Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Todd Snider

  • Songs for the Daily Planet [MCA/Margaritaville, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Todd Snider Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms [Oh Boy, 2003] A-
  • East Nashville Skyline [Oh Boy, 2004] A
  • That Was Me 1994-1998 [Hip-O, 2005] **
  • The Devil You Know [New Door, 2006] A
  • Peace Queer [Aimless, 2008] **
  • The Excitement Plan [Yep Roc, 2009] B+
  • Live: The Storyteller [Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2011] A-
  • Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables [Aimless/30 Tigers, 2012] A
  • Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker [Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2012] **
  • Happy New Year Vol. 1 [Aimless, 2013] ***
  • Eastside Bulldog [Aimless/30 Tigers EP, 2016] *
  • Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 [Aimless, 2019] A
  • First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder [Aimless, 2021] B+
  • Live: Return of the Storyteller [Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2022] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Songs for the Daily Planet [MCA/Margaritaville, 1994]
"Easy Money" Choice Cuts

Todd Snider Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms [Oh Boy, 2003]
Folkies with a sense of humor are always better off cracking jokes than waxing lyrical. With Snider, though, the differential is near absolute--the one tolerable serious song among these career highlights is the 12-step memoir "Long Year." Snider's live-studio differential is steep as well--a crowd sharpens his timing and intonation. "Beer Run" was funny enough on 2002's New Connection, but both versions here, including one of those annoying bonus cuts where the artist's buddies can't stop laughing, are eternal nonsense classics. Because he's funny, he does sardonic and bittersweet right. Also because he's funny, the monologues are why you replay the record. A-

East Nashville Skyline [Oh Boy, 2004]
At 34, Snider declares himself an "old-timer," and from the prefatory "Age Like Wine" ("too late to die young now") to the valedictory "Enjoy Yourself" (Guy Lombardo's wisest hit) proves his maturity by being funny and serious at the same time. In a decisive and let us hope permanent change, there's none of the mawkishness young fools think is deep and old fools wallow in--not even in "Play a Train Song," which appreciates corn without indulging in it. Instead a guy who spends two of these songs in jail sticks up for "tree-huggin', love-makin', pro-choicin', gay-weddin', Widespread-diggin' hippies" everywhere. Problem is, he's afraid they'll all get locked up too. Not a slacker manifesto--a slacker wake-up call. A

That Was Me 1994-1998 [Hip-O, 2005]
The country-rock highlights will sound brighter live and acoustic, but other moments shine loud enough ("Late Last Night," "Margaritaville"). **

The Devil You Know [New Door, 2006]
In 2004--18 years after he started playing his songs in bars for a living, 10 years after he signed with Jimmy Buffett, a year after he nailed a live best-of for John Prine, and a few months after he went to jail and then the hospital for an OxyContin habit--this chronic insomniac cut East Nashville Skyline, which was so smart, deep, and funny it could only have been a fluke. New one's better. If "there's a war going on that the poor can't win," then it's Snider's genius to make you feel how for some people, freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose--cf. "Looking for a Job," about a day worker who takes no shit, or "Just Like Old Times," about a high school sweetheart turned hooker. At 37, he still makes a specialty of escapades that belong on Cops. And then there's the one about a similarly hang-loose fella, only he's rich, hence loathsome. Habitué of Camp David, it turns out. A

Peace Queer [Aimless, 2008]
Musings of a slacker who knows too well why he chose that path ("Mission Accomplished [Because You Gotta Have Faith]," "Is This Thing On?"). **

The Excitement Plan [Yep Roc, 2009]
For a principled slacker like Snider, diffidence is an aesthetic principle, but here it tends to obscure some affecting little songs. Slackers need whatever help they can get wherever they can get it. They also pack less punch as sidewalk philosophers than as barroom storytellers--e.g. "Unorganized Crime," where a job gets done, or "Corpus Christi Bay," who has one. B+

Live: The Storyteller [Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2011]
His second live album in eight years lacks the full functionality of the first, which doubled as a better best-of than the studio one Hip-O put out two years later. But Snider's hang-loose performances are so infectious they reproduce on record even when he's showing the crowd how two unconscious people sprawled into a perfect T across a fondly and farcically remembered stage. So though the songs are from his much improved studio albums of the past decade, most worth owning in themselves, the "storytelling" isn't just in the songs. There are stories proper galore, plenty more than the three tracked as such, and every one is worth hearing--always as narrative and usually as music, where Snider's acquired drawl provides a species of musicality akin to that of prime rapping, especially over a vamp. Snider's promise: "If everything goes particularly well this evening we can all expect a 90-minute distraction from our impending doom." Pondering the Comcast power grab and the perils of democracy in super-Saharan Africa, I wasn't fully distracted. But Snider's stoned-humanist humor eased my soul. A-

Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables [Aimless/30 Tigers, 2012]
Musically, these are not complex songs, and although Snider's boyish air never seems forced and his good humor always comes with laughs, his 45-year-old voice bears the gravelly traces of many sleepless nights. Yet for the third time since he kicked opiates in 2004, he's scored a full album's worth of new material that remains completely in a character unique to him while adding something new to that character. This time what's new is a band sound shambolically anchored by John Prine's New Orleans-raised drummer Paul Griffith and cunningly colored by fiddler Amanda Shires. What's also new but less surprising is an ever more explicit and uncompromising class animus. One song names the Abacus Fund Goldman Sachs and John Paulson conned unions with. Another begs to differ with the privileged canard that living well is the best revenge. Uh-uh, Snider sez. Revenge is the best revenge. A

Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker [Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2012]
The Godfather's material sounds loopier every time I play this thing--that is, more like the son's, which is a credit to them both ("Continuing Saga of the Classic Bummer or Is This My One Way Bus Ticket to Cleveland," "Pissin' in the Wind") **

Happy New Year Vol. 1 [Aimless, 2013]
Updates of "Beer Run" and "Ballad of the Kingsmen," Jerry Jeff Walker cameo with patter, too many redundancies, and three or four definitive renditions ("Alright Guy [Hill Country Goodbye Story] Alright Guy," "Precious Little Miracles," "Can't Complain," "Too Soon to Tell") ***

Eastside Bulldog [Aimless/30 Tigers EP, 2016]
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") *

Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 [Aimless, 2019]
Ten songs, one dedication, and one explanation recorded totally acoustic and almost totally solo, which as the excellent booklet explains doesn't mean tossed off--you'd never know from its offhand feel how practiced this material is. That's one reason it's so replayable without benefit of notable groove or tune. The other, of course, is that the words are good. Having opened with "a song about a song you're working on" ("I mean, it's gone, man. Come on, let it go."), he jam-packs a whole lot of material into "Talking Reality Television Blues," following Milton Berle ("we all had a new escape from the world") with Michael Jackson ("reality killed that video star") with He Who Shall Not Be Namechecked ("Reality killed by a reality star"). "Serving my country under General Malaise," Snider also becomes the first singer-songwriter ever to rhyme "national anthem" with "national tantrum." All in a goofy drawl he didn't learn growing up in Oregon, because he's a Southerner by choice and no goof at all--just another "working fucking schmuck out here standing around waiting to get shot in yet ay-nother tragic addition to an already sorry state of affairs." A

First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder [Aimless, 2021]
The ramshackle production so fundamental to Snider's shtick doesn't transmute into gold here the way it did on Cash Cabin Sessions. It takes multiple listens to register the plain yet eloquent and even witty John Prine tribute. "Battle Hymn of the Album" performs the essential function of putting John Brown's name on repeat without availing itself of the sacred melody Julia Ward Howe lifted so pragmatically. In fact, the only true noticer here is "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch," about the two Texases worth of discarded plastic now floating in Terra's largest ocean. But who else you got who's likely to wonder "If faith moves mountains what's it take to leave them alone?" or opine that "We are fractions of equations of illusions of reality"? Or let the pastor of the title church wheedle and hold forth? B+

Live: Return of the Storyteller [Thirty Tigers/Aimless, 2022]
This is Snider's fourth live album, and except for 2013's perfectly OK here-and-gone Record Store Day special Happy New Year Vol. 1 they're all both superb and different. Up till now, I've favored 2011's Live: The Storyteller--can't get enough of the one where Todd takes the mike by default when the bandleader is knocked cold by a drunk woman on a swing. Two of these selections are on that one too, but I don't mind hearing them again and neither will you. And not one of the eight new stories has gotten old on me after some dozen plays. True, you can just stream it and put it in your memory bank. But Snider hopes to lure you into buying the physical, so he and his faithful correspondent Diana Hendricks provide 17 booklet pages of impressionistic liner notes worth having in your actual library. A very modest sample: "touring is a slippery trick/there's only one way to do it/exhausted"; "science reports that in cognitive ratio equivalency testing,/by all accounts, eight hours of bus sleep is the same as no sleep at all"; "i didn't play any of the songs i planned to/i played green castle blues/and the rest a the set played itself//what i get to do is just a total privilege." A

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