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Robert Christgau Reviews Dub Master Lee 'Scratch' Perry

The Dean of American rock critics takes on a new album from the reggae lifer, as well as releases by Tanya Tagaq and Sneaks.

by Robert Christgau
May 31 2019, 4:00pm

Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns via 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.

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Lee "Scratch" Perry: Rainford (On-U Sound) Riddled with reissues, collaborations, bootlegs, remixes, and of course dubs, the Upsetter's catalogue is beyond comprehension. Post 2011, when he turned 75, Wikipedia lists 13 albums while omitting more titles than I'm mad enough to compare-and-contrast from Spotify's offerings; upsetter.net credits 30 undated albums to "Lee Perry" and 12 more to "Lee Perry &"; etc. But if you care about the greatest of the dubmasters, this project, overseen for the 84-year-old by great white dubmaster Adrian Sherwood, is an album that holds together. Is there a single track as head-turning as, to name a few personal faves, "I Am a Psychiatrist," "Messy Appartment," or "Poop Song"? Definitely the "Autobiography of the Upsetter" finale, possibly the "Cricket on the Moon" opener, but in the end it doesn't matter, because all nine tracks achieve both solidity and differentiation—sound good without sounding too much like any of the others. Take a wild guess and thank Sherwood, whose 1983 African Head Charge release Drastic Season has won my ears and heart as I've done my due diligence. I'll never know where this album stands or sprawls in Perry's oeuvre, But I do know that it will now replace 2004's Panic in Babylon as my go-to Upsetter. A MINUS

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Tanya Tagaq: Toothsayer (Six Shooter) On a widely streamable not-(yet?)-for-sale EP commissioned to add aural buzz to the British National Maritime Museum's "Polar Worlds" exhibit, the throat-singing Inuk avant-gardist assumes all vocal and compositional responsibilities. No hip-hop, no Nirvana covers, not even any male-sounding shamanistic croaks—the closest analogy is Fluxus-period Yoko Ono with the disruptive techniques referencing content more concrete, organic, and political than shock for education's sake or existential despair. We can hear this because we know how urgently Tagaq cares about both global warming and indigenous peoples. For half an hour she emits dozens of nonverbal sounds well beyond croons and screams—squeaks, belches, agonized gutturals, many more. This is music that mourns the end of the world. She wants it to disturb us, and it should. A MINUS

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Sneaks: Highway Hypnosis (Merge) Former Shitstain Eva Moolchan's 2016 album was one-woman minimalist rock of real but limited charm. Here she goes electro-experimental and expands the music exponentially, so that it coheres sonically even though every track is different—here charming and there disruptive, here droney and there catchy (or maybe both, like the dubwise 1:39 "Addis"). The atmospheric "Beliefs" repeats the mantra "Remove your beliefs and start again" seven times in 2:42 as if shaken to the core by whoever inspired the 56-second mantra "Holy Cow I Never Saw a Girl Like Her." Half an hour of musical whimsy that never waits long enough to get old. A MINUS