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A Taste of the Highlife: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean tackles releases from Ghanaian artist Pat Thomas and compilations out of East Africa.

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post​; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website​.​

Pat Thomas: Coming Home (Strut) This minor highlife legend doesn't sport as colorful a name as his sweeter bandmate Jewel Ackah or his grittier rival A.B. Crentsil—an enterprising subgenius, that's all. So after Ghana's economy went blooey in the early '80s, he relocated to Germany and spent quality time in Canada too, which left him with a two-CD cherry-pick documenting a syncretic shouter-crooner-moaner who does what pop pros do—cultivate collaborators, find tunes, and turn the beat around. Riding the rhythmic and presentational developments, tendencies, and fads of a stylistic catchall that's signified many things over many decades, he put his name on a whole bunch of terrific highlife singles, most of them in English. If one at the beginning and one at the end are credited to Broadway Dance Band and Super Sounds Namba, respectively, that's because band politics are a piece of the pop pro puzzle too. A MINUS

Urgent Jumping!: East African Musiki Wa Dansi Classics (Sterns) Twenty-five years ago, Trevor Herman compiled Guitar Paradise of East Africa, 11 dance tracks from Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that joined up to form the most glorious of all his Earthworks Afrocomps—which because he bollocksed the licensing is long out of print. Compiled by DJ-impresario John Armstrong, this double-CD of 27 Nairobi dance tracks looks like it could be a replacement, but we should be so lucky. Herman's selections tend '80s with none earlier than 1978, Armstrong's '70s with none later than 1982. Herman sticks to soukous variants that average a minute longer than Armstrong's eclectic selections. And Herman is a record man with commercial instincts, where Armstrong is a preservationist too deep inside the music to execute the hard choices that hone great best-ofs to the quick. Hence these enjoyable and often striking finds are seldom joyous or scintillating. Tellingly, Armstrong cheats a little on the only one I'd call paradisaical, which is also the longest and latest: L'Orch. Moja One's "Dunia Ni Duara Pts 1 & 2." "Sides A and B of the original 45," he reports, "have here been deftly interwoven into a 10-minute blast more suited to modern ears." Yum. B PLUS

Pat Thomas and Kwabishu Area Band: Pat Thomas and Kwabishu Area Band​ (Strut) Including an unredundant remake of a tune that merited two versions on his best-of as well as two other '80s hits he left off it, which was slick, this 2015 recording was cut in Accra, mixed in Berlin, and features Afrobeat trapmaster Tony Allen here and there. On "Oye Hasem" especially, second banana Ebo Taylor's horn arrangements get wearing, and Thomas definitely needs those chestnuts to tone up his tune stock. But for a new Afropop album with a subgenius frontman who has to be 60 by now, a stroke. B PLUS


Zomba Prison Project: "I Will Not Stop Singing" (Six Degrees) Where the first album of prison recordings from dirt-poor Malawi showcased solo singing whose poignancy was diminished by non-English lyrics, here there's considerable band music by inmates you just know are planning for or dreaming of the outside, and will you ever root for them (Vincent Saulos, "I Am Done With Evil"; Thomas Ganisani, "Everything Has an Owner") ***

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