Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-90s Book Cover

Subjects for Further Research

Barenaked Ladies: Humorous Canadian folk-rock group with name suggesting fascination/discomfort with s-e-x--oh great. But in a wide-open singles market where any hooky novelty had a shot, they scored a few. By the time I heard 1996's Rock Spectacle doubled as a de facto best-of, however, I'd skipped it (live album by humorous Canadian folk-rock group with name suggesting fascination/discomfort with s-e-x--oh really great). While indeed hooky, "One Week" wasn't humorous enough to change my ways. Maybe someday there'll be a real best-of. And maybe there won't.

Frank Black: As the face of the Pixies, the former Black Francis was dandyishly to devilishly arch, epitomizing what people who can't stand "college rock" can't stand about college rock. So though the Pixies had more slash and burn than any art band between Hüsker Dü and Nirvana, Fran sorely needed the fierce musicianship of Joey Santiago and, I like to think, the sweet humanizing gravity of Kim Deal. On his own he's generated plenty of tune, plenty of 'tude, yet seemed silly anyway. If you were to start with 1998's Frank Black and the Catholics you might think better of him. The pseudo-Pixies comp lurking in his catalogue includes Frank Black's "Fu Manchu" and Pistolero's "So. Bay."

Bongwater: This collaboration between performance artist Ann Magnuson and guitarist-entrepreneur Kramer had its moments--the acid "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" was pretty mean. But Magnuson was never as funny as she was supposed to be, and the rock settings Kramer tossed off were trapped in the genericism they postmodernized, which is what he gets for thinking rock and roll is easy. The pair released four albums on Kramer's Shimmy-Disc label before learning to hate each other. In 1998 Shimmy-Disc vouchsafed us the four-CD A Box of Bongwater. Very conceptual.

Boredoms: Never trust a band beholden to Metal Machine Music. Never trust a band who dare you to take their horrible name literally, either. I checked out random albums and concluded that this drone-prone Osaka avant-rock collective wasn't for me. I mean, if "ambient hardcore" and a concept where all titles include the word "Anal" are your kind of thing, maybe you should be consulting some other expert. But I liked their track on the Cosmic Kurushi Monsters comp, and, rechecking, I agree that 1990's Soul Discharge is kinda funny--and that 1998's Super AE has a ritualistic vibe. This must mean they're mellowing.

Calypso: Most of the music had been collected before, but three Dick Spottswood-compiled '90s releases on Rounder--Calypso Pioneers 1912-1937 (strongest), Calypso Breakaway 1927-1941 (strangest), and Calypso Carnival 1936-1941 (happiest)--provide a fetching introduction to world-pop's most logocentric genre. For those suspicious of soca's unslackening drive and calypso's weakness for stock melody, the goofy dance bands that cavort by here are a carnivalesque surprise. The New York-based Gerald Clark and His Caribbean Serenaders feature guitar, trumpet, violin, clarinet, piano, bass, and usually cuatro, the Port-of-Spain units more or different wind instruments, sometimes percussion. All share a loose, off-the-cuff, polyphonic sound/groove that evokes both klezmer and competing Latin American dance musics, but is without Stateside parallel. Melodies repeat, oh yes they do. The most fetching adorns Sam Manning's "Lieutenant Julian," Wilmoth Houdini's "War Declaration," the Executor's "My Reply to Houdini," Lord Executor's "Seven Skeletons in the Yard," Lord Executor's "How I Spent My Time at the Hospital," Codallo's Top Hat Orchestra's "I Want To Build a Bungalow," Lion's "I Am Going To Buy a Bungalow," Lion's "Vitalogy," Lion and Atilla the Hun's "Guests of Rudy Vallee," King Radio's "Neighbor," King Radio's "Old Men Come Back Again," and King Radio's "It's the Rhythm We Want," among others. But as in the great blues tune families, tempo and phrasing provide decisive variety and arrangement counts for a lot. Then the lyrics begin to signify: "Lieutenant Julian" was a black aviator, "Neighbor" fingers a sex offender, "Seven Skeletons in the Yard" lists Christmas horrors, "Vitalogy" takes off on Latinate medical lingo. But since none is as well-turned as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Beyond a Boundary, or Miguel Street, at this distance their main job is atmospheric: concreteness, morality, and wit to ground the bacchanal.

