Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: October 2017

October 13, 2017

Link: American Epic: The Collection / Celebrate Ornette / Grateful Dead / Van Morrison

American Epic: The Collection (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy) The Anthology of American Folk Music isn't just a hard act to follow, it's an impossible act to follow, because its 84 songs do literally constitute a canon. But the 100 selections on these five discs make for quite the sequel. Replicating only 11 Harry Smith picks, including several--"James Alley Blues," "Peg and Awl," "Down on Penny's Farm"--that I never ever mind hearing again, they also nab essentials Smith let slide: "Old Dan Tucker," "Sallie Gooden," "Blues in a Bottle," "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Walk Right In," "'Taint Nobody's Business if I Do." Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers are here, Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" and Emmett Miller's "Lovesick Blues" and Washington Phillips's "Denomination Blues." Irresistibles that were news to me include the Dixieland Jug Blowers' "Banjoreno," Whistler's Jug Band's "Foldin' Bed," Burnett and Rutherford's "Ladies on the Steamboat," the Massey Family's "Brown Skin Gal (Down the Lane)," Lydia Mendoza's "Mal Hombre," Lane Hardin's "Hard Times," and Truett and George's "Ghost Dance." Though disc three falls short however righteous the multilingualism that is one reason why, the other four overreach with attitude. The audio improves markedly on Anthology's. The liner notes are solid where Smith's were fanciful. Lyrics are included. So what are you waiting for? A

Celebrate Ornette (Song X) "The Deluxe 5 Disc Gatefold" version at comprises three CDs, two DVDs, a poster, an informative 26-page booklet, and a 10-page program from Ornette Coleman's memorial service. It will set you back $100. The $275 version adds 180-gram vinyl and a program signed by Denardo Coleman. Either way that's real moolah for most of us. The memorial performances--by Pharoah Sanders, Henry Threadgill-Jason Moran, Geri Allen-Ravi Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Jack DeJohnette-Savion Glover, among others--were presumably more compelling in their contextualized moment than on their CD, although I couldn't get through enough of the DVD to make sure. And I admit that my rave for the two-CD farewell concert, performed free at Prospect Park a year before Ornette died in 2015, reflects my memory of being transported by it in person. Nevertheless, I say it's an amazement. Ornette himself, frail and failing mentally--he would never play in public again--performs as free as it gets for 20 minutes at the outset, hesitantly at first but with heartbreaking lyricism nonetheless as Antoine Roney gently steers him into the beloved "Ramblin'." Throughout the jazz is stunning--Henry Threadgill at his omnivorous, unflappable, legible best, Ravi Coltrane channeling his dad right, Geri Allen flexing her muscles, Blood Ulmer returning to his harmolodic roots. With kudos to Flea and the Master Musicians of Joujouka, the non-jazz is less so, but nonetheless enriches Coleman's pervasive commitment to felt innovation. And throughout the glue and guiding genius is his son Denardo, miraculously evolved into one of the greatest drummers in jazz history. And even if you're not convinced by the CDs, don't skip the Prospect Park DVD, a different version of the same event that's one of the few music films I've ever been moved to share with people I don't live with. Overpriced? Maybe. But a document I treasure. So if you can afford it . . . A MINUS

Grateful Dead: Crimson White & Indigo (Rhino) Old and on their way, they jam in the Fourth on July 7, 1989, with a miraculously or pharmaceutically pepped-up Jerry launching a searing "Iko Iko"-"Little Red Rooster"-"Ramble On Rose"-"Memphis Blues Again" sequence before receding into grotty but engaged desuetude ("Iko Iko," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door") ***

Van Morrison: . . . It's Too Late to Stop Now . . . Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Legacy) Three concerts within just two months of 1973, 45 songs total, only seven repeated, none thrice--nifty package, considering ("Since I Fell for You [IV]," "Come Running," "I Paid the Price") **

Grateful Dead: Cornell 5/8/77 (Rhino) Cleanly executed, Weir-heavy, proto-Americana three-CD concert that I bet owes its inflated rep to the total absence of "Space" and "Drums" ("St. Stephen/Not Fade Away/St. Stephen," "Brown Eyed Women") *

October 20, 2017

Link: Motörhead / Gentle Giants / Let It Be / Ryan Adams

Motörhead: Under Cöver (Silver Lining Music) In a cheap, foolproof simulation of life after death, Lemmy's pals assemble a selection of cover versions so obvious Donald Trump Jr. could have thought of half of them. Ramones? "Rockaway Beach"! Sex Pistols? "God Save the Queen"! Stones is harder, so how about "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Jumping Jack Flash"?! T.A. Nugent? Duh (as he himself might put it)--the one where a pussy dentata bloodies his dicky-bird 'cause what else is there? Motörhead kill every one of these classics, and though after that my expertise fades some, I can attest that Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" is a perfect opener and Metallica's "Whiplash" an acceptable finale. Moreover, I swear-to-God the true killer is the only previously unreleased: "Heroes." A major Bowie song that's grown with time, right? So who owns it from the grave? Lemmy does. A MINUS

Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams (Slate Creek) Williams wasn't forceful enough to make himself a legend, but he had such a way about him that I was surprised by the credits on this MusiCares benefit, released a few months before he died September 8. I'd thought of him as pure auteur, a pop-folk singer-songwriter gone country. But he wasn't. These 11 tracks were written by 11 Nashville pros, collaborating occasionally but none listed more than twice, with Williams's sole credit a cowrite. Yet he is in control, so gentle even the Pistol Annies and Garth Brooks dial it down and even Keb Mo is tolerable. The exception is Chris and Morgana Stapleton, who take autobiographical possession of "Amanda" by revving it up, never mind that it was Jason Isbell who married an Amanda--Amanda Shires. Isbell-Shires, meanwhile, do "If I Needed You" so quiet there's no if about it. All in all, a lovely respite from the sturm and snark the times demand. A MINUS

Let It Be: Black America Sings Lennon, McCartney and Harrison (Ace) Let it be they don't--beyond my picks, check out Fats Domino, Dionne Warwick, Mary Wells, the Supremes, Ike & Tina, and Junior Parker getting theirs back (Earth, Wind & Fire, "Got to Get You Into My Life"; Ella Fitzgerald, "Savoy Truffle"; Nina Simone, "Here Comes the Sun") ***

Ryan Adams: 1989 (Blue Note/Pax Am) Chivalrous Nashville fellow traveler proves the superiority of younger fellow traveler by failing to top much less reinvent a single performance on her breakaway album, which he covers front-to-back like the gifted fanboy I guess he must be ("This Love," "I Know Places") **

October 27, 2017

Link: Robt Sarazin Blake / Dylan Hicks / Jon Langford / Chuck Prophet / Thomas Anderson / Ray Wylie Hubbard

Robt Sarazin Blake: Recitative (SameRoom) In a vibrato-shaded baritone that recalls a French chansonnier more than an Americana guitar guy, the first singer-songwriter in history to linger on the word "gerrymander" enlists a limber band colored decisively by horn man Thomas Deakin to array sixteen talky songs lasting a mere hour and a half over two CDs. Chants that riff on the titles "Work," "Couples," and "Single Women" ("Haven't been laid in years," "Are always late," "Get to work on time," "Got lucky last night") are as instantly indelible as the Springsteen, Weill, Reed, and Van Morrison lifts woven in, and the disc-openers do equal justice to "The Other Side of Fck It" and "Rock & Roll Dream." But after you've had your fill of the easy stuff, focus on the sequence that begins with the three apparently unrelated verses entitled "Sgt. Manning" and sandwiches "Own House, Own Guns" and "19 Shots" around the essential relief of "On the Corner of Saturday Night." A MINUS

Dylan Hicks: Ad Out (Soft Launch) Singer-songwriters don't get more logocentric than the mild-mannered novelist-critic who dubbed his 1990 debut New Dylan. And though Dylanesque is not Hicks's way, I bet the guy he was named after is broad-minded enough to envy the observed likes of "Hear the the snaps of your jeans banging in the drier" and "Time it flies like Superman / Or gets stuck like celery strands." Vocally he's too smart to be wimpy, and a shifting band anchored by his cocktail piano accommodates horn section and pedal steel as needed. Hicks isn't above cleverness like "I just wanna be the Monkees to your Beatles / Wanna be the heat lamp to your sun" or "Persephone and Dante were down there / Bon Scott I guess was en route," and why should he be? But his deepest couplet is "You were interesting to me / Interesting to me," and his deepest song hard to penetrate: "Ambulance," where a feeble parent or disabled child or someone else altogether may be scared of the siren, in deep need of the help it promises, both, or neither. A MINUS

Jon Langford's Four Lost Souls: Jon Langford's Four Lost Souls (Bloodshot) Cut on the fly November 9, 2016, by master songwriter Langford, three Chicago pals, and some Muscle Shoals regulars, none of whom I bet had their heads together yet ("In Oxford Mississippi," "Fish Out of Water," "Mystery") ***

Chuck Prophet: Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (Yep Roc) Protest songs that leave you more pissed than you were before and half-told tales that leave you curiouser and curiouser ("Alex Nieto," "Jesus Was a Social Drinker") **

Thomas Anderson: My Songs Are the House I Live In (Out There) Reports from an inquiring mind and the Texas plain that benefit from the judicious application of irony and drum machine ("Encyclopedia," "Johnny's Gone Driving") *

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Tell the Devil . . . I'm Gettin' There as Fast as I Can (Bordello/Thirty Tigers) Since he couldn't sing to begin with, old age suits him musically while lending weight, cred, and color to his tales of sin ("House of the White Rose Bouquet," "Lucifer and the Fallen Angels") *

Noisey, October 2017

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