Ominous If You Know the Ending: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau
The dean delves into records from Mose Allison, Hoagy Carmichael, and Johnny Mercer.
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.
Mose Allison: I'm Not Talkin': The Song Stylings of Mose Allison 1957-1971 (BGP) This Mississippi farmboy turn US serviceman turned Louisiana State English-philosophy grad turned jazz pianist-singer-songwriter died November 15, four days past an 89th birthday that couldn't have been the happiest for a Southern progressive. His relaxed drawl and time made him Sun Records' contemporary in the South's white-man-sings-the-blues sweepstakes, plus he could write. But because he identified jazz he didn't get an all-vocal album until the 1963 Prestige comp Mose Allison Sings, soon a totem for young aesthetes like Pete Townshend and Bonnie Raitt. From a base of Prestige standards like the Who cover "Young Man's Blues" and the John Mayall-etc. cover "Parchman Farm," this fortuitously timed new selection mines his uneven late-'60s Atlantic book, which has plenty to offer—the philosophical "Jus' Like Livin'," the physiological "Your Molecular Structure," the reassuring "You Can Count on Me," the endangered "Back on the Corner," the paranoid "Foolkiller," the strategically taciturn "I'm Not Talkin'" itself. My favorite is "Western Man," which begins: "Western man had a plan / And with his gun in his hand / Free from doubt / Went right out / On the world." Pretty ominous if you know what's coming. But he managed to give it a happier ending than he lived to see. A MINUS
Hoagy Carmichael: Mr. Music Master (Coral) Mose Allison set me to exploring the older Carmichael, a white songwriter from southern Indiana who played piano and loved jazz, and this confusing title is where I came to rest. When the creator of "Stardust" and "Georgia on My Mind" writes one called "The Old Music Master," discographical chaos will ensue. So I'm recommending neither the Pearl Mr. Music Master available at list from Amazon and elsewhere nor the Naxos Mr. Music Master available at bonkers ditto, which are different from each other and differenter from this modest '40s comp a Decca subsidiary tossed on the pile in 1970. Beginning with "Darktown Strutters' Ball," the only one he didn't write, and ending with the thematically related "Old Man Harlem," it's never been a CD, and although Discogs has the vinyl cheap as I write, I suggest streaming—from Spotify, Napster, Google Play. I picked it out because it lets Carmichael sing and play—brass is deployed to color or comment rather than enlarge trio arrangements that are often left to signify on their own, and no choral sweetening bedizens a talky voice that these days could pass for accomplished. Beyond "Stardust," "Georgia," and "Memphis in June," the songs are light-hearted when they're not full novelties like "He Killed 'Er," 'er being a black widow spider. In the title song, a young colored prophet advises some pal of Beethoven to "play that rhythm faster." Then he predicts music history through 1935. And then: "He hit a chord that rocked the spinet / And disappeared into the infinite." As it happens, Carmichael was a Republican back when that wasn't always a bad thing. But he did love jazz. A MINUS
Johnny Mercer: The Capitol Collectors Series (Capitol) Too bad Savannah's jazz-steeped master lyricist—"Blues in the Night," "One for My Baby," "Autumn Leaves," on and on—never mastered lounge piano, because as a big-band singer he can't resist period smarm, cute, or boilerplate ("G.I. Jive," "I'm Gonna See My Baby") ***
Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago (Orleans) Noticeably alive even backed by blues bros at folk fest, he could be live-er still ("Big Chief," "Got My Mojo Workin'") *
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