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Robert Christgau on Saint Etienne and St. Vincent's Admirable Charms

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Saint Etienne's 'Home Counties' and Annie Clark's 'Masseduction.'

Robert Christgau

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 six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. 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.

Saint Etienne: Home Counties (Heavenly/PIAS) On an album situated in London's feeder communities, the stealth-arty putative-disco trio split the difference between a celebration of suburbia, which would be a lie, and a send-up of suburbia, which would be a rank cliché. Instead they fashion a sometimes sad, never tragic reflection well-suited to keyboard maestros Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs's steady-state tunecraft and Sarah Cracknell's calm, affectionate, all-conquering competence. Not much seems to happen in these songs beyond the distinct if similar female characters' pursuit of ordinary pleasure, occasional escape, and satisfactory love. But there's an inescapable sense that while the lives lived on these airy hillsides and mock-Tudor streets are limited, they're decent and admirable. Only the catchiest and drollest number rises above, eavesdropping at a transport hearing to borrow a righteous hook: "We need train drivers in eyeliner / We need train drivers all over this land / That's our plan." A MINUS

St. Vincent: Masseduction (4AD) Jack Antonoff or no Jack Antonoff, pop-tailored synth sonics do not a pop album make, and artist avowals to the contrary, being personal requires more than the will to do so—it takes a certain kind of talent, one of the few Annie Clark may not possess. Big choruses you find yourself humming? But of course. Alluring lyrics that walk the tightrope of legibility? She passes that test. So there's not a track here that isn't manifestly memorable and intelligent. What's missing is the more amorphous and lowbrow aesthetic quality called accessibility. It's certainly possible to imagine fans in the hundreds of thousands aspiring to Clark's latest self-presentation. But the smaller number who identify with her are deluding themselves—she's a genius and they're not, and she's proud of it. So admiring every song though I do, I warm to precisely two: the one hooked to her "I can't turn off what turns me on," an endangered principle or is it compulsion in this sociosexual moment, and the imploring "please"s moaned by the putative top in the sadie-maisie cosplay tale "Savior." B PLUS

SZA: Ctrl (RCA) Self-starting, insecure eroticist negotiates the tricky web of pathways between love and sexual autonomy—tries to, anyway ("Weekend," "Doves in the Wind," "20 Something") ***

Rev. Sekou: In Times Like These (Thirty Tigers) Aided by several North Mississippi Allstars, NYC-based preacher-activist activates protest soul ("Burnin' and Lootin'," "Resist") ***

The Relatives: Goodbye World (Luv N' Haight) Gospel-funk journeyman Gean West rises from his deathbed to put his God's stamp on this mortal coil ("Rational Culture/Testimony," "Can't Feel Nothin'") **

Primate Fiasco: Massachusetts Winter (self-released) With roots going all the way back, genealogically, to the Salem witch trials, banjo-accordion-sousaphone-drums steamfunkers got a right to sing the bemused ("Astronauts," "Little Arrow") **

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