Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness: May 2018

May 4, 2018

Link: Cardi B / Princess Nokia / Roc Marciano / Migos

Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (Atlantic) Because she's smart enough to know the difference between a mixtape and an album, she earns the right to treat this official debut as the one that counts--no filler, no throwaways, no riding her smash, no withholding her smash either. Musically and lyrically, every track is thought through, with debts called in and incurred. The Noo Yawk accent she's right to lean on is so blunt that she's not a truly fluent rhymer, so she does well to pull in Chance's flow, Migos's trickeration, Pete Rodriguez's clave. And lyrically, her aim is true. "Write a verse while I twerk / I wear off-white in church"? Tell it, sister. "Only thing fake is the boobs"? Ca-ching. "Pussy's so good I say my own name during sex"? Car-di! A

Princess Nokia: A Girl Cried Red (self-released) What I loved most about 1992 Deluxe was its spunk. Biting off and shaping up her girly voice into a lively signature flow, a runway rapper with pan-Manhattan attitude put "my little titties and my fat belly" in hip-hop's face and claimed street for an Afro-diasporic bohemia of her own devising. So of course I was disappointed when she went sad-sack emo on a mixtape timed to vie with Cardi. But soon I caught it catching my ear the way sad-sack anything seldom does. "Goth as fuck," as she once bragged, she's not always so confident, and she wants us to know it. Her auto-tunelets range sad to determined, hopeful to boastful, hostile to empathetic. Depressive as fuck but nothing like self-indulgent, she tries to be not just honest but nice about it. B PLUS

Roc Marciano: RR2: The Bitter Dose (Marci Enterprises) Complex rhymes, organic textures, well-felt soul samples, and a few deft cameo changeups render this particular lucre quest so entertaining it's almost interesting ("Corniche," "The Sauce") ***

Migos: Culture II (QC/Motown/Capitol) Premature double album that wouldn't cook down to a decent single plus catchiest-in-show "Beast" profiling penis "gobbler" equals not the new Beatles after all, doncha think? ("Motorsport," "Movin' Too Fast") *

May 11, 2018

Link: Mount Eerie / Ry Cooder / Jeffrey Lewis and the Deposit Returners

Mount Eerie: Now Only (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.) Because you only die once, and also because nothing is as perfect as death, there's no way Phil Elverum can reaccess the stark perfection of A Crow Looked at Me. So at first only his enthralled recollection of his ecstatic and in retrospect doomed first days with Geneviève holds up against the living memory of his death album. But you have to admire the no-fuss complexities of his survival album--in particular his realization that it isn't just the artist's body that can't survive, it's the artist's body of work. Just as admirable is how unironic he is about the time Skrillex's subwoofers were juxtaposed against his frail humanity, and I quote, "At a festival that had paid to fly me in / To play these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs." About what a shitty father Jack Kerouac was. About how cute and smart his and Geneviève's sweet kid is. About how doomed she is too. A

Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son (Fantasy) The coup on this gospel-based protest album is master archivist Cooder's overhaul of Blind Alfred Reed's all too jauntily self-righteous "You Must Unload," which skips the captious cigarette-smoking and card-party verses and writes in some jewel-encrusted high heels as it stretches what becomes a heartstruck the-rich-shall-not enter entreaty to five minutes. Going for class-conscious reverence at all costs, Cooder milks his version of the canon from the Pilgrim Travelers to Carter Stanley with a double dip of Blind Willie Johnson and adds three relevant originals: the reverent "Jesus and Woody," the worried, comic "Shrinking Man," and "Gentrification," which calls out two enemies of the people by name: Johnny Depp up front and a regiment of coffee-swilling Googlemen covering his rear. A MINUS

Jeffrey Lewis and the Deposit Returners: Works by Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010) (Don Giovanni) Late great New York bohemian Kupferberg loved "parodies," which originally just meant songs that set new lyrics to old tunes: the more erotic than fetishistic "I Want to Hold Your Foot," say, or "This Train Is Bound for Brooklyn," as in "This train is bound for Brighton / If you wanna go to Bay Ridge you're not on the right one." But he also wrote the enraptured Fugs threnody "Morning Morning," covered by such worthies as Joan Baez and Spyder Turner but done just as right by the living-room sing-along Lewis convened for this album. This approach has its limitations, but gets the job done. Try "What Are You Doing After the Orgy?," melodicized by Lewis from a Kupferberg notebook, which dreams of extracting friendship from orgasm. Try "Life Is Strange," where an aged heir of Aristide Bruant reports he's perfectly OK with never having once seen Paris. B PLUS

May 18, 2018

Link: Bettye LaVette / Wussy

Bettye LaVette: Things Have Changed (Verve) After her 2003 rebranding with minimalist producer-songwriter Dennis Walker, soul belter turned art singer LaVette got melodramatic on our ass, as old soul belters will. So neither the Brit-rock covers of 2010's Interpretations nor the Grammy fodder of 2015's Worthy speaks for itself with anything approaching the unforced impact of this highly uncanonical Dylan album. Beyond a dubious "It Ain't Me Babe" and a startlingly rearranged "Times They Are A-Changin'," LaVette's picks are obscure, half of them '80s titles left off both of the compilations since concocted to salvage his lost decade. And "interpretations" they're not. Instead LaVette invents a truly new Dylan--a Dylan who's an African-Ameican woman. Sure this Dylan has "soul"--reservoirs of empathy and spiritual mojo the Dylan we know could only gesture at, cut with a deep seam of the sardonic skepticism that never leaves him alone and finished off with a range, texture, and definition beyond the capabilities of his aging larynx. But the invention goes deeper than that. With R&B master drummer Steve Jordan overseeing an unfailing groove, LaVette messes with the songs at will, not just by changing genders as storylines require--"Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight" is so different addressed to a man--and introducing the terms "bullshit" and "fucked up" to Dylan's lexicon, but by swapping and omitting stanzas and updating historical references, Annie Oakley and Belle Starr to Otis Redding and Bruno Mars. The closing "Going, Going Gone," which has no real place on 1973's Planet Waves, darkens the album's political through-line. And in the boldest stroke of all, "Mama, You Been on My Mind" addresses not some dumped old lady but this Dylan's mother. LaVette's mother too, sounds like. A

Wussy: Getting Better (Shake It) The Queen City Five begin this Record Store Day EP with a reading of the underappreciated Beatles classic in which Lisa Walker--her voice always calm, sometimes sweet, occasionally detached--takes Paul's positive-thinking lead, John's background harmonies, and also John's shocking "I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" bridge. Then follow three winners from the Cincinnati songbook and the insufficiently legendary 2013 Berneice Huff mixtape--Jenny Mae's "Runaway," also all Lisa, followed by Chuck Cleaver's pensive take on the Seedy Seeds' "Nomenclature" and pained remake of the Afghan Whigs' punky old college-radio hit "Retard" with Lisa adding screamo to the refrain. Production is Record Store Day basic. But that's a good thing on a release that reminds us where Wussy comes from and can return whenever the mood strikes them, and also how deep their musical sagacity goes. A [Later: A MINUS]

Wussy: What Heaven Is Like (Shake It) I was struck when the recently revived shoegaze "genre" came up in discussions of Wussy's seventh official album, because it evoked the only track of theirs I've ever disliked: the ethereal remake of the 2008 rock-with-xylophone?? EP track "Skip," where Lisa's deepened soprano whispers a lyric too fuzzy for a band whose turns of phrase pack colloquial bite even when literal meanings are gummy. The guitars tend more immersive than the echoing arena-rock of Attica! and Forever Sounds, proving that Yo La Tengo isn't the only great band addressing politics too painful to ignore by getting weirder. In the end, the intent is neither ambient nor calming, just dreamier than I'd prefer. So I'm glad I have no trouble attaching social significance to an opener that begins "Don't you wish you could have been an astronaut / Back when astronauts had more appeal," or to Chuck's pure-punk cover "There's Aliens in Our Midst." For we who believe heaven means achieving maximum humanity on the only planet we'll ever know, that's the way it feels now. A MINUS

May 25, 2018

Link: Frankie Cosmos / Speedy Ortiz / Hop Along / The Breeders

Frankie Cosmos: Vessel (Sub Pop) Because it takes guts to get up there and sing your songs, we expect toughness from the women now achieving indie-rock parity. So Greta Kline's fragility may seem cutesy or calculated rather than the forthright aesthetic signature it is. Of course she's self-conscious about the fragility of the fluting ditties that pour out of her body-that's-a-burden, 18 tunelets on parade on this 33-minute breakout moment. How could she not be? But that doesn't make her fixation on the romantic love she's so insecure about anything like shtick. Immerse in her tiny reflections and glimmers of self-realization and ask yourself just how secure all the 24-year-olds with tougher fronts feel as they fuck around or choose their mate--cynical or carnal, enraged or disengaged, you know they get scared themselves. Kline's quietude takes guts too--more, maybe. A MINUS

Speedy Ortiz: Twerp Verse (Carpark) In a darker mood than when Foil Deer broke in 2015, as what indie-rocker isn't, Sadie Dupuis returns advisedly to the game she likes best: chunky non-Latinate Americanese wordplay that births dislocated idioms like "buck me off" or "I was lost but now I'm floundered" or even "don't wanna lopside my language." With tunes to match, natch. But she's still bucking "The year of the weird, bookended by booty pix I never posted" when she was stalked by a busmate who asked "what kind of games you like" and then switched "games" to "porn" and it got worse than that. "No no no you're not my bro" she yells on her way to a "pink boulder" where she can "be alone / With all the girls I know." Only then she takes a freshman to the prom so she can stick him in a song and he ends up finishing her sentences for her. Which is also a game she likes. A MINUS

Hop Along: Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Saddle Creek) Where the raspy, associative Frances Quinlan of Painted Shut crackled with limitless becoming, this clearer and more coherent one is hemmed in by all she's learned ("Look of Love," "Prior Things") ***

Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing (Bayonet) "I haven't finished this song yet / Will you help me fix it?" ("Sappho," "Sinister") **

The Breeders: All Nerve (4AD) Sisters in stick-to-itiveness address or at least mention black lung, Edgar Allan Poe, and heroin use in and around the Parthenon ("Blues at the Acropolis," "Nervous Mary") *

Noisey, May 2018

April 2018 June 2018