Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: June 2017

June 2, 2017

Link: Cloud Nothings / The xx / Japandroids / Pinegrove / Los Campesinos!

Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound (Carpark) As his fellow 25-and-thereabouts debate Dylan Baldi's musicianship and originality, I don't doubt the first, don't sweat the second, and continue to find him an admirable young guy who's less a kid every time out. But because his voice and guitar distinguish themselves within such a narrow range, you have to give each album time to sink in, and his growth isn't instantly apparent here. Where previously he wrote and recorded off the cuff, this one didn't come so easy, and it couldn't have helped that he'd taken on a second guitarist. But that may just be why his ongoing project of becoming more human opens up as never before if you give the record a chance. Skeptics should start with "Darkened Rings," where he propels the frustration he's lamenting into Hüsker Dü territory. A MINUS

The xx: I See You (Young Turks) If anything, this is the most "accessible" of their three albums--four if you count Jamie xx's more eventful, more instrumental solo shot. It gets your attention right from the faux horn fanfare that occupies its first six seconds, and I can name from memory songs I actively enjoy, to be precise the catchy "On Hold," the needy "Say Something Loving," the frail "Brave for You," and . . . I forget. That's the problem--however impressive their originality and skill, the details always end up getting away, because in the end the band's shared aesthetic is so contained. As you probably recall yourself. Or do you? B PLUS

Japandroids: Near to the Wild Heart of Life (Anti-) Five years after their road album, their next road album, so praise G-d they know more at the end of it than they do at the beginning ("No Known Drink or Drug," "In a Body Like a Grave") ***

Pinegrove: Cardinal (Run for Cover) Responsive young roots-alt as a model for the awkward drama of fleshing out human relationships face to face ("Old Friends," "Aphasia") **

Los Campesinos!: Sick Scenes (Wichita Recordings) Detailing a depression so comprehensive it could convince an artist beset by buzz loss to go on the wagon--or so we hope for your sake, Gareth ("The Fall of Home," "For Whom the Belly Tolls") *

June 9, 2017

Link: Chuck Berry / Low Cut Connie / Arkells / Todd Snider

Chuck Berry: Chuck (Dualtone) In the first 89 years of his life, Chuck Berry recorded two full-length albums worthy of the name, neither currently available for under a C-note although one is set for reissue: 1964's St. Louis to Liverpool, three comeback classics plus seven keepers that include the atypically companionable "You Two" and the atypically familial "Little Marie" as well as two atypically engaging instrumentals. The other is the 1979 groove album Rockit, sharpened by two back-end songs skewering the racist society he'd striven so audaciously to integrate and enlighten. That was his last record for 38 years, when he generated this de facto farewell, which stands as both a summation he put his all into and a little something he might have followed up if he hadn't up and died at 90. Mischievous and horny and locked in, he plays undiminished guitar as a few subtle guest shots add texture. His timbre has deepened--on the recitative "Dutchman," he's a relaxed near-bass. But he's hale vocally and acute verbally on eight well-crafted new ones and two savvy covers that indicate he's learned a few things--the warm songs to the long-suffering wife he married in 1948 and the progeny who chime in like they've earned it have the kind of detail he always reserved for his fictions, musical and otherwise. I've never stopped loving Chuck Berry as an artist, but it's been a while since I thought the old reprobate was anything but a fucked up human being. This miracle gives me second thoughts. A MINUS

Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection (Geffen/Chess) I hope a few young folks out there are aware that the inventor of rock and roll made his bones with six genre- and generation-defining '50s hits: "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "School Day," "Rock and Roll Music," "Sweet Little Sixteen," and "Johnny B. Goode." I also hope they'll believe that he later wrote three equally titanic songs: "Almost Grown" and "You Never Can Tell," in which his patented American teenager goes out on his own and gets married, and the sub rosa celebration of the Freedom Rides "Promised Land." And I hope they won't be surprised to learn that those nine titles are only the cream of a 10-buck, 30-tracks-in-75-minutes collection whose most dubious selection both the Kinks and the Rolling Stones thought choice enough to cover. ("Beautiful Delilah," to be precise--I've come around on Berry's sole #1, the naughty 1972 sing-along "My Ding-a-Ling.") Bo Diddley excepted, Berry was the most spectacular guitarist of the rock and roll era, and every '60s band learned his licks. His bassist-producer was the capo of Chicago blues, his pianist entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own recognizance, and his drummers were huge. Yet though the size of his sound was unprecedented, the penetrating lightness of his unslurred vocals was as boyish as the young Eminem's because the crystalline words meant even more than the irresistible music. In the hall of mirrors that is Chuck Berry's catalogue, this is where to get oriented. But be forewarned that there's also a 71-track three-CD box that slightly overplays his blues pretensions and Nat King Cole dreams, and that this one could tempt a person to covet that consumable too. I dare you to find out. A PLUS

Low Cut Connie: Dirty Pictures (Part 1) (Contender) All they want is to be rock and roll's most basic bar band and rock and roll's most sophisticated bar band at the same time ("Montreal," "Death & Destruction") ***

Arkells: Morning Report (Last Gang) On album four, hard-touring Canadian Springsteenians shade their affect toward a pop postmacho vulnerability, plus, well--such an improvement on the Tragically Hip! ("Drake's Dad," "A Little Rain [A Song for Pete]") **

Todd Snider: Eastside Bulldog (Aimless/Thirty Tigers) The fun rock and roll record his memoir says he's craved all century, only the memoir is more fun--I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like, buy it ("Hey Pretty Boy," "Come On Up") *

June 16, 2017

Link: Jason Isbell / Steve Earle / North Mississippi Allstars / Rodney Crowell / Gurf Morlix / Colvin & Earle / Willie Nelson

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers) The Americana pigeonhole sets up rootsy expectations Isbell has too keen a mind for. And though he obviously isn't the only Nashville guy ever to placate his demons with Jack and coke or the only folkie ever beset by night thoughts, neither "country" or "singer-songwriter" suits him either--he's too intellectual for one, too downhome for the other. So 15 years after the Drive-Bys brought in a tenor who could write, 10 years after he quit them while his first wife stayed on, five years after he got sober, and two years after there was a baby on the way, here are some of the words his tenor lets fly. Over the tolling guitars of "White Man's World": "There's no such thing as someone else's war / Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for." Over the female counterpoint of "If We Were Vampires": "Maybe we'll get 40 years together / But one day I'll be gone, one day you'll be gone." Over the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" boom of "Anxiety": "Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me? / I'm out here living in a fantasy / I can't enjoy a goddamn thing." A

Steve Earle: So You Wannabe an Outlaw (Warner Bros.) He's tried the outlaw thing, and on his best album in 15 years sets out to tell the world why it ain't all that. Your buddies on those roughneck temp gigs always head elsewhere. When the news from home is bad, and it will be, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Hitchhiking is so over a fella could write a keeper about it. And to sum up: "Everybody reckons that they want to be free / Nobody wants to be alone." A guy who's been married seven times is more likely to know nothing about women than everything. But from "Comes to love fallin' is the easy part" to "You can't pretend / The line between a secret and a lie ain't razor thin," he gets a keeper out of that too. While I surely do agree that in love a secret and a lie are the same thing, I hope it will interest him to be told that the secret of not being alone is to let yourself keep falling--for the same one. A MINUS

North Mississippi Allstars: Prayer for Peace (Songs of the South) Never much shakes with songs per se, they put their minds into an entreaty their South needs, their hearts into their South's African-American repertoire, and their guitars into Will Shade's greatest hit ("Prayer for Peace," "Stealin'") ***

Rodney Crowell: Close Ties (New West) 67-year-old proves he's still growing in wisdom, especially when he trots out the biographical fallacy ("Nashville 1972," "It Ain't Over Yet") ***

