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Sheer Mag and Sleigh Bells: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean kicks off the new year with two indie staples.

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.

Sheer Mag: III 7" (Wilsuns RC/Katorga Works) This not-actually-punky Philly rock quintet keeps upping the ante in four-song increments, here divided two political and two love. Tina Halladay's shriek doesn't clarify every consonant, I know. But if they didn't want you to know why she's hanging around so intense they wouldn't put the lyrics on their Bandcamp page. Above all they understand that the two poles actually aren't—"So hold fast to the ones you love/Before they're ripped away," on the political "Night Isn't Bright," signifies more acutely in this ripped-apart time than it did when it surfaced in March. Their punkiest move is to seize the intro to Television's "Venus." Not actually a punk band, remember. Also not a band that ever understood love as well as this one already does. A MINUS 

Sleigh Bells: Bitter Rivals (Mom + Pop) Although in fact album three is where tiny-voiced Alexis Krauss achieves aesthetic parity with humongous-noised Derek Miller and where megasynths do duty for guitars that always eschewed articulation anyway, I get the general tendency to assume this 2013 entry was more of the loud-minimalist arty-nihilist same. That's the kind of thing that happens when you eschew articulation. But listen just a little closer and admit that actual nihilist it ain't. "Young legends die and so will" admittedly cuts it close. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should," however, most decidedly does not. And note that the title "To Hell With You" shortens a line with a different feel: "I'll go to hell with you." Which even in this much more hellish time we can hope proves unnecessary.  A MINUS 

Sleigh Bells:  Jessica Rabbit (Torn Clean) On their own label, with Eminem/Fiona Apple adjutant Mike Elizondo overseeing half the album, they shift focus to Alexis Krauss's teenpop roots—"I Can't Stand You Anymore" has the killer chorus, "I Can Only Stare" the balladic gravitas, and both are Elizondo tracks. This is a healthy development with plenty of upside, but it works better in principle than in practice. Krauss may never master pop's heartfelt commitment to putative sincerity, and the one with the killer chorus is also one of the two where Elizondo claims composition as well as production credits. The sincerest is "Baptism by Fire" toward the end, where Krauss's "I want to listen to your heart" adds a welcome sweetness to the band's raging rhetorical parameters. Elizondo has a writing credit on that one too.  B PLUS

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter.