Robert Christgau on Todd Snider's Replayable 'Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3'
The Dean of American Rock Critics also assesses two albums from Leyla McCalla and one from Our Native Daughters.
Photo of Todd Snider by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music
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.
Todd Snider: Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 (Aimless) Ten songs, one dedication, and one explanation recorded totally acoustic and almost totally solo, which as the excellent booklet explains doesn't mean tossed off—you'd never know from its offhand feel how practiced this material is. That's one reason it's so replayable without benefit of notable groove or tune. The other, of course, is that the words are good. Having opened with "a song about a song you're working on" ("I mean, it's gone, man. Come on, let it go."), he jam-packs a whole lot of material into "Talking Reality Television Blues," following Milton Berle ("we all had a new escape from the world") with Michael Jackson ("reality killed that video star") with He Who Shall Not Be Namechecked ("Reality killed by a reality star"). "Serving my country under General Malaise," Snider also becomes the first singer-songwriter ever to rhyme "national anthem" with "national tantrum." All in a goofy drawl he didn't learn growing up in Oregon, because he's a Southerner by choice and no goof at all—just another "working fucking schmuck out here standing around waiting to get shot in yet ay-nother tragic addition to an already sorry state of affairs." A
Leyla McCalla: Capitalist Blues (PIAS America) As with fellow Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, McCalla has tended mannered—like the trained cellist she is, so committed to her skill set she has little feel for more naturalistic conventions. But here, shoring up the overt politics I came in cheering for, she's not only more relaxed vocally but gets true band feel out of shifting personnel anchored by drummer Chris Davis and bassist-guitarist Jimmy Horn. Sure she ranges around—"Lavi Vye Neg" miniaturizes Coupé Cloué's compas groove, "Oh My Love" is a zydeco. But there's a wholeness to this music that suits an ideological purpose saturated with but not overpowered by economic oppression. Crucially, these songs make a point not just of privation proper but of worry and insecurity—including "Aleppo," which begins "Bombs are falling/In the name of peace" and then describes the everyday wretchedness of the lives still braving the ruins. A MINUS
Our Native Daughters: Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways) Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Amethyst Kiah, and Allison Russell put into practice and thus bring alive a black feminist musical tradition they just invented ("Black Myself," "Polly Ann's Hammer") **
Leyla McCalla: A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey (Jazz Village) A dozen moderately beautiful, sufficiently lively songs going on artsongs, at least seven of Haitian origin and no more than five in English, a ratio less enlightening than she intends ("Vietnam," "Let It Fall") *