Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 1987-02-24


Afrika Bambaataa and Family: Beware (The Funk Is Everywhere) (Tommy Boy, 1986) Selected producers cut Bam's electro leanings with the prescribed heavy guitars, and musically this tops the UTFO albums, say. But neither leader nor followers give up the rhythms or reasons of a ranking MC, and I'm grieved to report that only "Kick Out the Jams" overcomes the formlessness of personality his detractors have always charged him with--it's got Bill Laswell all over it. B

Billy Bragg: Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (Elektra, 1986) How could one deny such a fine young man, especially with his harsh guitar and gratifying piano or trumpet reflecting his Clashy lineage when one thinks about it? That depends on how much one resents having to think about it. The lyrics are another matter--they're made to be thought about. Only soon one realizes that the politics, his forte if not his raison d'être, are surprisingly clunky. And that when it comes to the cons and pros of getting married he never misses a trick. B+

T-Bone Burnett: T-Bone Burnett (Dot, 1986) Burnett's foray into straight country is right purty, but it could stand to get a little bent. Abjuring strings, backup choruses, trap sets, puns, and sales potential, it takes the neo out of neotraditionalism, and though I smiled when T-Bone bought his baby "clothes of rayon," I was disturbed to realize that even his synthetics are ensconced in the past. B+

Crowded House: Crowded House (Capitol, 1986) Art-pop is like the dB's and XTC, when a fascination with craft spirals up and in until it turns into an aestheticist obsession. Split Enz was an art-rock band gone pop--sillier, crasser, more full of itself--and Neil Finn's California-based trio dispenses only with the silly. Hooks you can buy anywhere these days, and for directness you might as well apply straight to Bruce Hornsby--beyond the occasional hint of guitar anarchy, this is product for sure. C+

Fire Town: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (Beat, 1986) No oblique harmonies or trick meters or underhanded lyrics to prove how arty they are, just a blunt collection of pop songs that hauls out the hooks and hits you over the head with them thump-thump-thump. Which could and does get annoying when you're not feeling complaisant, but for the most part has its unfashionable charm. If you think the Smithereens are something, I dare you to play "Rain on You" three times. And if you don't, I double-dare you. B+

Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew: Oh, My God! (Reality, 1986) With the outrageous anticrime message of "Nuthin'" and the star-time joyride of "Lovin' Every Minute of It" surrounding his Big Hit, I'd call this a one-sided album if I wanted to be kind. But I don't, not when he dedicates it to G-O-D in the absence of Slick Rick and informs the ladies in the house that abortion (rhymes with mind distortion) is of "the devil." Buy the single, which doesn't put the Supreme Being so high in the mix. Inspiration Verse: "Cause I'm like Moses, no one knows this/The way I dress and my lifestyle shows this." B-

Georgia Satellites: Georgia Satellites (Elektra, 1986) If you love "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" for its own raunchy self rather than appreciating the alternative it afford to Bon Jovi and Cyndi Lauper, you want this album. Opening the B is a bottleneck rocker that slides as hard as "Happy," and while nothing else matches the inspiration of hit and follow-up, these guys do know how to put out those two-guitar basics. They just don't know why--except to provide an alternative to Bon Jovi and Cyndi Lauper. "Happy," after all, never pretends to be anything more than a change of pace, and because Keith Richards understands its limits, he's lining up a new front man right now. B

Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsys 2 (Capitol, 1986) I suppose side one of this belated sequel wasn't side two of the original because Jimi had a personal or Capitol a financial stake in such brotherhood bromides as "Power of Soul" and "We Gotta Live Together." But for better or worse he's a lot more impassioned working apolitical traditions--debuting "Hear My Train a Comin'" or reprising "Foxy Lady" or letting Buddy Miles cover Howard Tate's "Stop." What's more, the Hendrix classics by the Mitch Mitchell edition of Band of Gypsys on side two sound a lot fresher now than they would have fifteen years ago, and not just because pressing techniques have taken such a leap. Which makes the second first by me. A-

Jimi Hendrix: Jimi at Monterey (Reprise, 1986) Since I've oft been chastised for suggesting that the JHE's U.S. splashdown was less than extraterrestrial, I'm surprised at the yes-we-have-no-hosannas greeting this verbatim version. Maybe it's because only three of the ten tracks are previously unreleased. Maybe it's because after years of repackaging only suckers and acolytes get hot for another live Hendrix album. Or maybe it's because Jimi speeds alarmingly, Mitch Mitchell keeps tripping over his sticks, and "Like a Rolling Stone" is patently hokey. Nevertheless, such extramusical factors as historical verisimilitude and tinless audio incline me to charity. Peace-and-love-and-egomania at its most far out. B+

