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Roots Rock Radicals: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean reviews the latest from Buddy Miller, Margo Price, Brandi Carlile, Cam, Lucinda Williams, and more.
May 27, 2016, 3:47pm

Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.


Buddy Miller: Cayamo Sessions at Sea (New West) Seems too easy: A-list guitarist who's also a discreetly OK singer duets selected country classics on some music cruise thing. But not one song is diminished or dull, and most of the honored guests put out. Richard Thompson kills Hank Williams's forlorn "Wedding Bells," which is his kind of song, and Elizabeth Cook sells Carl Smith's subclassic "If Teardrops Were Pennies," which is how she was raised. The always gutsy Lee Ann Womack putting her all into "After the Fire Is Gone"? Sure thing. The often dull Shawn Colvin crooning "Wild Horses"? Lucinda, work on your understatement. A MINUS

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer's Daughter (Third Man) In the manner of Kacey Musgraves, Price's soprano is more a coffeehouse voice than a barroom voice. Her Illinois-to-Nashville drawl is as precise as her word choices even if her "You wouldn't know class if it bit you in the ass" can't match the gusto of Loretta Lynn, whose "Fist City" midwifed its melody. But from "Four Years of Chances," which lays out the slog of a neglectful marriage mainly so she can crow about the attentive one that came next, to "Weekender," in which her old man is too broke to bail her out of jail, her clarity has a gusto of its own. Meet and greet yet another country sister who's smarter than the bros. A MINUS

Brandi Carlile: The Firewatcher's Daughter (ATO) In case you didn't know this gay Patsy-Jewel hybrid was corny, she begins by pretending "Wherever is your heart I call home" has some kick because she gives it her all and you can hum it on the Exercycle, and soon, jonesing for a hook, she's mocking a rocking "Mainstream Kid" like Peter Gabriel getting his rocks off vaunting "Sledgehammer." But having submitted these Americana bona fides, she demonstrates that the right corn can provide needed roughage—an "If you're good at telling lies, you could be my alibi," say, or a "Last night I had the exact same dream as you/I killed a bird to save your life and you gave me your shoes." In this her strong voice proves essential as you begin to notice how rarely it's overbearing. She's emotive—has to be. But she's more detailed than your usual belter, because she knows strong voices aren't just for knocking folks over. And was she ever born to cover the Avett Brothers: "Make sure my wife knows that I loved her/Make sure my daughter knows the same/And always remember there is nothing worth sharing/Like the love that let us share our name." A MINUS


Cam: Untamed (Arista) She's a rebel as Nashville defines it, neither conscious nor unconventional but not therefore d'void of spunk. ("Country Ain't Never Been Pretty," "Half Broke Heart") **

Lisa Said: First Time, Long Time ( Egyptian-American from Tennessee kicks off her Americana EP with a Huey Smith figure and makes you wonder whether her melodic shading is cultural or individual. ("Been Around," "One Too Many") **

Kelsea Ballerini: The First Time (Black River Entertainment) Hey—a Nashville Taylor Swift surrogate who literally grew up in Tennessee (listening to Britney and Xtina). ("Dibs," "Second Hand Smoke") *

Lucinda Williams: The Ghosts of Highway 20 (Highway 20) Fine but increasingly long-winded bandleader splits the difference between po'-faced and lugubrious by mourning her father and salvaging a few outtakes. ("If My Love Could Kill," "Doors of Heaven") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.