Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

The Must to Avoid is by a never-complacent new waver laboring to transcend his own aesthetic parameters. The Pick Hit is by a self-described knockoff artist who after 10 years of farting around has managed to repeat himself. There are no rules--only results.


BAD RELIGION: No Control (Epitaph) Like a good rapper, Greg Graffin always sings his own tune--no matter how the three chords play themselves out on the (probably nonexistent, but never mind) lead sheet, the natural drone of his voice adds a music of its own. And he's still finding naive new truths in disillusioned hardcore truisms. "Culture was the seed of proliferation but it has gotten melded into an inharmonic whole" is bad writing; so's "Prescience was not lacking and the present was not all." Yet propelled by the drone and the three chords, they clobber you with the life-probe that's always been rock and roll's secret, excuse, or reason for being. B PLUS

DAVID BYRNE: Rei Momo (Luaka Bop/Sire) Byrne respects and understands distance, an essential faculty in world-beat projects, and his increasingly sinuous singing should make this Latin synthesis a natural. The lyrics are explicitly social without sacrificing the nervous literacy of his established voice. He picks good musicians and provides proper arrangements. And the result is a respectful, highly intelligent dud. Irritating though the muscular masculinity of sonero tradition may be, any doubts as to why it's there are dispelled by Byrne's inability to wrap his weedy chops around salsa that's too tasteful by half. And I'm beginning to suspect he writes rock lyrics--words that can only impact loud, grating, and straight-ahead. C PLUS

COLDCUT: What's That Noise? (Tommy Boy/Reprise) Things work out all too predictably for this smart young studio duo. Eclectically danceable and righteously segued though their samples are, they're too bare-bones in themselves to move the crowd--the world beyond the dance floor. When a real vocalist climbs aboard--Lisa Stansfield, Queen Latifah, Junior Reid (though not, righteous eclecticism aside, Mark E. Smith)--everything is swinging. And when the music is all beat and concept, it's all beat and concept--though "Party and party and party and bullshit" is certainly in the great tradition of postmod self-criticism. B

THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND: Voodoo (Columbia) The cameos--by Dr. John, Dizzy Gillespie, and Branford Marsalis--are the giveaways, because this jaunty concept needs those guys, to sing or solo as the case may be. The headliners are the lounge band of a tourist's dreams, and that's all they are. Why in the world cover Stevie Wonder's message-laden "Don't Drive Drunk" as an instrumental (polyphonic, mais oui)? Because it's a deathless piece of music? To prove how up-to-date you are? Or to stump the clientele in a game of name-that-tune? B

DRAMARAMA: Stuck in Wonderamaland (Chameleon) Imagine a Richard Butler who's not ashamed he watches television--who feels free to color his dolor with junk detail. That's American guy John Easdale, and it's too bad that like Butler he's slowing down as he grows older. The music's lickwise and the writing's fine, but only "Last Cigarette" is possessed by the runaway verve that drove them before they hied away to Wonderamaland. I do appreciate the Ian Hunter cover, though--the good ole '70s. B PLUS

HALF JAPANESE: The Band That Would Be King (50 Skidillion Watts) Just because Jad Fair is some kind of genius doesn't mean he benefits from the genius treatment--he needs a real producer forcing him to develop his material, not Kramer letting 'er rip. Most of these songlets--27 on vinyl, 30 on CD--go by so fast you don't notice them end, so that slow ones like "Daytona Beach" and "Deadly Alien Spawn" stand out. I bet if somebody made him sit down and work out extra verses, we'd know what the best fast ones were. Suggested pep talk: "Think funny, Jad." B MINUS

JON HASSELL/FARAFINA: Flash of the Spirit (Capitol/Intuition) The idea was for the exoticist to collaborate with flesh-and-blood "traditional musicians," whatever that can mean in such a context. The result was to reduce Yurrup and Burkina Faso to a lowest common denominator--background music. Worse still, the aural environment neither flashes nor fuses--rather than a "forced collision of cultures," it sounds like they just barely missed each other. B MINUS

KAOMA: World Beat (Epic) I find it impossible to work up the fine pitch of loathing this piece of product arouses among the right-thinking. It's only a) hit-plus-filler and b) Europop, lame two ways by definition, which is no reason to listen to it but also no reason to be dismayed by its lameness; the lameness of the Brazilian dance-pop it rips off is more dismaying, because it's more misguided. In a time when Third World musicians dream of First World rich-and-famous, when Parisian sensibility deracinates the rhythms of the African diaspora one day and adds muscle to them the next, when France seeks to regain world cultural preeminence by embracing an essentially spurious multiracialism, lambada fits an inevitable market niche. It's Europop with a café au lait face and a bouncy bottom, and on the hit and the two cuts that follow it has the vulgar vitality of all great pop commerce. After that it's filler. C PLUS

KASSAV': Majestik Zouk (Columbia) What this accomplished display of pop production values proves is that they're big in France because they speak French. With keyb hooks and basslines mixed way up, most of the tracks jump you like the radio. But the pretty-to-gritty voices have nothing intelligible to say to Anglos--nothing to grab the market share they have such designs on. And with average track length under four minutes, the groove ejaculates prematurely almost every time. B

