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Treasured Transcendence: Expert Witness with Robert Christgau

The dean tackles recent projects from ​Youssou N'Dour and 75 Dollar Bill, and a long-lost album from the late Vieux Kanté.

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​.

​Youssou N'Dour: Senegaal Rekk (unknown) Alerted to this May EP in August when a friend in Prague sent me a YouTube link, I playlisted it on Spotify briefly before it vanished, learned that it can be purchased from Apple in Europe but not here, declined free downloads from websites poised to pass my passwords to Carter Page, and finally snagged something I could burn when a magician I know Dropboxed me. The label is a mystery, the title sometimes spelled "Senegal" and/or "Rek," and though I've read that an "international" iteration called Africa Rekk is expected late November, who knows what exactly it'll be. So try YouTube and be vigilant. As someone who's adored him for all of this century, what I hear in these songs I don't understand a word of is more specifically Senegalese than his Nonesuch catalogue and more tightly conceived than 2012's live Mballax Dafay Wax—a tensile spirituality sorely missed from American music in a year whose horrific downside is regularly sidestepped or ignored. The arrangements enact a tempered, unrelenting responsiveness in which lives lived under lifelong pressure aspire to a transcendence that's actively treasured. A voice that has begun to weather rises to moments of startling sweetness and lyricism. The Senegal-raised Akon has a strong cameo that's the dullest thing on the record. A

75 Dollar Bill: Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock  (Thin Wrist) This four-track, 39-minute cassette-gone-to-heaven by young NYC experimental guitarist-multithreat Che Chen and veteran NYC weird-band drummer-percussionist Rick Brown is a strange one, and it means to be, but to someone of my peculiar interests it connected quick. The main axes are Chen's two guitars, tuned so that they generate 24 tones per octave instead of the usual 12, and a wooden box Brown found on the street and bangs for all it's worth. Although Chen denies that his brief intensive with Mauritanian master guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly is decisive, the thing definitely sounds somehow African even if the echoes seemed less distinct when I cued up the untethered vocals and suppler grooves of Group Inerane and Group Doueh. This purely instrumental avant-rock is more solemn, deliberate, set on its strangeness. But the way the tempo picks up two minutes into the 12.27 "Beni Said" is friendly enough for me, especially followed by the diddleybeat Brown lays under the de facto raveup "Cummins Falls" and the saxes and side percussion that thicken the 15-minute closer. Quite an up in its severe way‑-which is an interesting up. A MINUS

Vieux Kanté: The Young Man's Harp (Sterns) By the time he died unexpectedly in 2005, this blind 31-year-old from rural Mali had gained more physical facility and technical smarts on his modified 12-string kamele ngoni, a hunter's harp, than Bassekou Kouyate on his enlarged djele ngoni, a griot's lute. His music was less crowd-pleasing and propulsive, and he didn't have a wife to sing lead or young male relatives he could hand showpieces. But he did get to cut this one never-released album, and with the gritty baritone of Kabadjan Diakite augmenting his clear, nasal tenor on three of seven tracks, it's quite the showcase. Definitely dig the spare opening instrumental "Sans Commentaire." And if you're afraid his virtuosity is over your head, pay attention to the minute that begins around 1:25 of the climactic "Kono," where Diakite's vocal is decorative throughout. A MINUS

 

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​75 Dollar Bill: Wooden Bag (Other Music) Identifying more avant, but cutting a funkier path on the longer ones ("Cuttin' Out," "Hollis") ***
 
Bombino: Azel (Nonesuch) The best thing about his Tuareggae is that sometimes you can't tell reggae is what it is ("Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar [A Great Desert I Saw]," "Akhar Zaman [This Moment]") **

Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter​.​