Robert Christgau on John Kruth's Broad Compass

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Kruth and La Società del Musici's 'Forever Ago' and Clay Harper's 'Black Beauty.'
September 7, 2018, 7:27pm
Image via John Kruth on Bandcamp.

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, will be available from Duke University Press in October. 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.

John Kruth & La Società del Musici: Forever Ago (Ars Spoleteum) The book-length celebrator of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Rubber Soul and leader of the departed TriBeCaStan is a native New Yorker who gets around. So having upped his game with two albums rooted in summers spent with his Croatian-born wife in the holiday port of Split, he crossed the Adriatic to cut 14 of his songs in Spoleto with a Neapolitan mandolinist he met in Manhattan. Thematically and geographically, the material gets around too, from a Milwaukee pal loading up a bag of Christmas goodies for poorer folks across the river to a tuna melt heated up on a desert dashboard to a cautionary reflection on Croatian Catholicism: "There's only one thing that I fear / When the old communist goes to church." Switching among seven instruments including his own mandolin, honoring Sylvia Plath's paranoia, or playing checkers with his cat, he's no kind of singer except the kind Dylan let in the side door with his everyman impressions. But he sure has a broad compass. And he lives to convince anyone who’ll listen that that's the best kind of compass to have—by miles. A MINUS

Clay Harper: Bleak Beauty (self-released) In a counterpart to Mount Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me, where solitary guitarist Phil Elverum processed the shocking loss of his wife Genevieve to pancreatic cancer, Harper honors the passing of his longtime partner Stephanie Gwinn, who succumbed even faster to a brain tumor. But where Elverum's miserable minimalism grabs and haunts you, the mediated art blues of a shifting ensemble of Harper's pals is less devastated and less literal, though it never quite compels the total attention it repays. Lyric worth absorbing: "Tells me what to think and objects to what I say / I don't know why / But I like it that way." And how about: "It's me again / I'll hold your hand / I'll be your man forever / But you sigh and then / Squeeze my hand / Say what if I don't get better"? B PLUS

Sam Baker: Land of Doubt (self-released) Spare, expressionistic songster teeters across the impossible tightrope between the lugubrious and the wrenching ("Same Kind of Blues," "Moses in the Reeds," "The Feast of St. Valentine") **

Chris Butler & Ralph Carney: Songs for Unsung Holidays (Smog Veil) Pan-instrumental dynamo and world's friendliest saxophone player collaborate one last time after the latter asks, "How come there are no more silly bands?" ("Salami Appreciation Day," "Blessing of the Bikes Day," "Day of the Dead") **

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