Robert Christgau on the Soul and Fury of Hamell on Trial and Algiers

The Dean of American Rock Critics finds one record he's been waiting for, and another that's worth a second try in the age of you-know-who.
August 25, 2017, 4:30pm
Paul Warner / Getty Images

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, take a look at his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


Hamell on Trial: Tackle Box (New West) From track one, which follows a snatch of you-know-who's "I'd like to punch him in the face" by promising Hamell's gang of misfits "You're safe here," to track 16, where the 62-year-old gets teary about a marriage eight years gone, this is an album I've been waiting for. Counting the lust song that quotes a mouthy Australian's anti-American analysis at length, only four tracks are explicitly "political," including a misfire aimed at bulletproof blankets. But "The More You Know," about raising a teenage son in the age of you-know-who, and the homely, specific, devastating "Not Aretha's Respect (Cops)," about "I'm trying to teach him to Not Get Shot," are the best protest songs yet by an antifolk ranter who's never soft-pedaled his militantly nonviolent anarchism. And I should also mention the four kiddie ditties about the life cycle of a cartoon frog—as you'll learn from the laff-riot live Big Mouth Strikes Again CD you can own if you buy the vinyl and stream if you don't, this mouthy touring machine has a G-rated set he'll serve up on request at folk festivals and other family affairs. Either way he'll say it loud, flail his 1937 Gibson, and rock as hard as The Clash. Randy Newman too subtle for ya? This ain't. A

Algiers: The Underside of Power (Matador) Initially I thought they had the right idea and the wrong execution—in-your-face politics stretched past their stress threshold by a fusion of soul-rock histrionics and noise-metal aggression. But with fascists in my face too, I gave it another try, and gradually came to understand that electronics mean more to Algiers's guitar-bass-drums than Lee Tesche's ax—they're more Death Grips than Living Colour. "Cleveland"'s gunshots-as-whipcracks, "Plague Years"'s funereal techno, and "Bury Me Standing"'s Gregorian synths are less galvanizing than Death Grips' abrasives. But overwrought though he may be, Franklin James Fisher is more approachable than Stefan Burnett, and not just because he declines to weaponize his dick. Gospel warmth textures his every yowl as he calls out the powermongers, honors the martyrs, grieves for the dying world, and tries to stay on good terms with his mom. A MINUS


The Isley Brothers/Santana: Power of Peace (Legacy) Ronnie croons and cries the forebears' songbook while Carlos and Ernie soar-not-shred, and yes, consciousness is included ("Total Destruction to Your Mind," "God Bless the Child," "Mercy Mercy Me [The Ecology]" ***

Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone: Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone (ESP-Disc) She can be so ideological she's unlistenable, but every anti-racist could use a shot of Amiri's widow naming our enemies and celebrating her history ("Afro American Child," "The Things I Love," "The Fascist") **

Garland Jeffreys: 14 Steps to Harlem (Luna Park) A racially complex life recalled by someone who's extracted multivalent music from that life for well past four decades ("14 Steps to Harlem," "Colored Boy Said") **

Living Colour: Shade (Megaforce) Chops undiminished, vocals weathered by age, wisdom for some reason muted ("Inner City Blues," "Freedom of Expression [F.O.X.]") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.