Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide

Wouldn't you know it, Year of the Woman V (or VI) is followed hard on by a whole bunch of new boys and old men: not one of the A-list records is even wimpy. This isn't a convolution, I swear--just a cycle, and maybe just a blip.


ERIC AGYEMAN: Highlife Safari (Stern's Africa) Guitarist Agyeman composed three of these six songs and sings only one--the one that wasn't on this classic LP in 1978, which is no ringer unless you resent its echoes of the unforgettable "Abenaa Na Aden?," in which case move on to something more Euro right now. If Ghanaians warmed to the palm-wine antecedents and Ashanti flavor of his musicianship, what Euros hear is his innate, acculturated gift for rhythm-melody and his conviction that scaling postcolonial highlife down to size doesn't mean traditionalizing it altogether. Catchy not cute, charming not picturesque. A MINUS

BACKBEAT (Virgin) Not to blame the staunchly soul-effacing Greg Dulli and Dave Pirner for bodies they don't have, but all that stops this experiment in multiconscious neoprimitivism from approximating the freedom it aspires to is that the lead voices don't fly high enough--Pirner's McCartney is too gravelly, Dulli's Lennon devoid of falsetto. Instrumentally, soundtrack honcho Don Was has detonated a miracle of postmodernist disguise, inducing a supergroup cum pickup band comprising Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Nirvana's Dave Grohl, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, and Gumball's Don Fleming to enter the spirits of the Beatles in Hamburg, where they made their living covering Motown and Chuck Berry before anyone thought the '60s needed heralding. To the puny alternative mind-set, the Beatles have long seemed too pop and the rock and roll that "preceded" them too quaint, but forced to confront history, these present-day musicians play both halves of the synthesis as raw, fast, and unscientific as they actually were. At 12 songs in 27 minutes, the formal result is the great punk album Live! at the Star-Club never was--and yes, technical sophistication matters, sonically and musically. Meaningwise, of course, it's a Chinese box. Talk about constructing a subject--what would Lacan make of this? A MINUS

BECK: Mellow Gold (Bong Load/DGC) His clip file is home to a bigheaded kid who's memorized Bob Dylan's Playboy interview, a slacker version of the Pretentious Asshole--here a folkie there a punk everywhere an image-slinger (with absurdist tendencies, mais oui). But his album barely contains an exuberant experimenter whose verbiage coheres on record--either because he knows records are history or because repetition tamps down the loose ends. He's a folkie-punk version of, well, the Young Bob Dylan, except that he also loves hooks enough to cast his net wider than the Young David Johansen, finding them everywhere from an electric sitar to an illicitly taped tirade from a "Vietnam vet playin' air guitar" downstairs. Full of fun and loaded with 'tude, he doesn't give a shit and makes you love it, right down to the nose-thumbing bummer dirges that close each side. Proving how cool you are by making an album that sounds like shit is easy. Proving how cool you are by making an album that comes this close to sounding like shit is damn hard--unless you're damn talented. A [Later]

GEORGE GERSHWIN: Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls (Elektra Nonesuch) I know, I'm surrendering all my principles--make room for Rhapsody in Blue and soon Schubert's Trout or something will weasel into the anticanon. Actually, I've liked Trout both times I've played it--and not only that, remember liking it, which is more than I can say of any Mozart I've ever enjoyed, if indeed I have. But unlike Rhapsody in Blue, it doesn't have the B-word in its title or the B-notes in its tune--or the tricky little "Sweet and Lowdown" to lead off, or "Swanee" to arouse one's blackface anxieties. And it doesn't have the composer in higher fi than any other '20s recording technique permitted. A MINUS

HUUN-HUUR-TU: 60 Horses in My Herd--Old Songs and Tunes of Tuva (Shanachie) They tour too much too convince me they're cowboys at heart. They're entertainers--cowboys set on quitting their day jobs. And good at it, too. Where Smithsonian's classic CDs of central Asian throat singing are forbiddingly culture-specific, these will grab world-music dabblers if not alternative stick-in-the-muds. The hook is the technique, in which a single vocalist produces two or three harmonics in perfect unison. But that's just the exotic new sound--it's the mood of the music that makes it more than a dog-and-pony show. Songs and tunes are so allegro they sound thoughtfully devotional even when they aren't, which is usually; the traditional fiddle and percussion accompaniment admits a guitar now and then. We all know about weirdness that fetishizes its own alienation, and most of us need it. Some of us are also cheered and awed by weirdness at home with itself. A MINUS

THE DAVID JOHANSEN GROUP LIVE (Epic Associated/Legacy) A Bottom Line show from the beginnings of his solo run, before he had the arena-rock flourishes down pat, this isn't quite the song showcase it might have been later--no "Bohemian Love Pad," no "Wreckless Crazy," no "She Loves Strangers." But on the other hand, no "Melody," no "Marquesa de Sade," no "Flamingo Road," no enjoyable-to-forgivable gestures that aged even more awkwardly than the rest of his punk-Grass Roots phase. In retrospect, this Staten Island band sounds a lot more like the Dolls than it did at the time. And if it's less inspired and more in control--cf. Johnny Thunders's veering cameo--that's not entirely a bad thing. A MINUS [Later]

PAVEMENT: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador) Whether the tunes come out and smack you in the kisser or rise from the clatter like a forgotten promise, this is a tour de force melodywise, which is not to get dewy-eyed about its market potential. They'll never truly sell out until they take voice lessons--as alternarockers from Stipe to Cobain know full well, soulful strength is the pop audience's bottom line. Me, I find their eternally pubescent croaks and whinnies exceedingly apt, and though in theory I always prefer songs that aren't about music, any bunch of obscurantist jokers who can inject the words "Stone Temple Pilots they're elegant bachelors" into my hum matrix have got a right to sing the rocks. A

SOUNDGARDEN: Superunknown (A&M) Having mocked this group's conceptual pretensions for years, I'd best point out that Chris Cornell still isn't Robert Plant, Kim Thayill still isn't Jimmy Page, and so forth, before cheerfully acknowledging that 1) they're all closer than they used to be and 2) it no longer matters. This is easily the best--the most galvanizing, kinetic, sensational, catchy--Zep rip in history. And though there may be a philosophical or interpersonal dimension, to me the trick sounds like it was done with songwriting, arrangement, and production. At 70 minutes, it's what used to be called a double album, not quite as long as Physical Graffiti but a lot more consistent. And though their apocalyptic pessimism is almost as content-free as Zep's apocalyptic mystagogy, Zep never reached out like Cornell in "My Wave": "Cry, if you want to cry/If it helps you see/If it clears your eyes/Hate, if you want to hate/If it keeps you safe/If it makes you brave." A [Later: A-]

TEXAS TORNADOS: Best of Texas Tornados (Reprise) The debut was rougher than tough and sweeter than shit, but as a genre band they're made for this selective, wide-ranging format. Mad rocker Doug Sahm is no longer a legend outside his place and time, vato vibrato Freddy Fender now remembered as a have-a-nice-day one-shot with a novelty artist's name, but not only were they both major in the bilingual, panstylistic Tex-Mex universe, they ain't oldies now. As for Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez, they're born sidemen whose solo albums stand up. In short, any young person who loves good rock and roll, good country, good conjunto, maybe even good polka has a supergroup out there waiting. Try "Guacamole," a great sex metaphor. Or "Who Were You Thinkin' Of," a classic country song. Or "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," no one-shot. A MINUS

THE TREACHEROUS THREE: Old School Flava (Wrap/Easylee) Although their skills are undiminished, their would-be comeback has the inconvenient and probably fatal peculiarity of gathering strength as it goes along. Cassette buyers should fast-forward to side two, which excites from "Ain't Nothin' Changed"'s hype beat to "Feel the New Heartbeat"'s eternal hook. And cultural nationalists should ponder "A True Story," in which ordinary show violence is made to seem both memorable and contemptible. Sure somethin's changed, and they know what it is. But they refuse to let it suck them in. B PLUS [Later]

