Choral Clatter and Savannah Sounds: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean tackles projects from Populous and Arca before taking a look back at records from Bon Iver, The Avalanches, and Burial.
December 23, 2016, 5:17pm

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 a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

Populous: Night Safari (Bad Panda/Folk Wisdom) The Italian soundscaper who got my attention kicking off the Senegambia Rebel comp begins a little electro-arpeggiated for my taste but by track three starts shading "tribal," as electro-arpeggiation fans like to sniff. I say it's nicely weird from there till the two richly climactic tracks: "Night Safari," in which crickets introduce drumlike rhythm figures that slowly gain volume, detail, and authority, and "Brasilia," a multilayered, multivocal urban showcase worth building in the right savannah. A MINUS

Arca: Entranas (self-released) Translates Entrails. Streamable at Soundcloud, downloadable at Mediafire. Divides 25 minutes into 14 untimed titles I estimate as breaking 0:00, 0:48, 2:40, 3:58; 4:29, 5:06, 5:28, 6:15-6:48, 10:38, 13:10, 13:50, 15:24, ???, 20:49, 24:10, and damn right I could be wrong, although not about 5:28. Since Alejandro Ghersi once took a class from me, discretion suggested that I respectfully note the existence of this unballyhooed abstract work from a sonic universe I seldom sample and leave it at that. But as has happened before with Arca, who's too big a deal to need my belated attention, I enjoyed its sounds too much not to say so—the lowing of "Torero," the booming of "Cement Garden Interlude," the preindustrial clatter of "Pargo." I also enjoyed Micachu's reflections on gender identity in 5:28's "Baby Doll." To simulate closure, however, it relies on the kind of choirboy soprano that's signified transcendence, spirituality, and other such rot since there were castrati who were known as such, and as ever I'm unconvinced. A MINUS


Charlie Haden Music Liberation Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse!) In a farewell so posthumous electric bassist Steve Swallow replaces him on the three Carla Bley-composed tracks, the great humanitarian tells the planet he loves it so ("Time/Life," "Song for the Whales") ***


The Avalanches: Wildflower (Astralwerks) Their rude sense of humor beats their banal sense of beauty and their unlikely song finds beat their incalculable musical appropriations, so keep your ear on Wilmouth Houdini whenever they give you the chance ("Frankie Sinatra," "The Noisy Eater," "Subways") **

Burial: "Young Death"/"Nightmarket" (Hyperdub) Two more soundscapes about vinyl and clinical depression, unofficially entitled Young Death: It Never Gets Old **

Horse Lords: Interventions (Northern Spy) The allure of the cycle--for avant-garde guitar minimalists, an oldie so goody ("Truthers," "Time Slip") *

Bon Iver: 22, a Million (Jajaguwar) So much cuter when his voice is a high pitch in the soundscape rather than a conveyor of putative verbal content ("666[bent downward arrow or else some emoji I'm too uncool to recognize]," "21 MOON WATER") *

Earth, Wind & Fire: The Classic Christmas Album (Legacy) Why  the hell not? ("Joy to the World," "Sleigh Ride," "Get Your Hump on This Christmas") *

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