Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As promised, a post-Christmas wish list--16 vital resuscitations, half of which have been awaiting a news peg for over a year. If precisely three are by white people, with tokens of new hip from Serge Gainsbourg to Peggy Lee on the wrong side of the cut, don't take it personal. It's just that acculturated sense of rhythm.


BOBBY BROWN, BELL BIV DEVOE, RALPH TRESVANT: New Edition Solo Hits (MCA) Laid out conveniently on one infopack, the best of lesser half A and group B, with every track uptempo if not contempo (those electrothwocks are already over), and microstar C on board primarily to slow it down a little right here. In sum, new jack swing nostalgia--not a moment too soon. A MINUS

DANCING AT THE NICK AT NITECLUB (Nick at Nite/550 Music) Rhino's Groove 'n' Grind wrote the disc on dance-craze collections, and three of the four CD-only tracks there repeat here, along with the Diamonds' "The Stroll." But cut-for-cut the competition's close. This one is nicely Southern-fried (Joe Simon, King Curtis, Archie Bell) but soft on famous dances trailing ordinary records (watusi, jerk). It shares its greatest triumph with the Hairspray soundtrack: Gene & Wendell's "The Roach." Stomp here. A MINUS

FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS: The Finest (London/MCA) Classy of them never to overextend a thin concept, now conveniently distilled to an essence of smooth pop-soul hip and seasoned with intimations of conscience. MTV abusers please note: lean, light Roland Gift sounds as fine as he looks. A MINUS

HISTORY OF HOUSE MUSIC VOL. 2: NEW YORK GARAGE STYLE (Cold Front) Where the Chicago-based volume one honors disco and spawned techno, the Gotham-based volume two honors funk and spawned nothing. Compressing clenched male studio voices into keyb-saturated bass-and-percussion, it's just a dense, urgent, anxious moment of dance music--unutopian even when Colonel Abrams soul-shouts that "Music Is the Answer." "Don't Make Me Wait" set it off. "Set It Off" was the answer. A MINUS

IGGY AND THE STOOGES: Raw Power (Columbia/Legacy) Strict constructionists and lo-fi snobs charge indignantly that by remixing his own album Iggy has made a mockery of history and done irreparable damage to a priceless work of art. This is really stupid. Before it was anointed the Platonic idea of rock and roll by desperate young men who didn't have much else to choose from, first-generation Iggyphiles charged just as indignantly that David Bowie had mixed the real thing way too thin--as Iggy observes, this classic-by-comparison always sounded "weedy" (although, not to insult a valued colleague, "David's" version was also "very creative"). So the pumped bass and vocals Iggy has uncovered on the original tapes, which were supposed to coexist with their high-end screech to begin with, are a quantum improvement. Plus you can finally hear the celeste on "Penetration"--sounds great! Only the slow ones, which like all of Iggy's slow ones are not as good as his fast ones, stand between a statement of principle and a priceless work of art. A MINUS

MILLIE JACKSON: Totally Unrestricted!: The Millie Jackson Anthology (Rhino) Maybe the reason rock fans have never gotten this brassy, bawdy, moralistic yenta isn't that she's too black but that she's too country--starting with 1974's Caught Up, she's adapted a powerful yet not finally distinctive delivery to half-spoken sexual-domestic minidramas that still sell tickets in the South, often as fully scripted theater pieces. Of course, I mean country in worldview, not geography. The implicit locale here is the kind of black lower-middle class neighborhood that takes another hit with each new "economic downturn"--in bed as everywhere else. Jackson describes this world as if she's internalized Billie Holiday on God blessing the child. She's not nice or even all that compassionate about it. She's just strong, convinced that good feelings have to be stored up against times of trouble like everything else. A MINUS

GEORGE JONES & MELBA MONTGOMERY: Vintage Collections (Capitol) Besides keeping track of them, the big problem with new George Jones reissues is the same as the big problem with old George Jones issues--consistency. Be they literal rereleases like New Favorites and The Race Is On or circumscribed compilations like Razor & Tie's UA-only She Thinks I Still Care, they rise and fall with the quirks of a taste that isn't yours. But here partnership is a steadying influence, as Montgomery props up the flatter material with her cornpone contralto. George isn't just being polite when he claims Melba was a better match than Tammy--anyone who counts that Birmingham beautician deep country should check out the hollers near Iron City, Tennessee. Montgomery is less original than Jones, as is Pavarotti. But she's so downhome that she never got her druthers or her just deserts. And she's also so downhome that Pappy Daily didn't even think about countrypolitanizing her. A MINUS

CHAKA KHAN: Epiphany: The Best of Chaka Khan Volume One (Reprise) Of her enormous gift there's no question--not just a sumptuous voice, those are commonplace, but sonic character. She sounds somehow nasal, sensuous, and "trained" all at once, like Sarah Vaughan with adenoids, and also with the rhythmic hots. On her great Rufus tracks (cf. MCA's best-of) Khan was uninhibited enough to sing funkier than any woman since. But though the solo "Ain't Nobody" and "I'm Every Woman" and "I Feel for You" top "Once You Get Started" if not "Tell Me Something Good" (wisely reprised live here), too often she's striven toward vacuity, as on the "five new songs" her label stickers so proudly--when she signs on with David Foster or asks Arif Mardin to do up a ballad for her, I remember that her voice also reminds me of Heatwave's synthesizer. But Luther Vandross, Melle Mel, Bird 'n' Diz, even Billie Holiday--these tributes and collaborations she's been equal to. Makes you wonder. A MINUS

THE MILLS BROTHERS: All Time Greatest Hits (MCA) Far blander than Decca's other prerock crossovers, the Ink Spots, these sons of the barbershop cultivated normality whether they were guesting for Bing, accompanying Ella, or bringing ditties to market. The 16 songs here are as anonymous as they are memorable, just like the close blend of brothers who shared so much DNA that on record they could almost be one Mills plus overdubs. None of their army of imitators ever got near their generic sound. A MINUS

THE MOONGLOWS: Their Greatest Hits (MCA) No doowoppers worth a damn--not even the micromanaged Drifters--were slicker or more precise than Harvey Fuqua's underlings. They couldn't have done it without Bobby Lester, who adapted his flexible light baritone as easily to straight ballad readings as to the tricky swoops and sobs bassman-bossman Fuqua demanded. But Lester flopped on his own, while Fuqua went on to a&r Etta James, Junior Walker, the Spinners, and "Sexual Healing"-era Marvin Gaye, a New Moonglow 25 years before. Subsuming window displays of special effects in songful flow, the pleasure Fuqua's arrangements take in vocal interaction is clever, calculated, corny--all that. But they're also richer and more ecumenical than almost anything in the gospel quartet tradition doowop supposedly cheapens. A

ESTHER PHILLIPS: The Best of Esther Phillips (1962-1970) (Rhino/Atlantic) R&b chart-topper at 15, repeat hitmaker with a Ray Price remake, discofied interpreter of Van and Elton as well as her secret sharer Dinah Washington, Phillips died of liver and kidney failure in 1984 and is now somehow classified as jazz. Although she was honorably served by Atlantic's all-the-class-the-market-will-bear aesthetic, her astringent voice zipped with unique authority through schlock like "Moonglow/Theme From Picnic," which is as striking as any of these 40 tracks--although no more so than "Makin' Whoopee" or "Moody's Mood for Love," "Crazy Love" or "And I Love Him." Her vocal gift was narrower than that of her other secret sharer Etta James, but because she knew perpetual disillusion, Phillips was far defter with pretentious lyrics. Her current obscurity is a disgrace. I look forward to a companion package culling her patchy brilliance at Kudu and Mercury. A MINUS

THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS: Should God Forget: A Retrospective (Columbia) Punk engenders postpunk, which incorporates--these guys are English, after all--its essential prepunk Bowie-Ferry axis, but bypasses its equally essential pub, garage, and roots axes. All operative imperatives are purely aesthetic, powered by vagaries of taste, quiddities of form, and oddities of talent; however inevitable the resulting music may have sounded, it was obviously all pose, and just as it had no cultural significance then, it has no historical significance now. All it does is go around on its track and sound good--surprisingly good, considering how meaningless it is, and how inexorably it descends toward sounds-bad. With sincerity off the table, and tune and performance steady as they go, the great puzzle then becomes why the band couldn't keep it up. Because aesthetic imperatives have a moral life just like cultural and historical ones, that's why. A MINUS

ROOTS OF JAZZ FUNK VOLUME TWO (MVP) Mellower, and schlockier, than its predecessor. Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, "Canadian Sunset"--these are not names associated with high principle. Except for repeater John Coltrane, you'll find no art stars here at all, nor any leaders of Blakey-Adderley calibre. But from Johnny Griffin's "Blues for Dracula" to Jack McDuff's "Rock Candy," the funk will be more palpable to the acid-damaged as a result. And if you're art-damaged yourself, let me put it this way: it'll be Good For You. A

STRIP JOINTZ (Robbins Music) Long convinced that the sexiest soundtrack to coitus and its kissing cousins is provided by the participants, I have no use for slow jams and assume this would suit that purpose even worse. I'm not even positive anyone splits beaver to such stuff. But as an antidote to subtlety, you couldn't beat this selection of soft-core r&b cartoons with a fistful of Vaseline. It flags a little in the middle, you know how it is, but from R. Kelly's pre-Christian "Bump n' Grind" to Clarence Carter's do-it-with-his-eyes-closed "Strokin'," it fairly represents the great middle ground between Li'l Kim and Peabo Bryson where most carnality actually situates itself. A MINUS

IRMA THOMAS: Sweet Soul Queen of New Orleans: The Irma Thomas Collection (Razor & Tie) Born in 1941, Thomas had four kids and two husbands behind her by the time of her brief pop run in 1964, but you'd never have known how hard her life had been. She was too busy trying to sing the songs right, and that didn't mean interpreting them, much less infusing them with her own experience--it meant nailing a commercial sound. Blessed with a surpassingly warm voice even for New Orleans, she took more naturally to the cockeyed optimism Allen Toussaint can't repress than to the darker moods of the early soul songs she tried. But just to be on the safe side she put happy and sad into everything, as on Toussaint's oh so hummable "Take a Look"--which comes out far more serious and sincere, and hence effective, than the wedding-day bliss of its lyric requires. It's her tractability before strong material--better chosen here than on EMI's already deleted 1992 best-of ("Volume 1," ha)--that makes her so winsome. And it was her determination to please that eventually turned her into a blatantly ordinary local institution. Believe me--she was more interesting when she didn't know what she was doing. A MINUS

WARREN ZEVON: I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (An Anthology) (Rhino) His limitations are manifest and probably permanent. A gonzo drunk who thinks pounding is rocking and considers it the secret of his charm when his bassist observes, "He's just as crazy now as he was then, only now he knows it," he specializes in what his buddy Jackson Browne (who's such a big wheel his best-of CD is on his real label) calls "song noir," which means he's overimpressed with Raymond Chandler and is occasionally as good as his buddy Carl Hiaasen. As a tough-guy neoclassicist he of course cultivates his mawkish side (what is "sentimental hygiene," anyway?), preserved in all its lovingly worked poetry on this, his interim will and testament. His gifts have faded slowly--"Seminole Bingo" and "The Indifference of Heaven" are as mean and funny as ever. And if he's good enough that I'd replace a third of the 44 selections here, that means he's also good enough to roll his own. A MINUS [Later]

Village Voice, Jan. 6, 1998


Dec. 30, 1997 Jan. 27, 1998