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Robert Christgau on Stella Donnelly's Musical Encyclopedia of Assholes

The Dean of American rock critics also reviews albums from Sharon Van Etten and Jenny Lewis.

by Robert Christgau
Apr 5 2019, 4:30pm

Lorne Thomson/Getty Images

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.

stella donnelly

Stella Donnelly: Beware of the Dogs (Secretly Canadian) In plain English and unassuming soprano, a musical encyclopedia of assholes, all male not just because she's female but because assholes generally are. Yes there are full-on predators—the rich prick with his dick out and the boy-will-be-boy who knows why she wears her shirt so low oh yes he does. But most are more ordinary—the intimidator, the reckless driver, the coke-snorter, the one-percenter, the big shot wishing she'd drop the attitude, the lunch date gabbing about himself, the feckless no-show, the guy who was never home enough, the guy she did her best to love, the guy whose baby she doesn't want, the guy she misses even now. Some ladies do actually love outlaws, and too often they get what they put in for. But most women are just looking for an interesting man who'll respect her and stick around. These do exist in some quantity, I believe. But as it is written, they can be hard to find. A MINUS

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Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar) Van Etten's big voice, controlled tempos, and dramatic aura have never tempted me to enter her world. But from the attention-getting opener—delivered with a modicum of emotion and forethought, "Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/You said, `Holy shit, you almost died'" should get any listener with a heart to the end of the quatrain—I found myself hooked on her first album since 2014, which fans agree is her best without coming together on why. I chalk up my own interest to its diminished drama. If the tales here still tend toward screwed-up relationships and past misadventures rather than expanding on the cover photo of her two-year-old perched on a hilariously messy living room rug, so be it. She’ll get there eventually. A MINUS

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Jenny Lewis: On the Line (Warner Bros.) The rare 21st-century singer-songwriter whose level of craft renders her good enough for 76-year-old master drummer Jim Keltner loses the spring in her step that made her so 21st-century by proving it. ("On the Line," "Rabbit Hole," "Dogwood") ***

Sir Babygirl: Crush on You (Father/Daughter): Lesbian hardcore-punk grad's synthed-up teenpop lovesongs—so fake they're funny and so shiny they squeak. ("Cheerleader," "Flirting With Her") **

Girls on Grass: Dirty Power (self-released) "Left my man for a woman who looks like Aimee Mann/We made out in the can" plus "Because Capitalism" plus Del-Lords connection minus sings flat minus sings flat some more. ("Down at the Bottom," "John Doe") *