Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

The proximate reason I cracked the jazz albums waiting patiently on my A shelf was context: confronting political exile Abdullah Ibrahim, pondering media hero Wynton Marsalis, knocked for a loop by boho posers the Lounge Lizards, I needed a sense of their musical competition. A few days later I was anticipating the labors of the forthcoming CG with dismay--somehow this music was not preparing me to calibrate microdistinctions among the young white bohemians. Then again, neither is anything else these days, so I decided to take a breather for the rest of the month.

Despite the teeming if not thriving rock underground, the spirit of 1975--industrial stasis enlivened by occasional visionaries, insurrectionists, and master crafters--has been on us like a temperature inversion for years. I mention this because 1975 was the last time I devoted any considerable portion of a CG to jazz--ordinarily I limit myself to selected media heroes, fusion moves, and works of genius. But in periods of stasis, resisting the pleasure principle is a crime against nature. I come to the jazz albums below as a jazz fan who's a rock critic, with a rock critic's tastes, values, specialized knowledge, and frame of reference. Going for context, I haven't exempted also-rans the way I otherwise would, and if jazz aficionados consider my fault-finding presumptuous, I can only respond that I'm known for my kind heart. Meanwhile, rock aficionados should bear in mind that in periods of stasis movement is called for. Start with the Lounge Lizards if you want--I love them myself. But there's no reason to stop there.


ARTHUR BLYTHE: Da-Da (Columbia) Blythe is a major musician and except for one piece of dinky funk this passes pleasantly enough, but its conceptual confusion epitomizes jazz's commercial impasse. Not only does Blythe play safe every which way, but there's no logic to his successes. You wouldn't figure the synthed-up ballad from Brazilian pop romantic Djavan to generate more atmosphere than the readings from Coltrane and Roland Hanna. Or Kelvyn Bell to provide the album's liveliest moment on the other funk attempt. Or the neat remake of "Odessa" to generate respectable heat up against the wild one on 1979's Lenox Avenue Breakdown, back when there was reason to hope Black Arthur would beat this shit. B

JOHN CARTER: Castles of Ghana (Gramavision) This ain't jazz, it's modern chamber music, quite European in view of its ostensible subject, which is how Afro-European mercantilism became the slave trade. In the modern European manner, its real subject is itself--explorations of color and texture that are worth tagging along on occasionally, but best left to the specialists and their grant money most of the time. B MINUS

MILES DAVIS: Tutu (Warner Bros.) Miles's endgame at Columbia was true fusion--improvised jazz-rock, pretty good of its sort, but what a sort. This is more like pop-funk Sketches of Spain, with the starperson's trumpet glancing smartly off an up-to-date panoply of catchy little tunes, beats, and rhythm effects. I cried fraud at first, and if you have no use for catchy little anythings you'll agree, but I changed my mind. Marcus Miller acquits himself in the Gil Evans role, George Duke gets off a nice lick, and Scritti Politti provides a snappier cover than Cyndi Lauper. Minor, and his best in a decade. B PLUS

KEVIN DUNN: Tanzfeld (Press) First a Fan, then sole leader (and member) of a Regiment of Women, this Atlantan has been making art damage seem like fun ever since he put "Nadine" on sideways seven years ago. Not exactly a font of creativity, he sticks "Nadine" on this album along with three more covers, a postmodernistically kitschy instrumental, art-maimed instrumental, and three "original" songs: one called "Nam," one beginning "Mommy, I don't want to be a fascist," and one consisting of movie titles that begin with "I." Inspirational Verse, from his lyrics-provided cover of "Louie, Louie": "A fine little girl a-wait for me--/ Ah cotch a chill: ah! certainly./ Peel the linga: Aranda cone/ (we never divine how Ah make it home)." B PLUS

JOHN FOGERTY: Eye of the Zombie (Warner Bros.) With his compact songs and workingman's aura, Fogerty was an outsider in the '60s. In the '80s, with his San Fran contemporaries either cozying up to MTV or peddling nostalgia on the bar circuit, it's clear that he took the visionary fallacies of the time as deeply to heart as Jerry Garcia himself, and good for him. Then as now he had no interest in fashion, which is why his music retains an undeniable modicum of interest. But like they say, the '60s are over. B

ABDULLAH IBRAHIM: Water from an Ancient Well (BlackHawk) Pining for his South African home, where American jazz has long symbolized black possibility, Ibrahim syncretizes. Relinquishing neither the modernist idiosyncrasy that underpins his exile nor the big-band entertainment values that have shored up the townships for close to half a century, he roots himself in the shared melodies and rhythms that give South African jazz its sound. Except maybe for tenor man Ricky Ford, the all-Americans who complete his Ekaya octet aren't great improvisors, but Ibrahim writes to their strengths and adds plenty of his own. Ekaya was more exuberant, but as inspiriting as I find the lilt of "Mandela" and "Manenberg Revisited," it's the brooding spiritual reserves of side two that convince me of Ibrahim's power. Not only does this artist have something to be serious about, he's found a way to make it breathe. A MINUS

KRONOS QUARTET: Music of Bill Evans (Landmark) This ain't jazz, it's chamber music, and where the same not-quite-swinging strings worked up an agreeable tension on Monk Suite, here the compositional mesh is too neat--Evans damn near wrote chamber music to begin with. On the cute tunes there's an endearing novelty effect, but all the impressionistic watercolors gain is a gravity of tone that will challenge the assumptions of nobody interested enough to listen. B

CYNDI LAUPER: True Colors (Portrait) Cheap sentiment plus star-budget video make the first side so disheartening that the second isn't much more than a relief. Just as the sensitive relationship songs retreat from the perils of triads and the pleasures of jerking off, "What's Going On" is a nostalgic generalization after the first album's confrontation with capital. Girls just want to have money--and no fun changes everything. B MINUS

EDDY LAWRENCE: Walker County (Snowplow) A folkie who works in NYC, Lawrence cultivates a pastoral gift for vernacular narrative, as in the Alabama locale of his title and most of his material--lots of red dirt gone to asphalt, farmland gone to housing tract, homes gone to trailers. Sure he veers into sentiment, but only the instrumental is without its turn of phrase. B PLUS

THE LEADERS: Mudfoot (BlackHawk) Opening with a glorious and playful 13-minute blues and closing with a sweet and crooked "Cupid" that Chico Freeman sings and some college-radio wiseass should claim, this all-star blowing unit gets arty in between and also gets away with it. By arty I mean Art Ensemble or maybe just AACM: several tunes where all the hook and half the pulse is a bass part that's more ostinato than rhythm line, plus a lyrically desultory duet between main man Arthur Blythe and weak link Kirk Lightsey and a group improv that grows out of Lester Bowie's mute. Familiar gambits all by now, but this kind of execution is what everybody who begins with them is hoping to end up with. A MINUS

THE LOUNGE LIZARDS: Live in Tokyo/Big Heart (Island) Initially, John Lurie's fake jazz was so conceptual it needed the chordless wonder of Arto Lindsay to knock the stuffing out of it every bar or two, but after trying to play the real thing he's settled for composing a full-fledged counterfeit. Blaringly dissonant and tunefully noir at the same time, Lurie's ensemble writing is Mancini boheme rather than Thelonious manqué--sometimes almost danceable, sometimes theme music for a movie too slick to star him, and always something else besides. Only brother Evan's "Punch and Judy Tango" tempts you to take the solos literally. A MINUS

MAHOTELLA QUEENS: Izibani Zomgqashiyo (Shanachie) Associated in an earlier incarnation with Mahlathini, a woman-group trademark gets the billing on this 1977 album, but various kings get the good parts, groaning or just singing lead calls or embellished responses on every one of these reported hits. This is mbaqanga at its catchiest. The structures are varied just enough to keep you on your toes, and the beat is indomitably alive. A MINUS

BRANFORD MARSALIS: Royal Garden Blues (Columbia) Though many tout him as the big talent in the family (not counting Dad, of course), they're just making conversation: he's more fun for damn sure, but his artistic personality is still unformed. Much as I dig the Gershwin flagwaver, the art of jazz wouldn't be a C-note poorer if this solid blowing record had never existed. Hype aside, that can't be said of Wynton. B PLUS

WYNTON MARSALIS: J Mood (Columbia) As the first young jazz musician ever to enjoy true major-label promotion, Marsalis is trapped into selling an image whether he likes it (or admits it) or not. On the one hand, he inevitably attracts admirers who respond not to the substance he hawks so assiduously but to the idea of it, which makes me wonder whether they really thrill to the shadings and dynamics that up till now have constituted his genius. And on the other hand, those of us who can't stand his expensive tailoring and neoconservative pronunciamentos are tempted to dismiss the pleasures they insure. Listen hard enough and pleasures reveal themselves in profusion, but despite what Marsalis believes even their profusion isn't quite reason enough to bother, because in his wrongheaded determination to adjure the trendy and the obvious, he never lets loose. Most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz. Neoconservatives wouldn't--maybe because they're not up to it. B PLUS

DAVID MURRAY: Children (Black Saint) The best Blood I've heard in years, and then--a rumination called (and "about," I'll wager) "Death," a prolix deconstruction of "All the Things You Are," and an eight-minute trio showcase for kid drummer Marvin Smith (who earns every kudo). It remains a scandal that the most prolific, protean, and flat-out talented of the younger jazzmen still records for an Italian company. But he's got hotter ways to curry Blue Note's favor. B

THE DON PULLEN-GEORGE ADAMS QUARTET: Breakthrough (Blue Note) Pullen, a prodigious pianist who can nail anything from r&b to 12-tone, and Adams, a brawny tenor modernist with a taste for blues, have been gigging together since Charles Mingus's death left them bandless, and though I've missed their shows and regretfully filed their records (where? where?), I'm now convinced they've got the hottest working group in the music. Part of the evidence is the breakneck hour that constitutes Soul Note's Live at the Village Vanguard--Vol. 2, on which Pullen plays actual music at tempos that would put Yngwie Malmsteen in traction--McCoy Tyner telling Cecil Taylor jokes on reds, sort of. But this direct-metal-master recording has more to it, easing into ballad and samba between great dollops of high-speed virtuosity. The secret is symbiosis--Pullen makes Adams go out, while Adams discourages Pullen's shows of Tayloresque concert technique. Proving that the right synthesis of in-the-tradition tradition and avant-garde tradition is all the concept world-class jazz players need. A

ARCHIE SHEPP: Little Red Moon (Soul Note) If you happen to be Archie Shepp, this is how easy it is to make an album you can live with. Visit your label in Milan and take on an expatriate rhythm section and a couple of European sidemen, one of them top-drawer. Go 18 minutes on a vamp and pick up another publishing credit with a little something called "Impromptu." Add Trane to Benny Golson to "Sweet Georgia Brown" on the B. Take three days, don't push it. Have fun. B PLUS

TINA TURNER: Break Every Rule (Capitol) Charges that Tina has betrayed her precious heritage come twenty years too late--not since she and Ike reeled off five straight r&b top-tens between 1960 and 1962 has she pursued the black audience with any notable passion. Her benefactors of the late '60s were Phil Spector, Bob Krasnow, the Rolling Stones, and the Las Vegas International Hotel, where she and Ike were fixtures at the time of Elvis's comeback; their big numbers of the early '70s were the totemic rock anthems "Come Together" and "Proud Mary." That she should now realize the pop fabrications of white svengalis is just a couple more steps down the same appointed path, and she's damned good at it, even an innovator--Private Dancer remains the archetypal all-singles all-hits multiproducer crossover, and Whitney Houston should be so soulful. Unfortunately, the follow-up musters no archetypal crossover singles, and no totemic rock anthems either (Bryan Adams induces her to go metal, which is more than Bowie or Knopfler can claim). Fortunately, ranking svengali Terry Britten gets his own state-of-the-pop-art side. If he and Tina can't convince you that rich people have feelings too, you're some kind of bigot for sure. B PLUS

THE WOODENTOPS: Giant (Columbia) With their "move away from cynicism" and airy touch, these Brits do bear a suspicious resemblance to Howard Jones if not Haircut 100, but at their best they're rootsy and rigorous. At their best, in fact, they ring one more change on the less-is-more magic you always think was exhausted the last time. The analogy is Feelies rather than R.E.M.--the lyrical uplift is a function of rave-up alone, with musical and verbal detail extraneous, as the perky/breathy/hooky/romantic distractions of this shot at the big time demonstrate all too well. "Shout" and "Get It On," even "Love Train" are their mission in life. "If we could always be together/It would be so sublime" is Lionel Richie's. B

THE WOODENTOPS: Well Well Well . . . (Upside) Problem with this budget eight-song early-singles compilation is that at close to thirty-four minutes there isn't quite enough of it. The fast-faster-fastest sequence that leads into the slow, surprising obloquy on side one is excitement itself but doesn't put the anticlimactic Suicide homage across; "Special Friend" shoulda stayed a B side, and "Cold Inside" a dub remix. And given how often youth comes to full bloom these days, this is the Woodentops to buy nevertheless. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

And now finally we come to microdistinctions among white bohemians, not to mention professionals, a little less encyclopedic (and current) than might be because somewhere along the way I just couldn't get to every EP anyone sent me or told me about. There were just too many bands whose names have passed from memory, and too many whose sound and/or attitude garnered multiple plays that their substance never quite justified: Sipho Hot Stix Mabuse, Uzi, Inbred, Psycho Daisies, Royal Court of China, Young Gods, Sway. Too many who hooked me with one original: the Kmartians' "Wankers Rule My World," Peace Corpses's "Artless Damage," the Mighty Mofos' "Untouchable," Pussy Galore's "Cunt Tease," Peter Himmelman's "This Father's Day." Or one cover: Billy Hancock's forward-looking rockabilly "I'm Free," Robert Plant's classic r&b "Rockin' at Midnight," Nip Drivers's speedrock "Have You Never Been Mellow," and while I'm at it let me mention Yo's LP-only speedrock "Hard Headed Woman." Then there are EPs from LP bands, too often holding actions in both musical strength and commercial strategy, but what can you do? Sonic Youth's Starpower remains their product of choice on my turntable, though those who eat the Lower East Siders' bullshit for breakfast will want something messier. Meat Puppets' Out Our Way (SST) is unique in this batch because it's a departure toward a less spacey, more bottomy hardcore-gone-folkloric. Green on Red's No Free Lunch (Mercury) convinces this skeptic that Dan Stuart's booze roots needn't end up in the mulch pile. The Fall (PVC) adds originals unknown to me though pleasantly familiar as types to their unforgettable rollick through the highway and byways of "Rollin' Dany." The Pogues' Poguetry in Motion (MCA) fails to accumulate the power of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and makes me wonder whether Shane's planning a rock move. As for Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Bad Religion, the Flies: buy the album. As for the Colour Field, Howard Jones: don't. Then there's Alex Chilton, apparently too blocked or tuckered out to put an album together, which means No Sex/Under Class/Wild Kingdom (Big Time) will follow Feudalist Tarts into the polls, mostly on the bitter bite of the lead AIDS song: "Can't get it on or even get high/ Come on baby, fuck me and die." Which gets us to our meager transfusion of new blood, The Shop Assistants (53rd & 3rd import) are everything I wanted the Slits to be: fast, tuneful, primitive, hard, tender, a little mysterious, and not altogether averse to slow ones. The New Dylans (Caveat Emptor) are generalists whose name may not be as ironic as they hope--like Bobby, they read too much poetry--but who enjoy a saving gift for the cogent chorus. Breaking Circus's The Very Long Fuse (Homestead) powers impassively acerbic vocals and verbals with a funk drone for the most convincing simulation of depressive rage I've heard all year. The Pheromones' Yuppie Drone (PVC) gets off a satiric economic analysis that owes much to none other than Adam Smith. And let us not forget the Royal Crescent Mob's Land of Sugar (No Other), fun funk still vying with the Shop Assistants in this year's corpuscle count.

Village Voice, Oct. 28, 1986


Sept. 2, 1986 Dec. 2, 1986