Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

American Epic: The Soundtrack [Legacy, 2017]
There will be more of these--many more. In fact, there's already a five-CD set I may spend months with and may not, and on June 9 comes a 32-track Music From the American Epic Sessions double featuring such worthies as Nas, Beck, Raphael Saadiq, Christine Pizzuti, and co-producer Jack White that I hope I want to hear a third time. Artist and genre overviews also impend. And then there's the conflict that I've known Lo-Max Records' Bernard MacMahon, whose obsession clearly drove this project, ever since he started calling me from England circa 1990. But we've talked so little over the past decade that I was astonished to get this CD in the mail, and he had zero input into my theory that American Epic is a Sony plot to poach/rescue the American folk music franchise from the Smithsonian and the great Harry Smith. Still, isn't it obvious? All copyrights are public domain, and nowadays physical compilations are for the collector types who are Legacy's specialty. So these 15 tracks from MacMahon's three-part PBS documentary, overseen by his partner Alison McGourty, constitute a starter disc. Four repeat songs from Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and six more select other material by Smith artists, all arduously remastered to augment depth and grain. But add Smith omission Sister Rosetta Tharpe as well as Lydia Mendoza, the Aloha Serenaders, and Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, and note that two of the Smith artists are Cajun, and suddenly Smith's democratic gestalt has turned a third non-English, over a quarter female, and rather more rocking. The liveliest track besides Tharpe's "Up Above My Head" is the Aloha Serenaders' "Tomi Tomi," where the chorus races to keep up with Sol K. Bright's fleet steel guitar and tongue-twisting vocal, and right behind him comes Big Chief Henry, who never walks when he can run either. If this be political correctness, bring it on. A