Gurf Morlix: The Soul and the Heal (Rootball) Bruised and bleedin' for strictly personal reasons, he heals by putting his all into humanist hymns ("Love Remains Unbroken," "Move Someone") **

Colvin & Earle: Colvin & Earle (Fantasy) On six cowrites and four sweet covers, Steve takes most of the starch out of Shawn, who retains enough to stiffen him up like he needs ("You Were on My Mind," "Happy and Free") **

Willie Nelson: God's Problem Child (Legacy) Having invented outlaw, he long ago elected to transcend it ("Still Not Dead," "I Made a Mistake") *

June 23, 2017

Link: Starlito & Don Trip / Kano / Adamn Killa / T-Pain & Lil Wayne / Big Boi

Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers Three (Grind Hard LLC) Starlito, the lower-voiced half of the DIY duo who've broken through to make my favorite hip-hop album of the year, isn't the first to observe that "ballers wanna be rappers, rappers wanna be ballers." The difference is that these guys make both ways of life sound like the hard grind their label name isn't the first to claim. "My future's in that paper bag," exclaims Don Trip as he negotiates a cash exchange; "I ain't been home in the last 30 days / I've been on the road gettin' paid," moans Starlito to introduce the high-anxiety "If My Girl Find Out." Later come the carefully plotted legal murder of "Good Cop Bad Cop" and the modern-day whips and chains that enslave rappers and ballers alike on "The 13th Amendment Song." I also like the way they rhyme, say, fortune-Porsche-mortgage-abortion-divorce ya-Nordstrom-extorted-quarters-important-portion-Ford Explorer-torture-hoarder-lawyer-Jordan-Porter (with law enforcement, touring, and President Orange crammed in there too). I also like the way their kids better use their car seats. "I used to prey on my enemies now I pray for serenity"? I'll buy it. In fact, I just did. A MINUS

Kano: Made in the Manor (Parlophone) What hooked me on this grime pioneer's major-label debut was a variation on Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day" called "T-Shirt Weather in the Manor," a near-idyllic celebration of how nice the projects he came up in can be on one of the rare London days when the sun shines hot. Neither his beats nor his flow are as musical as Cube's, and there's no line as killer as "Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central LA." But that suits a conscious rapper who defends those who fall into the "trap trap" on grounds of option drought. In the end, he's such a chronicler that his beats and flow will do you fine. Pay some mind to "Little Sis" and "Strangers," both of which think hard about estrangement. Soulful is what I'd call them. A MINUS

Starlito & Don Trip: Step Brothers Two (self-released) No government "Bunk Beds" for these payers of dues and bills--they're too long on both cold-eyed perspective and human connection ("Paper Rock Scissors," "Something for Nothing") ***

Kano: Method to the Maadness (Bigger Picture) Praising iPods and decrying consumerism, 2010 effort demonstrates why grime has always deserved more respect from American hip-hop fans and why it never quite sparks their interest ("MAAD," "Slaves") **

Adamn Killa: I Am Adamn (Homespun Media Group) Auto-Tuned singsong-rap at its down-and-dirtiest--in other words, grime Chicago style, grime that never forgets the way literal grime gets into the creases of your hands and stinks up your underpants ("Piss in the Sheets," "Pay Your Rent") **

T-Pain & Lil Wayne: T-Wayne (self-released) A goof for the record book slapped together in 2009, with Wayne ascendant and the Auto-Tune king jacking his steeze, is strongest at its silliest, natch ("Heavy Chevy," "Listen to Me") **

Big Boi: Boomiverse (Epic) Perky new pop record rides articulately rapped leads, favor-banked star power, a stanza for Colin Kaepernick, and refurbished wares from the sexist metaphor store ("Made Man," "Overthunk") *

