Robert Christgau

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Memphis singer songwriter Amy LaVere specializes in lyrics that are more barbed than her sweet soprano prepares you for. Our music critic, Robert Christgau, thinks she's never gotten that balance quite as right as she has on her new album, "Runaway's Diary."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The band Drive-By Truckers are in their third decade playing alternative country music tinged with Southern pride. Critic Robert Christgau says they put out a great album in 2008 then hit a lull. But he says their latest album, out this week, is a true comeback.

Sam Baker has a backstory that must be told. In 1986, at age 31, he was traveling by train in Peru when a bomb from the terrorist group Shining Path exploded right next to him. The little girl he'd been talking to was killed along with half a dozen others, and his own injuries required 18 operations. His mangled left hand was rebuilt; work on his ears left him with a loud ringing that never stops, though Baker says he's made his peace with it.

After six years as a sideman for many soul veterans, Marc Ribot made his name in 1985 with Rain Dogs, the album that marked Tom Waits' permanent transition from eccentric singer-songwriter to truly weird singer-songwriter. Ribot has held down straight gigs since then, but his work has tended toward the avant-garde. That's much less true on the song-oriented second album by the trio he calls Ceramic Dog.

Dad Country is the ersatz debut of Jonny Fritz, but it's actually his third album: He recorded the first two under the name Jonny Corndawg. I enjoyed his 2011 album Down on the Bikini Line, but it's so much slighter, so much sillier and more risqué, that at first I didn't connect the two. From the new album's first seconds, Jonny Fritz sounds more intense and pained.

Sufjan Stevens is a classically trained singer-songwriter whose recent work has leaned symphonic. Son Lux is a classically trained beatmaker whose solo albums do indeed evoke luxury. Serengeti is a self-trained rapper who creates voices for a panoply of full-fledged characters who range from scufflers to yuppies. Billed as s / s / s, this ad hoc trio has just released an EP called Beak and Claw that somehow synthesizes their specialties.

Jeffrey Lewis is my homeboy. The prolific anti-folk singer-songwriter has lived less than a mile from where I live on the Lower East Side since he was born in 1975. Difference is, I moved to Avenue B as an adult, while he's a native — his dad is a Brooklyn-born motorcycle mechanic who hung with local politicos and musicians.

When Woody Guthrie died in 1967, he left behind an enormous cache of unpublished lyrics and prose, which has resulted in an exceptionally rich posthumous career. Bob Dylan, who should know, has written of Guthrie: "He was so poetic and tough and rhythmic. There was so much intensity, and his voice was like a stiletto." Though I probably shouldn't admit it, I rarely listen to Woody Guthrie for pleasure.

Mates of State's members are literally mates: Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel have been a duo since 1996, married since 2001, and parents on tour since 2004. Their basic concept is two strong voices, Gardner's slightly predominant, over her keyboards and Hammel's drums. Over the years, the band has expanded its instrumental range and brought in guests for sonic color. But nothing in the pair's catalog anticipated "Palomino," the opening track from the new Mountaintops.