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A Lori McKenna Special: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean looks at a good portion of the folk singer-songwriter's discography upon the release of her tenth album, 'The Bird & the Rifle.'

Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here

Lori McKenna: The Bird & the Rifle (CN/Thirty Tigers '16) McKenna fell off my radar after Warners's excellent, Tim McGraw-produced Unglamorous in 2007, and I promise it won't happen again. She's a 47-year-old mother of five from Stoughton Mass who's currently paying the bills with Little Big Town's 2015 CMA honoree "Girl Crush" and McGraw's 2016 country smash "Humble & Kind"—parental advice that sounds humbler and kinder (and wiser) (even catchier) the way McKenna understates it on her tenth album and second with serious distribution, where it's one of seven straight winners that precede three not-bad-at-alls. Even the winners could use more beat or beef—sonically I prefer the rockish Unglamorous to Dave Cobb's Chris Stapleton-certified good taste here. But production is secondary with this gal. She's a winning singer, forthright and accomplished and idiomatic, implying a slight drawl instead of faking a big one. And her writing is major verging on great. Although she's been married to the same man since she was 19, the unions she evokes so concretely and succinctly are too different to all be her own. Anyway, my very favorite chorus is advice for a single girl: "Deep down you know that you're worth more than this/Or the cost of that dinner last night/He'd be driving you home if he was worth half a shit/And his daddy had raised him up right." Whew. Only then: "But let me remind you there's real love out there down the road." A MINUS

Lori McKenna: Lorraine (lorimckenna.com '11) McKenna's corniest album, and her strongest. Those who don't take conjugal love seriously may find it saccharine or some cornball shit like that. But there's plenty of salt in it, and the strictly literal words stay on topic—in "The Luxury of Knowing," which he has and she doesn't; "You Get a Love Song," in which a premature nuptial yields artistic dividends; "Lorraine," her mother's name and also her own; "Sweet Disposition," which her mother had and she's working on; "That's How You Know," a post-breakup song so painfully rendered it could be a post-death song as well. My favorite is the finale, which is about heaven—literally. St. Peter and Jesus get cameos. Jesus turns out to be taller than you figured. A MINUS

Lori McKenna: Massachusetts (Liz Rose Music '13) The statistics are pretty stark. Six songs (1-5-6-7-9-12) fairly astonishing and six (2-3-4-8-10-11) more country-generic; the same six bare and direct and guitar-colored, the others hook-cushioned and keyboard-reliant; the same six—this is the tell—credited solely to McKenna, the others all co-written. Not that the co-writes don't do Nashville's assembly-line tradition fairly proud. But comparatively they're gooey and mechanical—it's a downer when the thought-through details of "Smaller and Smaller" resolve into generalized nostalgia, when the quiet sanity of "Shouting" builds to a rousing chorus. And not only does the material no one else touched have more bite, it tracks: where 1-5 are brutal breakup songs, 7-9-12 make more of long love than Nashville generally has the brains for. So it's "You ain't worth the spit in my mouth/When I scream out your name" and "Make every word sting/Make every word bleed/Until I'm not gonna want to love you anymore" to "Every time you walk away from me you come running back/How romantic is that?" and "You whispered something in my ear last night/Some years ago you wouldn't have thought to." And then there's a happy ending: "Grown Up Now." It's about her oldest kid. B PLUS

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Lori McKenna: Bittertown (Signature Sounds '04) Barely 30, she's still occasionally entranced by the magic of metaphor, and already speaking so plainly sometimes you can hardly believe it's art at all ("If You Ask," "Monday Afternoon") ***

Lori McKenna: Numbered Doors (Liz Rose Music '14) By this artist's standards, a stumble—Brandy Clark just did the cowritten best song on it better ("Three Kids No Husband," "Stranger in His Kiss," "God Never Made One of Us to Be Alone") **

Lori McKenna: Heart Shaped Bullet Hole (self-released '12) EP proof that she too can write generic country songs—perfectly fine generic country songs ("This and the Next Life," "Sometimes He Does") *

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter and read the archives of his criticism on his website.