Jimi Hendrix: Johnny B. Goode (Capitol, 1986) Like Hendrix's other 1986 releases, this budget-priced mini-LP (time: 26:08) is vivid testimony to the uses of digital mastering for archival music, especially music recorded direct to two-track. "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Machine Gun" occupy the B, and while there's no need to own either twice, the powerful sound is at least a reason. On the A, a compressed, guitar-heavy "Voodoo Chile" and an intense "Watchtower" surround the disc's only previously released (though long unavailable) track, which provides the album title for good reason--it's the definitive version of the definitive guitar anthem. Roll over Chuck Berry and tell Keith Richards the news. A-

Ini Kamoze: Pirate (Mango, 1986) If reggae all sounds the same, this is something else. Kamoze's vocals match Richard Dunn's sheets of synth, which are more art-rock than lover's rock. "Betty Brown's Mother" is a long overdue answer to Ernie K-Doe and sequel to Herman's Hermits. And Robbie Shakespeare's riddim guitar leads the sliding headlong groove of "Rough." B+

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Inala (Shanachie, 1986) Unless I learn Zulu (long shot) or someone starts providing trots (great idea), chances are my favorite Ladysmith album will always be the first one I listened to, 1984's Induku Zethu. But your favorite will probably be the first one you listen to, and if you were busy in 1984 you might help Paul Simon do a good deed and start here. By now you should know what you'll get: a male a cappella chorus comprising two families of brothers and cousins in which Joseph Shabalala's cunning tenor darts in and out of the harmonic brush. Though they can dance to it, you probably can't, but unless you're hopelessly culture-bound you'll soon hear how beautiful it is. As a crossover gesture there's one song in English, full of sly domestic observations that provide welcome insight into how they deploy both words and sounds. A-

The Leaving Trains: Kill Tunes (SST, 1986) Where once Falling James Moreland inclined his raggedy band toward blues, here he rediscovers his roots: punk. If the whole album were punchy put-downs it wouldn't be the answer to our problems. But it'd give Falling James's poetry a break. B+

Los Lobos: By the Light of the Moon (Slash, 1987) These guys are a world-class band. If they want to go Motown, who wouldn't? If they want to downplay the accordion, they have the guitars to compensate. But if they think pop means compassionate generalizations after the manner of John Cougar Mellencamp, they're selling themselves short. Though they're less confused for sure, with a gift for snapshot images that suggest the dimensions of suffering in this trouble land of ours, only on "The Hardest Time" do they drive that suffering all the way home. Leaving us with world-class jukebox grooves and vocals and some affecting protest songs. A-

New Model Army: The Ghost of Cain (Capitol, 1986) If Tom Robinson had been young and proletarian enough to want the TRB to sound like the Clash, this oi band gone pop is how it might have come out. After three albums their gift for the anthem far exceeds, for instance, Easterhouse's, as in the anti-American "51st State" and the anti-'76 "Heroes." And though their vigilante rhetoric and doubts about terrorism have some young reds thinking fascist dupe, they're just working-class guys whose left instincts are ahead of their ideology--which I hope never shrugs off street crime or package bombs. A-

Richard Thompson: Daring Adventures (Polydor, 1986) I don't think it's the material and I hope it's not Thompson--with nuevo roots hack Mitchell Froom introducing his charge to the band and then saying go, there's no way to be sure. Somebody put those guitar breaks in an emulator right now. B

Throwing Muses: Throwing Muses (4AD, 1986) When friends turn psychotic, I withdraw. I haven't found black leotards sexy since I broke up with Sheila in 1962. I'm rarely persuaded that verbal dissociation reflects any social problems but the poet's own. So while I'm happy to grant the originality and even craft of Kristen Hersh's quavery free-form folk-punk, I'd do the same for the art of H.P. Lovecraft, Anaïs Nin, or Diamanda Galas. Fans of whom will pay more mind to Hersh's buzz than I do. C

Loudon Wainwright III: More Love Songs (Rounder, 1987) With regret and trepidation, I'd venture that divorce has been good for his songwriting--after almost a decade of hit-and-miss, this is his second straight to lay down an attitude. The two tracks that tackle the split head-on aren't clever enough for Nashville, which with this clever bastard is a plus. On the other hand, the wit of "Man's World" is subsumed by its antifeminist rancor, so that after "Unhappy Anniversary" side two rides on attitude alone. B+

XTC: Skylarking (Geffen, 1986) Imagine Sgt. Pepper if McCartney hadn't needed Lennon--if he hadn't been such a wet--and you'll get an inkling of what these insular popsters have damn near pulled off. Granted, there's barely a hint of overarching significance, but after all, this isn't 1967. With Todd Rundgren sequencing and twiddling those knobs, they continue strong for the first nine or ten (out of fourteen) songs. Only when the topics become darker and more cosmic do they clutter things with sound and whimsy; as long as they content themselves with leisurely, Shelleyan evocations of summer love and the four seasons, they'll draw you into their world if you give them the chance--most enticingly on a song called "Grass," about something good to do there. A-

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