional--seven succinct, catchy unrequited love songs all in a row. Khalid Robinson sings in a winning conversational murmur with room for growth, and because the vocals are as unassuming as the words, the song structures he concocts with various pals and pros seems more straightforward than they are. Figure this is a nice young man with a big future, and hope with all your heart that the latter doesn't swallow up the former before we know it. A

Kevin Abstract: American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story (Brockhampton) The parents of its intended audience might recognize a P.M. Dawn vibe in this 20-year-old's teen-targeted pop/rap concept album about a confused young middle-class black male's requited love for a white football player. His mom's homophobia includes kids who sometimes think they're bisexual like her boy; his inamorato's parents are down with the gays but "hate niggers"; his boyfriend has a girlfriend too. So of course sometimes he hates himself, as in: "I hate my yearbook photo/I hate my passport/I hate my last name/I hate everything it stands for/[wait, he's not done] I should probably transfer." But other times he's transported instead, saved from himself by the love he shares. Here he raps, there he croons. Frank Ocean pal Michael Uzowuru is with him both ways. A MINUS

Sampha: Process (Young Turks) Beyoncé and Drake's go-to angel finds time for his own piano-rooted reflections, which between his unforced falsetto and his electronic atmospherics prove so intimate they're best-suited for headphones--good ones. ("Plastic 100°C," "Kora Sings") **

Kingdom: Tears in the Club (Fade to Mind) With big help from some singers he knows, Syd in particular, "disruptive" "post-club" DJ- soundscaper lowers himself to living room level. ("Nothing," "Breathless") *

April 21, 2017

Link: Body Count / Matt North / Rock and Roll Music / Zeal & Ardor

Body Count: Bloodlust (Century Media) There've been other Body Count albums in the quarter century since "Cop Killer" put a police bull's-eye on the pre- Law and Order Ice-T's back. But it took Donald Trump to revive Tracy Marrow's active interest in the metal band he assembled with his Crenshaw High buddy Ernie C. back when he was a hot rapper. In this year of the rock protest song, there hasn't yet been a lyric as bitter, complex, and powerful as "No Lives Matter." From the lead "Civil War," set in the present and let's hope it remains a fiction, to "Black Hoodie," less hard-hitting but wider-ranging than Vic Mensa's "16 Shots," you feel both a mind at work and an entertainer putting himself across. In the title track, Ice includes himself in the humanity whose propensity for murder he's been going on about. In "Here I Go Again" he concocts a horrorcore fantasy so gruesome he figures most people won't want to hear it twice and bets some sickos will put on repeat. A MINUS

Matt North: Above Ground Fools ( North is a Nashville session drummer whose solo music is neither bro-country nor folk-rock. This is a rock album purely--loud, obvious, devoid of punk or funk. Big drums, efficient tunes, equal helpings of keyboard and guitar, and a muscular rather than burly voice all serve what is clearly the point for a 47-year-old who's also gotten paid as an actor and standup comic: the lyrics. A solid musician, this great-nephew of Kentucky local colorist Jesse Stuart is an absolutely first-rate better songwriter. If he's any kind of feminist you'd never know it, so be glad the one where the "damsel in shining armor" fails to rescue the "white knight in distress" compensates for the "Badgering the Witness" charges and "No Hard Feelings" g'bye. And be gladder that from the acid-etched local color of "A Good Day in Nashville" to the DIY bile of "Come Here Go Away," he serves up so much lyrical idiosyncrasy--topped for me by the nonstop "I Sold It All," where I understand the meaning of every line without being sure I know what the damn thing's about. A MINUS

Rock and Roll Music!: The Songs of Chuck Berry (Ace) Compiled to cash in on the Originator's forthcoming Chuck rather than his unexpected death, this could be better even if you forgive such budget measures as no Beatles/Stones/Hendrix, no Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (check out Etta James and also--believe it--Julian Lennon), late Elvis, later Beach Boys. Rather than Jay and the Americans' execrable "Johnny B. Goode," how about Peter Tosh's or the Dead's; rather than the Hollies' "Sweet Little Sixteen" album filler, Ten Years After's balls-out festival rocker or even Cliff Richard's Beatles move; rather than Marty Robbins's wan "Maybellene," George Jones and Johnny Paycheck's rowdy one. And amusing though you may find the obscure Brit "Nadine," I urge you urge you urge you to excavate Kevin Dunn's fey, howling early-computer-age reimagining, my third favorite Berry cover ever. Nonetheless, the Originator inspired John Prine's rockingest vocal, tickled the shit out of one-hit wonders the Syndicate of Sound, and brought out the very best from such unexpected-to-whodat artists as John Hammond, Ian Gomm, the Remains, the Count Bishops, Dwight Yoakam, and Helene Dixon. The big-name tribute albums will come, and though their hit-or-miss ratio may beat this one's, believe it when you hear it. Meanwhile, Dunn's "Nadine" is readily available via YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, etc. Lasts 4:25 exactly. A MINUS

Zeal & Ardor: Devil Is Fine (MVKA Music) Challenged to join black metal and black music in holy sacrilege, biracial Swiss New Yorker Manuel Gagneux said either fuck you or fuck yeah and began hollering faux field hollers of "devil is kind" and "devil is fine" over chain-gang percussion. Various metal usages follow--guitar din, guitar arpeggiation, toy-piano scene-shift, drum flourishes untouched by human hand. But soon it's another field holler--"A good God is a dead one," this one goes. Whole thing's over in 25 minutes--too long for a joke, too short for an artistic statement, just right for a helluva parlor trick. A MINUS

April 28, 2017

Link: Brad Paisley / Angaleena Presley / Sarah Shook & the Disarmers

Brad Paisley: Love and War (Arista) If you believe the only country superstar ever to record a pro-Obama song owes us an anti-Trump song, you're not getting it--not exactly. What you are getting is the antiwar title track, a John Fogerty collab that unites Iraq and Vietnam--and also, by extension, Syria and whatever else they got. And toward the back where the Christian gesture is usually tucked away you're also getting an anti-hate song that decries the evil done in God's name in both "the darkest prison" and "the largest church," because after all, "God is love." That'll do, doncha think? This is easily Paisley's strongest album since American Saturday Night--not a bum track, loaded with good jokes (including, after several failed attempts, one about the internet), hymns to marriage haters will hate because they don't have what conjugal love takes, and, word of honor, a fun Mick Jagger cameo. It begins with something called "Heaven South," which one kind of hater will dismiss as escapist piffle but I say is Paisley's way of telling another kind of hater to quit feeling sorry for themselves and be grateful for what they got. It ends by reprising the same song. A

Angaleena Presley: Wrangled (Mining Light) The onetime Pistol Annie, who last time gave us American Middle Class, the New Nashville Feminism's finest album, leads once again with her corniest stuff. Her "Dreams Don't Come True" and "High School" are sharper than most--"Flip the bird to the whores in high school" and "It's late September and she's startin' to show," respectively. But there's meaner to come as she sweetly guns down the preacher husband she knows like the back of his hand and cattily cuts down the "beauty mark on the human race" who ain't blonde enough to play so dumb. And if you wish she was feistier still, figure the reason she isn't in "Outlaw," where she identifies her career goal as "straight-shootin' hifalutin writer on the hit parade." Only instead she's on the road hoping the merch sells as she grinds out a "Groundswell," as sly a take on the economic marginalization of the job of music as Jeffrey Lewis's "Indie Bands on Tour" only much less amused about it. A MINUS

Sarah Shook & the Disarmers: Sidelong (Bloodshot) Shook is a home-schooled ex-fundamentalist North Carolinan single mother raised in hardscrabble Rochester, New York. She disarms with self-caricature, exaggerating her drawl, her vibrato, her desolation, her drinking I hope, her "devil's book" and "mother-heart tattoo." She sings as a woman, a man, a who-can-tell; she rhymes "broken" with "Yoakam" and "buck up" with "fuck up." On my favorite track she deliberately gets too blotto to even consider driving to her ex's place. If only it was followed rather than preceded by the one where she plans to dry out tomorrow. B PLUS

Noisey, April 2017

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