MUDDY WATERS: Blues Sky (Epic Associated/Legacy) He hasn't quite been reduced to an industry, but the profusion of product since the the three-CD Chess Box is transforming oeuvre into catalogue. The luxurious and intimate Folk Singer remaster, the seminal and historic Complete Plantation Recordings dig, even the rare and unexceptionable One More Mile vault-scrape are worthy addenda to said catalogue. But although this selection from his four post-Chess LPs with Johnny Winter may be on the wrong label, it's the one Mud to buy if you're buying more than one. Beat way big, slide and harp all over the place, it reasserts his virility as it establishes his droit du seigneur. In 1983, just after he turned 68, McKinley Morganfield died. In 1980, he was a 65-year-old mother fuyer. A MINUS

Dud of the Month

JANE SIBERRY: When I Was a Boy (Reprise) Interesting music is the perfect cover for mediocre literature. Many serious pop fans, especially genteel ones, are so hungry for tokens of intelligence that they'll cut slack for anyone who transcends the quatrain, pondering sung imagery they wouldn't glance at in a slim volume. If you skip "Sweet Incarnadine" ("edited down from a 20 min. improvisation," God help us), this isn't altogether horrible. Siberry has an instinct for shape and texture; there are clever glints of informality in her presentation; her passion shows more smarts and decency than most. But her settings are only settings--they never transport the words into the realm of necessity. And her words are only intelligent. B MINUS [Later]

Additional Consumer News

Honorable Mention:

  • Lokassa et Soukous Stars, Megamix Vol. 1 (Stern's Africa): high-grade all-star Afro-Parisian best-of medley/remake ("`Lagos Night'/`Sweet Mother'/`Christiana'/`Aki Special'/`Stella'/`Wellenga'/`Oh Death'/`Lagos Night'")
  • HWA: Hoez With Attitude, Az Much Ass Azz U Want (Ruthless): this just in--rappers get head, respect you in morning ("Great Tazte--Lezz Fillaz," "All That (Just a Little Action")
  • Sir Douglas Quintet, Day Dreaming at Midnight (Elektra): hippiedom as folklore ("She Would if She Could, She Can't So She Won't," "Romance Is All Screwed Up")
  • Crunt (Trance): "punk" "supergroup"--Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Babes in Toyland, Babe's hubby's band--exposes its funk-metal soft spot ("Punishment," "Swine")
  • The Mandators, Power of the People: Nigerian Reggae (Heartbeat): militant roots and sufferation, Afrobeat-style ("Coat of Many Colors," "Injustice," "Bubbler")
  • Al Kooper, Rekooperation (MusicMasters): unsung neoclassical r&b ("Soul Twist-ed," "Don't Be Cruel")
  • Beck, Loser (DGC): his greatest hit, an album demo, and two-for-three prime odds and ends ("Fume," "Alcohol")
  • Motorhead, Bastards (ZYX): but it's really great shtick ("On Your Feet or on Your Knees," "Born To Raise Hell")
  • Ramones, Acid Eaters (Radioactive): hippiedom as punk ("My Back Pages," "Have You Ever Seen the Rain")
  • Meat Puppets, Too High To Die (London): if tunes were everything, they'd be famous ("Comin' Down," "Shine")
Choice Cuts:
  • Robin S, "Show Me Love," "Love for Love," "Back It Up" (Show Me Love, Atlantic)
  • John Forster, "Entering Marion," "Fusion," "Article Nine," "Whole" (Entering Marion, Philo)
  • TBTBT, "One Track Mind" (Too Bad To Be True, Cold Chillin')
  • Christine Lavin, "What Was I Thinking?" (Live at the Cactus Cafe: "What Was I Thinking?" Philo)
Duds:
  • Counting Crows, August and Everything After (DGC)
  • Jam Nation, Way Down Below Buffalo Hell (RealWorld)
  • Phish, Hoist (Elektra) Schoolly D, Welcome to America (Columbia/Ruffhouse)
  • John Trudell, Johnny Damas and Me (Rykodisc)

Village Voice, Apr. 5, 1994


Mar. 1, 1994 May 31, 1994