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Robert Christgau on Merrill Garbus's Creative Compulsions

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews tUnE-yArDs' 'I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life,' Courtney Barnett's 'Tell Me How You Really Feel,' and Neko Case's 'Hell-On.'
Eliot Lee Hazel

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 find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


tUnE-yArDs: I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (4AD) Merrill Garbus has a gift for embarrassing people, especially by caring so deeply about the unpackable racial complexities her music has always addressed head on. It's these complexities she's now chastised for making a mess of in a time-slip when African-Americans have earned the right to charge appropriation whenever white musicians venture into racial territory, which is such a relief to the many white people eager to let things ride. On an album marked by the theme statements "I must be witness to everything," "Honesty, honesty gone / Don't know right from wrong," and "I know I'm not to be trusted," she acknowledges more white guilt than she's probably incurred, so of course sometimes she's clumsy about it. Who isn't? But with decisive input from bassist-lifemate Nate Brenner, her musicality—smoother here, perhaps due to the black-pop softeners some reviewers descry—remains something to believe in. Proud against her better judgment, she can't stop exploring her art or living her life. "Sitting in the middle of the Sixth Extinction / Silently suggesting the investment in a generator," she gives no sign she'll ever stop flailing away at everything that makes her crazy and compels her to sing. A MINUS

Courtney Barnett: Tell Me How You Really Feel (Mom + Pop) Cheeky title notwithstanding, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. didn't just sit. It was an album where a band powered up at just the moment its singer evolved into a guitarist to reckon with as she came up with the best-observed lyrics of her life. Three years later, what little observation there is peers inward—half the songs sound written in a flat she hasn't left in a week. If anything, the band is sharper. But rather than a singer dynamic enough to match it, we get a dynamic guitarist who also happens to be the sole lyricist and solo singer. So be grateful for the Margaret Atwood lift "I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Men are scared that women will laugh at them / I wanna walk through the park in the dark / Women are scared that men will kill them," especially for sparking the crucial add-on "I hold my keys between my fingers." And for a finale called "Sunday Roast," where someone she likes comes for a visit. A MINUS


Neko Case: Hell-On (Anti-) Lyrically and melodically, Case has never been more accessible or accomplished. Emotionally, however, she's as distant as ever, and no longer inclined to soften that fact with a reassuring scrim of obscurism. Like her, you may well think God is a tire fire and petroleum an offense against the organic life it exploits and destroys. But that won't make the two of you allies—she rides alone. Here she's smartest and most effective memorializing a family friend who abused children without assaulting them sexually or physically, rendering him the proximate cause of "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" and its devastated "So I left home and faked my ID/And fucked every man that I wanted to be." B PLUS

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (Matador) Fetching guitars, nice goofy vibe, songwriting dominated by spaced-out drip Vile rather than Barnett's distracted depressive ("Over Everything," "Continental Breakfast") **

Lily Allen: No Shame (Warner Bros.) Thrown out of whack by bad romance and worse social media, she's no longer so clever about putting up a front or hiding behind a tune, but don't assume it's permanent—not yet ("Three," "My One") *

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