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Songs of Experience: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean tackles recent releases from Elza Soares, Peter Stampfel, and Willie Nelson.

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​​.​

Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo) (Mais Um Discos) With the 79-year-old "samba icon" who fronts this remarkable album absent from my recall memory and my reference library, I found her Rough Guide hip-hop track and then a trove of older songs on Spotify. Capacious and curvaceous by samba standards, her voice did roughen with age, and that half-sung rap bespeaks a willingness to try anything. But nothing I've heard portends the dips, flights, and abrasions of this exciting album—it's like Tom Zé gone full avant. Conceived and written by alt-samba insurgents into catchy dissonances, classical instruments, and industrial sonics, it's a chance for them to reinvent their roots and for her to feel more alive—even more alive, that is. Carrying the tune when it's worth the weight, growling and gargling at will, scatting here and ratta-tat-tatting there, she's all gusto shouting a faster-faster "Pra fuder! Pra fuder! Pra fuder!" ("To fuck! To fuck! To fuck!") and all scorn calling the abuse hotline and then threatening to tell his mommy too. But that's only when you're reading the booklet I strongly advise, because as with Tom Zé, only his verbal content is even sharper and slyer, the music is where you'll come in and why you'll stick around. Soares's weathered raw power gains dimension from her young sponsors' irrepressible experiments and unapologetic beats. The collaboration makes complete sense. And there's nothing like it. A

Peter Stampfel and the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm: Holiday for Strings (Don Giovanni) Not to be confused with  the former Holy Modal Rounder's 2014 album—​same label, same cover artist, but by the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron and in my reluctant judgment most of the way to an aimless mess. This one, itself accounted "pretty messy" by its irrepressible auteur, has new songs, with the timely "New Johnny Got His Gun" written 40 years ago. After 78 years in the general vicinity of earth, Stampfel's intense cartoon keen is finally getting raggedy around the edges. But having waited all this time to record "I Can't Stop Loving You," he brings it on home, and where the Squadron's new banjo tunes wandered, the Swarm's woozy rendition of the 1962 lodestar "Tel-Star" is on point—and no less pretty or pointed than the freshly minted "Lily," named after the daughter who's not in his band. Not until she picks up a fiddle, mandolin, or banjo, anyway. How about kazoo? A MINUS

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Barbara Dane With Tammy Hall: Throw It Away... (Dreadnaught) 88-year-old auteur of the 1973 LP I Hate the Capitalist System sings dirty blues by L. Cohen and M. Minnie, enlists M. Allison in her battle with neuron loss, and sneaks in a 52-year-old anti-nuclear power song ("I'm Sellin' My Porkchops," "Slow," "My Brain") ***
 
Lonnie Holley: Keeping a Record of It (Dust-to-Digital) 76-year-old Birmingham/Atlanta environmental junk sculptor improvises tuneless songs about a pain-wracked cosmos you'll want to get to the bottom of ("Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants," "From the Other Side of the Pulpit") ***
 
Willie Nelson: For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price (Legacy) 83-year-old Country Icon Who (Supposedly) Had No Voice honors his stentorian elder loud and clear ("Heartaches by the Number," "Invitation to the Blues") *

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