June 30, 2017

Link: Emperor X / JJ Doom

Emperor X: Oversleepers International (Tiny Engines) Pushing 40 now, Berlin-based Jacksonville native Chad Matheny makes his living as a musician on tours that I assume include residencies--among his many Bandcamp wares is a commissioned work entitled 10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Habitation Near Nuclear Waste Depositories. But although all his music comes with clean, computer-crafted abstract art, he comes naturally to a frugal, tech-savvy ecology-firster's skepticism of physical product. No surprise then that this is his first actual CD since Bar/None's 2011 Western Teleport--one so obscure or perversely coded it didn't show up on Gracenote when I imported it into my iTunes. Yet it would seem that he does regard physicals as special, because nowhere else does the music feature songs end-to-end instead of sucking you in with a handful and then dematerializing into strummed or noodled jams with vocal accoutrements. True, this one achieves a third of its 50-minute length by means of a quarter-hour of subliminal electropulse at the end of a closer called "5-Hour Energy, Poland, 2017" as well as bridging its halves with what is essentially a four-minute vamp. Nevertheless, the 10 songs are songs. All evoke a hard-scrabbling world traveler often caught in but never daunted by border hassles, medical bureaucracy, and crap technology. Bergson and Schopenhauer also come up. Yet amid riots and dodgy bank accounts, Matheny sounds about as chipper as a working musician on a deteriorating planet can. In fact, the whole thing is quite an up if you give it half a chance. A MINUS

JJ Doom: Key to the Kuffs (Lex) After 2009's Born Like This I lost track of this London-born, Long Island-raised Trinidadian-Zimbabwean MC, whose sibilantly mush-mouthed flow has long rippled and pooled comically and imperturbably over signifying beats and spoken-word samples often his own. It didn't help that the former Daniel Dumile changed his handle from MF Doom, or that where MF stood for various things, the obvious never explicitly one of them, JJ merely honors his new beatmaking partner Jneiro Jarel. Nor did it help that he was compelled by the INS to resettle in London, apparently because he never became a U.S. citizen. So on his 2012 album this hyperaware jokester plays the Brit. One track goes on about "Cockney rhymin' slang," and then there's "Guv'nor," hardly the only song where the political mindfulness that's always been there becomes a focus rather than a substratum. Here be GMOs and dead Indians and food and water as a "secure investment" and an earthquake in Iceland and a discourse on melanin. Here also be the priceless couplet: "Not to interrupt / But anybody else notice time speeding up?" A MINUS

Emperor X: The Orlando Sentinel (self-released) In 2014, a testicular cancer survivor constructs weedy-to-wispy electronic/guitar-strum/handclap songs about getting your parents Medicaid and cell plans, President Sarkozy's bake sale, AI swim laws (??), Kafka shopping at Primark, dying young with resources and integrity intact, and just generally proving the Politburo right because we've got all this capital and what good does it do anyone? I wouldn't say he sounds happy about this, or much amused. But he is philosophical, because after all: "One good effect of the crash / Now every altered state gets classified as work--at least enough to prevent an epidemic of a baseless adolescent philosophy." Which scans, in its way. B PLUS

JJ Doom: Bookhead EP (Lex) These repurposed bonus tracks from the "Butter Edition" of Key to the Kuffs cue Doom up at his most musical and connected, with guest productions so compelling they put Jarel's functional beats in perspective. The rhymes tend bleak, mad, kind of fucked up. Mixes by Beck, Jonny Greenwood, and others accept the mood for what it is and put the haunted, stormy, convulsive thing across. B PLUS

MF Doom Featuring Big Benn Klingon: Expektoration . . . Live (Gold Dust) Quashing those imposter rumors, Daniel Dumile fully inhabits his signature persona to reprise Mm.. Food and Operation: Doomsday stuff not quite like the originals ("Act 2") **

Emperor X: Central Hug/Friendarmy/Fractal Dunes (self-released) Assuming this 2005 "release" is a triple-"EP," the four-song Central Hug is all-A and the other two pretty duddy--winningly unkempt political songcraft fronting losingly strummed-droned songcraft ("The Citizens of Wichita," "Raytracer") *

Noisey, June 2017

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