Reinvention, Response, and "Redemption Song": Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The Dean tackles recent releases from Regina Spektor, Macy Gray, and Jamila Woods.
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.
Regina Spektor: Remember Us to Life (Deluxe Edition) (Sire) Let's speculate that marriage, motherhood, and turning 35—a big one that can sandbag you—are all on her melodically fertile mind. Let's assume it's been pretty sobering. Without being a sad sack, she was always serious. But her softer fans may be daunted by the steely class fable "The Trapper and the Furrier" and the fatalistic faux trifle "Sellers of Flowers," by quietly unrelenting five-minute bonus cuts in which an aged solitary celebrates New Year's and old friends compare their polar yet equally confining life paths—maybe even by her fond report that both her baby boy and his dad are better at dreaming than she is. So to help her dream more darkly, she enlists classically inclined producer Leo Abrahams, whose second piano is meant to ensure that "Obsolete" sticks around a while. A MINUS
Macy Gray: Stripped (Chesky) Gray was past 30 before she generated songs and persona suitable to a burred purr so striking she wasn't always so sure she liked it herself, evoking without equalling both Billie Holiday's timbre and Sarah Vaughan's size. The reason she got to take that voice pop is that plenty of us loved it. But some of us also thought she was forcing her portentous writing and wicked ways, and soon the pop market she was too mature for had had enough. Only then a funny thing happened—having given up on glory, she started making better records, none finer than this efficiently recorded jazz quartet showcase. Guitarist Russell Malone and trumpeter Wallace Roney earn their minutes, but mostly they make room for Macy as she eases into a few of her own standards and tops them with the new "First Time." And although she wasn't the only one born to sing "Redemption Song"—sometimes I think we all were—she does it humble and she does it proud. A MINUS
The Wainwright Sisters: Songs in the Dark (PIAS America) With Lucy an equal and Martha fitting in for once, both sing more winningly than ever before on record, and the covers they choose are choice ("Lullaby," "Runs in the Family"); ***
Tanya Tagaq: Animism (Six Shooter) Inuit woman channels deep-nurtured throat-singing into sometimes startling, sometimes disturbing, sometimes merely arty avant-shamanism ("Caribou," "Umingmak") ***
Jamila Woods: HEAVN (Closed Sessions) Articulate enough on race, startlingly eloquent on solitude and self-love ("Holy," "Way Up") **
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound) Long-ago hipster-funk ingenue reclaims her avant-garde roots ("Out of the Black," "Spit Three Times") *
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