Robert Christgau on Pistol Annies' Sharp 'Interstate Gospel'
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews the country supergroup's new LP, plus recent records from Becky Warren and Mandy Barnett.
Photo c/o RCA Records Nashville
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.
Pistol Annies: Interstate Gospel (RCA) Did Miranda Lambert/Ashley Monroe/Angaleena Presley, as the composer credits on 13 of these 14 songs put it, come up with the "Jesus is the bread of life / Without him we're toast" opener or lift it from some rakish evangelist I'm too provincial to know about? I wouldn't rule the evangelist out, because while the writing is every bit as sharp as on their near-perfect 2011 debut, these bad-girl and mad-wife nuggets take sin seriously. "Stop Drop and Roll One" and "Got My Name Changed Back" retain the threesome's signature devil-may-care. But there's a deep sadness in "When I Was His Wife"s been-there-don't-do-that, "Leavers Lullabye"'s love-ain't-enough, "Best Years of My Life"'s "hankering for intellectual emptiness," and the blood, sweat, and bitterness of "5 Acres of Turnips." "Cheyenne" envies a gal who can take love or leave it, "Milkman" wishes Mama had cheated, and "Commissary" is so glad the abuser folks fronted for got beaten to a pulp in jail. Even the steadfastly unharmonious path to enduring matrimony laid out by the closing "This Too Shall Pass" suggests the wisdom of maturity. Why am I not surprised the woman who did herself a favor by shitcanning Blake Shelton didn't pitch in on it? A
Becky Warren: Undesirable (self-released) On 2016's War Surplus, Warren wrote and then sang both the husband and the wife songs on an autobiographical concept album about a marriage wrecked by Iraq PTSD. Here the psychological calisthenics aren't so tricky. She does sing "Carmen" as a longtime loser who's found a Neil Diamond fan who'll inspire him to make ends meet so he can move her into the house painted blue she deserves, and the chin-up narrator of the undeplorable West Virginia opener could be a coal miner. But mostly Warren just works her own changes on the fed-up love-getting-by songs that are a well-earned staple for so many Nashville feminists. It's a theme and mood she seems to have become quite familiar with. A MINUS
Mandy Barnett: Strange Conversation (Dame Productions/Thirty Tigers) I doubt Barnett conceives this strange little album as a rebuke to the reverent high musicianship of the Patsy Cline interpretations she made her bread and butter long before 2011's Sweet Dreams. High musicianship with a gourmet flourish is what she does. But there's a savor in hearing it applied to this potpourri of humble deep-pop obscurities—late Connie Francis, later Sonny and Cher, lost girl-group and guy-group keepers by Mable John and the Tams—garnished with newer art-pop obscurities. For me the clincher is "The Fool," a top-10 one-shot for 21-year-old Sanford Clark that I thought I hadn't heard since 1956 until I found out there are karaoke versions. A MINUS
Robbie Fulks/Linda Gail Lewis: Wild! Wild! Wild! (Bloodshot) The acerbic Fulks tailors his material to the "sunny, high-humored attitude" of Jerry Lee's little sister, who was way more fun acerbic herself on 1991's alt-rock International Affair, not to mention 1969's consanguineous Together ("Round Too Long," "Till Death," "Memphis Never Falls From Style") ***
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