String Band Folk Still Moves: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The Dean of American Rock Critics tackles the latest, greatest string band albums.
Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.
Have Moicy 2: The Hoodoo Bash (Red Newt)
Neither the elusive Michael Hurley (b. 1941) nor the departed Jeffrey Frederick (b. 1950) found it possible to join the irrepressible Peter Stampfel (b. 1938) on his 40-years-after bid to reprise if not match the accidental masterpiece Have Moicy! Gamely if haltingly, reprise it he and his new gang do, but match it they of course can't—that's how masterpieces are. Instead they put its grace and luck into relief as they make hay of their own gravelly melodicism and unsynchronized stick-to-it-iveness. How young the originals were! (Jeffrey Lewis, kingpin of Have Moicy 2's kid contingent, is three years older than Stampfel was in 1975.) How casually apolitical, too! (Hippie was over and the oil crisis permanent, but no one foresaw the ruin yet to be wreaked by Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Al Qaeda, and the Black-Scholes formula.) By comparison, the vocals here tend creaky—Stampfel can no longer break wine glasses with his yodel, Baby Gramps's Aged-P wheeze comes all too naturally, Robin Remaily is the grumpy old man he was born to be, and even Lewis could stand to gargle. And where the originals griped about dirty dishes, cunnilingus interruptus, and the occasional ear on the floor, these guys find themselves historically compelled to explicitly protest a vile lung disease, the theory of intelligent design, butts left cold, and again and again the class system that keeps old freaks down—so down that their idea of a joke is feasting on roadkill and rhyming "Victrola" with "Ebola." Which are good jokes, actually. Because believe it, folks—with the slacker utopia of the original gone but not forgotten, there are millions of worse things to settle for than this. In fact, there are millions on Spotify alone. A MINUS
Asylum Street Spankers: The Last Laugh (Yellow Dog)
This farewell album from an alt-folk aggregation that never got out of Austin begins so casually and changes up so abruptly it risks disorienting old fans while putting off new ones. Eventually, however, it jazzed me and touched me throughout. It's not just that they dazzle on multiple acoustic instruments while joking around as usual. It's the way Christina Marrs oversings a song worthy of her many passions on the questing "Ludicrous Heart." The way third wheel Nevada Newman just figures "Fuck Work." And especially the way Charlie King tops an acidly secular "Don't You Hear Jerusalem Moan" ("The Catholic preacher makes a lot of noise / He's down in the rectory altering the boys") with the unabashed sentiment of "Savor Every Day": "I had this real good friend of mine / He told me, Charlie, I may not be here for a long time / But I am here for a good time / I sure miss that friend of mine." A MINUS
The Ragpicker String Band: The Ragpicker String Band (Yellow Dog)
With a touching faith in physical recordings and respect for my advanced years, folk labels send me more string band CDs than you know exist, most cheerful-to-doleful at best. This Memphis trio is quite a bit more. Equable vocalist-guitarist Mary Flower, fingerpicking multi-threat Martin Grosswendt, and mandolin-wielding star of the show Rich DelGrosso announce themselves with DelGrosso's incorrigible cover of another old folkie you never heard of's "Google Blues," about the dangers of picking up women at bars where they can vet you on wi-fi. DelGrosso's fickle-vixen "Motel Towel" and scag-bagging "Street Doctor Blues" also have a modern feel, but his mandolin transports even this material to a realm not much less lyrical than Flower's unflappable rendition of Lil Johnson's 90-year-old "Minor Blues" or Grosswendt's deft revivals of two quite distinct Sleepy John Estes numbers. Also deft: the cover of Thelonious's "Blue Monk" and the theft of Dylan's "Bucket of Rain." A MINUS