KONBIT!: BURNING RHYTHMS OF HAITI (A&M) Because Caribbean musicians use horns the way African farmers use cattle--not just as resources, but as measures of wealth--it took me six months to hear through the sonic givens on this inspired potpourri. The basic style is an unsurprising relative of zouk, which saxman Nemours Jean-Baptiste anticipated by decades in what he called compas (French) or konpa (Creole, or rather Kreyol). And by insisting on the same kind of variety and politics that have undone other world-beat compilations, conceptmaster Jonathan Demme and hands-on producer Fred Paul rescue theirs from UNESCO disco. Buoyant Jean-Baptiste songs from 1960 and 1957 lead and close, and in between we find not the usual indigenous hits but three specially commissioned songs, some agitprop, the Nevilles, and Haitian bands working out of New York, where their displaced countrymen have enough money to support bootstraps recording. Some tracks go for the congas, others build a tension that repays concentration, and it's a tribute to all concerned that you can't tell the new stuff without a scorecard--though not that the bilingual lyrics are cassette/CD only. A MINUS

THE LOUNGE LIZARDS: Voice of Chunk (1-800-44CHUNK cassette/CD) Determined to become the thinking man's David Sanborn by hook or by crook, John Lurie swallows his indignation and elects to market himself--your achieve retail access by dialing the label name on your home telephone. And dial you might. Finally his tone is as rich as his tunes, his solos are lifelike, his musicians thrive as individuals and function as a unit, and his arty moves kick in with a satisfying thwock. As usual, free jazz meets Henry Mancini meets Kurt Weill meets Peter Gordon meets the Dew Drop Inn (or is that Le Petit Rendezvous?), only the pomo patina has worn away--he's lyrical and catchy rather than "lyrical" and "catchy." Biting and funny he never put quotes around. A MINUS [Later]

NICK LOWE: Party of One (Reprise) The latest old fart to slip into limbo and come back to play another day, Nick the Knife is a writer again, every song honed and there for a reason. With the likes of Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner spiking his wry cool, he yearns for yen, makes Boeing a modest proposal, spins off pungent epithets ("Refrigerator White"), nonsense syllables ("Shting-Shtang"), sexual metaphors ("Honeygun"). In a shameless bid for the rockcrit vote, he also finds the perfect rhyme for "ghastly" (starts with "Rick," lest you already forgot). And just like with Labour of Lust in 1979, he makes it sound so easy you expect a reprise a year for the rest of his life. A [Later: A-]

L'TRIMM: Drop That Bottom (Atlantic) I know, these girls are a male fantasy--if Jesse Helms had any idea how sexy-cute they are he'd sneak them into a kiddie-porn law. The music's a fantasy too--simple rap beats, simple house hooks. And I get a buzz off 'most every track. So I'm weak. So sue me. B PLUS

KAREN MANTLER: My Cat Arnold (Xtrawatt) You'd best believe her mom's her best friend--her bangs, her pout, and her drily comic, jazz-informed tone all owe Carla Bley. But where Carla's a jazz composer with pop instincts, Karen's vice versa and sui generis enough, her personal unconfessions, educated chords, and meaty obbligatos a relief from standard singer-songwriterese. And where the competition oozes feeling, Karen's weakness is detachment--she seems settled into her existential anxiety. Male lead: Eric Mingus. B PLUS

THE PSYCHEDELIC FURS: Book of Days (Columbia) Because this was unmistakably the P-Furs and unmistakably a stone bore, I figured we must have overrated this band. No one ever accused them of having the funk, after all. Comparison with Talk Talk Talk and even Forever Now soon set me straight, however. Before slipping into chronic depression, Richard Butler intoned amid chaos--the dissonant drones that here parade by in formation detonate all over the earlier records, which makes most of the difference. And although this isn't as lugubrious as you first fear, speed also matters. Usually folks who quit drinking stop sounding sorry for themselves afterwards. C PLUS

STAN RIDGWAY: Mosquitos (Geffen) The voice of the American antihero deepens--Ridgway invests his tall tales of the end of the line with lazy, crazy conviction. He thanks Samuel Beckett for "Dogs," rings James M. Cain for "Peg and Pete and Me," and isn't altogether stupid about "Newspapers." But it's a lead-pipe cinch that if he says he can't find "The Last Honest Man," he's a liar. B

LISA STANSFIELD: Affection (Arista) Like few of her predecessors--Martha Reeves comes to mind, and also, odd though it may seem, Teddy Pendergrass--Stansfield's style is virtually devoid of trademark, display, or melodrama; all she wants to do with these songs she helped write is sing them. The songs themselves are as attractive and unassuming as her voice, a fine instrument that provides more than the expected quota of aural pleasure without drowning you in its bounty. She loves, she hurts, she has her limits. She's going to be around. A MINUS

TINA TURNER: Foreign Affair (Capitol) Crossing Josephine Baker and Grace Jones in a magisterially self-possessed style of "blackness," Tina's a full-fledged superstar in Europe. In the U.S. she's more like Ray Charles or Tony Bennett--her iconic clout is heaviest when she's selling products other than her own expertly sultry recordings. And since chances are Plymouths make her just as hot as romantic sensuality, maybe this is as it should be. B MINUS

UB40: Labour of Love II (Virgin) The differences are subtle, like everything with this band--rather then being dashed, your high hopes for the sequel succumb to a lingering illness. The beat glides a little too much, the synth washes a little too much, Ali Campbell sings the prize covers a little less and runs them through his voice a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the covers themselves aren't quite as prize. B

KATIE WEBSTER: Two-Fisted Mama! (Alligator) Webster's legend has never connected on record, and by coming down heavy on the soul standards retro-rocking blues fans yammer for, her much-praised label debut The Swamp Boogie Queen sold her short. Boogie as in woogie, not as in bar band, is her gift--a rolling piano style she certainly didn't invent and just as certainly owns--and here the experts get it down. The quintessential tough-talking woman with sexual needs and a heart of gold. B PLUS

Village Voice, Apr. 3, 1990

Postscript Notes:

Bad Religion album incorrectly listed in original as No Conviction.


Mar. 13, 1990 May 29, 1990