Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Although I know three of the records A-listed below vinyl-only, I've given up. Vinyl is impossible to find, pressings are deteriorating, and the bonus cut has evolved into the penalty deletion. So assume that I'm listening on CD or cassette, and that to the best of my knowledge the two formats are identically configured. Also, if you missed last month, let me repeat that this is the new-concept Consumer Guide nicknamed the A list: bimonthly or so, with only A's and high B plusses reviewed, plus various also-rans in Additional Consumer News and an annual Turkey Shoot. Comments still welcome.


THOMAS ANDERSON: "Alright It Was Frank . . . And He's Risen from the Dead and Gone Off with His Truck" (Out There) Just this frail-voiced songwriter in an Oklahoma college town, where Botticelli rubs souls with Belle Starr and Chaucer profs give up tenure for love. His drummer can play, his bassist likes "Sweet Jane," the tunes his songs share are good ones, and though he's slightly word-drunk, he's too smart and funny and unassuming to waste many. You'd enjoy getting to know him. And feel proud you're American when the visit ended. A MINUS

JOHNNY CASH: The Sun Years (Rhino) Here at the onset, hitched to a spare Sun aesthetic that's equally apparent in young Carl Perkins, young Elvis, even young Jerry Lee, Cash's natural fusion of folk and country is effortless. Whether covering Lonnie Donegan's novelty remake of Leadbelly's "Rock Island Line" or stroking the market with "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" or checking in with classics like "I Walk the Line" and "Train of Love" and "Get Rhythm" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" and "Folsom Prison Blues," he's down with the common man--implacably, unostentatiously, without having to think about it. And terse, incredibly terse: check "Come In Stranger," which tops all the road-babe songs it anticipates at 1:38. A

ROSANNE CASH: Interiors (Columbia) With husband-producer Rodney Crowell down to "guest vocal," she's on her own. Not only is this the first time she's produced herself, it's the first time she wrote all the songs--only once before has she even come close. Musically it's singer-songwriter rock, though as always Cash redeems tasteful arrangements with high-quality melodies and intense vocal focus. But lyrically this prolonged meditation on a marriage in pain is country at its best, because country is marriage music and Cash knows the territory. Anger, fear, separation, transcendence, change--this woman has thought about the tough stuff. Most of the time she's smarter than, let us say, Woody Allen girding himself up for a big statement. And even when she's corny, her seriousness is so palpable that the emotional effort carries the songs. A [Later: A-]

THE FLATLANDERS: More a Legend Than a Band (Rounder) In 1972, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and leader Jimmie Dale Gilmore--drumless psychedelic cowboys returned to Lubbock from Europe and San Francisco and Austin--recorded in Nashville for Shelby Singleton, and even an eccentric like the owner of the Sun catalogue and "Harper Valley P.T.A." must have considered them weird. With a musical saw for theremin effects, their wide-open spaceyness was released eight-track only, and soon a subway troubadour and an architect and a disciple of Guru Mararaji had disappeared back into the diaspora. In cowpunk/neofolk/psychedelic-revival retrospect, they're neotraditionalists who find small comfort in the past, responding guilelessly and unnostalgically to the facts of displacement in a global village that includes among its precincts the high Texas plains. They're at home. And they're lost anyway. A MINUS

THE GUO BROTHERS & SHUNG TIAN: Yuan (Real World) Produced by Pól Brennan of Clannad, the insufferable lace-curtain-Irish folkies who bequeathed Enya unto the world, and with Guo Yue's Chinese flute and Guo Yi's Chinese mouth organ carrying the melodies and Guo Liang's plucked Chinese harp plenty prominent, the instrumental affinities are self-evident. So I worry about the spiritual affinities. My working theory is that Maoist aesthetics knows the difference between dignity and gentility, enabling these exiles to formalize folk music into art music without draining its life away. Of course, this could be utter fancy--just as likely some arbitrary synthesis of acculturation and deep bodily need inclines me toward Chinese scales. But for sure their jaunty-to-haunting tunes and mood pieces eschew the comfortable sheen one associates with Pól Brennan, not to mention the comfortable pulse one associates with Kitaro. A MINUS [Later: B+]

LOKETO: Soukous Trouble (Shanachie) Shared personnel notwithstanding, Diblo's Super Soukous was a guitarist's record and this is a band's. Six titles, six composers (three singers, two guitarists, one drummer), each of which achieves the same HI-NRG with a different deployment of stripped-down resources (the aforementioned plus bass, synth, percussion, a two-man horn section, and the occasional female chorus). Sure it's all up-up-up. They'll take you there. A MINUS

SAMBA MAPANGALA & ORCHESTRE VIRUNGA: Virunga Volcano (Virgin) One of numerous wannabees who departed a Kinshasa controlled by Mobutu and/or Franco and Rochereau to service rumba-starved Kenyans, Mapangala named his band after a Zairean volcano. And up against the rustic underdevelopment of Nairobi pop in the '70s, any soukous variant could pass itself off as an eruption. But in the world-beat disco of 1990, Virunga's snaky bass and nimble guitar come off as spaced and delicate as the falsetto leads Mapangala trades with Fataki, his only permanent sideman, and the twin saxophones are low-budget funky, their cheesy embouchure stuck between alto and soprano. So for outsiders the music's beauty is far more fragile, or spiritual, than artist or natural audience believe. Which doesn't mean we can't sway to it. A MINUS

MINISTRY: In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up (Live) (Sire) For fanatics and curiosity seekers, a 40-minute "mini" showcasing these professional anarchists' six most gripping, ripping songs. If you can't vote yet you're still too old for their brains-to-the-wall barrage--it vents aggressions so immature they're barely articulate, triggered by the political frustration that makes voting so meaningless these days. But once you regain consciousness it'll leave you humming, in a fragmented kind of way. You like your rock hard, right? So why the hell aren't you curious? A MINUS