Steve Coleman: In his pop-friendly Afrocentric brass, the M-Base altoist is like a younger version of tenor man David Murray, except that Murray is all of one year his senior--and also a great player where Coleman is a very good one, so common a breed in jazz these days that only specialists bother telling them apart. But with his multitude of bands--Five Elements, Metrics, Mystic Rhythm Society, Council of Balance--Coleman works up more convincing funk and Afropercussive grooves than anyone else working this turf (Greg Osby, to be specific), as in 1990's Rhythm People (The Resurrection of Creative Black Civilization). Predictably, the jazz loyalists "bored" by his propulsion prefer Black Science, Cassandra Wilson lyrics and all. In 1995, Coleman released four live albums simultaneously and knocked me for a loop--there were pleasures aplenty there, but I never sorted them out. I've also enjoyed 1996's Afro-Cuban The Sign and the Seal, 1998's big-band Genesis, and 1999's syncretic The Sonic Language of Myth. But as a nonspecialist I'll make my fine distinctions elsewhere.

Kevin Coyne: When this name showed up in a listing one week, I was delighted to announce that the long-lost '70s gravel-voice, first the leader of the prophetically pubbish Siren and then a solo act whose three albums reached America mainly on Elektra's release schedule, had reemerged from what I had feared was a literal bout of the insanity he'd mimicked so convincingly. And though it turned out the Coyne who came to New York was actually some Irish folk musician, I soon received word that the English Coyne had conquered alcoholism and found a good woman in Germany, where he was painting, writing, churning out CDs, and cross-promoting himself like he's in it for life. With most failed old rocker and rollers, survivalist careerism is a species of mortality-in-denial. But Coyne had always played the old codger anyway. And while his mature worldview was rife with roots-rock humanism, he put his back, mind, and voice into it. His most notable German album is the narrative/conceptual Adventures of Crazy Frank. Best U.S. address: c/o Glenn Hirsch, PO Box 650326, Fresh Meadows, New York 11365.

Everything but the Girl: Tracey Thorn has always been one of those singers who sounded dandy on other people's records, notably Massive Attack's. Her diffident quietude is designed for new sophisticates, meaning not me, and linked to Ben Watt's lounge jazz once removed she always seemed to warrant that all-purpose what-me-worry dis, boring. Nor did things improve when Watt took cues from Massive Attack and went techno; although he was always understated about it, his affinities were clearly with jungle's soundtrack and fusion tendencies. I decided to get down to cases with these two over 1999's well-regarded Temperamental. But having duly noted that after multiple plays I still had no idea what the songs were about, I sat down with the lyric sheet and realized I'd been missing something--on Temperamental, at least, Thorn's alienated single woman of no special status alone in the city is chillingly and compassionately observed (or is that experienced?). I shouldn't have needed the print, of course--it's the singer's job to make you to notice such stuff. Nevertheless, I'm officially sorry I once called her pseudo-Sade. She's realer than Sade.

Fugazi: The most principled band of the '90s declined to send out promos, a decision I would have respected even if they hadn't been so stalwart in minimizing ticket prices, staging all-ages shows, and otherwise putting punk's D.C-based straight-edge ethos into practice. Since their Dischord label remained solvent as other indies went mainstream or under, I'm sure they understood venture capital better than me. I bought three early-'90s albums: 13 Songs, Repeater, and Steady Diet of Nothing. These were enough to convince me that from the strictures of Minor Threat's razor-sharp hardcore to the confrontational formalism of Fugazi's surgical AOR, Ian MacKaye has always been a musical puritan as well as all the other kinds. Obsessed with corruption, he figured out that words and voices don't excise it as efficiently as a well-honed guitar--specifically Guy Picciotto's precise, rock-solid distorto riffs. On Repeater, Picciotto offered something like pleasure. On the other two the resemblance was more abstract. I'm not any kind of puritan. So I stopped buying their records.

Hedningarna: As a true American, I relate more naturally to African music than European, which is how I explain my indifference to the Balkan, Irish, Breton, Irish, Basque, Irish, Italian, and Irish folk music I've passed by. The same goes for the "Nordic" stuff released in such abundance on Minneapolis's NorthSide label. But these pan-Scandinavian Swedish and Finnish guys, whose name means the Heathens, are intense--fast, sexual, even sometimes that great snow-country sham, shamanistic. Trä is where to begin; the Hippjokk wolfsong "Návdi/Fasa" is pretty scary; the borderland tribute Karelia Visa imports two female Finns who immediately start making nice--too nice.

