Robert Christgau:
Expert Witness

Old 97's / Amy LaVere / Bob Dylan in the 80s / Link of Chain / Robert Randolph and the Family Band / Jason Isbell / Mavis Staples / Grant Peeples / Valerie June / Hard Working Americans / Otis Taylor / Thomas Anderson / John Murry / Defibulators


The Old 97's: Most Messed Up

(ATO)

I’m not crazy about songs that get self-referential,” declares lead track “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” which goes on at impressive length about the most self-referential of all rock and roll topics, Life On The Road. Only here’s the thing—it may not be the best such song, but I haven’t thought of a better one. And it’s also a Theme Statement, because without gauchely claiming Concept, the whole record is about Life On The Road. The pretty-boy is off Rhett Miller’s voice on their most raucous studio album, which for someone in his mid forties is a concept flirting with a necessity. “We got our share of lovin’ in our past/Although we were all lookin’ for someone who’d last,” declares the aforementioned lead track, whereupon ensue a whole bunch of songs about Lovin’ On The Road, all top-drawer Rhett Miller‑-funny, hooky, raunchy, unpredictable, bristling with colloquial turns. How self-referential they are I have no idea. What I do know is that they fit right in on a rock album this raucous. And it is my pleasure to report that the last time I saw them live they closed with “Career Opportunities.” A


Amy LaVere: Runaway’s Diary

(Archer)

There shouldn’t be rules in rock n roll/And who are we saving our broken hearts for?” croons the stand-up bassist on what’s rather more a two-step than a twerk, breaking three Memphis rules in the process—size of voice, size of bass, size of beat. A self-made orphan and lousy pretender according to her titles, she purrs her post-blues in her soft little soprano like a pussycat lapping up cream before climbing that tree, which is where she begins the one that ends “Leavin’ is gonna rock.” Any horndog who thinks strong women rough up their voices and show off their tits is fixing to wind up with his tail between his legs. A MINUS


Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One

(ATO)

Direct comparison to Maria Muldaur’s and Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint’s go-to Dylan covers redounds favorably to this verkakte concept album in which young Americana survivors of varying status and profile interpret stray favorites from the cheesiest period of the great man’s catalogue. The anonymity of the multi-artist format turns the fortysomething Dylan into a gifted hack waxing catchy on automatic rather than a pompous preacher instructing the faithful on Dristan. The abracadabra recedes as the selection progresses. But don’t miss “Series of Dreams” down at track 13. And then check out the original‑-the key version of which the preacher, user-friendly as e’er, buried on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, and is a damn masterpiece. A MINUS


Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither

(Signature Sounds)

Speaking of songwriters, Loudon Wainwright and Dave Alvin are, Bonnie Raitt has done well pretending she isn’t, and not one of the dozen remaining contributors has ever made a better album on his or her lonesome. Smither’s signature wordcraft lifts Tim O’Brien from his bluegrass congeniality and Paul Cebar from his pan-roots congeniality, Mary Gauthier from her gravity and Patty Larkin from her purity, and so on. Nor would any Smither partisan deny that his vocals could use more changing up than his voice can manage. Which makes this a good idea coming and going. A MINUS


Robert Randolph and the Family Band: Lickety Split

(Blue Note)

Sacred steel boogies, with better songs than are normally required or do I mean inspired at jamworld’s secular camp meetings. Two Carlos Santana cameos add flash and a thickness, and when they cover “Love Rollercoaster” you’ll swear they snuck Bootsy in the side door. Respect to Tedeschi-Trucks, absolutely. But this is so much less corn-prone. And when they mix up good lovin’ and born again, both ideas gain brain and heart. B PLUS


Jason Isbell: Southeastern (Southeastern) The problem with sobriety records is that they’re so damn sober (“Elephant,” “Cover Me Up”) ***

Mavis Staples: One True Vine (Anti-) Tweedy-Staples Secular Gospel Revival Finalists: George Clinton and . . . the Staple Singers (“Can You Get to That,” “I Like the Things About Me”) **

Grant Peeples and the Peeples Republik: Punishing the Myth (Gatorbone) Sub rosa reports from the Travis County Liberated Zone (“It’s Too Late to Live in Austin,” “The New American Dream,” “Aunt Lou”) **

Valerie June: Pushin’ Against a Stone (Concord) Why are my favorite songs by this mountain-music eccentric the leads, neither co-written by Dan Auerbach, whose production is supposed to lift her from the DIY ghetto? (“Workin’ Woman Blues,” “Somebody to Love”) **

Hard Working Americans: The First Waltz (Melvin) Seven protest songs from their studio album take on heft and emotional focus as boogieing Allmans-style jams that also stretch them too far past the limitations of all involved (“Blackland Farmer,” “I Don’t Have a Gun”) **

Otis Taylor: My World Is Gone (Telarc) Conscious bluesman’s dolor is always earned, but that doesn’t guarantee that it’s always compelling, and sometimes it’s enough already (“Blue Rain in Africa,” “Jae Jae Waltz”) **

Thomas Anderson: On Becoming Human (Out Here) Subtitled “Four-Track Love Songs,” and I wish I could tell you it’s the love songs that connect—wish I could tell her, too (“Song for Walter Mondale,” “Get Home, Sally”) **

John Murry: The Graceless Age (Evangeline) Nine lachrymose redemption songs in 52 minutes have more wit than you’d expect, more impact too, and less than Murry hopes in the way of “soul” (“The Ballad of the Pajama Kid,” “Penny Nails”) *

The Defibulators: Debt’ll Get ‘Em (PigCow) Po’-boy bluegrass rock makes some noise out there (“Working Class,” “Real Slow”) *



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Follow Robert Christgau on Twitter at @rxgau.
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