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The New Pornographers Soar and Conor Oberst Grows Up: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The Dean of American Rock Critics takes on The New Pornographers' 'Whiteout Conditions' and Oberst's 'Salutations.'

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 read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Collected Works/Concord) Carl Newman's ad hoc outfit could be the greatest band in the world if he didn't write so obsessively about purveying their tune-porn, but he'll settle for the status he's got. Claiming Krautrock and shrugging off the departed Dan Bejar, he generates 11 soaring new pop songs, which in some abstrusely Krautrock way are sparer than the 13 on Brill Bruisers. And from those songs let me corral a few snatches of meaning. "I only play for the money honey." "You can imagine all the factions/That form around high ticket attractions." "A scalper's price built into the design." "Colosseums of the mind / An ancient con, the shadows of a song." "This is the world of the theater / Come up with some highbrow move / Think of all the lives we're saving / Think of all the ways we'll cave in." "With the ignorance of a poet." "Second-rate Socrates" (second, eh?). "Cottage industry." "I wasn't hoping for a win / I was hoping for freedom / You couldn't beat 'em / Forget the mission just get out alive." "Didn't choose what we mean / Just went along with what's played / There were rules once before / There should be rules again." But until that by no means impending day... A

Conor Oberst: Salutations (Nonesuch) Musical cult heroes come in all gradations of quality. So Randy Newman is a genius, Chris Carrabba ain't, and Oberst falls in between in more ways than one. As is clear from 2016's Ruminations, where 10 of these 17 songs surfaced as acoustic demos, material per se isn't enough. You need support to put songs across, here organized by 74-year-old master drummer Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, you bet Randy Newman, also Russ Giguere, Henry Gross, Firefall). Attitude also matters, so good thing that by the time he cut this—after ruminating not just on Ruminations but on 2013's stillborn Upside Down Mountain—Oberst had become more upbeat, not to mention concerned about his professional future. This time "A Little Uncanny," which compares Ronald Reagan unfavorably to Jane Fonda without falling for either, is nothing like a dirge, and neither is "Rain Follows the Plow," which meditates on sin. Make him a gifted guy with a good heart, a handy tune sense, and a signature throb in his voice. Believe that he's not callow anymore and never will be again. A MINUS

Honorable Mentions:
The Shins: Heartworms (Columbia) Not a band, of course—a shell company for a less boyish and supple James Mercer, who keeps things simple enough only on his memoiristic, hot sex, and feminist numbers ("Mildenhall," "Rubber Ballz," "Name for You") ***

Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador) If you start them up, well, they'll never stop, never stop, never stop, never stop ("Shotgun," "Tear It Down") ***

The Old 97's: Graveyard Whistling (ATO) Stretches Rhett Miller's skill set most impressively when he takes the name of the Lord in vain ("Good With God," "Jesus Loves You") **

Lead photo via WFUB Public Radio on Flickr.

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