Jimi Hendrix: Hendrix is the John Coltrane of rock discography--a revered improvisor cut down so young that every taped leaving is treasured by his acolytes. And where, for better and worse, Coltrane's legacy has always been controlled by his widow, it took 25 years for Hendrix's family to get what they deserved. This resulted in many wondrous late-'90s rerereleases. Because Hendrix's art was preeminently sonic, the vibrant digitalized sound on the three studio albums he released while alive is reason enough to buy them again. The reconstructed First Rays of the New Rising Sun is a worthy replacement for 1971's The Cry of Love and its confusion of successors. But like Alice Coltrane, the Hendrix family has completist tendencies reflecting their uncritical regard for the artist they're charged with rendering unto history. This means that twice so far they've replaced excellent Eddie Kramer-overseen reconstruction with longer, less excellent Eddie Kramer-overseen reconstructions: Live at Woodstock for Woodstock (MCA 1999, MCA 1994), BBC Sessions for Radio One (MCA 1998, Rykodisc 1988). For what it's worth, which may not be much, I actually like the lo-fi authorized bootleg Live at the Oakland Coliseum (MCA 1998). But unless you're an acolyte, I'd suggest that to supplement the '60s basics you pick up MCA's 1994 Blues before it's deleted, or shop around for the out-of-print MCA Woodstock and Rykodisc Radio One and Live at Winterland before they disappear. All are available at www.secondspin.com as I write.

Huun-Huur-Tu: These stagewise Tuvans tour too much to be cowboys at heart. They're entertainers--cowboys who wish they could quit their day jobs. Around 1993 they ignited a brief vogue for Tuvan throat singing, in which a single vocalist produces two or three harmonics simultaneously. Far more than Smithsonian's culture-specific ethnographic CDs or Shu-De's half-assed RealWorld pop move, Shanachie's 1993 60 Horses in My Herd--Old Songs and Tunes of Tuva is where to sample this exotic sound. Rather than weirdness that fetishizes its own alienation, like yours and mine, this is weirdness at home with itself, a cheerful and awesome thing. Songs and tunes are so slow they sound thoughtfully devotional even when they aren't, which is usually, and traditional fiddle and percussion accompaniment admit a guitar now and then. But it remains so weird that I never developed any sense of their later Shanachie releases. Those who want more should catch their show, which comes with a traveling ethnomusicologist and a shamanistic minidrama featuring animal noises. Or rent the film Tuva Blues, starring folkie bluesman Paul Pena, who taught himself throat singing from records. Or check out Baby Gramps, who learned from Popeye.

K.D. Lang: As an out lesbian singing putative country music she galvanized an audience ready to take her seriously--mostly gay, but including me. Conceiving pop as jazz à la Lyle Lovett rather than schlock à la Garth Brooks, she piled on the cred. And she definitely has a voice--calm yet bereft, cool yet kind. But how you respond to a voice is always deeply idiosyncratic, and Lang's continued cult status suggests that not getting hers is nothing to feel guilty about. Or maybe it's just that in a decade when technically accomplished singing made a major pop comeback--which it did, I ambivalently insist, despite what rap-haters feared--good singers writing mediocre songs got more play than they deserved. I listened hard to every one of her albums and stuck every one in my Neither file. Her claque cheers loudest for 1992's Ingénue.

Astor Piazzolla: The New York-born tango revolutionary made some 40 albums before escaping his niche with 1986's severe, white-hot Tango: Zero Hour, and once he died in 1992, there seemed a chance every one of them would be repackaged along with 12 miles of concert tape--as I write, one web retailer lists 79 consumables. Stick with the Kip Hanrahan-enabled Zero Hour, then seek out its follow-up, The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night; avoid classical ensembles, jazz vibraphonists, and the Milan label. Back when I was trying, I rather liked Tropical Storm's Love Tanguedia. But if you crave a dose of avant-garde romanticism con bandoneon, why not just spring for the three-CD Tangamente 1968-1973? That ought to hold you for a while.

The Promise Ring: Sometime in the '90s hardcore punk spawned the catchword "emo"--short for emotional, more than that don't ask me, including when if ever this Milwaukee quartet epitomized it. But I know this--"emo" and "Promise Ring" are often seen on the same page. Dragged to a 1999 gig, I found them transcendentally dull, only to discover later that album number three, Very Emergency, was indeed a tuneful little number. The special poetry in pitch-challenged lead dork Davey vanBohlen's well-meaning search for love is that nowadays most punks are well-meaning dorks going through a phase. I suspect Very Emergency represented a great leap forward. Old fans, already on the train for two or even three years, claim the opposite.

Rock en español: You know I'm desperate when I confess spiritual ignorance not of an artist but a whole genre--hell, a whole musical world. I lived two months in Honduras while adopting my daughter, spend more time in Puerto Rico than I do in New Jersey, adore selected Marquez and Carpentier. But although I enjoy the older Cuban genres, Colombian cumbia, and Mexican son, I'm allergic to Iberian melodrama--loathe international balladry (cf. Hot Latin Hits), cringe at flamenco, have never even been a salsa fan. And when it comes to Mexican rock and all its offshoots, well, if I were actually arrogant I'd just say I can't stand any of it--not Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, not Cafe Tacuba, not Maldita Vecindad, all of whom have occupied many hours of my ear time. Each is different, of course, but all share a kitchen-sink stop-and-go that I associate with the bright, cheap, found jumble of Mexico's visual folk culture. As a look, I love it. As music, I think it's art-rock, except when it's really arted up (and grooved down) by my beloved and very L.A. Latin Playboys. Maybe someday I'll retire to Coamo, learn Spanish, and get it. More likely I'll never do any of these things.

