Robert Christgau on Vampire Weekend's Puzzlers and Big Thief's Minor Miracles
The Dean of American Rock Critics also digs into collections by the Yawpers, Martin Frawley, and Fred Thomas.
Vampire Weekend photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images / Big Thief photo by Noam Galai/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 eight books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City. His most recent, Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading, 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.
Big Thief: U.F.O.F. (4AD) The deepest satisfaction of Big Thief is hearing something manifestly fragile hold together. Notions and emotions so fleeting they're gone before you can pin them down embody and then vanquish uncertainty before it can settle into the depression that may well lurk below. Each quiet, tiny-voiced tune emerges like a crocus pushing through the snow, and how much you enjoy as opposed to admire it will depend on how moving you find minor miracles. Not terribly fragile myself, I identify most readily with the subtle blatancies that sometimes surface—the quiet boom of the lead-in to "Jenni," or "Cattails" with its noticeable beat and subtle guitar hook sounding almost martial in this sonic context. But I'm definitely touched by the whole. A MINUS
Vampire Weekend: Father of the Bride (Columbia) Somehow the raft of confused reviews that greeted VW's half-decade-coming fourth album failed to ditch the old saw that set designer's son turned Columbia scholarship boy Ezra Koenig sings the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Maybe this is because at 35 he actually does, just not the "Ivy League" ones of legend. More likely, however, the problem is sheer befuddlement at how complex this class stuff can be. So recognize that his rich-and-famous has little resemblance to the old-money kind. It's Hollywood rich-and-famous, and far from its upper reaches, although Quincy Jones is eight-month-old Isaiah Jones Koenig's granddad. As I hear this sprightly, allusive, elusive, technically accomplished collection, all but a few of its 18 melodic yet seldom uplifting or effervescent songs bespeak some fraught combination of lost youth, career anxiety, and, way down deep, political dismay. "Why's it felt like Halloween / Since Christmas 2017?" Peruse the lyric booklet and find other such moments among these honeyed puzzlers. B PLUS
Martin Frawley: Undone at 31 (Merge) Like many former twerps, former Twerp Frawley understands love's pains, pleasures, and epiphanies so much better than the horndogs who get laid all the time (they tell us) ("You Want Me?" "Smoke in Your House") ***
Fred Thomas: Aftering (Polyvinyl) Depressed chronicler of the indie life keeps his spirits up while fretting about the size of his gut ("House Show, Late December," "Altar") **
The Yawpers: Human Question (Bloodshot) Ingrained humanism and earned guitar chops only get a song so far without some kind of rousing chorus to take it home ("Can't Wait," "Child of Mercy") *