YOUSSOU N'DOUR: Set (Virgin) After five years of struggle he creates . . . a pop record, damn it, a pop record from Senegal and noplace but: 13 shortish songs replete with catchy intros, skillful bridges, concise solos, hooks. Americans should find them emotionally accessible with the help of a trot and musically accessible with no help at all: try "Toxiques," ecology the third-world way, or "Alboury," a list of progenitors you never heard of. As for aura, say he sounds like a citizen who knows exactly what he wants and exactly how to get it. Say occasionally the tama is too hectic and the horns are too hackneyed. Say everything is beautiful anyway. That exotic enough for you? A MINUS

CARLOS PAREDES: Guitarra Portugesa (Elektra/Nonesuch) When an alien style hits you where you live, learning to say hello is easy. When it doesn't, some genius has to make the introductions--like this third-generation master of a guitar that looks like an oversized mandolin and sounds like a small orchestra. At the most obvious level Paredes's florid runs and melancholy melodies are generically Iberian, but listen deeper and the romanticism of these 20-year-old sessions turns defiantly modern and irreducibly local. Popular classicism, ancient to the future. A MINUS

PIXIES: Bossanova (4AD/Elektra) Though the words are less willful, they're still mostly indecipherable without the crib sheet and still mostly incomprehensible with it--leisure-class kiddies grasping at straws (or women: Black Francis has gone through three girlfriends by cut five) as the solar system bangs and whimpers to a halt. But these collegians are obscurantists no longer. Announcing their newfound religious faith with a surf-metal instrumental ("Cecilia Ann," who's not a girlfriend though Francis loves her best of all), they march out tunes so simple and confident and power riffs so grandly declamatory that you learn to understand the choruses by singing them. The beats are lively. The three-minute songs don't bash you over the head with their punk/pop brevity. Neither do the two-minute songs. If they weren't still a little gothic-surrealist they might even be too easy--but they ain't. A

PRINCE: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park) On his third studio double in a decade, he's definitely cheating. Half the music isn't really his, and the other half is overly subtle if not rehashed or just weak: title track, generational anthem, and lead single all reprise familiar themes, and the ballads fall short of the exquisite vocalese that can make his slow ones sing. But some of the subtle stuff--"Tick, Tick Bang"'s PE-style electrobeats, say--is pretty out, most of the received stuff is pretty surefire, and from unknowns to old pros, his cameos earn their billings. Also, there's half a great Time album here--did he steal it or just conceive it? B PLUS

PYLON: Chain (Sky) Their low registers, deliberate silences, and inexorably unmechanical beat all feed a muscular musical solidity with no real parallels--10 years after, the only band that sounds remotely similar is the Gang of Four, who are frantically neurasthenic by comparison. Of course, the Gof4 hoped to change the world, where Pylon mean only to transcend it, which is only possible till the music's over. So 10 years after, maybe Vanessa's relatively down-to-earth lyrics mean she's headed in the right direction. And while the music's on you can still get lost in it. A MINUS

REVOLTING COCKS: Beers, Steers and Queers (Wax Trax) A Belgian and a Scotsman dominated by Alain Jourgenson plus two, or so it sounds: industrial without redeeming antisocial value, big-beat aggression with a sexist subtext, or text. Good arty types that they are, they tread the margin between exploitation and self-exposure more daintily than most rappers or metal studs. Which in the end is neither here nor there. What's here is that they rock like a funk-damaged Ministry whether you like it or not. B PLUS [Later: **]

TEXAS TORNADOS (Warner Bros.) On record they're a little too country for a honky-tonk conjunto rocking that Western swing. Freddy Fender especially is more ragged and more glorious entertaining fellow graybeards in person. But when Augie Meyers gets real silly or Doug Sahm gets real gone now, it doesn't matter at all. And the rest of the time it doesn't matter much. B PLUS

NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: Ragged Glory (Reprise) "It's three o'clock in the fucking morning, will you turn that thing down? All I hear down here all night is thump-thump-thump-thump thump-thump-thump-thump--same fucking tempo, same fucking beat. On permanent repeat, you don't even have to walk over to the amplifier to start it up again, just galumph up and down in that stupid hippie pogo. Of course I love him too. I know the guitar is great. So what? This isn't the Beacon, goddamn it. It's my apartment." A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • 2 Black 2 Strong & MMG, Burn Baby Burn (In-Effect/Clappers EP): refuse and resist and revolt ("Burn Baby Burn")
  • Freedy Johnston, The Trouble Tree (Restless/Bar/None): folk-postpunk Donald Fagen ("Tucumcari," "No Violins")
  • Black Box, Dreamland (Deconstruction): program the singles ("Everybody Everybody," "Hold On," "Ride on Time")
  • Consolidated, The Myth of Rock (Nettwerk): industrial for the oppressed masses ("This Is a Collective," "Dysfunctional Relationship")
  • The Time, Pandemonium (Paisley Park): not enough concept/too much band ("Skillet," "Chocolate," "Pandemonium")
Choice Cuts:
  • Mojo Nixon, "Don Henley Must Die," "Destroy All Lawyers" (Otis, Enigma)
  • No Face, "We Wants To Fuck," "Spanish Fly" (Wake Your Daughter Up, No Face/RAL/Columbia)
Duds:
  • The Chimes (Columbia)
  • Joan Jett, The Hit List (Epic)
  • Baaba Maal, Taara (Mélodie import)
  • The Neville Brothers, Brother's Keeper (A&M)

Village Voice, Oct. 23, 1990


Sept. 25, 1990 Dec. 4, 1990