Santana: It has long been the habit of artists on Arista Records to thank for their success God and Clive Davis, in that order, and if anybody has a right to put God first, it's Haight-Ashbury's longest-running hippie mystic. But though Carlos Santana released plenty of honorable albums in the '90s, including several shows of multicultural piety and some typically just-better-than-average archival digs, 1999's star-studded Supernatural was Clive's miracle: a tribute album owned solely by the tributee (and his corporate sponsor, natch), complete with the hit songs Davis always insists on and quite often gets. Hook him up with Matchbox 20? I ask you, does God have that kind of chutzpah?

Jimmy Scott: A jazz balladeer who took the tempo as slowly as any pop stylist of the past 50 years, Scott is as pure as lounge singing gets, yet his 1991 comeback at age 66 preceded and then eluded alt-rock's lounge pseuds. Not only was he African-American, which couldn't have helped, he had too much character--that ethereal croon is so deeply immiserated it seems to detach itself from its own pain and rise from the body that produces it. This style is so recondite that I get suspicious when his admirers marvel over his phrasing while brushing by what's obviously the most interesting thing about the guy--his sexuality or asexuality as the case may be. With his soft soprano and timid cool, he's a strikingly hermaphroditic figure--not campy in the slightest, and if anybody knows whether he's gay it isn't me, but almost eunuchlike. Scott's impassive challenge to conventional gender roles makes him a living counterpart to Billy Tipton. The album I recommend isn't Tommy LiPuma's or Cassandra Wilson's, certified jazzbos though both may be. It's Dream, produced by Mitchell Froom of Richard Thompson/Suzanne Vega/Latin Playboys fame, which swings a little if you listen close. Usually, however, I find him, well, slow.

Tarika Sammy: Over and above their fine Afro-Asian tunes and sonorities, the secret of Madagascar's most successful export was female vocalist Hanitra. At her ebullient best she's a pep pill for the soul, but at her chirpy worst she can leave you so nauseous with memories of Peter, Paul & Mary you start to suspect that all these lively rhythms and lovely melodies are nothing more than the market-ready "folk music" of the planet's largest one-world theme park. Shortly after making their mark with 1992's Fanafody, the group split, with Hanitra and her confederates forming the efficiently dubbed Tarika (Malagasay for "band") while musical maestro Sammy held on to the Tarika Sammy brand. Tarika Sammy Mach II is tasteful if not too tasteful--modernist by the standards of their multicultural Petri dish of an island homeland, they sound like folkies from here. Tarika, meanwhile, continue bright if not too bright. I enjoyed 1997's Son Egal but, as usual, got first dizzy and then depressed deciding whether it was chirpy or ebullient.

Uz Jsme Doma: Given the debts these Czechs owe the Residents and Uriah Heep, Chris Norris's jape made me giggle--Prague-rock. Slavic bands are almost always prog one way or the other--cf. Skoda's Czeching In comp. Yet on this one's '93 Europe/'96 US Hollywood, the tempo shifts and horn lines and sudden bursts of ugly were as funny as they should have been, more than on the theatrical '91 Europe/'97 US Unloved World. And did these guys have catalogue. I played the '90 Europe/'98 US Fairytales From Needland all the way through several times, I swear it, then mislaid the thing. As for the two-CD Europe '90/US '99 In the Middle of Words, well, I gave it my usual three cuts and never returned. Sorry--I'm just not a prog kind of guy.

Caetano Veloso: I only gained respect for the Kurt-Weill-X-Bing-Crosby of tropicália artsong in the '90s, especially admiring 1999's Bahiabeat-cum-jungle (as in techno, not the Amazon) Livro and the irrepressible Gilberto Gil collaboration Tropicália 2 (see UV inside). But the latter record belongs to Gil, the only Brazilian musician save the avant-unique Tom Zé striking enough to carry an Anglophone provincial past his or her Portuguese. I really don't understand how non-Lusophones can wax ecstatic over a songpoet whose words they know from a trot--which, let me add, may not be as poetic as one dreams. So if some polyglot wanted to call him the greatest popular musician of our era, I wouldn't be inclined to argue. I'd just shrug.

Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, 2000


How to Use These Appendices Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies