Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

As usual, Pazz & Jop sent me scurrying back to my shelves as well as hustling a few more self-started 1991 gooduns. No doubt others will surface. (Promise I'll get a grip on the intermittently amazing Smithsonian Indonesia series. Can you stand the wait?) But here are my discoveries so far, plus stray best-ofs. Plus, I'm pleased to report, a 1992 Pick Hit. This year I've got to get organized.


JAMES BROWN: Soul Syndrome (Rhino) With his '70s output reconfigured by Polydor, this rarely seen 1980 T.K. LP-plus-12-inch becomes a valuable document: solid JB funk the way JB conceived it, or threw it out there, or whatever. Highlights include the on-the-one coughs of "Smokin' and Drinkin'" and the big-band "Honky Tonk," but never mind that--this stuff is prime, so the groove's the thing. A MINUS

ELEVENTH DREAM DAY: Lived To Tell (Atlantic) A notable guitar sound evolves into an undeniable band sound, roots/trad sonics (steel and slide under lead) and rhythms (buried hints of r&b strut and shuffle) just barely keeping their balance as Janet Bean (she drums, she writes, she sings tail ends and revs them up) punkrushes the show. Doesn't really matter that headman Rick Rizzo's vocals are strong-that's-all and Bob Dylan is too much with them--"It's All a Game"'s fed-up get-it-together and "Daedalus"'s dippy dream notwithstanding, these songs don't signify as songs, but as music. The band's alternative pigeonhole proves AOR guys are scared shitless of rocking out. And its anomalous clubland profile typifies an aesthetic fallacy that long preceded the naming of postmodernism. Really, folks, irony isn't the way, the truth, and the life. It's just hard to avoid a lot of the time. So don't cast aspersions on their sincerity. They're just doing what comes naturally. A MINUS

ROKY ERICKSON: You're Gonna Miss Me: The Best of Roky Erickson (Restless) Discophilia or no discophilia--the title track confuses live with authentic, leaving the equally apt "You Drive Me Crazy" to true collectors--this compilation establishes a '60s casualty and various aliens as the greatest '60s band of the '80s, which didn't lack for retro pretenders. The feel is early Stones, with the very Satan the Stones pimped so pretentiously filling in for Charlie Watts--who else could have guaranteed Roky a victory over Mother Nature, not to mention Father Time? Devils, ghosts, zombies, vampires, two-headed dogs, I got no use for any of them--except when they ride riffs, grooves, and tunes this demented and user-friendly. A MINUS

BARBARA MANNING: One Perfect Green Blanket (Heyday) More homemade and original than the high-gloss postfolk of Sam Phillips or Kirsty MacColl, Manning's music stumbles and drones like Sonic Youth and strums like the Chills or the Fall, with simple, indelible tunes that fall somewhere in between. Her words are flat, literal, conversational, like her voice. Her hopes are realistic, which in today's bohemia makes her a pie-eyed optimist. What's more, this cassette/CD holds two albums. Now that I mention it, do you recall raves about something called Lately I Keep Scissors? Here's your chance to find a copy. A MINUS [Later: ***]

MZWAKHE MBULI: Resistance Is Defence (Earthworks) South African pop moves cozy up to African American notions of sophistication, and South African pan-Africanist moves graft a fabricated tradition onto a musical history with no parallel in Africa or anywhere else. Mbuli's fusions are more visionary and more local. Singing or chanting mostly in English or Zulu but occasionally in Xhosa or Venda, his relaxed, pantribal township jive owes all the urban South African styles--mbaqanga, kwela, marabi, even a little mbube. It's pop on South Africa's own terms, too swinging for retro and too jumpy for slick. What's more, this man didn't start out as a musician--like Linton Kwesi Johnson, he's just a poet who loves music enough to do it right. Although he's not as learned as LKJ, his songs are as complete a tour of the apartheid struggle as you're likely to get without reading--and his lyric sheet is a good place to begin. A MINUS [Later: A]

MY BLOODY VALENTINE: Loveless (Sire/Warner Bros.) If you believe the true sound of life on planet earth is now worse than bombs bursting midair or runaway trains--more in the direction of scalpel against bone, or the proverbial giant piece of chalk and accoutrements--this CD transfigures the music of our sphere. Some may cringe at the grotesque distortions they extract from their guitars, others at the soprano murmurs that provide theoretical relief. I didn't much go for either myself. But after suitable suffering and peer support, I learned. In the destructive elements immerse. A MINUS

MY BLOODY VALENTINE: Tremolo (Sire/Warner Bros.) This four-song sampler builds off one of Loveless's outright anthems to the spectacular guitaristics of "Honey Power," a pomo "Telstar" that shifts midway into doo-doo-doo--from which it segues into something depressive but not therefore unreminiscent of "Telstar." So take the test. Can you stand it? If so, you're ready for the longer stuff. A MINUS [Later]

THE ONLY ONES: The Peel Sessions (Strange Fruit) Like the rest of the series, their compendium preserves every song they chose to try out for Uncle John, the BBC, and the great unwashed, including second-raters like the indecisive "In Betweens." But except for "The Whole of the Law" (available on Epic's now-digitalized Special View), this hits the high spots. Because they always played better than the classic pop band they never really were, Peel's demand that bands lay down four songs in a day of recording--half-live, as it were--gets the part of their groove that studio polish glossed over. And such new-ones-on-me as "Oh No," "Language Problem," and "Telescopic Love" are why people think they were a pop band. A MINUS

PIXIES: Trompe le Monde (Elektra/4AD) Not as catchy from the git as Bossanova, which with eyeballs all over the cover and escape from terra firma all over the lyric sheet is risky if you want to get a rack jobber's attention or respect. But postpunk formalists-in-spite-of-themselves, a category that includes any consumer/tastemaker who's zoned in on 50 or a hundred relevant albums, would be fools to deny themselves the feast that awaits. These devilkins have the music down, and they never overstay their welcome. A MINUS

MATTHEW SWEET: Girlfriend (Zoo) Rarely does Sweet's turn of phrase or tone of voice add much to the store of human knowledge about romantic love, and he's not much better on God or war. So he lets guitars define the ineffables for him--his stormy acoustic, Lloyd Cole's workaday electric chunka, and Greg Leisz's choked steel provide a forum where Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine can testify. And though Lloyd shouldn't be forgotten--his slash and roll jumpstart the record--it's Quine's aural kabala, longer on syntheses of ache and soar than on terrible beauty or abstract calm in this context, that contains the wisdom Sweet needs. Just don't expect a translation. A MINUS [Later]

TEENAGE FANCLUB: God Knows It's True (Matador) Title tune's the only time they've yoked melody/noise/sound and sense/nonsense/paradox at optimum archness without undercutting either or both. The other one with words comes close. The two instrumentals only partly fulfill their modest mission in life, which is fusing strum and skronk. B PLUS

IKE AND TINA TURNER: Proud Mary--The Best of Ike and Tina Turner (Sue) Seven early-'60s hits, two or three of them classic, constitute their authentic stage. Then there's a hiatus when they record for at least four other labels (cf. Tomato's typically patchy Great Rhythm & Blues Sessions quote unquote). Then there are Beatles, Stones, and Sly covers, followed by Eki Renrut's "Workin' Together," followed by the Creedence cover that breaks them pop. After which they return to authenticity at a higher (that is, less authentic) level of consciousness, like "Funkier Than a Mosquita's Tweeter" and their second-biggest pop record, "Nutbush City Limits," which reached number 22. Excellent stuff in general, don't get me wrong. But legendary? This woman really knew how to show off her legs. A MINUS

TINA TURNER: Simply the Best (Capitol) With its hyperstylized soul and dominatrix shtick, Tina's pop-queen phase is recommended to Madonna fans who fancy a more serious grade of schlock. Except on straight love songs, which are rare, her production values will titillate your sensorium even if you're not in the mood--the dream hooker of Mark Knopfler's sexist fantasies come "true." A MINUS

ROBERT WARD AND THE BLACK TOP ALL-STARS: Fear No Evil (Black Top) He played guitar on the Falcons' "I Found a Love." He started the band that became the Ohio Players. He hired on with Norman Whitfield. All of which could add up to not much when he's carrying a artist's load, except that he's a better-than-average writer, a hooky arranger, and a sneaky soloist you remember for the wobbly sound of his Magnatone amp alone--a sound that's seeped into his singing. Add the Neville Brothers' label of last resort and you have the black-trad trinity attempting the comeback of a lifetime--soul, blues, and New Orleans in one person. Also, he loves his wife and knows how to say so. A MINUS

WIR: The First Letter (Mute/Elektra) The idea that asking a modest tier of machines to stand in for drummer Robert Gotobed jolted them back to their original vision doesn't hold up against their original sound, which was starker and drier than this even after they'd gone art-rock. But vision and sound aren't the same, and here everything decentered and acerbic in the eerie, fluent electrodisco they fashioned upon returning--everything that kept their fans hoping they'd return for real--is upped a notch. Now let's hope they devolve. A MINUS

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Digital Underground, Sons of the P (Tommy Boy): you can wear out the hard and the brother-brother-brother, but you can't wear out the cosmic slop ("The Dflo Shuffle," "Kiss You Back")
  • Stan Freberg, The Capitol Collector's Series (Capitol): why George Shearing fans hated rock 'n' roll, and other '50s foibles ("The Great Pretender," "Sh-Boom," "Banana Boat (Day-O)," "I've Got You Under My Skin")
  • Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque (DGC): a singa with attitude might put some there there ("Metal Baby," "Is This Music?")
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, The Sky Is Crying (Epic): Elmore James with chops--too many sometimes ("Boot Hill," "Close to You")
  • Bobby Jimmy, Erotic Psychotic (Priority): roll over Ogden Nash and tell Jimmy Castor the news ("Rapper Rapper," "Minute Man Man")
  • Djanka Diabate, Djanka (Sound Wave): she sings Sahel, she grooves Afro-Parisian ("Malaka")
  • Hole, Pretty on the Inside (Caroline): Nightmare on Gurl Street, or: Beyond the Valley of the Sonic Youth ("Teenage Whore," "Clouds")
  • Kanda Bongo Man, Zing Zong (Hannibal): taking Montreuil HI-NRG to the mellow--generically, but he invented the genre
  • Latin Alliance (Virgin): politics inevitable, music meant to be ("Lowrider (On the Boulevard)," "Latinos Unidos (United Latins)")
  • Rock This Town: Rockabilly Hits Vol. 2 (Rhino): Elvises-come-lately, revivalists, and other diehards keep the legend juiced
  • Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson (Sire/Warner Bros.): acid damage as consistency--meaning formal wisdom (R.E.M.: "I Walked With a Zombie"; Thin White Rope: "Burn the Flames")
  • Smashing Pumpkins, Gish (Caroline): if you can dig neopsychedelic art-rock fantasia--and hey, why not?--this has a nice witchy wail to it ("Rhinoceros")
Choice Cuts:
  • Sam Phillips, "Lying" (Cruel Inventions, Virgin)
  • Scarface of the Geto Boys, "I'm Dead" (Mr. Scarface Is Back, Rap-a-Lot)
  • Don Henry, "Harley" (Wild in the Backyard, Epic)
  • Seal, "Crazy" (Seal, Sire/Warner Bros.)
  • Bobby Rush, "I Ain't Studdin' You" (I Ain't Studdin' You, Urgent)
  • American Music Club, "Crabwalk" (Everclear, Alias)
Duds:
  • Babes in Toyland, To Mother (Twin/Tone)
  • The Family Stand, Moon in Scorpio (East West)
  • Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Notorious (Epic Associated/Blackheart)
  • Prisonshake, Della Street (Scat)
  • Wire, The Drill (Mute)

Village Voice, Mar. 3, 1992


Jan. 28, 1992 Apr. 21, 1992