The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews Phil Elverum's 'Now Only,' Ry Cooder's 'The Prodigal Son,' and Jeffrey Lewis and the Deposit Returners' 'Works by Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010).'
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 find out more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Mount Eerie: Now Only (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.) Because you only die once, and also because nothing is as perfect as death, there's no way Phil Elverum can reaccess the stark perfection of A Crow Looked at Me. So at first only his enthralled recollection of his ecstatic and in retrospect doomed first days with Geneviève holds up against the living memory of his death album. But you have to admire the no-fuss complexities of his survival album—in particular his realization that it isn't just the artist's body that can't survive, it's the artist's body of work. Just as admirable is how unironic he is about the time Skrillex's subwoofers were juxtaposed against his frail humanity, and I quote, "At a festival that had paid to fly me in / To play these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs." About what a shitty father Jack Kerouac was. About how cute and smart his and Geneviève's sweet kid is. About how doomed she is too. A
Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son (Fantasy) The coup on this gospel-based protest album is master archivist Cooder's overhaul of Blind Alfred Reed's all too jauntily self-righteous "You Must Unload," which skips the captious cigarette-smoking and card-party verses and writes in some jewel-encrusted high heels as it stretches what becomes a heartstruck the-rich-shall-not enter entreaty to five minutes. Going for class-conscious reverence at all costs, Cooder milks his version of the canon from the Pilgrim Travelers to Carter Stanley with a double dip of Blind Willie Johnson and adds three relevant originals: the reverent "Jesus and Woody," the worried, comic "Shrinking Man," and "Gentrification," which calls out two enemies of the people by name: Johnny Depp up front and a regiment of coffee-swilling Googlemen covering his rear. A MINUS
Jeffrey Lewis and the Deposit Returners: Works by Tuli Kupferberg (1923-2010) (Don Giovanni) Late great New York bohemian Kupferberg loved "parodies," which originally just meant songs that set new lyrics to old tunes: the more erotic than fetishistic "I Want to Hold Your Foot," say, or "This Train Is Bound for Brooklyn," as in "This train is bound for Brighton / If you wanna go to Bay Ridge you're not on the right one." But he also wrote the enraptured Fugs threnody "Morning Morning," covered by such worthies as Joan Baez and Spyder Turner but done just as right by the living-room sing-along Lewis convened for this album. This approach has its limitations, but gets the job done. Try "What Are You Doing After the Orgy?," melodicized by Lewis from a Kupferberg notebook, which dreams of extracting friendship from orgasm. Try "Life Is Strange," where an aged heir of Aristide Bruant reports he's perfectly OK with never having once seen Paris. B PLUS
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