Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Girls Can Tell [Merge, 2001] B+
  • Kill the Moonlight [Merge, 2002] A
  • Gimme Fiction [Merge, 2005] B+
  • Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga [Merge, 2007] B+
  • Transference [Merge, 2010] A-
  • They Want My Soul [Loma Vista/Republic, 2014] B+
  • Hot Thoughts [Matador, 2017] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Girls Can Tell [Merge, 2001]
A few songs grab you, the rest grow on you, the lyric sheet makes some sense. Dynamics fill in for groove. But even after you run the hooks through your head for a day--"Take the fifth," "fitted shirt," "that you're next to me"--you don't have much idea what Britt Daniel is on about, except maybe that he wonders why he works so hard on his songs, and (duh) has yet to find true love. And beyond "Take the fifth," no phrases stick out as free-floating signifiers, either. In short, the indie-pop conundrum in a nutshell too slippery to crack--unless you really like filberts. B+

Kill the Moonlight [Merge, 2002]
It's so reassuring when the indie rumor mill isn't just licking its own asshole. Britt Daniel and company's Merge-reissued 1998 Elektra cutout A Series of Sneaks doesn't qualify as the instant pleasure hypesters claim. It's too spiky and too cryptic. But it certainly earned its cult, which was onto something much bigger than last year's Girls Can Tell, the breakthrough album skeptics like me took for a fluke peak: namely, this one. Eggo Johansen's piano-styled keybs mark the hooks as Daniel exploits the catch in his voice to establish a humane mood. There's even a thematic thread. If I was feeling cranky I might argue that songs about marginality will consign you to the margins every time. But the two titles that set the course, "Small Stakes" and "How We Get By," seem pretty universal to me. A

Gimme Fiction [Merge, 2005]
I wish this was still a world where the right guitar noise and a heaping helping of hooks were sustenance enough. But though I can imagine putting this on at year's end and remembering every song with a kind of surprised admiration, I can't imagine doing it any sooner--or any later either. Until their next album, anyway. This one's selling, so there'll be another. B+

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga [Merge, 2007]
A trifle brighter, quicker and fuller than Gimme Fiction, with "Don't Make Me a Target" targeting the executive branch more explicitly than is Britt Daniel's general practice--"nuclear dicks and their dialect drawl," eh? No one in indie is longer on craft or form, contained feeling or quiet desperation. James Mercer is an expressionist kid by comparison, Glenn Mercer a minimalist amateur. But boy--what a tight-ass. B+

Transference [Merge, 2010]
So hermetic, so dynamically contained, Britt Daniel's music discourages identification however impressive its skill set. Ratcheting his reticence up half a turn, he opens with his bleakest new song, and only if you follow his chronically noncommittal lyrics will you notice his emotions opening up along with his tunes, his attitudes along with his structures. First it's "All I know is all I know," then it's "I'm part of this world." Smart enough to have figured out that he's "got nothing to lose but bitterness and patterns," he combats his own unease, and there's a payoff--not the nicer girl than he deserves so much as the grace to write her an adult lullaby: "Your worries are meant to stop for now/You know they're not for keeping." A-

They Want My Soul [Loma Vista/Republic, 2014]
Britt Daniel's voice is so unyieldingly masculine it could make you miss the soulful self-pity of a Gavin Rossdale. So what keeps me playing his long-delayed return to the majors is the sound effects. Hums and handclaps and whistling. Vibraphone gurgle and harp arpeggio and Fairlight fanfare. Drum rolls and digital clickety-clacks. Piano plinking, piano freaking, organ swells, keyb distorts. Guitar colors of every description--pseudo uke! fingering squelch! neck strum! There's a falsetto moment. There's a duet vocal. You too can be glued to your chair waiting for the next surprise like it's a hidden joke on a Fountains of Wayne album. Start with "Knock Knock Knock," which is jammed with them. Or if you prefer, just light up and spend 40 minutes giggling when you least expect it. B+

Hot Thoughts [Matador, 2017]
If you start them up, well, they'll never stop, never stop, never stop, never stop ("Shotgun," "Tear It Down") ***