Robert Christgau on Rich Krueger's Ambition and Paul Simon's Farewell

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Krueger's 'NOWThen' and Simon's 'In the Blue Light.'

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Nov 2 2018, 4:30pm

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.

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Rich Krueger: NOWThen (Rockink) On his second self-financed album of 2018, an ambitious project Dr. Krueger reports was "as expensive as owning and operating a large yacht"—trifold CD case, 20-page booklet, cameos from 11 studios nationwide—the singing neonatologist juxtaposes selections from his '85-'98 (Then) and '07-'18 (NOW) songbooks, between which he wrote nothing except an array of scientific papers we'll assume share with his songs both spectacular intelligence and irrepressible verbiage. Three of the NOW songs are superb—"Kenny's (It's Almost Christmas in This Bar)," the good-time opener every smart guy needs; "O What a Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful Day," the lowdown from the obstetrics theater; and the jaw-dropping "Don," about a contrarian youth, why Leopold loved Loeb, and the untrustworthiness of all entertainment. But that leaves out the guy with the underwater mortgage and a Wal-Mart tent and whether Robert Johnson understood a word Charley Patton said, both NOW, and also the love song that survived the marriage and the love song about the waitress hung up on Leon Trotsky, Graham Greene, and Rick Derringer, both Then. That last one does get a little Byzantine. Nonetheless, here be a literary songwriter of the first rank whose pipes benefited from his long break and who's reeled in enough fine musicians to execute his ambitious arrangements. Vanity projects seldom come prouder. A MINUS

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Paul Simon: In the Blue Light (Legacy) To mark his retirement from songwriting and spice up his farewell tour, the 76-year-old generates a new album from old material—not great hits, just songs he feels he got wrong somehow. Oddly, while six of the 10 selections are singletons going back to 1973, the other four are from 2000's You're the One, where I remain unconverted to "Love" and "The Teacher" and am glad to have "Darling Lorraine" and "Pigs, Sheep and Wolves" on an album I might play again. Never a knockout singer, Simon has arrived at a creaky boyishness that serves him well on arrangements that cant both jazz and chamber while barely hinting at his many shades of folk-rock, including what he's always been too smart to call "world." For me the prizes are "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" from 1973 and "René and Georgette Magritte After the War" from 1990, small masterpieces I'd never recognized as such. But his 21st-century prizes remain 2010's So Beautiful or So What and 2016's Stranger to Stranger. Hear those first. A MINUS

The Chandler Travis Three-O: Backward Crooked From the Sunset (Iddy Biddy) As impersonated by Fred Boak, "Cape Cod's Singing Valet," Travis is best on the smart women, attainable or not, male old-timers so often learn to appreciate too late ("Settle for Less," "All the Little Things") *

Rich Krueger: Overpass (CDBaby) For completists only, an EP comprising early arrangements of four since-finalized songs, one focused by the simpler music, and a 1991 workshop lark about a folk festival ("In Between Kingfish," "Kerrville, O My Kerrville") *

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