The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City. A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
The Delines: The Imperial (Decor/El Cortez) As is clearer in the novels he's said are more "easygoing" than his music—particularly Lean On Pete, the movie version of which earned raves last year—Willy Vlautin's songs aren't dark because he thinks dark is cool or mistakes his own depressive tendencies for existential truth. Instead, the forlorn, mumbly affect of his signature band, Richmond Fontaine, is attributable more to his vocal limitations than to his philosophy of life. That's why he recruited Amy Boone to front the Delines. In both bands Vlautin finds pathos and dignity in sub-working class stragglers who drink too much and fall out of love when the money's gone. But Boone sings so thoughtful and caring that you feel the strength as well as the pain of the wronged women whose stories Vlautin has her tell—the escapee from Felony Flats and the lover fixing to buy her guy a new coat from Arlene's as well as Holly the Hustle stuck with a handicapper twice her age and Polly giving it one more try a day after Eddie busted her in the face. Deepest of all is the lead "Cheer Up Charley," which doesn't mean Charley should go get stoned. It means that if he uses up all his vacation days he'll lose that "job on the docks" he'll never beat, and then what? "There ain't no end to going down / There ain't no end / So cheer up Charley." A MINUS
Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour (MCA Nashville) Product of Nashville though it may be, this is a pop record straight up, marked throughout by song-doctoring overseers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who score cowrites on most tracks, play keyboards, drums, and such on every one, and go all but unnamed in its raft of raves. I mean "pop" as an observation, not a criticism. Tashian's modest piano parts complement Musgraves's delicate soprano and positive mood more subtly than any pedal steel could; the sound-setting "Slow Burn," about taking all night, and the LSD-fueled "Mother," about "bursting with empathy" as you miss her and miss her some more, are triumphs of the pop imagination by any measure. So in the rock era's biggest yet quietest year of the woman to date, this team has figured out how to make quiet sell. If its quiet never breaks on through to the other side, that's not only deliberate but one reason so many are raving and buying. But it's also why I'm not altogether sold myself. B PLUS
Marianne Faithfull: Negative Capability (Panta Rei/BMG) Still plumbing love's impossibilities as death nears and the Nazis come nearer than that ("They Come at Night," "In My Own Particular Way") ***
Brandi Carlile: By the Way, I Forgive You (ATO) The reasonable belief that the schlock belter in her is also the Christian lesbian who holds that "all souls are born kind" doesn't oblige anyone to convert to either ("The Mother," "Fulton County Jane Doe") **
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