Robert Christgau on a Songwriter Who Can Linger on the Word "Gerrymander"

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews records from Robt Sarazin Blake, Dylan Hicks, John Langford's Four Lost Souls, and more.
October 27, 2017, 4:31pm
Photo by Erika Duffy

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

Robt Sarazin Blake: Recitative (SameRoom) In a vibrato-shaded baritone that recalls a French chansonnier more than an Americana guitar guy, the first singer-songwriter in history to linger on the word "gerrymander" enlists a limber band colored decisively by horn man Thomas Deakin to array sixteen talky songs lasting a mere hour and a half over two CDs. Chants that riff on the titles "Work," "Couples," and "Single Women" ("Haven't been laid in years," "Are always late," "Get to work on time," "Got lucky last night") are as instantly indelible as the Springsteen, Weill, Reed, and Van Morrison lifts woven in, and the disc-openers do equal justice to "The Other Side of Fck It" and "Rock & Roll Dream." But after you've had your fill of the easy stuff, focus on the sequence that begins with the three apparently unrelated verses entitled "Sgt. Manning" and sandwiches "Own House, Own Guns" and "19 Shots" around the essential relief of "On the Corner of Saturday Night." A MINUS

Dylan Hicks: Ad Out (Soft Launch) Singer-songwriters don't get more logocentric than the mild-mannered novelist-critic who dubbed his 1990 debut New Dylan. And though Dylanesque is not Hicks's way, I bet the guy he was named after is broad-minded enough to envy the observed likes of "Hear the the snaps of your jeans banging in the drier" and "Time it flies like Superman / Or gets stuck like celery strands." Vocally he's too smart to be wimpy, and a shifting band anchored by his cocktail piano accommodates horn section and pedal steel as needed. Hicks isn't above cleverness like "I just wanna be the Monkees to your Beatles / Wanna be the heat lamp to your sun" or "Persephone and Dante were down there / Bon Scott I guess was en route," and why should he be? But his deepest couplet is "You were interesting to me / Interesting to me," and his deepest song hard to penetrate: "Ambulance," where a feeble parent or disabled child or someone else altogether may be scared of the siren, in deep need of the help it promises, both, or neither. A MINUS

Jon Langford's Four Lost Souls: Jon Langford's Four Lost Souls (Bloodshot) Cut on the fly November 9, 2016, by master songwriter Langford, three Chicago pals, and some Muscle Shoals regulars, none of whom I bet had their heads together yet ("In Oxford Mississippi," "Fish Out of Water," "Mystery") ***

Chuck Prophet: Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (Yep Roc) Protest songs that leave you more pissed than you were before and half-told tales that leave you curiouser and curiouser ("Alex Nieto," "Jesus Was a Social Drinker") **

Thomas Anderson: My Songs Are the House I Live In (Out There) Reports from an inquiring mind and the Texas plain that benefit from the judicious application of irony and drum machine ("Encyclopedia," "Johnny's Gone Driving") *

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Tell the Devil... I'm Gettin' There as Fast as I Can (Bordello/Thirty Tigers) Since he couldn't sing to begin with, old age suits him musically while lending weight, cred, and color to his tales of sin ("House of the White Rose Bouquet," "Lucifer and the Fallen Angels") *

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